Teaching applied ethics — surveying the students.

by Harry on April 28, 2019

I teach a standard Contemporary Moral Issues/Applied Ethics course once a year, usually in the Spring, in lecture format, usually with 80-100 students (but this year with 170). Normally about 70% of the students are seniors, and about 70% are business majors (it meets an ethics requirement in the business major). We discuss topics such as abortion, inequality in education, parental licensing, the gendered division of labor. I have added two new topics this year—sex on campus, and speech on campus. Each semester I get them to take a long survey which includes questions about what their beliefs are about the topics, prior to studying them in class. A few years ago I started getting them to take a survey at the end of the class, about their post-study beliefs, whether they have changed their minds, and whether they think they know what I believe.

I want to know whether they have changed their minds because I am curious about whether they have really done the thinking I want them to have done. Most are encountering, and having to consider seriously, intelligent arguments for the “other side” for the first time, so at least some of them should have their confidence somewhat shaken. I want to know whether they think they know my beliefs because I am a reasonably strict non-discloser, and want to know whether, in fact, I succeed in not disclosing. If they all believed they know what I think, and were right about what I think, that would indicate that I fail!

This year’s results are in line with previous years. Almost all the students have changed their mind about something. 34% say they have changed their mind about the morality of abortion (though few have changed their mind about whether abortion should be legal), with slightly more coming to think that in most cases abortion is wrong than in the other direction. 41% say they have changed their minds about whether parents should be licensed, and this is slightly more in the direction of thinking they should be licensed than in the other direction. The most interesting change is with respect to the claim that “Sex between consenting adults is sometimes wrong”: 60% have changed their minds about that, mostly in the direction of thinking it is sometimes wrong. Interesting, but not surprising: that’s the issue on which they are most in thrall to a generalized libertarianism, and about which they are constantly being bombarded with messages that consent is required to make sex ok which, from many conversations, I suspect is often interpreted as meaning that consent is sufficient to make sex ok.

In all of the cases I ask about, 60 or more percent say they don’t know what I believe about the issue, and for most of those issues those who think they do know what I believe are more or less evenly split (ie they don’t, actually, know). On the one issue on which the students who think they know what I believe overwhelmingly attribute a specific view to me, they get it wrong (of course, I can’t tell them that). [1]

Altogether the post-class survey makes me feel that some of the course objectives have been met. It’s not that I want anyone to change their minds, but I do want them to think seriously about the issues and, since most haven’t thought seriously about most of the issues before taking the class, some mind-changing ought to be happening. And, I am more confident than I used to be that I succeed in not disclosing (and not, in Hess and McAvoy’s lovely phrase, leaking).

At the end of the survey I ask them what they are most glad to have learned in the class. They don’t see each other’s answers, but there’s a lot of repetition. Below are some representative answers which, also, make me feel that the class has been reasonably successful:

I have learned that there is usually more to a situation than most people realize. It is really important to consider both sides, create objections for both, and make a decision and judgement from there.

I’m glad to have heard coherent opinions that are opposite of mine on certain topics (ex abortion) that make me consider alternate opinion

I’m glad I had the chance to learn more about the morality of abortion and how there really are two sides to the argument.

I was raised in a more sheltered environment where some views were pushed on me. I am so happy that I took this course and was able to reevaluate some of the things I believed I thought were to be true and really analyze the integrity of those thoughts. I also really improved my writing I believe over the course of the semester and I cannot thank you enough for that. [HB I take no credit for the writing: my TAs have really been giving exceptionally good feedback].

I learned how to think critically and less about practically and more regarding morality. This class really made me think, it’s not a class when you show up and scramble to write notes down in order to learn material and I appreciate that.

I have learned how to view an argument from both sides.

I learned to speak out more in lecture. In the past, I have been rather shy to speak out before, but I thought Professor Brighouse was really good at getting me out of that shell and for that, I am grateful. [HB – I’ve no idea who this is, but it’s a large lecture, so I’m quite proud of this one].

Better defenses for positions that I thought indefensible, even if I still don’t agree with those defenses

I am really glad that we talked about the Amish community and Rumspringa! I have always thought that their way of living is very interesting so I am glad I got the chance to learn more about it. Also, I am glad I learned that I love philosophy and I am excited to take an advanced philosophy course next semester! Could this be my true calling? [HB: maybe I’ve been a bad influence]

I feel that I am equipped to think much more critically about issues and not just blindly defend one side. I feel that I am more strict on myself about actually having a defense to what I believe.

The most significant, positive thing this course has done was make me more open-minded toward other arguments including, but not limited to, being wary of misrepresentations and understanding nuances better.

I am someone with a very strong opinion and I’m glad that Harry was able to make me think less confidently about my opinions, for most of the topics.

I have learned how to look at a controversial issue from all sides – having to argue for an opinion that I do not hold myself is new to me, and I think it drastically improved my critical thinking.

I learned how to think.

Even though my personal opinion on abortion did not change, I am glad that I now have a deeper understanding of both sides of the argument about the legality of abortion.

I am glad that I learned how to understand reasoning of views on moral issues that I don’t necessarily agree with. It is interesting to recognize the arguments in making a point seem plausible even if I don’t necessarily agree.

Though I found it challenging, I am glad I took this class because it gave me a chance to think deeply about topics i have never really thought about or discussed with others.

I learned that you should always listen to the reasoning for both sides of any given issue.

I am glad I learned opposing views to issues that I felt strongly about. It helped me really evaluate the views of people who think differently of me and why. It also helps me give a more educated response to those arguments.

How to make better and more well-rounded objections/arguments; also, looking at arguments in different perspectives is interesting

Literally to think about and question everything someone says

I’m glad we talked about contemporary hook up culture and the morality of deception in sexual encounters. I found this topic very interesting and the most relatable to my life being in college

I’ve learned that philosophy is not about winning the argument, but to present and evaluate your own arguments and other people’s arguments.

There are many topics which I had never learned about or debated my views on before and this class had educated me in those areas to have informed conversations

I have learned how to deeply think about stuff. I feel like it has taught me how to explain my opinion and make arguments even if I don’t agree with those arguments

The most valuable thing I have learned in this class is that it is important to question your assumptions and search for evidence to provide reasoning for your opinions. In doing so, I have been able to become much more confident with some of my opinions, and have been able to take on the views of other opinions because their evidence was so valuable.

I’ve learned to consider people’s best argument instead of their worst. I think that has challenged me to find better and more precise evidence for my philosophical opinions. It has also made me a more open minded listener.

[1] I sometimes teach a class in which one of the issues we discuss is whether professors teaching abut controversial issues should disclose their views; I disclose that I am a non-discloser. If anyone can help me out of that paradox I’d be grateful.



Dipper 04.28.19 at 6:45 pm

Surely as a teacher you are teaching your students how to approach and navigate problems. In that sense, aren’t you like a lawyer acting for both sides of the argument?

I think you should definitely not state what your view is, or even that you have one. There’s surely a moral hazard in admitting to an opinion in that your students will be tempted to take your side of the argument in discussion to win your approval?


Peter Dorman 04.28.19 at 7:43 pm

Nice testimony from the students — congrats!

A lot of my teaching, like yours, has been aimed at getting students to engage other points of view more open-mindedly, to be able to try on other perspectives, etc. I still do that, but in the last year or so I’ve come to recognize the importance of a slightly different twist, combating the good-begets-good (GBG) and bad-begets-bad (BBB) heuristics.

By this I mean the tendency to label a proposal, theory or process either monolithically good or monolithically bad, not allowing for the possibility, or likelihood, that there will be positive and negative aspects that don’t cancel out. I’ve seen speculation that categorical thinking of this type is an evolutionary outcome. Maybe, but it strikes me as a corollary of intolerance for cognitive dissonance. Whatever the provenance, it speaks to a slightly different aspect of critical thinking: not which view I should hold or how I should interact with others who hold different views, but how fully I can allow myself to acknowledge the contradictory elements of the view I do hold.

To target GBG/BBB, I have exercises where students have to identify tradeoffs and limitations in applied contexts, with the understanding that these hold whether or not you endorse a proposal overall.

My sense is that too much current political discourse is in thrall to these heuristics and contributes to the stark moralism—the virtue vs sin framing—that is making it so difficult to have intelligent discussions around controversial topics. (Which is not to say there are aren’t things which really have no redeeming value and are quite evil, of course.)


Alan White 04.28.19 at 8:23 pm

This is terrific Harry, and thanks for this detailed report. I concur that the end-of-term responses you received say in effect that you have achieved much in the course.

I used pre-course anonymous surveys for over 30 years in both my Intro to Ethics and Bioethics courses covering approximately 50+ courses taught, asking some of your same questions, and particularly about abortion. I used a complicated system to assure that, despite having to use paper forms, neither I nor any other student would know how anyone in particular responded (unless they shared responses among them when returned). I felt this was essential to ensure as honest answers as possible. After returning the forms I would request they keep them until the end of the semester in order to do a self-evaluation of their views. (The anonymizing process made it impossible for me to know how they self-reflected unless they happened to mention it on student evaluations, which they sometimes did.) Gathering their responses in the first class, the second was always at least in part devoted to giving a holistic report on how the class responded to each question, involving them to think through why such-and-such an answer was the majority one (they only had three choices for each detailed case which always was resolved by a particular action–moral, not moral, cannot decide; I’d also have them provide a brief defense of each answer they gave). In this way I could help lead them into seeing different sides of issues right away based on common-sense morality, and then throughout the course refer to the scenarios so that they could build a more reflective philosophical sense about the plausibility of answers.

One by-product of surveying students over decades with the same or nearly the same questions about abortion (4 distinct cases) allowed me to see how my student demographic of mostly traditionally aged with about 10% returning-adult students changed over the years. And change it did in some instances. Given a rather generic question about a “choice” abortion (but with a deliberately withheld background on *how* the pregnancy occurred, so students would later have to confront the assumptions they bring into evaluating such cases), in the late 80s people thought that it was moral by about a 2-to-1 margin. By the time I retired in 2018, that response had completely switched, sometimes with as much as a 3-to-1 majority holding it not moral. The switch statistically came about starting in the mid-to-late 90s, first leveling out the replies but then moving slowly toward the not moral reply, and it never swung back. This tells me that for at least my population of students, the anti-abortion movement has been quite effective indeed.

On the other hand a question involving maternal life-or-death has hardly ever budged away from it being held overwhelmingly moral to abort, although the number of “cannot decide” has definitely increased over the years.

I always found using a survey in these courses to be extremely helpful. Again, thanks for the post.


Harry 04.28.19 at 9:05 pm

“In that sense, aren’t you like a lawyer acting for both sides of the argument?”

Kind of. I do a pre-class survey too, for various reasons, including that I want to know what the minority positions are, so that I can show students who are in the minority that they are not alone (for example, about 20% are strongly pro-life, but without the survey most of the students would believe nearly everyone is pro-choice), and so that I can prepare to defend to minority position. I don’t really think of myself as acting for both sides of the argument, but as helping them see the strongest cases for the views they disagree with. A large part of my aim is to get them to be able to argue with one another reasonably about these kinds of issues, in a context where respect and good intentions are assumed (and, among other things, modeled by my interactions with them).

Peter — I haven’t framed things that way to myself. I think, though, that in some of my smaller classes I do something similar — I’m certainly trying to get them to reason through proposals that have both good and bad features. I found your framing very helpful and will think more about it before next year’s classes!


SamChevre 04.28.19 at 9:27 pm

This is interesting, and I’d agree that this looks like successful teaching (although the choice of topics would mean it’s further left than I am–none of those topics don’t have good egalitarian arguments on both sides.)

I am curious in what context Rumspringa came up. (I grew up Amish-Mennonite, so I’m a bit familiar with the institution and the social context.)


steven t johnson 04.28.19 at 9:52 pm

Some general thoughts, rather than critical dissection of a post that is not written as a treatise?

Epistemological skepticism is not critical thinking. That always defaults to acceptance of the status quo. Critical thinking consists in the ability to recognize when something has been demonstrated, that re-opening settled questions is rhetorical deceit. Scientific creationists are past masters of critical thinking by this standard.

The vague impression that critical thinking means keeping an open mind to opposing viewpoints as such is false. There are many reasons to respect other people in daily life, but the pursuit of truth is not one of them. Keeping a mind open to new facts is entirely different, not least because new facts are so rarely offered. No one who insists on the validity of personal revelation or, even worse, authentication by intensity of feeling, is thinking well.

Knowing things gives context and perspective. Knowing things allows for testing of alternative hypotheses. Knowing things allows one a sense of when some alleged information or conventional wisdom or buzzword of the moment is not consonant with general experience. Indeed, knowing things means knowing personal experience isn’t enough. Effective critical thinking involves a great deal of learning, sometimes or always more from experience than a class or a book. Critical thinking is not some abstract set of skills, no handbook of philosophical algorithms that compute the facts into truth. Critical thinking is inseparable from in depth knowledge, if only because abstract skills do not transfer from one area to another. Separating critical thinking from creative thinking is also incorrect.

The notion that the clash of evidence and logic leads to truth imagines forensics to be the whole of critical thinking. No court ever admits any evidence but what is offered, which is why forensic contests are not guarantors of truth. Critical thinking about the judicial system should demonstrate that.

Sympathy for another’s perspective, story, narrative, life experience may be desirable for social interaction. If it means assuming the validity of the person’s perspective, it is the very opposite of critical thinking. Not only does it overlook the existence of human error, ignorance, superstition, bigotry, mental disabilities and mental illness, it overlooks the impacts of crazy ideas on otherwise stable people. This version of critical thinking is compatible with condemnation of the emotionally troubled people as just sinful, or maybe just willfully bad, which perversity should show the limitations of this notion of critical thinking. The unconscious assumption your own perspective is privileged is not fixed by the simple discovery other have different views. The genuine critical thinking is about how to find the objective assessment. This commonly involves science in the broader sense (not the scientistic sense where lab experiments or surveys or MRIs are the markers of science.)

Accepting that tastes differ is essential to effective thinking on all manner of questions. But no matter how much one person’s taste favors salty while another favors sweet, the question of which crystalline white substance is salt and which is sugar will never be settled by embracing other viewpoints. I think that’s called a category error. A great many issues are not to be settled by declarations of personal taste, and thinking so is confused, at best.

Lastly, genuine critical thinking requires accepting certain propositions of fact, such as variation in humanity, the material nature of reality (which is not necessarily just the way things seem,) the nonexistence of the ideal and the eternal, the inevitability of change, the very idea that social existence behaves in manners independent of individual wills in a regular way, a suitably sophisticated notion of causality which is not limited to efficient (or mechanical cause.)


Harry 04.28.19 at 10:29 pm

Samchevre — it comes up in the context of education and Yoder v Wisconsin. We discuss a paper by Paula McAvoy, grounded in an interview with a former Mennonite, which argues that depriving children of an education post-14 is unjustified, and that the state should establish resources to compensate adults who were deprived of education. I use the discussion to observe to them that most of them have the political and religious views of their parents, and to get them to scrutinize whether they are really as autonomous as they think they are.

What topics would you want to do? To go into a topic in depth I need high quality but accessible philosophical pieces for them to read. (You don’t have to bear that in mind – its just a constraint and, for example, that’s not really true of the campus speech stuff yet, so I’m not convinced I’ll keep it).


Stephen 04.28.19 at 10:32 pm

This is very interesting- thank you! I also teach a similar class (a kind of intro to bioethics) and have run similar surveys in the past. Two quick thoughts:

1) On the one hand, I’m always delighted when students say they have changed their mind, in particular when they say that they have changed their mind away from my personal moral opinion (I’m also a non-discloser and take this as evidence I have done my job well). On the other hand, I also feel worried by these answers – I may have done my job well, but now someone has ‘worse’ views – I’ve corrupted the youth (in a bad way!)

2) Recently, I’ve been a bit disconcerted by how some students seem really reluctant to engage with particular writers and arguments. Specifically I received a pretty sustained pushback to engaging with Singer’s work, because of his (alleged) ‘eugenic’ arguments. What I found weird here was that the complaint wasn’t that the course didn’t cover alternative perspectives but that one simply shouldn’t discuss his arguments at all. Again, I’m in two minds on this: I don’t disagree with the general principle that some arguments are beyond the pale, but I don’t know how one draws the limits – it’s hard to see how to teach intro to ethics without teaching utilitarianism and it is super odd to teach utilitarian practical ethics without mentioning Singer.

I guess this isn’t so much a comment as a plea for help – how do others respond to these issues?!


Matt 04.28.19 at 11:02 pm

When I taught large(ish) introductory business ethics classes to smart undergrad business majors (mostly), the comments saying that they had not realized there were real questions and issues in the area (which were fairly common) were both encouraging (I’d helped them see something important!) and discouraging (rather smart, fairly well educated kids, mostly with a lot of ‘privilege’, to use an over-used term, hadn’t thought about this?) In retrospect, surveys would have been interesting and useful.

When do people (or you, Harry?) think that consent is insufficient to make sex between adults not be morally okay? I can imagine a few cases that are possible, but most of them, on inspection, turn out to be cases where it’s at least dubious that there is consent, assuming we don’t just assume that facial representations of consent imply consent, as of course we should not.


Orange Watch 04.28.19 at 11:26 pm


The second paragraph provides what seems like an extremely idiosyncratic definition of critical thinking, and everything else you say appears to hinge on accepting that as correct and complete.


SamChevre 04.29.19 at 12:35 am


Thank you! I can see the discussion making sense in that context. (As a possibly-useful note, it would be interesting to explore whether the same reasoning would hold for someone who could attend school, but for whatever reasons didn’t benefit much from high school. Like most Mennonites, I had a eighth-grade education; when I left in my mid-20’s, I did not find college academics any more challenging than my classmates in most regards–and I don’t think I’m particularly exceptional in that.)

As far as topics–I don’t have any particular ones in mind, and I’m a math/econ person rather than a philosopher. (And please note–this sounds like a course that is valuable and well-taught.) What I had in mind is that I could argue either side of any of the listed topics using utilitarian and egalitarian arguments, which tend to be in general more left-leaning. It would seem to me valuable to have topics that the stronger arguments on both sides are non-egalitarian–based on the good of the group, on social cohesion, on loyalty/exit rather than voice, and so forth. Some topics that might lend themselves to that sort of approach (noting, again, that I don’t have a good sense for what is available in the philosophy literature):
1) Good of the group questions, like hate speech/hostile environment/blasphemy (should you ban XYZ symbols because they are offensive and not conducive to the kind of environment/group you are? Do you have an obligation to avoid participating in a protest where other protesters may have problematic motivations/allegiances? Can you ethically require people to at least pay lip service to “X moral values” as a condition of employment?).
2) Organization questions–something that puts the question of hierarchy in a context where it’s easy to argue for it as hierarchy (not coming up with an easy example here -something military?)
3) “The natural order”–something where some arguments are about telos; this is so central to historical philosophy that it’s hard to think of a clean example–maybe the leader of a charity that wants to focus on something that’s arguably more important, but not the stated goal of the charity?


Harry 04.29.19 at 12:40 am

Stephen — I’m curious what kind of institution you teach at.

I honestly haven’t encountered any pushback on reading anything. I’ve been teaching Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos lately, in my political philosophy courses, and students have asked to discuss the meta-issue of what standing they (who are mainly white, and not denizens of the ghetto) have when criticizing arguments in the book, but that’s a bit different, and not resistance to the book itself.

I do sometimes hear criticism of our program for its narrowness as an analytical program, but that is never from students taking their only philosophy course.

On youth corrupting. I only teach issues where I think there are good reasons to disagree. So, although I do think that someone who shifts from my view to the reverse has a worse view, I think there’s space for that view, and I figure that the gain in opening minds is worth a loss of correctness on the one issue…!


steven t johnson 04.29.19 at 2:37 am

Orange Watch@10 maybe misled by an unintentionally ambiguous pronoun reference. Scientific creationists are indeed past masters of critical thinking, so much so they test relentlessly every point of detail and every step in logic and every premise of evolutionary theory (and the fact of multiplication of species.) They are far more aware of the difficulties of experimental method in the history of life than most. Being able to recognize when a matter is settled is not the whole thing in critical thinking, if only because recognizing when matters are not genuinely resolved, or realizing that foundational issues may insoluble at present, are also aspects. As to the larger claim that epistemological skepticism leaves so-called common sense untouched, the life of David Hume, who undermined the very principle of induction, then amiably inducted national characters, serves as the best argument. But if you like exotica, epistemological skepticism in Buddhism and Indian philosophies will serve as well.

But, although I agree this is not complete, the rest of my comment does not depend on this premise. For instance, the observation that abstract thinking skills do not transfer was once a key teaching in education classes. (In second thought, do not exist apart from content, is perhaps a better way to put it.) And the observation that the courtroom is not the paragon of reason should be common sense. Most of the rest does not depend on the second for a premise. The last paragraph is a

I would add that a key proposition to effective critical thinking is to give up looking for the essence of a person (aka soul, mind,) that is master, consequently people always do evil but never make mistakes, because the psyche has free will.

In one sense the comment was all commonplaces. But if it seemed somehow contentious perhaps it is because the OP was a little fuzzy on these aspects. As to the supposed idiosyncrasy, if this is truly idiosyncratic by academic standards, so much the worse for the academy. Happily, I’m sure this is just a polite way of saying it’s stupid.


Moz of Yarramulla 04.29.19 at 3:18 am

As a student rather than a teacher in this context, I’m always fascinated to hear the rumblings in the background brought forth.

I’m often intrigued by the thinking behind “bad begets bad” type dismissals, because it seems like a position that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Admittedly I tend to respond by finding uncomfortable facts about their preferred sources because I’m usually more into recreational argument than teaching. The more telling counters, though, are things like the lives lost to various medical experiments performed in the most disgusting ways imaginable, and should we just ignore those results? Likewise, did Wagner contribute nothing other than support for Nazism?

I went through a whole personal journey at university, in part thanks to being exposed to uncomfortable ideas and being forced by my own stupid ego to try and justify whatever personal idiocy was being challenged. It has made me even more obviously intolerant of idiocy and that’s not very socially acceptable. As the Tim Minchin song Storm says…


Alan White 04.29.19 at 3:21 am

If I may engage Stephen’s concerns a bit–

All moral systems require a commitment to some intrinsic good(s). For deontologists the intrinsic good(s) center around rational beings either as such (think religious traditions of us as created being valued by god) or their essential properties (Kant). But utilitarians require a specific second G in their GGGN–greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham, Mill, Singer, etc. have one really powerful motivation for adhering to a moral system–pleasure as good and pain as evil have an immediate, non-inferential basis for claiming intrinsic value guiding their moral systems, which anyone with any cognizance of life knows. That’s precisely why the transference of our own experience of pleasure and pain to other animals is relatively easy in expanding the moral sphere to them just based on behavioral similarities, while (e.g.) Kant’s insistence that non-human animals have no direct moral worth is counter-intuitive to that, because they are not persons. (That’s what powers the usual chimp-versus-profoundly-mentally-defective-people comparisons, inviting direct comparisons of the intrinsic good of pleasure, which some but not all non-rational humans may experience as well as chimps, versus what it is to be a full-fledged rational being.)

Students know directly the goods of pleasures and pains. But moral systems like Kant’s–which are too susceptible to categorizing not just non-human animals but many humans as well to less-than-intrinsically-valuable if they lack certain essential properties (like, for Kant, apparently being Caucasian). Many students I have found can come to appreciate Singer’s consistency of the application of intrinsic good universally as opposed to looser and often arbitrary ethnocentric applications of the intrinsic value of rational beings.


nastywoman 04.29.19 at 7:21 am

”If they all believed they know what I think, and were right about what I think, that would indicate that I fail”!

Don’t worry -(and I want to make a ”nice” and NOT a ”nasty” comment) but I just googled: ”What does Harry Brighouse think” –
and I think that all of your students did it before they took the course?


hix 04.29.19 at 8:35 am

Singer sure makes me uncomfortable in ways the dark side of 200 year dead philosophers does not. He really shouldnt be taught in an intro class, if at all. You´ll figure out teaching utiltarism without him.


Ray Vinmad 04.29.19 at 9:22 am

In terms of keeping your views from students–that’s easiest to do for people with some social identities than others.

If you teach a topic that has a race, gender, religious, or LGBT angle, and you bring in anything about oppression, discrimination, etc. related to the applied ethics issue then they are likely to assume your views if they can guess your social identity (and they usually can).

They could be wrong but it’s reasonable for them to guess.

So you’d either have to avoid any topics that involve social identities or avoid any angles related to discrimination, etc. or be a white man to meet this criteria of being a true mystery to one’s students.

I’m fairly sure I can see many sides of arguments without getting distressed or seeing their adherents as sinful. In fact, I’m somewhat more interested in thinking harder about views I find slightly alien, and defending them. They never hesitate to defend views I don’t agree with, anyway.


Harry 04.29.19 at 12:08 pm

hix — he isn’t taught. He has written one indispensable and classic paper, which is taught. It is not a defense of utilitarianism, and doesn’t use utilitarian reasoning, but is an immanent and very profound critique of common sense morality. I don’t know how to do without it.

Anyone can google me. But of the issues I teach in the course only one — educational justice — is something I have written about, and figuring out what I think about the concrete problems we look at is real work. If they can do that, they should be in a different class!

Ray Vinmad — people often say that to me. Of course, the students think they can discern my social identity too: on the issue they get wrong they engage in impressive stereotyping. But we all have nuance in our views, especially one would hope academics, and people often have beliefs about moral issues, even ones that are connected to their social identities, that are not easily predictable. I remind my students of that. Students guessing is different from professors disclosing. (Hess and McAvoy, by the way are very interesting on this: they, rightly I think, argue that disclosure/non-disclosure is a pedagogical choice, that is appropriate in some, but not other, contexts. In mine, given my skills, and my students, I think its appropriate. Its interesting to me how widely it is practiced by philosophers I know, and how rarely by people I know in some other disciplines.


Stephen 04.29.19 at 12:43 pm

re Harry at 12, I teach at a UK University – it’s entirely possible that things are a bit different here.

On the issues raised by Alan White and by Hix around Singer’s work. I think that one key issue in teaching Intro to Ethics is precisely ensuring that students are aware that any systematic ethical theory is likely to have counter-intuitive consequences. Some of these – such as Singer’s views on animal rights are ones we might welcome – whereas others – such as his views on intellectual disability – are ones we might hate. I take it that precisely one goal of a good ethics class should be to show people that getting one’s views into reflective equilibrium is very, very hard – that there are, at least, prima facie tensions between our intuitions. Of course, one can do that without teaching Singer specifically. But that doesn’t solve the problem of how to create a space where students feel willing and able to think through these tensions – particularly when some of those conclusions affront deeply held views. It looks from the feedback as if Harry does that well, but there is difficult terrain here.

As a further aside, also following on from some of the conversation above, I agree that only teaching topics where one thinks that there is space for reasonable disagreement is a good strategy for minimising the “corrupting the youth” concern. Still, two worries remain. First, there is a version of the worry above: our views on the “tricky” topics can have implications for the other “non-tricky” topics. For all I know, a student’s “healthy” move towards animal rights might have all sorts of other, from my viewpoint, bad effects. Second, there is a kind of gap between the abstract discussion of the classroom and real-world politics: I worry that nudging a student towards, say, a recognition of some of the ethical complexities of abortion might, in practice, lead her to support (in my mind) ethically unacceptable abortion laws, simply because her political/legal options don’t allow for a way of expressing her complex concerns.


nastywoman 04.29.19 at 4:37 pm

and I think I completely agree with Prof. Brighouse if he thinks that in most cases abortion is NOT wrong –
and that parents should be licensed (instead in the other direction) –
and that Sex between consenting adults is sometimes wrong –

(How am I doing?)
– and I understand the ”non-discloser” – but if the result would help out of ”that paradox” – would that help…?


Yan 04.29.19 at 6:00 pm

Alan White @15
“Students know directly the goods of pleasures and pains. But moral systems like Kant’s–which are too susceptible to categorizing not just non-human animals but many humans as well to less-than-intrinsically-valuable if they lack certain essential properties (like, for Kant, apparently being Caucasian).”

This strikes me as misguided. It may be a version of common error made in reading philosophical views through moral biography: philosophical views often show us ways in which an individual failed their best insights, and ways their reasoning inadvertently led their thinking beyond their worst biases. When we condemn their philosophical positions for their biases, we often indirectly *support* the biases their philosophy worked to one degree or another against.

But that’s not a problem because it’s a misreading of the philosopher. It’s a problem because it deprives us of ammunition against those dead assholes. I don’t give a damn about the personal reputations of these historical individuals. Kant can rot. But I do give a damn about the ideas that they helped further, especially when those ideas counteract their worst biases.

In Kant’s case, deontological ethics is the *only* ethical theory that has any hope of preventing “categorizing not just non-human animals but many humans as well to less-than-intrinsically-valuable.” It is literally the definition of the dominant alternative ethical system that *no* individual is intrinsically valuable.

Yes, we have to replace his foundation for intrinsic worth in sentience rather than rational self-determination, but we can only protect intrinsic value deontologically, so this is a fairly cosmetic correction.

It is also true of *any* ethical system that we can selectively acknowledge among living creatures possession that theory’s preferred morally relevant quality in order to justify racism, sexism, and speciesism. Does anyone really believe it was easier, for example, for racists and sexists to deny that all humans are rationally self-determining that it is for speciesists to deny that many animals have sentience?


Moz of Yarramulla 04.29.19 at 8:42 pm

nastywoman: I suspect that the point is less about your conclusions and more about how you got there. Viz, show your working.

That’s where Singer is a fun guy: loosely, his ethics are based on capacity to feel joy/pain, and thus animals deserve protection in proportion to their ability to feel joy/paid, but so do people… if a specific individual can’t feel joy/pain then killing them is no big deal. Which is an uncomfortable conclusion to some people.

In real life the dilemmas tend to be political – in Australia for example the line between “no more immigration because our ecology can’t support the people we have using the social systems we’ve got” and “we must defend the white race against the degenerate darkies” is philosophically obvious but the political parties expressing the former often get treated as though they’re expressing the latter (and there are a lot who purely express the latter). The Science Party had to change their position, and Sustainable Australia is trying the Bonhoffer* but I fear it’s not working. I hear a lot of “oh them they’re racist” dismissals from lefty greeny types.

* viz, patiently explaining their policy in reasonable terms while being willing to go to the wall rather than change their position. The common alternative is Niemoller, or deciding that the conclusion is difficult so you should wait until everything is absolutely proved before reluctantly accepting it. Their mutual subject, BTW, was what is today once again being debated: “Nazism is bad: yes or no”. Urk.


absurdbeats 04.29.19 at 9:44 pm

When I taught large lectures, I was a non-discloser: since there wasn’t really any conversation, stating my own views seemed rather too one-sided (even if I did teach other sides).

Now that I teach small classes (<35 students) in which there's a fair amount of discussion, I'm more likely to disclose. The students have a chance to poke at me, and I'm very clear about how my views may have changed, or may yet change, and that any conclusions I reach may be wrong. I'm trying both to model for them the messiness of reasoning about hard topics and that having a point of view does not preclude one from recognizing other views.

I'm not wholly comfortable with this—it's much safer to turn back questions of my views with a "what do YOU think?"—but it seems, mmm, artificial, or that I'm hiding from them, not to be open.


Alan White 04.29.19 at 11:52 pm

Yan, thank you for your good reflections. Your points about distinguishing philosophies from the (usually) feet-of-clay icons that produce them is very well taken, and may go a long way to expunge Kantianism from Kant’s moral failings.


“Yes, we have to replace his foundation for intrinsic worth in sentience rather than rational self-determination, but we can only protect intrinsic value deontologically, so this is a fairly cosmetic correction.”

I have to disagree with. Sentience is a property of the beings that possess it (as is rationality, but I’ll let that go). B&M&S etc. all commit to the value of a *property* wherever it’s had, and independent to the matter of the creature that has it. This is what’s behind the GGGN. Quantitatively or qualitatively analyzed, the first G maintains maximization of the property, and sacrificing in most cases those not evaluated in the last GN. This automatically results in a de-emphasis on any consideration of the intrinsic moral worth of individuals. I’d argue that consequentialism in general places emphasis on intrinsic good qua properties, even in a case like virtue ethics (which, however, because it requires an individual to cultivate one’s own virtue, introduces that question of individual intrinsic good as part of its methodology).

I’ll just finish with the remark that, in general, one distinguishing mark of consequentialism versus deontology is a respective emphasis on the intrinsic value of properties that individuals can have as against some assumed essential properties that characterize what constitutes an intrinsically valuable individual. That’s just a generalization, but I think it holds true for the most part.


Matt 04.30.19 at 12:07 am

in Australia for example the line between “no more immigration because our ecology can’t support the people we have using the social systems we’ve got” and “we must defend the white race against the degenerate darkies” is philosophically obvious but the political parties expressing the former often get treated as though they’re expressing the latter (and there are a lot who purely express the latter).

It’s taking us a bit off-thread now, but I’ll say, as an immigrant to Australia, and a teacher of migration law here, and so someone who pays attention to these issues, that there seems to me to be more over-lap between these groups than this suggests. Certainly, the people leaving pro “alt-right” propaganda in my mailbox the other day were happy to make both arguments, and I hear people slide between them very easily.


Moz of Yarramulla 04.30.19 at 2:15 am

Matt, that was why I named names. Both arguments are used by the far right (notoriously “F off we’re full”), but only one by the environmentalist-but-not-racist ones. My wording should have been clearer, but indeed this is exactly why the Science Party changed their policy (the evidence showed that it was costing them support and votes). People who want to see the distinction can, but people who don’t make the effort find it very easy not to.

Sadly this is one of those difficult ethical issues. The scientific models we have suggest we’re on track for less than a billion people alive in 2100, so to people who accept those models the question is: who dies, and how? But to people who don’t want to think about it, or don’t accept the models, it’s perfectly reasonable to say: how dare you calmly discuss the best way to kill 8-10 billion people? You monster!

But it’s from that discussion that we get the policy: immigration must be drastically cut back. For ethical reasons it seems least awful to say: essential immigrants and refugees only. There’s also the flip side: Australia just physically cannot accept even 100 million refugees a year, so we must focus on not creating those refugees in the first place. How we do that is a huge bundle of difficult subjects, of which the easiest is: zero emissions. Now!


Trader Joe 04.30.19 at 2:04 pm

Interesting approach and fascinating feedback.

If you wanted to introduce some topics that were more “business-y” in view of your classroom demographics a couple that readily come to mind on which there is a lot of back and forth opinion

1) Distribution of profits among shareholders/managements/rank and file employees. This would touch on pay distribution, share buybacks and rewarding risk taking among other salient topics.

2) Maximization of short-term profits vs. maximization of long-term profits. This could take into account some of the above as well as externalities such as pollution, brand reputation and employee satisfaction/motivation.

The later one is something that is decidedly evolving over my years in following companies. As much as any individual company can be accused of having short-term thinking, most are thinking more long-term than they used to and a small tip of the iceberg is beginning to disdain quarterly results in favor of multi-year run rates.


SusanC 04.30.19 at 10:25 pm

Sex between consenting adults is sometimes wrong

On that one, people might agree on the wrongness of particular scenarios, but disagree as to whether the wrongness of it can be folded into our definition of consent, or is more sensibly treated separately.

To use a example that’s probably too potentially offensive for classroom use, but probably OK here at CT: we might agree that it is morally wrong for a philosophy professor to have sex with one of their students, even if the student is ok with it. Do we fold this into our definition of valid consent (e.g. consent isn’t valid if there is implicit coercion due to the power imbalance between the participants) or do we regard the abuse of a position of authority as a separate kind of wrong, different from absence of consent?

With a nod towards Peter Singer on animal rights: the question of why it is wrong for a philosopher to have sex with a dog ends up on tricky ground if we try to conceptually model it as the dog’s inability to consent, rather than as some other kind of wrongness.


Harry 04.30.19 at 11:04 pm

Susan C– indeed I wouldn’t use that example in class but, yes, I think that is exactly right. I teach the same issue in a much smaller class in which it is much more possible to get into all the details — in the larger class it is just less feasible to explore things deeply, but someone typically does volunteer the idea and we explore it some.


Slanted Answer 05.01.19 at 2:02 am

“When do people (or you, Harry?) think that consent is insufficient to make sex between adults not be morally okay? I can imagine a few cases that are possible, but most of them, on inspection, turn out to be cases where it’s at least dubious that there is consent, assuming we don’t just assume that facial representations of consent imply consent, as of course we should not.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but there could be lots of cases where consensual sex would be wrong, depending on one’s moral views about human sexual relations. Some religious conservatives view all non-procreative/contraceptive consensual sex as immoral, and many more believe that all consensual sex outside of marriage is wrong. Even people with more permissive views about sex sometimes believe that love or some type of emotional connection/intimacy/commitment is needed for sex to be morally okay.

The least controversial case I can think of are consensual extramarital affairs. Given the widespread condemnation of most adultery, I’m actually a little surprised anyone would deny that there can be cases of consensual sex that can be wrong. Is this not what the issue is?


Moz of Yarramulla 05.01.19 at 5:54 am

consensual extramarital affairs

That’s where definitions are important. Who is consenting, and to what? With an affair you have at least three parties, often more, and there’s no general agreement on what consent is required. You have a whole gamut from “my spouse is ok with this doesn’t want to know about it” through to “you’ll need to attend our family get-togethers and bring your spouse”… I’m sure there are other options.

I generally prefer to avoid sex in many of these discussions because it drags in baggage. Why don’t people consider, say, a professor offering accommodation to students rather than sex? “If Bob owns a three bedroom house near university and rents out the spare rooms, should they refuse to rent rooms to students in their courses?” I see similar ethical concerns wrt what’s being purchased and with what, without triggering a whole bunch of sexual morality questions.


Matt 05.01.19 at 7:05 am

Thanks, SA- that’s useful. I’d left out cases where the reason for thinking sex is morally wrong is because Jesus said so because usually even undergraduates, at least when they are in a philosophy class, can tell the difference between what is a reason for someone who believes, and what is a reason more generally, and know that it’s the more general case we are interested in. Of course, lots of people can’t do that, and that’s too bad, but it doesn’t change the general issue. I think that something similar would apply to the “emotional connection” argument – hopefully, once the people at issue think for a bit, they will see that that’s a personal matter for them, not a generally applicable rule.

The case of affairs is interesting, but there it’s the deception or betrayal that’s wrong, not the sex as such, surely. We can bracket off the other conditions easily enough.

The other example discussed above by SusanC at 29 is interesting too (student and teacher), but I think that, if we are going to think it should be prohibited, it either has to be because we don’t think there is real consent (surface consent aside – this is something we think in many areas), or else have to think that it’s an area where it’s just too hard to determine whether there is real consent, and the cost of getting things wrong one way are so much higher than getting them wrong the other way that a general rule is preferable to a more nuanced determination, even if there are some cases where there is nothing morally wrong with the sex, or else ones where there are systematic issues – others outside the relationship are harmed by it, because of questions about favoritism, ways this might promote inequality in other cases, ways that non okay cases might be made more likely, etc. These are side-effect situations, which might justify ruling out some behavior which is not itself morally problematic, but again, this doesn’t show that the sex itself is wrong, only that we can have good reason to regulate it even if it’s not wrong.


SusanC 05.01.19 at 2:28 pm

The whole exercise presumes that ethics is, or could be, or should be, a matter of rational enquiry a la Plato.

There’s a possible meta argument to the effect that this philosophical approach is just mistaken about what our ethical sense is,and there is no rational axiomatic core there to be found.

(And Abraham reaches for the sacrificial dagger…)
E.g. Maybe Kierkegaard is kind of right when argues against Hegelians.


Slanted Answer 05.01.19 at 10:03 pm

Matt and Moz,

Thanks for the replies.

Regarding “consensual extramarital affairs,” I’ll confess I’m such a square that I wasn’t even thinking of polyamorous/open relationship cases. I was just thinking of more standard cases where a person cheats on a spouse without them knowing. I should’ve just left off “consensual” there.

As for what makes standard affairs wrong, I’ll note that we do draw a distinction between non-sexual “emotional” affairs and sexual affairs. I’ve known people involved in the former who weren’t willing to be involved in the latter because they thought it would constitute a more severe wrong. There’s deception/betrayal in both cases, but the sex might constitute a further wrong. That suggests the sex itself might be morally problematic, but there might be another explanation for the wrongness.

As for the more general issue, I guess it depends on what issue you’re trying to resolve. If you are concerned with are criteria for what constitutes rape/sexual misconduct, I totally agree that further issues should be bracketed and the focus should be on issues around consent. If you are concerned with sexual morality more generally, however, I can’t see why these issues should be bracketed. I would think all these types of views should be on the table for assessment.

I’m also skeptical that people’s views about sexual morality can be reduced to personal matters. When Christian ethicists, for instance, present arguments about the wrongness of non-procreative/extramarital sex, the conclusions are supposed to apply to all people, not just members of their groups. I think the same can be said for arguments given by other groups.


Tyler 05.01.19 at 11:58 pm

I think my worry is that many people default to the idea that there are always two valid sides and they don’t now enough to tale a position on some issue, so I guess I feel like this description of this class and its outcomes is maybe just confirming common sense? As one example are forming union at my university any many people are really deeply enamored of neutrality and the idea that the boss must have a valid “side,” so much that simply taking their own side has become extremely hard to grasp even as a possibility.

Relatedly, I also worry that telling liberals what the best version of conservative arguments encourages their deep wish for good faith conservative opponents, to the point where they start imagining good arguments on behalf of their political opponents. I just don’t think I believe that the missing habit of mind among college students and their like is being open to strong opposing arguments.

I think I could imagine a class like this where students engage closely with a range of good arguments but also where identifying bad faith is a key learning outcome?

Also I find steven t johnson @6 basically right, and I’m surprised more people don’t have these concerns. (More evidence that celebrating high mindedness is over represented!)


J-D 05.02.19 at 2:02 am


I think my worry is that many people default to the idea that there are always two valid sides and they don’t now enough to tale a position on some issue, so I guess I feel like this description of this class and its outcomes is maybe just confirming common sense? As one example are forming union at my university any many people are really deeply enamored of neutrality and the idea that the boss must have a valid “side,” so much that simply taking their own side has become extremely hard to grasp even as a possibility.

To me it’s obvious that ‘we should be unionised’ and ‘we should not be unionised’ are two different sides, but it’s not so obvious that there is any sense in which both sides must be ‘valid’. Again, it’s obvious that advocates on both sides deploy arguments in favour of their positions, but it’s not so obvious that both sides must have good arguments. Besides, even if they do, so what? I can understand (some) people choosing to be neutral in the sense that they can’t decide which side has the better arguments and so defer to a choice made by other people, but there’s no neutral outcome: there’s a binary choice between being unionised and not being unionised, there’s no way to choose neither (or both).


Moz of Yarramulla 05.02.19 at 4:28 am

Tyler, I struggle because categorisation is its own problem. To me anthropogenic global warming is a fact and the climate emergency likewise. But the overwhelming majority of people alive today disagree with me on either the factful nature of those claims or the truth of them. We can argue about whether a given fact is true, but trying to define it as such is either tautological or an argument from authority, and frankly us “reality based” folk don’t have that authority any more.
As Colbert mentioned recently, at least one US Republican is openly calling science “a Democrat thing”. David Brin has been going on about that for some time.
What that means is that it’s very hard to have any kind of dialogue with people if I insist that some of the things I believe are facts and can’t be challenged. To many people fact follows from faith (in the broader sense of ‘faith in Faux News’ rather than traditional religious faith). I can think they’re wrong without resorting to making faces and monkey noises (unlike, say, the commander of the largest military force on earth).


alfredlordbleep 05.02.19 at 2:52 pm

The Anti-Science Party’s Mascot in the Oval office recently had a revelation that was frightening enough for (another) flip-flop. To wit: Old Grump figures it time for people to get measles vaccinations.

(He’s been back-and-forth on birtherism so give him another decade to be born again)


TM 05.03.19 at 10:05 am

“Sex between consenting adults is sometimes wrong”

I think you have to specify what is meant by wrong here. Wrong in an absolute ethical sense, with the implication that whole ctageories of action should be prohibited? Or wrong in a situational sense that depends on the circumstances: In retrospect I think it was wrong to start this affair, it caused emotional damage, wrecked my marriage, etc? Strictly speaking, anything can turn out to have been “wrong” in the second sense. Writing that comment on CT was a mistake, I wish I hadn’t written it ;-) It cannot follow that writing forum comments is wrong in general.

I suppose that a philosophical ethics class should be concerned with the first kind of wrong, not the second. But I suppose that a lot of the class discussion will be about the second kind.

Nowadays in liberal societies, sex between consenting adults is almost never prohibited. The big exception is “incest” between (adult) siblings. The ECHR has upheld the prohibition in 2012, after the German Constitutional Court also upheld it in 2008. The arguments for (and against, but those are obvious) the prohibition might be an interesting classroom case study.


TM 05.03.19 at 8:24 pm

Further to the above, there is another kind of consensual sex that even some liberal societies prohibit, namely sex for money, which is illegal for example in Sweden (not to mention most of the US).

Re extramarital sex, it occurs to me that some might argue it is wrong because it breaks a promise. That is a valid point if the person having the affair has indeed promised the spouse sexual exclusivity. But the wrong would not be the sex but the breaking of the promise (if one considers that wrong). And that could apply to many other situations as well.


steven t johnson 05.04.19 at 4:11 pm

I have no idea how you have a genuinely insightful philosophical analysis of sexual activity unless you pair it with a contrasting philosophical analysis of the morality of prohibiting sexual relations.

It is difficult to understand what good arguments there can be for compelling the birth of unwanted children, which is what anti-abortion laws do.

Comments on this entry are closed.