How to have fruitful, enlightening, collective ethical inquiry: some guidelines
First off, some comments for professors.
I suggest (and this is only a suggestion) that the most crucial, central, overriding goal is to create and sustain an atmosphere of fairness; indeed, even if the entire class knows exactly where a professor stands on an issue, for a professor who creates an atmosphere of fairness, it won’t matter. As a student, I would infinitely prefer having a professor who did not disguise her convictions and was fair (you can, to put matters crudely, disagree totally with the professor and still benefit tremendously from class discussion), than have a professor who strenuously hides their convictions, which they covertly seek to promote. Perhaps this is a personal matter, but there are two things to keep in mind. First, students are likely able to find a comprehensive account of your actual views in under one minute via the Internet. Even if you are a young professor with no publications, students can find your doctoral or masters dissertations, access
the comments of students you had when your were a TA, and despite your age, you might already have a Wikipedia page. So, no student would have any trouble discovering your positions unless you have been living on the moon and have somehow avoided detection by Big Brother, that is, the Internet. Second, the views of some of the most effective professors who engage in EIN reflection, Jim Farrell and Bob Jacobel, are widely known (no one on the planet would ever think Jacobel believes that climate change is a myth or that Farrell thinks we should not bother with reducing our carbon footprint); and yet, both are on the same footing with the very best of professors anywhere in the United States.
(Sadly, Professor Farrell died this summer. It was an awesome mark of excellence that he was actively working with students up until the very end. Upon being diagnosed with a terminal illness, many people drop out of their work and spend their last months doing what they really love. Well, guess what? Farrell had no need to drop out; working with students was what he really loved, and he worked up until the very end when his health did not permit him to do more. He is an inspiration to us all, standing testament to the saying, ‘he who loves what he does never works a day in his life.’ Rest in peace, Jim.)
A central goal in many of our courses should be the peership of inquiry. That is, the goal is to enable students to be your peers, equally skilled in ethical reflection and equally worthy of respect and attention. This is perhaps why some of us do not think of ourselves as college teachers, but as professors. Our role is to profess or practice what we are trained in, and to invite students into this practice (of economics, psychology, history, theology, philosophy, and so on). Of course ‘teachers’ may do this as well, but the term also suggests a kind of inequality, or subordination of student to teacher. Actually, perhaps one of the best practices is exemplified by Oxford University, where the faculty themselves are referred to as ‘students’.
If you do feel comfortable, as professors, indicating what position(s) you find most satisfying, you open yourself to criticism. A great moment is when you receive an important objection from a student, and either admit you do not have a good reply or simply change your mind. One of the many lessons I learned from my mentor, a philosopher at Brown University, was how to fail with dignity and humility. In one conference, a former student posed a major objection to my professor. Rather than fight the objection off, the professor said something like: “You are absolutely correct. Thank you for taking my position seriously. I shall need to revise it considerably.” The room full of about 50 professors went into a stunned silence, and many afterwards were talking about how the professor had shown all of us the most gracious and generous way to earnestly practice our discipline.
Five other matters to consider briefly: First, I often conduct “creative finals” in which students may present, either solo or in groups, some final project of their own making. For EIN courses, I have received back some of these projects:
- Three students delivered a power-point lecture about how many of our food shortages could be overcome if we ate insects. They then proceeded to serve brownies with insects in them. (They had done the research on the insects and how to cook them, and so we ate the food without any serious concern for our health).
- Several students visited slaughterhouses and recorded (illegal) films of animals being killed.
- Some students purchased a live chicken, killed it (with the assistance of a professional), and made chicken noodle soup for the class.
- A student volunteered to marry into the North Korean leader’s (Kim Jong Un’s) family to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. She made a donation to a charity in the name of the dictator and then the student sent an email to the North Korean embassy in Switzerland outlining the offer.
- In a course in which we discussed the ethics of missionary work (e.g. is it permissible to both spread the gospel and provide medical supplies?), it was proposed that missionary work might be more successful if the missionaries were sexy. One creative final involved an act in which sexy missionaries entered the class and sought to convert us.
And so on.
Second, if paper handouts are used in class or students are required to submit papers in hard copy, I usually sponsor the planting of 15 trees per course in Australia. Here is the group I use:
Colleen Filippa, Director, “Fifteen Trees”: www.15trees.com.au
You get to name the trees and see them via the Internet.
Third, you can find lots of guest presenters to visit your class, often alumni doing fascinating work. I recommend recruiting students to sing them a welcome song, preferably with instruments.
Fourth, I recommend taking notes on what students contribute during class. This not only provides you with a good record of participation, but also demonstrates your desire to improve their engagement and to extend matters.
Fifth, co-authoring a publication with a student can be a wonderful experience. I suggest you take advantage when the opportunity arises!
And now, a few guidelines for students:
- No obscenities! If you think a view is B.S., instead say “it is implausible.”
- Listen with care and respect to the positions of others. Do not be constantly thinking of how to respond.
- Check your ego before conversation / dialogue / inquiry. Do not treat the exchange as a matter of winning or losing.
- Treat others in dialogue as you would like to be treated. Being rebuked or belittled in class is a seriously awful feeling.
- Take your time before replying. If you respond right away to what someone has said, chances are you have not listened closely.
- Dialogue and conversation are different than a quarrel. This is not a format in which two persons pronounce their positions and then never consider whether to change their minds.
- Patience is key.
- Be aware of the repercussions of announcing your position, for example, “I am an atheist” or “I am a Christian.” It is certainly 100% fine to make such a declaration, but it might mean setting up a fixed position that may be hard to give up or modify later. In good dialogue, some flexibility is pivotal. In many contexts, a middle ground is quite productive and perhaps unavoidable. However, it is always up to you whether to make explicit or keep hidden your position on an issue.
- Historically and contemporarily, in ethical dialogue anger has served a positive role. Anger over racial discrimination and gender inequality has proved quite important. But in matters over which reasonable people can disagree, anger sometimes obscures the arguments at issue. Several examples of when anger blemished important philosophical works: Aristotle’s insulting those who do not recognize the laws of logic (he calls them vegetables); Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution (in his passionate condemnation, he got some of his facts wrong); Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (his treatment of the German philosopher Hegel is tarnished, probably because of Russell’s hatred of the German ideology that led to 20th century wars).
- There are many kinds of arguments that are well-suited to ethical dialogue. In constructing a positive argument, it is often desirable to establish a common ground. Imagine your goal is to argue that the current use of nonhuman animals (raising them for food) is unethical. You might first make explicit with your dialogue partner that, at least when it comes to human beings, suffering is bad or not good unless justified by some greater good. Then argue that it is reasonable to believe that animals raised for food (pigs, chicken, cattle, fish) suffer for the sake of human taste and nutrition. Then argue that human taste and nutrition can be satisfied without such animal suffering.
- A common contribution to ethical dialogue is to clarify or challenge the scope and intelligibility of concepts. For example, is it fair to define the term “person” so that by definition all and only those who are human can be persons? This rules out in principle highly developed animals that appear to have a language, self awareness, emotions, and so on.
- “Slippery Slope” or reduction to absurdity objections can prove very useful. These take the form of arguing that: if you believe X, then you must believe Y; Y is absurd (implausible, counterintuitive, unacceptable, etc.); therefore, by association, X must be rejected. There are two distinct categories of “slippery slope” arguments, logical and empirical. One type – the logical slippery slope – claims that a particular justification of a decision or policy also justifies something that is bad. For example, some people claim that if the prevention of suffering is justification enough for allowing people to die, it also is justification for killing them. This form of the argument assumes that people should be consistent and therefore be concerned about the logical implications of their positions. The second type – the empirical slippery slope – claims that a proposed practice of voluntary euthanasia (acceptable to many people) could slide into the practice of non-voluntary euthanasia (unacceptable to many people). Whereas the first type of the slippery-slope argument is based upon logical implications of arguments, the second type is based upon empirical beliefs about human nature. Notice that the empirical slippery goes beyond the objection that a given policy will have immediate “negative fall-out,” as when objectors to physician-assisted suicide claim that the practice would have negative impact on the moral identity of physicians; the empirical slippery slope argument claims that, beyond any immediate negative fallout, the policy will eventually result in a practice one should regard as unacceptable.
- Thought experiments are very helpful in flushing out the implications of an argument and can be highly engaging, but can also be remote and distracting. Here is a famous one: You are on a trolley car that is out of control. If you do nothing, it will run over five innocent persons. If you switch tracks, the car will kill only one person. Is it permissible, or right, or obligatory to throw the switch?
- Ethical dialogue may appeal to history, science, personal experience, and so on. Ethics is absolutely impossible to separate from other fields and aspects of everyday life.
Some guidelines to paper writing (and paper assigning):
Because St. Olaf is committed to graduating students with various kinds of writing skills, some of your professors will have different goals when assigning papers. So, professors (and students) may want to focus on analyzing historically significant texts – Kant on the categorical imperative, Bonhoeffer on grace, etc. – and there may be styles of writing that vary along with the curriculum.
What follows, then, are some suggestions I have developed from my experiences of teaching EIN courses since the requirement was introduced.
- I request that papers be written as though for a public venue: a journal or magazine such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Review of Books, and so on. Part of this is that there should be no reference to the class or to St. Olaf, unless these groups are introduced to non-St. Olaf readers.
- It is requested that papers not be rants. If you have absolutely no sympathy for a position you are opposing, it might be best to pick another topic.
- It is important to consider at least one objection to your position.
- Papers need not be argumentative; you can simply explore or seek to clarify some matter.
- Try to make the paper maximally interesting from the title onward.
- Footnotes may not be necessary, but they are important for citations and can also be useful for directing readers to resources you find promising.
- Use of the first person is fine. I believe… I suggest… Though many would disagree with me, I see no problem with a student identifying his or her self as the agent whose beliefs, opinions, or observations are being shared.
- Use of images along with the text can be helpful; if relevant, of course.
- Though papers at the educational level are primarily aimed at developing the thoughts of the author, they should also be considered opportunities to develop the skill of engaging an audience. They are not simply meditations or personal ruminations.
Here, then, are some sample topics and structures of papers: one on animals and Christianity, one on Reinhold Niebuhr, and one about how the time and manner in which one dies impacts the meaning of one’s life.
Sample Topic #1: Animals and Christianity
Imagine you wish to defend Christian vegetarianism, but not veganism. One way to do this
would be to use a title that is suggestive:
“Jesus ate fish. So, we should too, right?”
And maybe have an image of Jesus eating a fish or something like that.
For background, you might use the Web for sites like: http://www.jesusradicals.com/why-jesus-ate-fish/
You might look at the book: Is God a vegetarian?
Or the collection: Animals and Christianity
In terms of structure you might begin by presenting the case that a follower of Jesus (a Christian or someone who wants to follow Jesus’ example) might feel free to eat meat. Here is how the paper might begin…
Judy and I were on a mission trip to Guatemala. Our youth group was about fifteen in number and we were building a school for the children in the town of Bernti. It was time for lunch and we were offered some amazing fish and chips. We all dug in except Sarah. She is a Christian vegan. “I really want to thank you for this food,” Sarah said in Spanish to our hosts, “and I will take the French fries, but I am afraid that I became a committed Christian vegan last year. I would probably be ill if I had fish after a year of no meat and, well, I would be breaking my conscience if I did.” We were convinced the people of Bernti would be insulted. But they weren’t. They actually asked her to teach them why Sarah made her decision.
In this paper, let us consider the strongest argument for why Christians should feel free to eat meat, and not only that, but be free to raise chickens, pigs, cattle, and so on, in order to harvest them for food. Then let us consider the response from the standpoint of Christian vegetarianism. In the end, I suggest that the vegetarian arguments are the strongest, but there is no need for a Christian to become a vegan, despite Sarah’s best points and her example.
So, the case for Christian omnivore practice could be qualified: one might well argue that Christianity would be incompatible with massive, intensive caging of animals, but allow for free range…
Then build a case for vegetarianism…
Then contend that while veganism may seem the most promising, it is not compelling….
Sample Topic #2: Niebuhr and Obama
Consider a different paper on the theologian Niebuhr and Obama. Maybe the cover page could be something like:
Does Reinhold Niebuhr’s Theology Support Obama’s Drone Strikes?
The paper might begin:
Barack Obama ranks among the most principled persons to occupy the office of the Presidency of the United States. He has spoken with great conviction about the continuing problems of racism and sexism in America, and has offered some ways in which the United States’ wealthiest might do more to help those who are much worse off. He has addressed climate change, the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of same sex couples, and more. But whether or not you value such issues and others (such as his record on the environment, employment, and the like), a good many of even his strongest supporters worry about Obama justification of drone strikes in America’s “war on terror.” American citizens have been the subject of targeted killings without trial, without warning, and without pursuing less violent means of protecting American lives from terror. A clue as to how Obama manages to sleep well at night and continue ordering these strikes may be found in the work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
In an interview with the New York Times in 2007, Obama expressed his admiration for Niebuhr…
THEN you might go into Niebuhr’s views of human good and evil, his understanding of politics, and his rationale for why occasions arise when a Christian can (and perhaps even should) employ means that are not good, from a moral perspective…
Once Niebuhr’s position is sympathetically laid out before readers, then you should go on to make an argument.
If you ultimately think Niebuhr’s position is sound, you might first present reasons to believe it is NOT sound. THEN indicate why, despite some strong objections, Niebuhr’s position is acceptable after all. Maybe conclude with Obama’s actual defense of the drones…
But if you ultimately think Niebuhr’s position is unsound, first you should defend it. Only then (when you have your readers practically convinced that Niebuhr is correct) should you move in to make the case against him.
Sample Topic #3: Death and Meaning
Here is how you might write a paper about how the meaning of a person’s life can depend on how he or she dies.
So, again, a good image and title is a great start:
What If Socrates Didn’t Drink the Hemlock?: Dying and the Meaning of Life
You might begin with something like:
Probably the best known death in all of world history is that of Jesus Christ. There is some competition with the assassination of Caesar, the death of Alexander the Great, more recently (with the advance of radio) the death of Tolstoy, and (with the advance of television) the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. But in terms of the history of ideas, and philosophy in particular, the death of Socrates in 399 BCE is probably the most revered. Socrates lived a life that challenged his contemporaries to think about justice, friendship, love, courage, holiness, and the role of the gods in thinking about right and wrong. He is famous for ideas such as, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He was sentenced to die (according to the Apologia written by Plato) on charges of impiety and corrupting the young. There may have been other reasons, such as Socrates’ defense of some Greek navy officers who left fellow Athenians to drown, or perhaps Socrates was too close to some tyrants. But what would we think of Socrates today if we discovered that he did not accept death with dignity? What if we found undeniable proof that Socrates died the same kind of death as the much hated Nero? How would our opinions about him change if we discovered that he cowardly tried to escape capture, dressed as a woman, and was killed in a pathetic state of dissipation?
In this paper, let us consider how the manner in which a person dies can have an important role in our understanding of the meaning of a person’s life…
Research on the paper may include looking at various accounts of the meaning of life and considering historical cases of how death has shaped our views of what a person is truly like…..
You might use as an example the movie Breaker Morant, which tells the story of a group of Australian soldiers who were court marshaled for war crimes that were committed by their superiors. Two were executed despite the fact that they displayed bravery when the court came under attack, even though there is a military rule that such bravery should justify dropping charges against them.
You might conclude that this issue is very culture-specific, but that shouldn’t prevent you from supplying your reader with some insights. By using thought experiments you might defend a modest position: a person who has committed horrific crimes will probably be unable to change the meaning of his life through some heroic death, or some series of costly acts. Imagine a Nazi leader who played a large role in the holocaust had made it to Argentina, where he saved thousands of Jewish patients suffering from cancer. I doubt that even this would not remove the disgrace of his war crimes.
But imagine someone far, far less wicked: Lance Armstrong. We know that his choice to cheat was reprehensible and his behavior repulsive to a large degree, but imagine he dies while heroically saving an entire generation of bikers. Imagine that Interpol (the European criminal fighting unit) contacts Armstrong and gets him to infiltrate an Algerian terror cell that plans to blow up the entire group of cyclists who are competing in the Tour de France. Armstrong prevents the disaster by defusing the bomb, but the bomb has a side explosive device that will punish anyone seeking to do so. Armstrong knows this, and when he defuses the bomb he shouts out, “I do not want honor for this act. I only want you to remember me not as a cheater, but as a cheater who repented and gave his life freely to help others. If you are a cheater, please know it is not too late. Follow the example I set for you by my death, not by my life!” Lance is then struck by the explosion of nails dipped in rat poison (standard Hamas technique).
On this topic, I end on a personal note (as you might, this being a very personal topic). I was with a colleague, William or Bill Narum, just days before he died. When I was in his house, there was a former student there as well; the student was perhaps fifty years old, Bill was in his eighties. The student told him, “You are the best professor I ever had. You were outstanding!” If I was in Bill’s place, I might well have responded with vanity: “Don’t stop! Tell me more!” But instead Bill said, “We did have some fun, didn’t we?” He made no attempt to take full credit for the fun. He made no denial of what the student said, but he deflected attention away from himself. I suggest that this way of dying is of GREAT SIGNIFICANCE for those of us, like me, who observed it and heard about it.
One more personal paragraph based on the above event: as I left Bill’s house that day, it made me think of my own death. As of now, I am living in the moment. Each day, it is important, I feel, for me to be present and attentive to those I am engaged with. At the same time, I also want myself and those around me (upon my death or theirs) to be able to look back on our interaction and have the same kind of joy (when Bill referred to ‘fun’ I think the word ‘joy’ or ‘joyful’ is what he meant) shared between Bill and his student.
At the end of the day, at the end of our lives and educations, don’t you think that the most important matters will emerge? Whom or what have you loved, honored, respected, hated, or disrespected? What do you wish you could do again? What do you wish had never happened? If you could change the past, what would you change?
And if these questions await us tomorrow, or in three months, or in seventy years, entertaining them now might be rather important, even if it is only in the context of an EIN course.