Thursday, February 04, 2010

Doing Ethics

In the past when I've taught Ethics, I've taught virtue ethics last; but this term I am teaching it first. It's already begun to give a different flavor to the course; today this passage from Aristotle was a big part of the class discussion:

The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions. Such a course of treatment will not improve the state of his body; any more than will the many's way of doing philosophy improve the state of their souls.

[from Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy: A Reader, 3rd edition, Hackett Press, p. 254]

And despite the fact that I think Aristotle is quite right here, it felt odd as an early part of an Ethics course: the insistence that the way to learn ethics -- the way to do ethics at all -- is not so much to listen to arguments but to go out and start practicing good deeds. Starting out with this sort of standard makes much of the rest of a college course seem a little odd.

My Ethics course has a service learning component, which is the tiny pittance I, as a college professor teaching ethics, am able to throw Aristotle's way on this point. But even that is sometimes awkward to integrate into the course, for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics itself.

Last term I had a student who was asked by a supervisor of a local charitable organization, during his service learning hours, why he was doing volunteer service, and who responded that he was doing it as part of a course on ethics.

"Really?" said the supervisor. "What does volunteering have to do with ethics?"

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