An ethics course that actually helps people *be* more ethical

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite philosophy tweet follows, Nigel Warburton (@philosophybites), British philosopher and host of the fantastic podcast, Philosophy Bites, tweeted a question (a tweet I can no longer find because I am tech-inept) that was something to the effect of:

If you were to teach an ethics class that was intended to actually shape your students into more ethical people, what would be in the curriculum?

I tweeted my response rather quickly (I mean, it’s a tweet) but I enjoyed the thought experiment so much I thought I’d write out my thoughts in full, in part to see what I’ve missed! Would love to hear what works you might like to see on a class like this.

I started this process kind of backward — thinking of the works I’d want students to read, rather than asking myself the question “What goes in to being an ethical person?” The main pieces I see are: 1). The self, the person. What does it mean to be a person? What does well-being mean or look like? How is it different or the same for non-human species? 2). Relationships. What does it mean to be in relationship with another being? What are the different kinds of relationships? Do we define them by obligation, benefit, intimacy, etc.? 3). Others. What does it mean to see others as those we should treat ethically? How do we define “others” when talking about ethics? What is their role, effect, need? 4). World. How do we understand the whole, beyond our specific relationships? What are some of the systems that operate, and how do we find out what those systems are? What is our ethical responsibility within large, global systems? How, or by what means do we come to know or learn about the world? What are the beings beyond our circle that/whom we should care about? How far does our “circle of ethical concern” extend?

So anyway, with those (small) questions in mind, I give you, in no particular order…

Jana’s Curriculum for Educating and Molding More Ethical People Through the Books and Philosophers She Finds Most Ethically Challenging and Helpful

The Brothers Karamazov “The Grand Inquisitor”. A fascinating argument (though the ultimate claim is ambiguous!) of the value of self-denying (read: Christian) religion for humanity. One of the main takeaways I’d stress is the idea of how much we can expect out of humanity, and to evaluate what standards we are holding people to, and how just and gracious are those standards.

Angela Davis, passages from Are Prisons Obsolete? On punishment and the unjust vices and biases that underlie the systems by which we attempt to bring about justice.

Peter Singer, passages from The Most Good You Can Do. Great arguments for modern utilitarianism and a peek into the moral complexities of the world as it is now. What does it mean to try to minimize the harm and maximize the good we do in a globally-connected, capitalist society?

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas“. To read alongside Singer. This short story hyperbolizes a criticism of utilitarianism, but also introduces the element of ignorance and knowledge in the living of an ethical life.

Jonathan Haidt, passages from The Righteous Mind. I love this book for how it emphasizes and demonstrates the ethical pillars by which all humans seem to live, and how those play out in and shape the two major U.S. political parties of the day. It helps explain the divide we see in the country, and provides a bit of empathy and understanding that could, if both sides would take the work and ideas seriously, allow for some constructive conversations about the state of the country and where it should be going.

Michael Shermer, chapters from The Believing Brain. A good education for how we form these strongly-held ethical opinions and beliefs and why the fact that they feel strong doesn’t mean that they are strongly valid or truth-reflecting.

Aristotle, passages from Nicomachean Ethics. The O.G. virtue ethicist, and in this case the gold standard. Perhaps the gold mean standard?! Bad joke. Terrible. Good thing “funny” is not a virtue (Hume rises from his grave to slap me).

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates provides a look into the experience of a black man in America. Not just a black man, but a black father to a black son. A case for empathy and for understanding various political and ethical situations and systems from the point of view of those most affected, or from those bearing the brunt of the harms.

Bernard Williams’ “Moral Luck”. The idea that whatever we choose to do we can never be certain that we will ultimately deem is the right thing to do, because we don’t know whether or not we will succeed on our own merits AND BECAUSE WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO WE WILL BE ON THE OTHER END (OMG) is terrifying and mind-melting for me. in the best ethical-living/analyzing way.

Agnes Callard’s Aspiration. My current obsession. Callard presents a theory of aspiration, or the process of choosing and pursuing the acquisition of new values. What does it mean to strive to become a better person when we’re not even sure what “better” is or looks like? I realize I’m listing this at the end, but I think I’d lead the course with this.

Nagarjuna, various. His philosophy of dependent origination, and the four noble truths: the truth of suffering (everything and everyone suffers), the truth of the cause of suffering (craving and ignorance), the truth of the end of suffering (liberation), and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering (right understanding -> right intention -> right speech -> right action -> right livelihood -> right effort -> right mindfulness -> right concentration). There is nothing like reading an excellent Buddhist philosopher to challenge how we in the West understand and pursue our own well-being, psychological wholeness, and moral goodness. Lots of overlap with Stoicism, but in some ways much deeper and more psychologically complex.

Even writing these out, after adding a couple, I realized what is missing. I don’t have anything about bioethics here, nor anything about deontology and duty ethics (Kant cries), nor anything about environmental ethics (KIND OF A BIG DEAL THESE DAYS).

For the next who knows how long, the best political shirt and exhortation there is.

I’d love to include Arendt’s work on the banality of evil. Paul Bloom on the limits of empathy and a right emphasis on rational compassion. Ugh, so much. My own understanding of what is good, and the way I pursue it, has been shaped by so many great books and great thinkers and it’s hard to curate a list for a short semester and inevitably less-enthused students. Maybe I could make this a year-long course, or one students are required to take part-time through their entire college career, so they are constantly confronting questions of ethics as they study the what and how of their intended fields and the changes in their lives and maturity. Anyone want to start a liberal arts university with me?

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