Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stanley Fish on Teaching Ethics in Universities

"When you find yourself in a battle of wits with a Fish, you face an unarmed opponent."--Old Proverb

We had a speaker in the department last night talking about teaching ethics and making ethical decisions in the contemporary university or liberal arts college. She mostly wanted to address some arguments by Stanley Fish in support of his contention that universities should not teach ethics. As usual, with Fish, his arguments were hyperbolic, misguided, directed at strawmen and generally unconvincing. Before discussing them, however, I'd like to make a clarification about teaching ethics and instilling ethical behavior.

Most academic philosophy departments, in which ethicists are housed and in which ethics is taught, do not attempt to encourage people to be ethical but only teach people how best to think for themselves about ethical issues. I think underlying this teaching is a Socratic assumption that once people know what the most ethical way to act is, they will act in that way, so that, if we want people to be ethical, we really need to little more than teach them how to reach the best ethical conclusion. In many respects this is a naive assumption. There are lots of excuses people make to avoid doing the ethically best thing, and I think philosophers should also point these out. And teaching people to be good may also involve learning to identify these excuses and develop responses to them. In addition, people often do not do what they know is the right thing because of, say, weakness of the will. In these cases, the best thing to do may be to inculcate certain habits in people that they learn to follow not so much by rational decision but by custom or habit.

So, with that distinction and the obvious difficulties of teaching a behavior in mind, let's look at Fish's arguments (as best I can remember them from the talk--I'm too lazy to be more careful and get the original Fish paper or book--they're not likely to be worth the effort).

1. Teaching ethics is impossible or useless since an ethics class cannot change people's behavior.
2. Teaching ethics is antithetical to the goal of the academy which is to teach critical thinking. Getting people to act morally involves a kind of dogmatic acceptance of certain rules for action, or a kind of mindless discipleship or follower behavior that could only be accepted if one were not critical.
3. Teaching ethics is not the job of the academy. The academic's job is to teach people to understand and interpret reality, not to try to change it.
4. It is unethical for a university or university official (presumably acting in his/her official capacity) to take a stand on any moral, political or social issue.

Needless to say, when one thinks how ethics classes are actually taught, these objections are seriously misguided. Ethics classes do not attempt to change behavior (and one class of anything has little effect on most students); they do not encourage action or undermine critical thought about ethical questions (quite the reverse); they do attempt to get people to understand reality (in this case moral reality if there is any); they generally don't take stands as part of their classroom curriculum (unless that stand is to encourage critical thought).

Could some of these critiques face a more robust ethical education program (perhaps a university-wide program) that did try to instill ethical behavior in the students. One might ask, if we do not encourage people to be morally good, then what is the point of teaching ethics in the first place?

I do think that universities can instill norms of conduct--although these norms at present tend to be epistemic and discipline-specific--and so it is possible that they might take a more active role in encouraging norms of conduct in society generally. In fact, doing this is unavoidable and, I think, beneficial to society. Universities have limited resources, and so the courses and programs they teach must be chosen based on implicit assumptions about what benefits society (and not just their "customers", the students or employers, although that does play a role and often a problematic one). We teach biology and psychology. These could be used to cure disease or cause it. Yet we do not offer schools of torture, but rather schools of medicine or nursing. This is an implicit moral stand taken by the university based on its, quite correct, assumption that torture is morally reprehensible and nursing/medicine are valuable. Should universities offer schools of torture or cease to teach medicine/nursing in an attempt to remain ethically neutral? It's hard to see why they should; universities exist in society in order to produce well-informed, capable, critical citizens and professionals. Not only is it beneficial to society to produce such people, it is necessary to do so in order to have a moral and functioning society. Producing hardened torturers would severely undermine the mission of universities, and that mission should be an unabashedly ethical one.

Is it impossible to teach students to behave morally? It is entirely possible that this is the case. A person's basic moral character may be based on education that occurred long before he/she comes to a university, and even university-wide education may be unable to change that basic character. I'm not sure this is the case. We certainly need empirical data on this before drawing any conclusions about this. However, there are still two possible benefits to teaching ethics (again in this "change the behavior" sense taught across the university).

First, we can direct preexisting moral character toward good or better ends. If students do have the basic character to be good (let's say they have a suite of virtues considered morally good), then it is still not obvious how they should act. Is it better to be courageous in the face of opposition to your political position or empathetic and compromising in order to achieve a better, but perhaps imperfect, result? Critical thinking about ethics can help one decide such an issue. Indeed, what goals should one work towards given one's preexisting moral character? It is rarely obvious what one should do even if one has a character sufficient to do it.

Second, we can have longer-term effects on society by educating the parents who will raise children according to the parents' moral beliefs. Even if the parents' character is set, they can set their children's moral character according to principles they learn in college. So the university's ethical teachings can have an effect on future generations even if not on the current generation.

I think these goals are worthwhile even if, and this is a big "if", ethical behavior/character cannot be significantly altered once one is in college. There could still be moral benefits achieved by a university-wide focus on instilling moral character and ethical behavior even given this assumption.

Lastly, I think it's obvious that this is not inconsistent with teaching students to adopt a spirit of free inquiry and critical thought. That teaching should be integral to the kind of ethical instruction that helps people to decide what they should do (rather than follow some list of rules by rote) in a complex and dynamic world. This kind of critical thought is necessary for people to become fully capable and informed citizens and persons. Indeed, teaching critical thought, a commitment to free inquiry, non-conformity and self-determination are themselves moral teachings that should be part of the university's goal in teaching ethics.

No comments:

Post a Comment