Getting the (morally) right answer

Gwendolyn Dolske pointed out an interesting question posed by Eric Schwitzgebel on his blog which summarizes a longer paper he has written on the efficacy of teaching Ethics in philosophy classes. In looking over a variety of heterogeneous studies and surveys Schwitz finds that “it is reasonable to tentatively conclude that the long-term effects on students‘ attitudes are tiny to non-existent, that the short-term effect on students’ practical behavior outside the university setting are tiny to non-existent, and that the long-term effects on practical behavior, if any, are smaller still.“

I must admit that I am appalled. While his methodology appears suspect the main problem is with his formulation of the question. He seems to hold that ethical choices are a matter of getting the right answer on a multiple choice exam—the antithesis of philosophical ethics and, quite honestly, almost all real human experience beyond second grade.

There may be other benefits but I see the purpose of a philosophy class in ethics is to help students to improve their ability to think about moral issues: to see different perspectives, understand wider implications, see contingencies, apply a greater degree of rigor, to be aware of and question underlying assumptions. This is not something easily measured, as any humanities professional should clearly understand.

While students in philosophical ethics may or may not perform differently on some arbitrary “ethical” measure such as charitable giving, they should be able to think more clearly about complex ethical issues. This will certainly provide better and more just results than untrained instinctual reactions or rote adherence to some presumably objective and universal set of rules that his question presupposes.


~ by severalfourmany on August 23, 2013.

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