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Teaching, Application and Theory

30 Sep, 10 | by Iain Brassington

Ben Saunders’ paper in this month’s JME dealing with how to teach applied ethics is thought-provoking.  He picks up on an argument between Robin Lawlor and David Benatar that’s been rumbling on for yonks in the Journal‘s pages.  Lawlor and Benatar are worried about how much theory to teach in applied ethics classes – Lawlor wants the theory minimised (see here and here); Benatar (see here and here) isn’t so sure that he’d be quite so minimal.

Saunders is happy to go along with the idea that one of the dangers of introducing theory is that students – at least, those students who are not studying philosophy – will be left with only a caricature of the theory.

The danger of caricature and simplification is significant even if the aim of the course is to evaluate and choose between the alternative theories. When it comes to applied ethics, however, there is the further danger that students may get the mistaken idea that all they are expected to do is straightforwardly apply these theories to the practical cases that are introduced later.


This approach encourages students to think that there are no real answers to moral dilemmas and that it is simply a matter of which theory one endorses. […] Even more invidious would be if they got the idea that one could simply pick and choose among moral theories in order to provide an ad hoc justification for whatever it was that one wanted to do anyway.

 I think that he’s is bang on here.  But I wonder whether the worry simply refers to badly taught theory.  Now, I know that there are going to be practical limitations on how much time can be devoted to theory – if we’re talking about teaching ethics within a medical curriculum, for example, it’s likely that there won’t be much.  My experience of medical schools tends to be that much lip-service is paid to the importance of ethics, but that, when it comes to arranging timetables, ethics is one of the last things on the list of considerations.  Of course, I’m not naïf enough to be particularly scandalised by that.  But I don’t really see that that should be a barrier to making the case that there should be a lot more time made available for ethics.  Hell, I’m sure that oncologists would want more time to talk to students about oncology, and obstetricians would want more time to talk to students about obstetrics: I don’t see why ethicists shouldn’t play that game as well, even if we know we’ll never win.

I think that Saunders is also right to say that his aim

is not to insist that everyone must do moral philosophy but only to argue that there are no significant risks in introducing moral theories in the right way.

But I do wonder about his suggested method, with is that

[r]ather than setting out a range of theories at the beginning—as if their application to particular cases is all that follows—we should begin by examining particular moral problems and seek to build up to a unified theory from our answers to these cases.

There’s a few problems here.  For example, it seems to fetishise unified theory – though I’m a bit of a theoretician by inclination, I find myself being increasingly suspicious of attempts at unity.  Moreover, I do worry that using case studies as a starting point simply allows people to vent, without necessarily getting to grips with why the scenario is problematic to begin with.  And I think that it’s wildly optimistic to suppose that, if we’re worried about students getting the wrong idea about theory from a conventional lecture, they could even begin seriously to work towards a unified theory ex nihilo starting from case studies.  Building a unified theory is the sort of thing that takes whole careers, and most of those careers end with only trivial advances at best.  Within the context of a handful of tutorials a semester shoehorned into a medical school curriculum… naaaah.  I don’t see it.

What I think is a stronger version of the claim, though, is that we could use case studies as a way not to build theory, but methodology.  As I suggested in an earlier post, I don’t think you have to be committed to grand-narrative ethics to be able to endorse the idea that there is a structure by which ethical arguments do take place, and ought to take place on pain of them no longer being coherent or recognisably ethical.  (Bluntly, Mill and Kant would both have adhered to the same basic principles of argument: they just did different things with them.)  Get the critical thinking in place, and students are more likely to question others’ (and their own) responses to practical problems – and they’re more likely to spot them, to boot.

And that’s probably a better ethics lesson than a whistlestop tour of Aristotle and Ross given to medical students who, frankly, are more interested in medicine.  Hell, critical thinking is so versatile that it might even help them with their medical studies, too.

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  • Keith Tayler

    You end your post with a plea for “methodology.” Surely the methodology exists in the form of critical theory, discourse theory and discourse ethics. Toulman, Apel, Habermas, etc. have spent a few decades developing it but it is for the most part ignored by most Anglo-American applied ethicists. As a anti-theorists I have my doubts about the strong universalism that runs through some of it. Nonetheless it does provide a clear framework and criteria upon which to conduct ethical discourse. It has its limits (as do many case study methods) because it attempts to create an ideal situation for decision-making (the cool hour or armchair problem Williams and MacIntyre speak of), when in reality much of our ethical decision-making is made in the heat of the moment. Medics might have every ethics theory in their heads and excellent critical discourse skills, but when it comes to applying them in a “noisy” environment they are all too often worthless. Applied ethicists tend to wave this problem aside by claiming it is a problem for psychologists. It is, but it is must also be addressed in the teaching of applied ethics if the word “applied” is to do any work (of course this type of teaching, case studies, etc. should form part of a course).

    I suppose it all boils down to a remark a course director of a MA and intercalated MSc (funny how ethics becomes a science when taught to medical students) medical law and ethics course once said to me. “I have never thought of the course as being of any vocational use” he cheerily exclaimed. He was right, and what is more nobody had thought about it.

  • Heh. I wasn't even thinking of anything as highly developed as Habermas, to be honest – rather, something more along the lines of encouraging students to be forensic in their examination of the soundness of others' – and their own – moral argument. I dunno. I've got a vague idea of the sort of thing I have in mind, but it needs to be vulcanised by debate a bit to be any use.

    As for our MSc: that's easily explained. We already had an MA programme, and if we called the intercalated degree an MA, the computers would have got confused and fallen over…

  • Keith Tayler

    I taught the outline of Habermas to some very uninterested undergrads and they managed to use it.

    “Computer says MSc or nonthing”. The idea that computers are responsible for degree titles is a new one. Thanks – I will use that. Of course, it does not explain why it was BSc a few years ago.

  • Because it was.

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