I'm writing in response to a recent article (“Should Colleges Engage in Ethics Education?,” Oct. 19) by Steven Mintz concerning the role of ethics in an undergraduate education. He suggests that, given the recent controversial events involving Ukraine and Israel and students’ various reactions to them, we should consider making ethics a required subject for students. While I agree with the broad suggestions he makes about this and that ethics should be taught more widely, I have some reservations about his proposals.
Mintz notes that the essence of a liberal arts education includes the ability to think carefully and reason about moral problems affecting society. There is no escaping the kinds of social and political problems that are matters of moral concern, not to mention other issues that arise for students about interpersonal relations, sexual relationships, academic integrity, substance abuse, etc. It is not farfetched to think that students would benefit from some actual study related to these important areas of their lives.
The issue concerns how one should implement such an approach at colleges and universities. Should we just require students to take an ethics course from the Philosophy department? Should this be one course or two? Should we focus on general matters of analysis, or more applied areas of discussion? There are different ways to approach teaching the subject to students and Mintz canvases different ideas for doing this and notes some problems.
While Mintz is right to raise some concerns, I would demur at his suggestion that ethics should as a general matter be taught outside of Philosophy departments (or maybe Religion departments). What struck me as unusual about his article is how much of the material mentioned is already addressed directly in existing ethics courses that I teach. For instance, he suggests that any courses should help students learn how “to think critically and reason morally” about different issues. This sentence looks like it’s taken straight out of the syllabus for my ethics course I teach every year.
Learning to understand diverse moral frameworks is already part and parcel of every general ethics course being taught in Philosophy departments. Students are taught a range of perspectives in courses that aim, not to indoctrinate students to this or that view, but to expose them to a broad range of approaches and issues. The aim is to improve students’ understanding and ability to think through different moral issues and perspectives, so they can avoid the kinds of knee-jerk, emotional reactions that seem to characterize many students’ initial reactions to moral problems. Moreover, these courses are precisely in the areas that Mintz suggests might provide helpful areas of focus. Every year Philosophy departments offer courses on general ethics and applied areas, including environmental ethics, business ethics, and biomedical ethics.
Mintz worries that the content of ethics courses in Philosophy may be too abstract and suggests ethics be taught by faculty within every discipline. While it is surely the case that matters of ethics arise in different courses, and individual faculty may be well placed to encourage reflection in particular cases, my experience is that to be effective students need a broad and systematic perspective. Not only have philosophers been teaching ethics for over two thousand years, and so know something about the pitfalls of teaching the subject, but the fact is that almost every Philosophy professor has taken courses in ethics as part of their training and is familiar with the subject.
One can sympathize with Mintz’s worry that Philosophy departments may approach things too abstractly. But the proper response to this is to go to these departments and ask them to create ethics courses that have a large applied component. Many existing courses on ethics already contain a good deal of applied material (on abortion, euthanasia, war, vegetarianism, etc.). It wouldn’t take much effort for Philosophy programs to create a broader, general ethics course to cover the kind of material Mintz wants.
While I’m not sure about the ethics of killing birds for sport, this would also be a way to kill two birds with one stone. Having students take an ethics course as part of their education would help expose them to a central discipline in the liberal arts as part of their curriculum. Most ethics courses include discussion of “reasoning” as a specific part of the course. This is beyond teaching students about the content of ethics as it applies to a range of issues that affect them. Requiring such courses would be helpful for students trying to navigate the complexities of the world, and for society which surely needs an ethical citizenry.
Associate professor of philosophy
Seton Hall University