Ethics and the Burning Bush

Again with the objectivity thing.  I don’t want to kick a dead horse, but too often I am suggesting students are taught things on the basis of a theory or perspective that they are unaware of and burningbushcan’t get their heads around.  Take that ethic’s course.  Ethics was presented entirely thought the lens of analytic philosophy, but students didn’t know that because they didn’t know there was any other way to think about ethics. 

Or let’s say some students did have a different way of thinking about ethics but that way was based in religion and was the expression of morality and not really ethics at all.  In short, the ethics course defined itself, dialectically speaking, against a) matters of fact and b) religion.

For example, whoever taught the course, somewhere in the first couple of lectures Socrates’ “Euthyphro” would pop up. In this dialogue, Socrates establishes the possibility of the rational discussion of values as something distinct from morality or what the gods might have to say.  He asks, is something good because the Gods feel it is good and only because of that or do the Gods assert something is good because it is good (independent of the God’s judgment).  If the former, something is good because the God’s say it is, then what a God says is good is potentially arbitrary.  I say it’s good so it’s good, period.  But if it is good independent of the God’s judgment, then it is possible to discuss why it might be good using reason and without committing an act of impiety.

Students of rhetoric might call this a disciplinary  move by which the discipline establishes the boundaries of the discipline itself.  If one follows Socrates, one can in this ethics class discuss values rationally and without recourse to what Gods might or might not think (as handed down by tradition or religious texts, such as the Bible).  And that’s what we are going to do in this class.  So out with Morality and Religion.

Similarly but along the lines of matters of fact, a clear distinction was drawn between ethics and manners.  For surely, whether or not an innocent person should be killed for the greater good was not simply a matter of manners.  Ethics as manners was ruled out because then the study of ethics would become a study of the socialization of the individual into certain ethical views.  Also, with this distinction made, one did not have to confront Schopenhauer’s claim that morality is just advanced animal training.  So much then for good old Nihilism. Or the Irrational.

I came to read the ethics course as being less about something called ethics and more as asserting the defining disciplinary boundaries of the study of ethics as if there were something to be studied other than the disciplinary boundaries of this particular way of defining ethics.

I think most of the students did not think about the ethic’s course in this way.  Instead they brought with them feelings about ethics and morality that did not necessarily fit the study of ethics as defined by the class.  And since these other ways of thinking about ethics were not directly addressed, but pushed as it were simply to the side, the result for students was confusion, a sense of futility, and boredom.  And since these things were not directly addressed either by the students themselves or the instructor students set themselves to do what they could do: memorize and regurgitate.

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