Vol. 4, No. 2: Fall/Winter 2008

Leading the Examined Life

by Jeremy Shere

Beginning and advanced philosophy students develop the critical thinking skills to apply ethical theories to everyday choices

What does it mean to live a good life? How should one behave in order to be a good person? Are “right” and “wrong” objective categories, or do they depend on one’s personal and cultural frame of reference? Can murder ever be an ethical act? These and other fundamental ethical questions have intrigued philosophers for thousands of years.

For IU philosophy professors Sandy Shapshay and Marcia Baron, ethics is the most relevant of philosophical disciplines.

“The nice thing about teaching ethics is that it’s relevant to students’ lives, so it’s easy to justify teaching the subject,” says Shapshay.

Baron agrees. “Ethics is a topic that engages everyone—one of the most rewarding things about teaching ethics is seeing looks of intense interest on the faces of my students, because they see how the questions affect choices they make every day.”

However engaging the subject, teaching students to think critically and objectively about ethics is a challenge. For Shapshay and Baron, that is what makes teaching worthwhile.

In P140 Introduction to Ethics, Sandy Shapshay likes to present her students with a famous thought experiment invented by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson. Pretend you’re kid-napped and knocked out. Upon waking you find that you’ve been surgically attached to a famous violinist with a rare disease who needs your kidneys to filter his blood. Unless the violinist is attached to you, he’ll die and the world will lose a great musician. Are you obligated to remain attached to the violinist, or is it ethically sound to insist on being removed? The answer seems obvious: you should not have to give up your freedom for the sake of another person, even a famous musician. You have a right to detach yourself even if the violinist will die as a result of your action.

Thompson meant this scenario as an analogy for the ethical fitness of abortion in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape. Shapshay uses the thought experiment both as a way to discuss the ethics of abortion and, more broadly, as a way of encouraging students to uncouple ethics from religion. “It’s a major challenge, especially here, where many students are religious and think that ethics must be based in a faith tradition,” Shapshay says.

Accordingly, Shapshay focuses the first part of the course on the divine command theory and objections to it. Put simply, the theory asserts that whatever God commands is holy and, therefore, ethical. In a famous Platonic dialogue, Socrates challenges this idea by questioning whether something is holy because it is loved by the gods, or if the gods love something because it is holy. The first option renders holiness arbitrary—whatever the gods happen to love, even if it’s something obviously unethical like murder or torture, becomes holy. The second option limits divine power—the gods do not create holiness but merely recognize and sanction it.

Some students try to resolve the problem by arguing that God would never command something obviously unethical, says Shapshay, “while others conclude that the divine command theory is not a good way to ground ethics in religions.” It helps, she adds, “that I usually have a diverse group of students of different faiths, which forces them to think about how what’s right or holy according to one faith may not be right according to another.” The point, finally, is to leave religion aside and think about secular theories of ethics.

Throughout the rest of the course, Shapshay guides her students through Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories on the “death of God,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham on utilitarianism. To make these difficult texts more palatable for freshmen and sophomores, Shapshay employs several techniques, including showing film clips from movies such as The Matrix, organizing structured debates on issues like abortion, and having students work in small groups to solve an ethical problem using a particular philosopher’s theories.

Shapshay’s greatest reward, she says, is in seeing her students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to lead an examined life. “My main task is to enable students to examine their lives and their society, think about what they value and about how to behave in the world.”

IU Junior Grant Carlisle appreciates Shapshay’s efforts. Majoring in informatics with minors in business and economics, Carlisle plans to join his family’s business after college. Introduction to Ethics taught him to think more carefully about decision-making in business. Business is about understanding people, he says, while “philosophy is about really listening to someone’s argument, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.” That’s also a crucial part of business because “if you don’t respect other people they won’t respect you.”

That succinct lesson gets at the heart of Shapshay’s hope for the course. “Leading a good human life means thinking hard about what they should do when they leave college, and how they can act to make the world a better place. If I’ve given them a little bit of help in developing those skills, then I’ve imparted something valuable.”

Like Sandy Shapshay, Marcia Baron appreciates how ethics apply in the day-to-day world.

“I enjoy philosophy more when the topics are closer to human life than I do with topics that are more abstract and remote,” says Baron, who taught the course P340 Classics in Moral Philosophy spring semester 2008. “In an upper-level course filled with philosophy majors you can dig deeper into the issues and consider arguments in a more complex way.”

The challenge of teaching Classics in Moral Philosophy, Baron says, is “wanting students to see the complexity of the works we’re reading without feeling that you need to be an expert to read them profitably.” The danger in bringing out complexity is that it can “turn students away from the classics.”

One topic that students particularly enjoy is the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism can be stated simply as the view that an action is right to the extent that it promotes the greatest happiness. But for Baron, what makes it interesting is the way that Mill pushes the limits of what counts as happiness and distinguishes between the pleasure we get from eating a chocolate bar and the pleasure we get from reading Anna Karenina. These pleasures are different, and different still is a malicious pleasure. Mill breaks from Bentham on insisting that pleasures differ not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively.

“I want the class to see the challenge that Mill is working with, how he’s trying to think through the question of the consistency of utilitarianism. They need to read critically to see how he deals with that complexity, and it is hard for some of them to do that without feeling like they’re at sea.”

Besides Mill, Baron’s students also tackle Aristotle, David Hume and, most daunting of all, Immanuel Kant. To help students avoid getting lost in the tangle of philosophical discourse, Baron helps them pinpoint the key arguments and also learn how to analyze key sentences—a teaching tactic appreciated by IU senior Angela Cherniak.

“I’d often read a sentence and have no idea what it meant, and Professor Baron is excellent at breaking it down and explaining so that the sentences makes perfect sense,” she says. “She’s really good at teaching students how to locate arguments among what almost amounts to a foreign language.”

Baron also uses examples from her life to illustrate philosophical positions, including this experience from her graduate school days. An acquaintance, Ann, told Baron something personal about Baron’s good friend, Carol, a confidence that Carol had shared with Dan, Ann’s boyfriend, who had in turn disclosed it in full detail to Ann. Knowing Carol would not wish to continue disclosing such personal information to Dan if she knew he was freely sharing it with Ann, Baron decided to let Carol know what Dan had been doing.

“Dan was upset with me for this, saying it was wrong because it made Carol unhappy. His attitude reflected a utilitarian outlook; for utilitarians, what matters is the net happiness produced, and I had (unnecessarily, in his view) caused Carol unhappiness. He had not. For after all, his telling Ann what Carol had confidentially told him would not make Carol unhappy as long as she didn’t know about it. I saw things from the perspective of a Kantian, for whom happiness is by no means all that matters. Respecting others’ privacy, honoring their requests to keep something confidential—these things matter, too.”

Even if her students never again grapple with Kant’s theories on ethics, Baron hopes that they’ll take with them what they’ve learned and recognize how ethics operate in their lives beyond the classroom.

“I don’t like to impose a sharp divide between philosophical ideas and personal life,” Baron says. “In ethics, we’re dealing with issues that as a human being, you can’t help but face.”

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington.

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