Moral Behavior and Ethics Class: Thoughts on Schwitzgebel’s paper

Schwitzgebel’s paper raises an interesting question, namely, Do Ethics Classes Influence Students’ Moral Behavior?  He writes: “I tentatively conclude that the typical university ethics class has at most a tiny effect on students’ moral behavior.  Even tiny positive effects on moral behavior can be highly important, but unfortunately such tiny positive effects, if they exist, might be entirely canceled or outweighed by negative effects.”  These negative effects are “Toxic rationalizations” where, “The more theories you have ready to hand, and the cleverer your inner lawyer, the more resources you can bring to the task of rationalizing attractive misconduct.” Thus, by learning moral theory, the student now has ammunition to work around a theory’s loopholes and/or misuse the principles of the theory.  As a result, moral theory might not only be ineffective for advancing moral behavior but can actually serve as an impetus for immoral action.

There are a few assumptions at work here I wish to address.  This does call into question a bigger issue of education as such, however I will not delve into that now.

  1. When students enter university they are adults shadowed by some form of moral teaching.  The professor, then, does not begin a class with a group of people unfamiliar with the concepts of “right” and “wrong.” This factor alone suggests that the primary motive of Ethical Theory would be hard pressed to aim towards altering behavior.  I think we can stipulate that a student comfortable with cheating at the age of 18-22 will not suddenly drop the inclination after becoming acquainted with Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
  2. Schwitzgebel admits that the few studies administered to gauge moral behavior post ethics courses are problematic, writing: “These studies are not, I think, very compelling evidence.” And, “In neither study were students randomly assigned into ethics vs. non-ethics courses, which opens up the possibility of uncontrolled confounding factors such as maturity, proximity to graduation, and ethics instruction from other sources.”  He then opts for “indirect evidence” from studies on the impact of economic classes but states, “Unfortunately the results of this economics literature are inconclusive.”  If the evidence itself is weak, how can the conclusion that the courses have a “tiny” influence be substantiated?
  3. One factor employed to measure behavior is students’ likeliness to “charitable giving.”  This might be an interesting study after a course on Peter Singer; however, “charitable giving” falls into an extremely narrow category.  If students do not immediately donate money to a charity I think that hardly qualifies for an assertion that Ethics classes fail to generate moral behavior (especially considering the increased financial stress university students currently face).  In addition, not all ethical theories direct our attention to charitable giving.  (Aristotle’s and Wollstonecraft’s Virtue theory, for example.)
  4. I think there is a misplacement of blame in the following assertion: “An ethics class might leave a student feeling that ethical standards are unattainable, or the student might hate the class and be turned off forever to intellectual conversations about ethics.  A student might learn that ‘ethics’ is about the rigid application of stupid rules, or the kind of thing that concerns badly dressed sixty-year-old men, or leads only to interminable, unwinnable debates.” If that is the effect of the course then I suggest it reveals a problem with the instruction and syllabus, not with Ethics as such.  I also take slight issue with the image presented here of the professor, but that is for another time.
  5. Finally, the possibility of a “toxic rationalization” I find deeply puzzling.  This position assumes that ethical judgment is bereft of empathy and emotion.  In his Lecture on Ethics, Kant said, “To be humane is to have sympathy with the fate of others.”  If a former student of ethics in the “real world” calls on his university material to manipulate a situation for his own gain and thereby behave destructively towards others then that is an outright misunderstanding of ethical theory and not a result of ethical theory.  A person willing to lie, cheat and steal would most likely behave in such a fashion with or without a university ethics course.

So, then, what is the function of an Ethical Theory class?  I sometimes offer the following analogy when beginning my Ethical Considerations in Technology course, a course largely for engineering majors (who wonder what the Hell they are doing in a Philosophy class): holding up my iphone I say, “If someone asked me ‘How does that work?’ and I replied ‘Oh it’s easy you just press this button and it’s on.  Then you tap these numbers and someone picks up their phone and we speak.’ Would I have explained how the phone works?”  In unison the students shake their heads “no.”

“How long would it take to explain how it is that pressing buttons makes talking to someone far away possible?”

“Long time,” they reply.  I then explain that Ethical Theory, like the inner workings of the cell phone, is the extended analysis behind many of our ideas on “right” and “wrong” that might appear obvious. When reading the works of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and Rawls, for instance, we trace the evolution of our thinking about what it means to be human and to interact.  Exposing students to the plethora of ways to define “right” and “wrong” in itself provokes thoughtfulness which weaves its way into their lives in a manner not easily tested.  Moreover, the theories can help solidify ideas about existing values such as autonomy, freedom of speech, and voting.  In the same way an engineering student would appreciate their cell phone more by learning the dynamics of its inner workings through university classes, a student of ethical theory could benefit by reading the logic underscoring moral behavior that is assumed as a given or taken for granted.

Ethical Theory constitutes more that a “do this” and “don’t do that” structure, as I’m sure Schwitzgebel knows; however, this element is ignored in his analysis of its influence. Putting the crux of the matter at measuring immediate moral behavior mistakes educational institutions for a correctional facility.  Again, this does point to the broader issue, I think, of what is education?

Once in a while a student will throw up their hands at the end of the term and say “Well which one is correct?”  I answer, “That is up to you to think about which argument is the strongest. Recognizing the complexity of determining “Right” is part and parcel of the education.”  That is, just applying a theory to a situation isn’t necessarily the only aim, but reading the literature on how the philosophy “greats” worked out theories teaches students how to consider several variables (not to mention it enhances their critical thinking skills).

Am I biased to protect the very subject I teach?  I kindly refer you to the story of Thales if you suppose money to be my motive here.

About unsolicitedtidbits

Philosophy, books, coffee, Mexican food enthusiast. View all posts by unsolicitedtidbits

4 responses to “Moral Behavior and Ethics Class: Thoughts on Schwitzgebel’s paper

  • severalfourmany

    I must admit that I am appalled not only with his approach but also his methodology. His methodology confuses the idea of an empirical study with a survey of the literature. But the question itself is the main problem. 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.

    • unsolicitedtidbits

      I really appreciate your comment. I’ve been wondering what others from the academic community would think of the discussion. Even though I disagree with his position, it has given me a lot to think about in terms of the function/purpose of an Ethics course.

  • Getting the (morally) right answer | Several, Four, Many

    […] Gwendolyn Dolsk pointed out an interesting question posed by Eric Schwitz 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.“ […]

  • journalpulp

    “So, then, what is the function of an Ethical Theory class?”

    The moral is the thing that promotes and fosters one’s welfare. The immoral is the self-destructive. Don’t think in terms of is this act moral or immoral, but ask instead: will this action harm me over time? Will it enhance my mind and my life? Or will it not?

    That is true morality.


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