Aug 27, 2017

A Perennial Problem - Which Texts to Teach?

Exactly a week ago, I was asked by Marquette University whether I could take on teaching two sections of Ethics, which start next week.  I happily agreed, since I do enjoy face-to-face classroom teaching, and it is just a bit over a mile walk to campus. I'm particularly glad to be teaching Ethics

Ethics is one of my main areas of specialized expertise.  I have been teaching Ethics courses of various sorts my entire career - the very first college course I taught, in fact, was a section of Ethics.  It is also one main field of my scholarly research and publication, a subject-matter I provide talks and workshops upon, and an area that much of my video-content has focused upon.  In addition, I engage in Ethics in applied and practical ways, working as a philosophical counselor, an ethics consultant, and an executive coach.

This is a field to which I continually give a lot of thought, and leading college freshmen into some the key ideas, distinctions, thinkers, and texts is a responsibility I take very seriously.  One of my main goals for the class - and hopes for each of my students - is to help them become lifelong learners in Ethics.  I want them not only to retain at least some of what we've studied five years down the line, when they find themselves needing it, but also to continually build upon the foundation that our all-too-brief course provides them.


What Thinkers and Texts Will I Be Covering?

For me, designing a course in philosophy, and selecting the texts and thinkers we will cover, is always a matter of an exercise in pedagogical triage.  There is absolutely no way that we can possibly do justice to the wide range of stimulating, influential, and central thinkers who make real contributions to a given subject.  I'll say a bit more about that below.

Shortly after I posted that, as of next week, I'll be teaching at Marquette University, I started getting questions about who I would be engaging with in these Ethics sections.  With no further ado, here is the list, in the order we will be reading these works:

  • Alasdair MacIntyre, “Plain Persons and Moral Philosophy” 
  • Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
  • Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 
  • Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
  • John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 
  • Cicero, On Duties
  • W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good
  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals 
  • Virginia Held, "Feminist Transformations of Moral Theory" 
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women 
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 
With most of these texts, we will only focus on certain selected portions of the works.  We will be reading the Epicurus, Mill, and Kant works in their entirety, and about 2/3 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

You'll notice that the focus in this reading list is on having students engage closely with classic and contemporary works of major significance - those that represent the main moral theories with which students ought to become conversant with.  After using Alasdair MacIntyre to set the scene - if you haven't read that short essay by him, I strongly suggest you should, as it is quite excellent! - we work our way through:
  • Egoist Ethics - Rand's objectivist version and Epicurus' classic hedonist version
  • Utilitarian Ethics - Bentham's quantitative version and Mill's qualitative version
  • Stoic Ethics - straddling deontological, virtue, and natural law perspectives, Cicero
  • Deontological Ethics - Ross's intuitionist version and Kant's, well. . . kantian version
  • Feminist Ethics - Held's and Wollstonecraft's critical perspectives
  • Virtue Ethics - Aristotle's classic articulation 
  • Natural Law - Aquinas' version of that theory

Why Did I Choose That Lot?

Pretty much every time that I teach a class like this for college students, I rework my reading list.  Sometimes it might be quite drastically - often if I teach Intro to Philosophy, I focus on thinkers and texts that I didn't do in earlier versions (check out this set of lectures, from three semesters' classes, to get an idea of that range).  Sometimes - often the case for Ethics classes - it is more a matter of tweaks, of small additions, subtractions, and reorderings.

In this case, I deliberated over a few days, and then made a few changes to the selections that I've gone with in the past.  The Cicero is a new addition, but I removed the Epictetus that I've had in previous versions.  Adding Wollstonecraft beefs up the Feminist Ethics portion, but I did remove the Rosemarie Tong discussion of Ethics of Care to make some room.  I also added a bit more Thomas Aquinas to strengthen that portion of the class.

Interestingly, the Marquette Philosophy department is fairly prescriptive in what Ethics classes must include.  They don't specify precisely what thinkers must be included, but utilitarian, deontological, virtue ethics, and natural law perspectives are expected to be taught - and either a non-western or feminist perspective as an alternative.  They also specify that classic thinkers include Plato, Aristotle, Mill, and Kant, and that traditional natural law perspective is exemplified by Aquinas.

I think those guidelines might well pose a challenge for quite a few of my peers in Philosophy who aren't as familiar or appreciative of the wide range of classic texts and thinkers in the field.  For me, it was basically them telling me to structure my classes precisely along the lines that I already typically do.  The only real changes are that I've sometimes cut a natural law perspective out or shortened it, and sometimes had to give the feminist theory a bit less time in the semester.

I will say a bit about several of the thinkers that you see included in the list.  Let's start with what is undoubtably the biggest elephant in the room - Rand.

Some will have one form of extreme reaction upon seeing Ayn Rand included in an academic course. Either they think it's great that she's taken seriously instead of just being dismissed - because they think she's right - or they think it's a travesty that what, in their view, is free-market ideology would be included in an Ethics class - because they think she's wrong and also horrible (and probably haven't read her work).  I include her precisely because of her cultural significance, because she is a classic and influential representative of egoist ethics, and so that students can encounter her thought (which isn't very good, in my view) head on.  Including her work isn't an endorsement - rather it's saying that her ideas are worth understanding.

I mentioned that Cicero's On Duties is a new addition, and a replacement for selections from Epictetus' works.  This is a bit of an experiment - we'll see how the students respond to the material. Cicero does give is a more systematic presentation of Stoic ethics than the Epictetus material that I included.  I was also finding that one key Stoic idea - the dichotomy of control - which is a very important concept, unfortunately ended up becoming something of a distraction for my past students, keeping them from paying as much attention to the other key ideas.

Wollstonecraft is a thinker who I have taught in other contexts - and about whom I speak fairly often (here's a recent invited talk on her life and thought).  Usually in my past Ethics classes, I devoted a week to Feminist Ethics and Ethics of Care, having my students read pieces by Virginia Held and Rosemarie Tong.  But when my colleague, Owen, reminded me that the Marquette Ethics class explicitly required an "alternative" ethical perspective - which could be Feminist Ethics - I thought to my self "why don't I include Wollstonecraft?"  After all, she's a solid virtue ethicist who also does articulate a very robust feminist critique of her contemporary culture, parts of which are highly relevant today.

Why Do We Study Primary Texts and Thinkers?

In certain respects, it would be easier - not only for my students, but even for me as the instructor - to eschew primary texts by classic thinkers in favor of a textbook.  There are plenty that give students little bit-size morsels (easily digested) carved out from the writings of first-rate philosophers, and then provide a lot of secondary discussion and summaries of the ideas those philosophers set out.  They range in quality from the simply terrible and clearly poorly informed, on one side, to the pretty decent, on the other - with the majority of them being middling mediocrities.

I have tried using those sorts of textbooks - well, to be honest, I didn't choose them but was rather stuck with them, and then tried to make the best of it - and I've never really seen much good for the students come from engaging that sort of secondary literature (maybe we really ought to call those "tertiary literature" and reserve "secondary" for actual scholarly engagements of the primary texts. . . )

In the age of the internet, if students just want summaries or little digests - often somewhat off-base or misleading - about the great ideas of central thinkers in the discipline of Ethics, it's easy enough for them to do a google search and find all sorts of those sources.  Or they can just go to Wikipedia (which, honestly, sometimes is all right), or to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or to Sparknotes, or to a host of videos, ranging from the short, high-production, glib, low-content sort to the low-production, seriously high-content sort (that I create).

What they are often lacking - and typically don't even realize they're missing out on - in their education is much more often direct contact with primary texts written by major thinkers.  They don't get to drink directly from the intellectual well, but have to drink the equivalent of processed city water from the tap.  It probably won't make you sick, but it's definitely not the same thing as what you get from the original sources.  Instead of just reading about Kant's ideas, students ought to work at Kant's actual writings, and see for themselves what it is that he actually says.  And the same for Aristotle, for Mill, for Rand, for Wollstonecraft.

At the same time, it is also ridiculous to expect that most of our present-day students can just have the original texts thrust into their hands and can then "go at it".  Many of them need a good bit of intellectual assistance and support - and that's what I provide them, in and out of the classroom.  Again, the age of the internet affords us some amazing possibilities, including using whatever class management system software one has to work with to create entire course sites.  I create and provide videos, handouts, worksheets, lesson pages - just to mane some of the resources - for my students.  My experience has been that - when properly supported in their study - students are capable of much more than they often believe they are.

A few of my students will likely not make it through the semester.  In nearly every case, that is not because they are not intellectually capable of working through the primary texts, given proper support and guidance.  There are a number of other problems and dynamics at work (that I'll write about some other time).  But the vast majority will make it through.  They will not totally understand the thinkers we study, and they may still make some mistakes in explaining or applying the moral theories - and that's all right.  But they will have actually read Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Bentham, and others.  And if I've done my job well, that will be just their first, or second, or fifth reading.  It won't be the last one for them.

Those students will become life-long learners, and so when I ask them five years down the line, when they're in the workplace, what they remember, what they've found useful, what they've applied, and who they are still reading, they'll give me answers that reveal that the gamble of throwing them right into these primary texts ultimately paid off.