I'm working on my syllabus for a sophomore course on ethics; it's a required core course for all students at my university. Everyone will have already had one course on philosophy. I'm going to start the class with two weeks of one-shot classes on various themes: a day on medical ethics (I'm using an article on the problems with research on human subjects), a day on animal rights (thanks to [livejournal.com profile] epistolarysmack and [livejournal.com profile] theoryishotcrew, I'm probably going to use the Nozick piece on "Constraints and Animals"), a day on business ethics, and a day on pacifism/violence. Something like that, anyway. These two weeks will set up general questions about what philosophical ethics tries to achieve, and students will begin tentatively working on a paper project that they will develop over the course of the semester.

I'm still hunting around for articles, as you can see, for the last two... I'm also open to changing the themes. Peter Singer's piece in the NY Times last month about charitable giving might be a likely prospect, also. The articles should be accessible -- the type of thing that comes up in the NY Times magazine, for instance, is right about perfect.

So -- have any of you read anything neat and roughly ethicsy lately that you think might appeal to 19-20 year olds who are being forced to take my course? It could even be something provocatively denying the possibility of ethics -- i.e., realpolitik in humanitarianism or something. Any recommendations are good.

From: [identity profile] sofiandos.livejournal.com

My suggestions will, of course, be blatantly politicized. Ward Churchill's essay "Pacifism as pathalogy" is generally an intelligent and reasoned (maybe moreso than the title would suggest) take on the politics of pacifism in a north american context - this is definitely a biased perspective from someone's who's heavily invested in the question of violence and pacifism. I think it would be interesting to your students and enriching to the topic, because it's very rare to encounter leftist critiques of pacifism. Churchill's style is both personal and intense, and may make some kids sit up and take notice.

Martin Luther King is still very influential and there's an interesting documentation project around his papers and speeches here:

For pop-culture I'd draw from anti-heroes and "dark" heroes - Batman often talks about the use of different forms of violence. Actually, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac comes to mind too - as a way to introduce different forms and perspectives of self-defense.

Of course there's the endless neocon detritus on just war, or preventative war or whatever they're calling it these days.

For less contemporary anarchist examples - Emma Goldman's antiwar militancy produced a lot of work around the perceived dissonance between an anti-war and revolutionary outlook, and Kropotkin wrote at length in support of the second world war - I can't think off-hand of particular examples of their writings.

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Thanks, Sofian -- good suggestions. Not having tracked down the Churchill essay yet -- would it catch students who may have no prior knowledge of some of the debates involved?

And I will point out that there is a noticeable difference between 'just war theory' and the type of 'preventative war' justification that went on for Iraq. I don't know any just war theorists who thought that Iraq qualified -- and in fact, some argue that the criteria involved in just war theory are so high that no war would ever even really qualify.

From: [identity profile] sofiandos.livejournal.com

Churchill caught me - at a time when I was very poorly read in the subject - but perhaps more interested than is typical. I was certainly not a reader, though, as far as theory was concerned. Pacifism as Pathology is a long read, though.

I think Churchill is at U of Colorado right now - and I've found the essay at AKpress (http://www.akpress.org/1998/items/pacifismaspathology) and on amazon.

Thanks for the just war straightening out. It's a phrase that has been mentioned from time to time and I mistakenly associated it with the rhetoric associated with the wars undertaken by the Bush administration.

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Yes - he is still at U Colorado Boulder -- most of my knowledge of him was re. the flareup about his article & the debate about whether the school could/should fire him, tenure or no tenure. Fun! It will be cool to look through this piece.

Just war theory has a reasonably respectable pedigree, despite the fact that hardcore pacifists (like John Dear and Daniel Berrigan, both Jesuits) see it as excuse-making. Since it's part of Catholic social thought and I'm at a Jesuit university, I hear a fair amount of debate about its merits and defects.

Here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on just war theory (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/#2).

From: [identity profile] nick-jazz.livejournal.com

That strip would be a lot funnier if they hadn't used the punchline as the title...

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Oh sorry, Nick -- that's my fault. I put that title in there as a name for the picture file. I cropped it from an issue of X-men that Dawn downloaded & sent to me.

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

How about the ethics of scientific research? Some of your students might have seen that 20/20 recently re-did the Milgram experiments that showed how readily people will go along with an authority figure, even if that person is telling them to hurt other people (in the study, they were administering strong electric shocks, or at least they thought they were; details here.) This could work on several levels, e.g., "Is it right to trick people into thinking they're violating their consciences, in the name of science," and "How effective are ethics, anyway, when so many people will violate them just because someone tells them to?"

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

We didn't look at the Milgram experiment, but two classes ago we did look at the ethics of experimentation on humans in general -- I assigned an overview of the ethical issues involved by Lawrence De Castro in the Blackwell companion to Bioethics (http://www.amazon.com/Companion-Bioethics-Blackwell-Companions-Philosophy/dp/063123019X). Since the structure of the course involves coming back to the opening questions from the first couple weeks, I will definitely be able to bring in Milgram.

The second question you mention is a CLASSIC one, especially in core, required ethics classes. The students are pretty brutally skeptical about ethical motivation sometimes. Thanks for your suggestion!

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

I'm studying the psychology of ethics and morality, or at least some aspects of it. It's quite interesting. It must be nice to teach classes where the students actually have opinions that they can discuss. :)

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

I've been teaching a freshman course in human nature for the last couple of years, and often many of the questions are so abstract that it's hard to coax opinions, much less considered judgements, out of the students. Teaching ethics again is fun, because they get so much more riled up over the examples.

What kinds of stuff does one look at in the psychology of ethics and morality? Case studies like Milgram's? Habit-formation and culture?

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

Well, specifically I'm looking at idealism and ideal-driven behavior, and I'm interested in finding out if people with a sharp sense of right and wrong are less psychologically well adapted than those who admit shades of grey and appreciation of circumstances. I'm still in the first stages of planning my research, and not much has been done in this area.

One researcher, Donelson Forsyth at the Univ. of Richmond in Virginia, has developed a scale that's been used in a lot of business studies. He looks at two basic dimensions: absolutism vs. relativism, and being high or low on idealism (in the humanitarian and optimistic sense). The four possible combinations of these dimensions then yield types he calls "situationists," "absolutists," "subjectivists," and "exceptionalists" ... hmm, rather than explain what he means by those, I'll give you a link to his own descriptions. He actually came up with these while studying people's opinions on the Milgram experiments, I suppose in grad school.

I'm not sure if I'm going to continue along those lines, because I'm also interested in non-socially-oriented ideals like efficiency and domination. My advisor is studying the personalities of militant extremists, so I'm learning a fair amount about their forms of idealism and morality too.

Thanks for asking - it's fun to describe what I'm working on. :)

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

That's really interesting. Thanks for the link -- it's weird that some of these types seem to kind of match up with mainstream philosophical ethical stances, but not really. For instance, it seems that both the situationists and the absolutists are concerned with both the moral norms and the consequences? Did I read that right? In normative philosophical ethics, though, one of the huge divides is between consequentialism and deontology (duties based in moral norms). So the idea of folks looking to BOTH the norm and the consequence doesn't even really come up that much in normative ethics. Which I suppose says something about the different approaches of philosophy and psychology! Since it makes good philosophical sense, I think, to draw the distinction that way, but psychologically I suppose people are concerned with both.


Your research also sounds intriguing -- maybe just because it confirms my own prejudices. ;)

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

I think, if I remember correctly, that the absolutists think it's wrong to consider the consequences, only the rule matters. In one of the first two articles on his system, Forsyth put some effort into matching up his four quadrants with philosophical theories - I know that one position corresponded to deontology and I'm pretty sure that something about teleology was another one - and I'm scolding myself right now for having my stacks of papers in such disarray that I can't just reach for the papers and tell you. Unfortunately, I just have paper copies and not pdfs of them.

I have to be careful that my personal prejudices in favor of subtlety and complexity don't bias my research - it could be a danger. ;)

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

I was just wondering (the absolutists would have seemed quite Kantian but for this), because of the line from the linked piece: Similarly, since the idealistic ideologies--situationism and absolutism--stress the need to achieve positive, humanitarian consequences, then individuals who accept these ideals might be more likely to engage in immoral action if such actions are the means to help others. A Kantian deontologist, however, would never do that, consequences be damned. (there's a famous section in Kant on whether there's a duty to lie when a would-be murderer is at the door asking about the whereabouts of his desired victim.)

Ah, cursed subtlety and complexity -- they'll get ya every time. ;)

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

I'll make a note to get back to you when my papers turn up. I had an impromptu vacation a couple of weekends ago and ended up putting things recklessly into boxes, and I've been too busy since then to fix the situation. Soon, though! :)

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com


I'm really interested in the intersection of psychology and the humanities, esp. psychology and philosophy. I was tempted to take a seminar this term with Mark Johnson (of "Lakoff and Johnson") but just couldn't make the time for it. With luck he'll repeat it in a couple of years.

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Very neat. One of my good friends in grad school is doing her phd in applied developmental psych, focusing on existential phenomenological psych -- she frequently sits in on philosophy classes, and we talk psych vs. phil all the time. Sometimes I I tease her about it ("why don't you just come to the dark side of philosophy!") but she seems to like the psychological viewpoint.

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

Wow, that's impressive. Both that she's studying that and that there's a place one can study that. :)

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Well, she was excited about it coming in, but she found out when she got here that it's not necessarily something the whole department is thrilled about, so she's faced some obstacles. Things seem to be getting better, though -- they're even letting her organize a conference (on qualitative psych in general, if I recall correctly, not just existential phenomenological).

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

They must be impressed with her, if not with the conventionality of her interests. :)

We had a big Merleau-Ponty conference here a year or so ago (but of course just for phil, not psych).

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

Okay, I found it, and I took it to the office and scanned it here. It's sideways and I don't have an easy way to fix that, so you'll have to rotate it or print it, I guess.

They classify "high idealist/high universalist" as deontological, "high pragmatist/high universalist" as "teleological," and the other two as "skeptical," I think. I like your word "consequentialist" better than "teleological," since for me the former is more associated with results and the latter with purpose, which I think of as results + intent. But that's just my amateur impression.

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

This is neat! I started reading it and then got called away. I'm going to add you as a friend, if you don't mind, so I remember to ask you more about this. :)

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

That would be fun. :) Where does one go to read the "real blog" you mentioned in your profile?

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

It's been a little quiet lately, since I haven't wanted to talk about my job search on it. I posted some links to it back in November (http://owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com/2069.html)

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Well, the job search related stuff, and some teaching-related stuff, is best written somewhere it can be friendslocked. I'd be tempted to move over to LJ entirely, but that a number of my friends that I keep up with over the blog aren't on LJ and don't want to be -- and also I've got almost 5 years of blogger archives that I feel kind of attached to.

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

The font's a little small for my aging eyes over there, but I like your tortoiseshell kitty!

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Thanks! (The font is pretty small; it hurts my eyes a little too. Someday I will redo the template over there. It's the same one I started with.)

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

My last tortoiseshell was two kitties ago, and I don't have an icon for her (long haired, mostly black, named Sappho), but this is Lillian.

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Aww! Very very cute. This is my mom's cat, who was my cat through high school, Willow.

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

Willow's pretty! The picture of Lillian was taken when she had just finished shredding a bunch of toiled paper in the bathroom sink. She's a naughty girl.

Some day I'll ask you more about idealism in the philosophical sense, because I know that it's quite different from idealism in the psychological sense, but presumably there's some conceptual overlap.

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

I think the best cats are the naughty ones. (Note that mine is named Trouble :) )

Idealism in the philosophical sense = a whole pile of different things, depending on context. Even the meaning of 'idealism' in 'german idealism' is very much up for debate (one of the main debates being whether german idealism is making an epistemological claim about what is accessible to consciousness, or a metaphysical claim about what is out there). (which is not even to enter into the multiple meanings of 'absolute idealism', which also gets bandied about by the german idealists!)

I think the one overlap between the psychological sense and the philosophical sense, at least for the earlier german idealists, and also for Plato & platonic philosophy, is that there is the sense that an "ought" has some sort of weight, some kind of reality (whatever that might be!). An appeal to an ought is saying that there is some sort of ideal of justice/good/whatever (whether this is durable or ever-changing) that can be appealed to. Someone with a more pragmatic or skeptical attitude, on the other hand, would be more likely to dismiss an 'ought' as wishful thinking, or merely practical advice, to be discarded if something better comes along. (and not necessarily in a callous way -- just seeing ethical decision-making as a muddling through & doing the best in each situation, rather than appealing to "Ought"s.)

Does that make sense? Does that seem to square with the psychological division?

One question I had, actually, when going through -- has any of the recent philosophical work on virtue ethics (which is Aristotelian in heritage, but has really been picking up in the last 20 years) carried over to psychological work on ethics/subjectivity? Virtue ethics is broadly situationalist, but focuses on developing the kind of character that is likely to make good decisions. So, one develops virtues of prudence, wisdom, patience, etc., that come into play in making a decision. No rules, but still not a free-for-all. :) I've seen it used in medical ethics/bioethics as being a good model for health practitioners.

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

I agree about the kitties - Sappho's kitten-name was Mischief, and our intervening (rather difficult) cat Robin had the middle name Anklesbane. :)

Your question about virtue ethics - very good question! I'm going to add that to my reading list. I really am not yet well acquainted with the work being done by psychologists on ethics in general. I do know for my readings for my current project, on idealism as expressed in vegetarianism, that virtue ethics is a strong component of this trend in diet.

Right now I've been mostly focused on absolutes and the role they play in the psyche, such as the ways that people can feel inspired in moving towards transcendent absolutes and ideals, or the way they can feel inadequate by believing they ought to be living in terms of absolutes themselves (i.e., perfectionism). I'm trying to collect readings on theories of problems with perfectionism and idealism, and so far I've read John Passmore's The Perfectibility of Man, which traces thought from Plato through Augustine vs. Pelagius and on into the Enlightenment, modern science, etc. I've also started Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, but it's awfully hard to find reading time at this point.

I'm also interested in the processes of "secular moralization," in which individuals or society decide to assign moral implications to actions that were previously considered generally neutral, such as eating, smoking tobacco, and exploiting the environment. The tobacco angle ties in with my employment (I've been a tobacco cessation researcher for more than 10 years), and the environmental angle is part of a big, long-term writing project that I've set aside for grad school but hope to complete in a reasonable time period.

I apologize for squinching up this conversation into the extreme right margin of your LJ! :)

From: [identity profile] owl-of-minerva.livejournal.com

Well, this will make it even squishier.

Oddly enough, I was reading The Open Society and its Enemies earlier tonight, but just as a convenient example of Hegel-bashing. :)

Re. perfectionism/idealism & feelings of inadequacy -- have you come across anything about scrupulosity in religion, particularly Catholicism (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13640a.htm) (at least, that's the context I know it in; I'm sure it emerges in other faith traditions as well, or anywhere where the ideals are really high)?

From: [identity profile] eve-prime.livejournal.com

I see it as a central practical issue that most religions face, actually, if the divine is a lofty, perfect, Absolute, and people are what they are, pretty ordinary most of the time - how can the gap possibly be bridged? Some religions (Islam, Shinto), have a concept of ritual purity - a proper sequence of performative actions will render people temporarily acceptable so that they can approach God or the gods. Christianity has the psychologically useful concept of "grace" to make up the difference between humans and God, and my lay understanding is that the Catholic Church offers the sacrament of penance to restore it (or at least people's awareness of it) again and again as needed. I'd be interested to know how Judaism handles the issue, as it's even more fussy about rules and meeting impossible standards than Christianity (the idea that the home is to be cleaned of any possible crumb of leavened bread before Passover, for example, sounds extremely stressful), but doesn't focus on individuals and their psychological needs like Christianity does.

That link you shared about "scruples" - fascinating! I'm glad the church has such a humane attitude about it. Thank you!


owl_of_minerva: (Default)

Most Popular Tags

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags