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Teaching Ethics to Non-Philosophy Students
Umeå University, Faculty of Arts, Department of historical, philosophical and religious studies.
Umeå University, Faculty of Arts, Department of historical, philosophical and religious studies.
2017 (English)In: Abstract Book: 19th Annual International Conference on Education 15-18 May 2017, Athens, Greece / [ed] Gregory T. Papanikos, Aten: Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), 2017, 185-186 p.Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

It is not only philosophy students who read ethics in universities and colleges. Nor are they the only ones who have reason to do so. Dealing with ethical issues is a central aspect of many professions, and hence e.g. teacher students, engineering students, police students, medicine students, social worker students and research students are commonly taught ethics within their educational programs, just to mention some.

In this paper we address the question of how ethics is most appropriately taught to such “non-philosophy” student groups – on a general level, that is; of course there may be important differences between these various professions and areas of study, calling for partly different approaches to teaching ethics.

The standard way to introduce ethics to non-philosophy students is doubtlessly to present and briefly explain a number of ethical theories (or kinds of theory), such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics and moral pluralism. And indeed, most introductory books to ethics adopt this approach, be it general introductions or introductions specialized towards a specific profession or subject matter.

We refer to this approach as the “smorgasbord approach” to teaching ethics, due to the false impression that it is likely to make on non-philosophy students approaching ethics as an academic discipline for the first time. This approach invites the conception that adopting an ethical position is mainly a matter of simply choosing from this smorgasbord of different theories.

We find this approach problematic for several reasons:

To start with, it tends to misrepresent the field of ethics as well as ethical reasoning. These students generally lack the prerequisites required to critically examine and evaluate these theories, to understand the different motivations behind them, and to put them in context. Indeed, it is even difficult, given the usually quite limited time frame for such courses, to give the students an appropriate understanding of what these theories really are theories about. To get a thorough enough understanding of the field for it to be meaningful to focus on ethical theories in introducing non-philosophy students to ethics would require a much more comprehensive ethics education than what there is usually room for within the kinds of educational program mentioned above.

Furthermore, the smorgasbord approach is likely to be infeasible. How is such an approach supposed to aid the students in practical decision-making – which, first and foremost, is the rational for having them take ethics courses in the first place? Which of these theories should they apply, and why? The different theories give different verdicts in most tricky cases, and these students lack the background knowledge required to critically choose between them. Nor is it obvious that it is desirable to choose one such theory and then apply it in one’s practical reasoning.

In light of these problematic features of a smorgasbord approach to teaching ethics we suggest a methodology-based approach as a more fruitful alternative. Instead of presenting a list of theories this approach focuses on conveying basic methods for ethical reasoning. We argue that there is almost unanimous agreement among moral philosophers (at least within a broadly analytical tradition) as regards certain basic methods for ethical reasoning, even if these methods are rarely explicitly formulated. These methods can be summarized roughly under three main headings: information, vividness and coherence.

The main purpose of this paper is to explain and defend the methodological approach to teaching ethics to non-philosophy students. In doing so we also consider and reply to some possible expected objections to this approach.

Lastly we consider whether the approach should be complemented in some way. One useful complement, we think – if the time and space in the educational program in question allows it – is to bring up the question of character traits – what kind of person one should be.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Aten: Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER), 2017. 185-186 p.
Keyword [en]
Ethics education, teaching ethics, moral methodology, methods-based approach, smorgasbord approach
National Category
Educational Sciences Ethics Philosophy
Research subject
Ethics
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-135180ISBN: 978-960-598-115-0 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:umu-135180DiVA: diva2:1097037
Conference
19th Annual International Conference on Education, Athens, Greece
Available from: 2017-05-21 Created: 2017-05-21 Last updated: 2017-06-08Bibliographically approved

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