Monday, July 9, 2007

Do moral philosophy courses encourage 'easy' moral skepticism?

Daniel Callcut very kindly made me aware of his paper 'The value of teaching moral skepticism' (Teaching Philosophy 29 (2006): 223-235). Here's the abstract:

This article argues that introductory ethics classes can unwittingly create or confirm skeptical views toward morality. Introductory courses frequently include critical discussion of skeptical positions such as moral relativism and psychological egoism as a way to head off this unintended outcome. But this method of forestalling skepticism can have a residual (and unintended) skeptical effect. The problem calls for deeper pedagogical-cum-philosophical engagement with the underlying sources of skepticism. The paper provides examples of how to do this and explains the additional benefits of teaching moral skepticism.

I imagine many philosophy instructors have Callcut's worry, namely, that students already inclined toward skeptical views about morality will conclude that the inquisitive give-and-take of philosophical ethics simply confirms their skeptical position (whether the position is egoism, simple subjectivism, nihilism, relativism, etc.). If students are to be moral skeptics, better that this be the product of critical engagement with skeptical and non-skeptical positions rather than an easy dogma.

Callcut's suggestions as to how to forestall this easy moral skepticism strike me as levelheaded and sensible:
  • to evaluate the merits of skepticism in comparison with other positions so that skepticism is not treated as "the default position"
  • to communicate"a sense of just how extreme a claim is involved in the denial of any ethical knowledge" (226)
  • to emphasize that skepticism at the level of moral theory need not diminish our confidence in our well-established first order views (e.g., that torturing children is wrong)
  • to point out that 'piecemeal' justifications of our moral claims are not necessarily infirm (Here Callcut observes that many student skeptics are disillusioned foundationalists; so perhaps some headway can made against their easy skepticism by drawing attention to their foundationalist assumptions.)
  • to acknowledge the possibility of theoretical moral pluralism
  • to insist that the desire not to impose one's values on others is not, appearances to the contrary, a value-neutral strategy
I'd only like to add that while students' moral skepticism can be "unwittingly" confirmed in courses on ethics, my own experience is that it is at least as likely that students will reject moral skepticism as a result of studying moral philosophy. In these courses, what I hope to convey above all else is that philosophy offers a tradition of serious, reasoned argument about moral questions. This is, I think, a shock to many students: The cultures from which they come, to the extent that have 'moral argument' at all, don't tend to treat moral questions as amenable to rational discussion or progress. The choices available in the wider culture are easy dogmatism (sometimes though not always religious in origin) or easy skepticism. What I intend they discover in a moral philosophy course is that there are other options. The students need not hitch themselves any one of them, of course. But the overall message is that moral knowledge is not hopeless. Indeed, moral philosophy presents us with an overabundance of plausible theories and options, rather than a meager menu of self-serving dogmas or theoretical non-starters.


  1. Prof Callcut's article was helpful, as is your summary of it.
    In my experiences teaching intro- and mid-level courses on ethics and/or moral reasoning, students who express a sort of "skepticism" about morality aren't always nihilistic, indifferent, or even confused. Rather, they use the family of skeptical views as a sort of defensive shield. What I mean is that the weekly treatment of yet another ethical theory strikes some of them not as muddled or hopeless, but rather, as assaultive.
    This is largely a developmental point. Lots of my students don't have well worked out views about much, and often, a forcefully-argued position comes across, to some of them, as a kind of threat to their ability to figure things out "for themselves". To some of those students, forms of skepticism are attractive precisely because they seem to leave a space in which they can hold their own views and not feel any need to defend them -- you leave my views alone and stop trying to persuade me, and I'll return the favor. All of this is compatible with what you (and Callcut) say, of course!

  2. What I've noticed more than skepticism is a smorgasboard approach where students pick whichever ethical theory that provies a prima facie reason for their pre-philosophical view about a certain matter. Something like the following: "Theory A allows me to justify my views about, say, the treatment of animals, while theory B gives the right answer (i.e, the one I'm looking for) on euthanasia. Never mind that A and B are at odds with each other, or that A gives the 'wrong' answer the student is looking for on euthanasia." (When I taught an entire class devoted to virtue ethics, I didn't notice this same tendency.)

    I'm sure there are ways to minimize this--I'd be interested to know your suggestions.

  3. On a related note, there was discussion in Teaching Philosophy on a phenomena that Steven Satris dubbed "Student Relativism" (he has an excellent article in TP with that title; I don't have the abstract). Here's a few more articles on student relativism.


    Teaching Ethics to Student Relativists




    Teaching-Philosophy. D 95; 18(4): 301-311




    Student relativism (SR) is a maddeningly adaptable and elusive phenomenon in philosophy classrooms, most troublesome in ethics classes. I analyze six ways pronouncements of SR function in the classroom. These range from intellectual laziness to protest against absolutism to simple good manners. I then suggest six pedagogical strategies teachers can use to deal with these varieties of SR. These range from direct confrontation to ignoring SR and getting on with demonstrating how moral reasoning is done; from presuming the best of our students to teachers practicing reasoned advocacy of moral positions.


    Using the Fact/Value Problem to Teach Ethical Theory




    Teaching-Philosophy. S 92; 15(3): 217-230




    The teaching strategy discussed in this essay centers around the fact/value problem, and uses it to make ethical theories more interesting, easier to understand, and to deal with the problem of "student relativism." The method builds on the common student belief that ethics is a matter of opinion. It helps the students transform their idea into something more philosophically interesting, shows them important problems with it, and presents ethical theories as alternatives to their view.

    There's an article in this that summarizes a lot of this here:

    Nathan Nobis

  4. It seems to me that one of the fundamental problems with student relativism, and quite possibly moral skepticism, is that students think that because person A believes that x is true that somehow this translates into thinking that it is alright for A to act on this belief and that somehow we cannot be critical of this belief even if we disagree with it. The students give the mere belief that x is true an epistemic status that is immune to criticism.

    I think one of the reasons for this is that the students themselves are in the same position as operson A; they believe x to be true and do not have any support for this belief other then the fact that they believe it.

    The way that I have handled thsi in my courses is to 1) teach them that believing x to be true is one of a number of criteria that must be met in order for us to say that 'x is true,' but that standing alone it simply reports the mental state of the person, and 2) rely on the fact that most of my students accept what Michael has refered to as well-established first order principles. I use Rawls' notion of considered judgments in reflective equilibrium to demonstrate how these principles can be determined. I use examples that are real life, namely taking a situation (usually an example of what M. Adams refers to as "horrendous evils," that has happened in the area where I live and teach and ask students if they really think that because the person(s) who performed these evil acts was correct in doing so simply because he/she believed that it was ok? This usually will get the result that 1) mere beleif is not enought to epistemically justify holding and acting on the belief, and 2) that we can use our well-established first order moral principle as a starting point in understanding ethics, etc.

  5. Vance -- The defensiveness you mention is a large part of the position Satris calls 'student relativism' (referenced in the third comment).

    Kevin -- Mmmm ... how bad is the smorgasbord approach really? It doesn't strike me as silly to think that, say, virtue ethics is very helpful in thinking about ethical questions in personal or familial relationships, but significantly less useful in thinking about questions concerning the ethics of war, global poverty, etc., and vice versa for utilitarianism. (I'm not endorsing that claim; just an illustrative example.) So I don't think it would be terrible for students to adopt a pluralistic smorgasbord so long as they understand the reasons for doing so and are not just picking and choosing theories to suit their first-order commitments. As for the residual conflicts at the levels of ethical theory, is there a teachable moment there? I mean that you can challenge students to find common ground among theories, etc. Also it might be worth introducing some metaethical or metaphilosophical reflection on the point of ethical theory. If one of their aims is to guide action, particularly but not exclusively when we don't have strong views about what's right, then conflicting theoretical commitments is obviously a problem. The student who likes theory A to justify x, but theory B to justify y then has to ask: OK, here's a situation I hadn't considered. Why is A the right theory to apply here rather than B, etc.? I've found that students don't really bring to their study of ethical theory an understanding of what such theories are trying to accomplish, how they ought to be evaluated, etc. The discussion of the aims of moral theory in Mark Timmons' book has been very helpful to me in this connection.

    John - You write: "students think that because person A believes that x is true that somehow this translates into thinking that it is alright for A to act on this belief and that somehow we cannot be critical of this belief even if we disagree with it." Wow. Really? I guess I'd be concerned to remind students that they're studying a practical subject. It's one thing to discuss ethics in the classroom and another to live in a world with others. Surely they can't naively think that sincerity is the only constraint on ethics?

    A couple of other resources on this topic:
    A nice discussion of various approaches to student relativism:

    An article by Gerald Erion, "Engaging student relativism" (scroll down)

  6. Michael,

    You write: "How bad is the smorgasbord approach really?... I don't think it would be terrible for students to adopt a pluralistic smorgasbord so long as they understand the reasons for doing so and are not just picking and choosing theories to suit their first-order commitments."

    The restriction you give (and that I've italicized above) is, I think, key. I guess what I was intended to comment on primarily was this self-serving picking and choosing; sorry for not making this clearer. The suggestions that you give for how to make this into a 'teachable moment' are quite helpful.

  7. Micheal, I left out an important word 'some' relative to students. Some students think that simply believing that x is true is sufficent justification for that person acting on that belief. I agree with your reaction and this is part of what I do.

    Also this is also an empircal claim so some study should be done to test out the validty of my statement, but at least based on the intial discussions and reactions in my courses most start out thinking this way; 'x is right or wrong because I have the belief that it is right or wrong.' Furthermore, many students confuse justification with explanation such that if 'I have explained something I have justified it.'

    These probems arise early in mu course because I start out with relativism and most stuents start out supporting a relativistic position.

  8. I'm largely in agreement with Michael's method: first teach them that reasons and evidence work in moral philosophy just like they work in science. I intentionally try to stay away from grouping these reasons into theories for the first few meetings because it seems to me the easy moral skepticism grows roots much more quickly when they encounter the fundamental disagreement amongst theories.

    The actual implementation I've tried is something like MacIntyre's thought experiment about science in After Virtue. I get them to declare their relativist (actually more voluntarist, I've been thinking lately) instincts, then I try to get them to see what science would be like if we did it like they want to do ethics (where holding the belief is justification enough). What would science be like if we'd forgotten it was a reasoned discourse where we need evidence to believe something? It would look a lot like the way they think about ethics. Then we start talking about what some of the elementary reasons they have for ethical beliefs and go from there. Add in a little consistency amongst beliefs, and they tend to understand why ethical theories come from these reasons rather than the other way around.

  9. Some very interesting and useful comments. I too broadly agree with Michael's approach and have grappled with this problem in two contexts. The first, in the context of a full length philosophy course was much easier to deal with, simply having space and room for an in depth discussion meant that lazy moral skepticism could be addressed.
    The second case is much more difficult, it is in the context of a single 2-3 hour lecture on a particular applied ethics topic, with non-philosophy students. This is most of what I do now days, and this issue comes up a lot, because the students are not predisposed to looking for consistency and tend to think that if I can't simply tell them all the right answers right now, then there are no right answers.

    I tend to do 3 things:
    1. have a brief discussion about the nature of morality/science along the lines being suggested. I also make the point that most moral questions are actually pretty easy, it is just that the questions philosophers and ethicists tend to interested in are hard.
    2. Give some quick arguments against moral relativism (I have my own little one which takes 5 minutes and the students find very convincing)
    3. Finally I go the pluralist route, so I give a 15 minute potted ethical theory lecture pointing out that there are plausible things about each theory and they often give the wrong answer. I then argue that when they give us the clearly wrong answers (ie the inquiring murderer or the utilitarian doctor) it is often on the basis of the other theories that they seem clearly wrong. This leads into a discussion of the four principles approach which I cast as a pluralistic framework for us to work out what the right thing to do in each situation is rather than a fundamental explanation of the rightness or wrongness of actions. The idea being while Kantians and Utilitarians can't agree on fundamentals they can agree that autonomy is important, and then discuss what we should do using the framework of the four principles approach.

  10. (I have my own little one which takes 5 minutes and the students find very convincing)

    Well, don't leave us in suspense! What is it?

  11. Well, okay then, it is a little off topic but here goes.

    Note this only works with varieties of ethical relativism where there is some assertion of moral truths just relative to some context so for example cultural relativism or ethical subjectivism. It doesn't put a dent into varieties of non-cognitivism such as expressivism, but students tend to be less convinced by them any way.

    The objection is related to a common objection to these forms of relativism which doesn't work. This is the old "isn't there something fishy about some moral claim being true for A and false for B" objection. This of course fails as an objection because there is no true contradiction involved in X being true for A and false for B as long as X is a relative property (such as leftness). What would be needed for a genuine contradiction would be for A to believe both X & ~X since that would mean that the theory would be claiming that both X & ~X were true.

    So basically the new argument goes if we can hold contradictory moral beliefs then moral relativism entails that both X & ~X are true in the same context. Then I argue that we can hold contradictory moral beliefs, either through confusion, intuitional commitments or mistaken moral reasoning (not realising that Y entails ~X for example). If this is correct then it looks like moral relativism is committed to making contradictory claims.

    It is something I have been meaning to write up both as a 'proper' paper (I had a bash at it a few years ago, but the idea was definitely not cooked then) and as a move in teaching applied ethics since it does seem to head off these sorts of concerns at the pass without taking too much time.


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