I am not an academic philosopher so I could be mistaken, but I think, for every one of those six years, that, while the “Introduction to Ethics” course was taught by different people, that all taught ethics under the heading of “analytic philosophy.” Perhaps as a consequence of this dry as dust approach, my students, almost to a person over the six years, reported, when the class was done, that they would never again be caught dead taking an ethics course or anything else in the philosophy department.
Richard Rorty has written about the plague of analytic philosophy and pretty much described it as serving best—given its hair splitting and logic chopping—as preparation to be a lawyer. And Bernard Williams, a relatively famous ethicist, argues that moral philosophy, while generally boring. today has become particularly boring. If this is the case, then I do think the teaching of ethics should be removed utterly from the hands of academic philosophers.
This might at least be a step in the right direction. How it should be taught, I don’t know. But I know it shouldn’t be taught in such a way as to turn students away utterly from the study of philosophy. For my part, I found the course only mildly boring, even a bit soothing in its boringness. But I have studied philosophy and through my education have come to learn to think in ways that allowed me to appreciate at least mildly the pure amount of brain power and the considerable cleverness that had gone into the construction of endless and absurd arguments.
The students however were perplexed and frustrated. First, it’s this argument they said, and then it’s that argument that says the first argument is wrong, and then the second argument itself is said to be wrong. What, they wanted to know, was the point, if all of it was wrong. Knowing that all of ethics up to that point had been a mistake might be liberating for that rare and aberrant student who could then think, hell, if it’s all wrong, maybe I will be the one to get it right. But the average student certainly was not encouraged to think in this way with the result that they felt they were stuck memorizing and repeating stuff either completely wrong or significantly flawed.
They didn’t see as I did that for the academic philosophy whether an argument is right or wrong is not the point; it’s an argument and as such material for making another one perhaps later in one’s career for a professional journal. I tried to explain to my students that their philosophy teachers were in love with what they taught (however aberrant that love might be); that they ate, drank, breathed, and shat that stuff; that what they were trying to do in their own bizarre way was to make students love it too. Consider the lectures, I said, rather clumsy foreplay.
But my students were unimpressed and I guess there was no reason they should be. After all they were freshmen with some sort of naïve idea that ethics was about the study of right and wrong and not young academics in training, young academics already completely caught up in a vast web of arguments and counter arguments about which those beginning students knew absolutely nothing. My students didn’t even know that they were being taught ethics from the perspective of analytic philosophy; and the teaching assistants did nothing to enlighten students on this critical point, as if analytic philosophy was the only way to do philosophy.