Tag Archives: Ethics

On Things Best Left Unsaid

  1. “I read 50 Shades of Gray. It was interesting.” Right.  I was enjoying my meal but now…
  2. Adding “for your age” to any sentence.  A swing and a miss in the compliment arena.
  3. “Hold on.  I need to take a selfie.”  Selfies are never needed.
  4. After a meal: “Oh God I’m so full.” A simple “Loved the meal” will suffice.  How you stuffed yourself to discomfort can remain a secret.
  5. “You look tired.”  Gee, thanks.  I didn’t realize.  Now I’ll go about my day as normally as possible.
  6. When giving a present: “It was on sale.”  Pat yourself on the back for the bargain instead of announcing it.
  7. When receiving a present: “Is there a gift receipt?”  Woe is the gift giver in this situation!
  8. “I need more fiber in my diet.”  Eww.
  9. “Do you want your upper lip waxed?”  This should never be offered.  Ever. End of story.
  10. “He dies in the end.”  Oh come on!
  11. When reflecting on college: “I didn’t have to take out any loans.”  Congratulations on your economic platform.
  12. After someone mentions what they are currently reading: “Pff!  I read that in high school.”  We’re adults.  Reading is not a competition.
  13. “Totes. Amaze. Cray cray!” Let’s stick to English (or to not speaking).

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.

Being Polite: Some Help From Kant

“The cashier is not part of the cash register,” my philosophy professor declared as she explained Kant’s principle of autonomy.

This simple yet clear example from my undergraduate years echoed in my mind as I waited in line at Subway this afternoon.  A young lady in front of me snapped at the man putting her sandwich orders together.  Arms crossed, phone in hand she blurted,  “Um, I want more pieces of turkey on that one.  You have more on those other two.”  He checked his work and looked at her uncomfortably.  She pressed, “That one only has four slices. Those have five.”

He gave a friendly smile and pointed to the sandwiches to show that they were in fact even: “One, two, three, four.  One, two, three…”

Cutting him off, she huffed, “Okaaaaaay.  I get it.”  Then she returned her attention to her phone.

Kant’s principle of autonomy states: Treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, never a means only.  According to Kant, because human beings are rational, autonomous agents, their humanity must be respected.  One cannot “use” another or treat a person as a tool.

This young lady in front of me, however, behaved as though the employee existed solely to craft her sandwiches.  Judging by her demeanor, she believed him to be a “means only.” There was no hint of “please,”  “thank you,” or sense of graciousness in her tone. Cue my frustration!

One might reply, well she wasn’t aware that she was doing this.  Indeed!  That is the point!  The lack of consciousness is precisely what makes the scene problematic.  A person is more than a cash register!

My philosophy professor did employ grander approaches to exploring Kant’s principle, but the one that stuck was this very real means of using it in day-to-day life. For many jobs the work environment extends beyond the employer and employees to the interaction with customers or people of other businesses.  As a patron or customer one is essentially part of another’s work environment.  That is, when you go into a store or restaurant, even though you are not working, you are participating in someone else’s work day.

Just a friendly tip: turn off the phone, take the music out of your ears, and see the person with whom you are interacting.  Smile and take a moment to know that you are part of their work day.  The worker has a dream, a family, looks forward to the end of her/his day.  She/he is more than a servant.  The cashier is not part of the cash register!

Men Against Violence

The term “feminism” can evoke strong reactions.  Its basic premise is the assertion that women are equal human beings.  One of the most unfortunate assumptions is that feminism is strictly a woman’s issue and/or that men cannot be feminists.

This past weekend I attended a conference  on Gender and Violence organized by a student group Men Against Violence.  I am currently on the heels of completing lectures for my Philosophy courses on Wollstonecraft and Aristotle, and I couldn’t help but think of their theories in relation to the conference topic.  One of the speakers at the conference, Dr. Thomas Keith, focused on what he calls “Bro Culture.” This “bro-code” socialization of young men, he explained, encourages behavior that manifests risky, life-threatening ways of being and void of empathy.  Moreover, in the matter of violence against women, young men are numb to the seriousness of the violence in part through the media’s perpetuation of viewing women as objects.  Keith noted comedians who have made rape jokes yet retain their popularity.  Quite rightly, he said “No woman ever finds a rape joke funny.”

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Another problem, especially with college life, is that when there is violence done to women, the “bro-code” enforces a silence among the young men who are privy to information of a crime.  Part of the problem is that crimes against women are not seen as actual crimes by young men because they have been socialized to think harassment and rape are funny.

How do we address this?  Keith stresses that men must get involved in the education of men.  His angle in the feminism discussion centers around the detriment to young men’s lives when they actively pursue harming and degrading women.  That is, the character traits emphasized for the “Bro” are exaggerated and cartoonish concepts of being a man which leave out essential qualities of what it means to be human such as empathy and nurture.  Violence against women is the horrific result of this “education.”

To drive home his point that violence against women is not simply a woman’s issue he gave an account of an interview with a young male college student.  The student’s sister had been raped at a college party, and because of the trauma she committed suicide.  Keith said he has heard so many versions of this story on college campuses.  “It affects all of us” he said.

Keith encouraged the audience to not participate in sexist culture that marginalizes women.  Media and the like are interested in profits, so do not allow companies that market by using images of women as objects to profit from you.  The role of culture resides in our hands!  It need not be dictated by offensive stereotypes and corporations’ bottom lines.

Another speaker, Dr. Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox, also emphasized gender training as a central factor in violence.  When news breaks of school shootings, for instance, the media poses all sorts of inquiries but leaves out the obvious, namely boys and men are committing these crimes.  Adding to the discussion of rape, he pointed to a shift in language by the media to report cases.  Normally, he explained, a defendant is referred to as the victim; however, in rape cases the term “accuser” is used instead.  He argued this different term highlights a change in the way rape is reported and viewed.  Empathy for the victim wanes with this label and attaches a negative-active perspective to the victim.  She (although the victim can be male) becomes the aggressor and the “suspect” is the victim or the “accused.” This  shift in language does not occur when reporting on other crimes.  One such case, The Steubenville rape case, where boys video taped the rape of a sixteen year old girl, he called an “indictment on our society.”

As I mentioned, I wrapped up my last week of teaching with lectures on Wollstonecraft and Aristotle.  With Wollstonecraft, she articulated the bold (obvious) assertion that women are human beings with souls (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792).  She demonstrated the illogical and immoral position against educating women.  By declaring that women are in fact human beings she insisted that their capacity for reason must be developed (since reason is the defining characteristic of human beings).  To deny education is to deny the development of reason, which in turn prevents the ability to be a moral agent (virtuous).  But, a couple lines in particular from her work scream out to me now in light of this conference:

“I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society” (my emphasis).


“…but it is first necessary to observe, that my objection extends to the whole purport of those books, which tend, in my opinion, to degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue.”

Wollstonecraft here points out the glaring effect of not only training women to focus on being pleasing, but that this creates a sub-human species that negatively impacts the society in its entirety.  It is astonishing to me that centuries later we are still discussing the very real and dark unfolding of her warning.  Underscoring the lack of understanding among “bro-culture,” to borrow from Keith, is that women are meant to be pleasing.  That is why it is difficult for some (but certainly not all!) young men absorbed in such a socialization to fathom violence as wrong or criminal.

How to live well is overlooked as part and parcel to education.  I’m reminded of this when I teach Aristotle’s The Nicomachaen Ethics, and I thought of it when listening to Keith and Katz at the conference.  Happiness, excellence, flourishing are essential means for enjoying one’s life.  Why is that not the focus for young men?  Why bombard boys and girls with restrictive gender roles?  Aristotle tells us that Happiness is acquired not by chance but by habit, learning, and cultivation.  Why do we spend time enforcing hyper-masculinity especially when such a disposition lends itself to the disturbing statistics of higher suicide rates, death rates, incarceration rates, and fatalities in car accidents of young men?

I appreciate the aims of this conference and the project to unearth gender and feminism as more than a woman’s issue but as something that belongs in dialogue about culture overall.  How does gender training impact men?  In turn, how does that impact women?  Violence against women is clearly a serious harm to women, but it is also an attack on families and society.  Investigating causes of violence involves strengthening women and teaching young men that violence does not demonstrate power but actually reveals a lack of power and excellence.

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