Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A suggestion on what to include in course material

In teaching intro courses there is the standard philosophical readings that most of us use to introduce philosophy to our students. Over the past few years I have been utilizing non-traditional material (as well as the more tradtional readings) in my intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses. This material has included literature such as The Plague and The Fall by Camus, The Kite Runner by Hosseini, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood. I have also used videos (Youtube is a Godsend) as well as movies. I have found that utilizing this type of material, alongside the more traditional philosophical material, has helped students gain a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, some of the issues being discussed. I think it is helpful for students to see that philosophical issues arise in the normal context of lives being lived. After all, is that not one of the reasons Plato had for using dialogues that take place in the day to day lives of the people taking part in the discussion. If students can see the ‘naturalness’ of some of the important philosophical issues, I think it makes these issues more real and important for them. They can see how these issues can relate to their own lives. As we think about what material to use next semester I would like to suggest that everyone include at least one non-traditional piece in your required readings. In my intro to ethics courses next Fall I am planning to use The Lakota Way by James M. Marshall III as a way of introducing virtue ethics to my students. This is a collection of short stories within the Lakota Sioux tradition, each one pertaining to a particular virtue or character trait that is desirable for people to possess if they want to lead a flourishing life. Does anyone else have any more suggestions?


  1. For several quarters now I've been using a bunch of J.L. Borges' short stories in my 101 class. This is less a matter of getting students to see the 'naturalness' of philosophical issues - Borges' stories, at least the ones I'm using, tend to be fantastical! - then a novel way of introducing them to those issues. I've been keeping tabs on what the students think of the stories, and their reactions are very positive.

    YouTube can also be good for the occasional use. And I often hear valuable stuff on that most wonderful radio show, 'This American Life'.

  2. How about Mark Twain's "What Is Man?" It's a philosophical dialogue in the Platonic style. Engaging discussion of determinism, but more so psychological egoism (same combination as in Hobbes, but much easier to follow than Hobbes, who is difficult reading for intro undergrad course in philosophy).

    Here's a link to it:

  3. In ethics and medical ethics I end up using Jodi Picoult books.. usually "My Sister's Keeper". I also use a Diablo Cody book about stripping.. which tends to get their attention :).

  4. A little more lowbrow, but I successfully used a couple of episodes of House, M.D. in my bioethics class this semester. An episode's length is just right for including discussion in a Tu/Th class here.

    A decent discussion piece for utilitarianism is always Ursula Le Guin's "Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas".

  5. I've never had the opportunity to use it, but the episode "In the Pale Moonlight" of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (often named as the best episode of any Star Trek series yet) is a powerful demonstration of consequentialism vs. deontology.

  6. Sometimes I believe we get too deep and lose the whole ethical issue debate when man's nature is right there for all to see..
    My students just can't get passed Stanley Milgram's study of meting out punishment by electrical shock.

  7. I like to use films when teaching ethics:

    High Noon - Aristotelian theory (can be limited to showing highlights).
    Gary Cooper's sheriff provides an example of courage. He doesn't wait in the middle of the street for the villains - that would be suicidal. He hides, but calls out a warning before shooting - to shoot them in the back would be cowardly. A few minutes later, his wife, played by Grace Kelly, does shoot someone in the back, but what would be cowardly for him is courageous for her - she has never fired a gun before. There is a boy who offers to fight alongside the sheriff. The sheriff refuses - the boy is not yet ready - but, in the final scene, he ruffles the boy's hair as a gesture of encouragement: he has not yet acquired phronesis, but has the natural tendency towards courage.

    To spark off discussions of sexual ethics I use The Apartment. Most students think of sexual ethics as a purely private matter between consenting adults. That doesn't leave any room for interesting discussion. The Apartment opens up new avenues of discussion. First, the environment is one where only men have access to high-paying jobs and women are restricted to being secretaries and elevator-girls. This creates a pattern of behaviour degrading for men and women. The central characters manage to break away from this, aided by Dr. Dreyfus, a nosy neighbour, the kind of judgemental person who seeks to impose moral standards on other people's private lives - but can also be relied on to bend the rules when a neighbour needs help.

    For capital punishment, I use Dead Man Walking, shown over two classes. In the first class, I stop for discussion immediately after a powerful speech by a character whose daughter has been murdered, expressing his support for the death penalty. The film as a whole is anti-capital punishment, but Mr. Percy's speech provides useful balance.

    A film I've never shown, but frequently refer to, is Dark Star. Can we deduce what goodness is by finding out a purpose for which we were created, or, through a study of evolutionary psychology, discovering our natural function? In Dark Star, the intelligent bomb was created in order to explode. How could one persuade it not to?

    On a non-ethical note, there are passages from 1984 that are excellent when introducing debates about realism/anti-realism. In fact, Crispin Wright has an extended discussion of the O'Brien/Winston interview in his Realism, Meaning and Truth.

  8. Here's a link to a nice list of movies good for philosophy classes:

  9. I have used Huxley's Brave New World in my intro ethics classes. I have found it to be a great way to get students to think about what has value and what makes for a good/happy life. You can get a very good discussion going just by starting with the following question: would you trade the life you have right now for the life of an Alpha, Beta, Gamma, or Delta?

    I have also used Kurosawa's film Roshomon as a way to introduce/illustrate relativism about truth and the epistemic significance of disagreement. It went o.k. Some students loved it, but many thought the film was just weird.

    I have thought about using (but haven't yet) Dickens' Hard Times in connection with utilitarianism, as he wrote it as a kind of literary response to utilitarianism.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!