Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"Anything Goes"

My last post was bleak, but in fact I am optimistic about teaching, and enjoy it very much. (Nor do I agree with Lionel Trilling that "pedagogy is a depressing subject to all persons of sensibility".) My pedagogical mentor is Annette Baier, one of the best moral philosophers to reflect seriously on the problems of teaching ethics. In "Theory and Reflective Practices", she poses a challenge to the "standard undergraduate class in [applied ethics]" which "acquaints the student with a variety of theories, and shows the difference in the guidance they give":
We, in effect, give courses in comparative ethical theory, and like courses in comparative religion, their usual effect in the student is loss of faith in any of the alternatives presented. We produce relativists and moral skeptics, persons who have been convinced by our teaching that whatever they do in some difficult situation, some theory will condone it, another condemn it
This is worrying in part because students of introductory ethics are already disposed to relativism or subjectivism, to say that everyone is entitled to her opinion, no matter what it is, so that it is worthless to engage in argument. Like others who teach this sort of class, I spend some time responding to this scepticism, encouraging students to realize that they cannot be sincere when the insist that "anything goes". Baier's fear is that a common pedagogical style is tacitly working against us, so that "the whole procedure is […] defeating its own ends. In attempting to increase moral reflectiveness we may be destroying what conscience there was in those we teach."

This is excessively dramatic: I doubt that introductory ethics, however badly taught, will make students "turn from morality to self-interest, or mere convenience" as Baier suggests. But what to do?

It depends on the proper diagnosis of "student relativism". Two common interpretations must contain some part of the truth: that it is the result of fallacious but tempting arguments, and that it is a confused expression of cultural tolerance. But I am increasingly convinced of a third account: student relativism is principally a lack of faith in the power of reason or argument to make progress in ethical thought.

Students begin by regarding argument as mere disputation, on the politician's model, not as a way of working through the grounds for a view. The idea of learning from arguments is new to them; it is something they have hardly experienced, and they need to be convinced. So it is counter-productive to give the impression that every argument can be contested, every position defended. One of my tasks in teaching the class is to valorize reason: to convey some sense of the power and simplicity of good argument.

This is why teaching for me is partly about optimism, about hope. I like very much what Shaftesbury says about the idea of humour as inimical to reason in his Sensus Communis (1709):
To this I answer, That according to the Notion I have of Reason, neither the written Treatises of the Learned, nor the set Discourses of the Eloquent, are able of themselves to teach the use of it. 'Tis the Habit alone of Reasoning which can make a Reasoner. And Men can never be better invited to the Habit, than when they find Pleasure in it.


Blogger GF-A said...

The idea that student relativism stems from insufficient respect (or 'valorization') for the value of rational argument strikes me as right on target. The most publicly visible people engaged in argumentation, besides politicians, are lawyers -- a group with an extremely poor reputation (deserved or not) for seeking the truth.

But I wonder whether there might also be a further step needed to counter student relativism fully (or perhaps what I have in mind would just be part and parcel of a full, true respect for sound reasoning). It seems to me that most academic analytic philsophers (myself included) do valorize reason to some extent -- at least insofar as we devote an entire career to it. But one could certainly go further than this: Socrates, who was willing to die for his arguments, is probably the paradigmatic case (and he was thought to be a pretty good teacher, too -- perhaps they are linked). Among contemporary philosophers, Peter Singer jumps to mind: he reportedly gives 20% of his income to poverty relief, because of the arguments in his "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." Such philosophers not only think rational arguments are worth a lifetime of study, but are also important enough to govern one's actions, even at great cost to self. In short: to really counter student relativism, we need not only to valorize reason, but also to convince students (and perhaps ourselves) that reason should guide and constrain their acts and choices.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Cole said...

So tell us how to valorize reason! Is there a particular argument that does the trick? (I've found the Singer 'testing on animals / testing on retarded humans' argument to have some impact, but is it the right kind?)

9:37 PM  
Anonymous steven andresen said...

I wonder whether the problem really is that students have no respect for reason or its uses. Many students have been around long enough to pick up on the importance in their lives of reason and arguments. So, for example, when their parents tell them to clean their plate, or take a bath, or pick up after themselves, they appreciate getting some kind of argument, some bit of reasoning, to explain their parent's concern, or back up why it's so important to get their request done now rather than later.

Most students can see through bad arguments. The idea that they aren't good at reasoning, I think, has mostly to do with the difficulty of the academic material to which students are subjected. You can't think well about the 500 pages you were supposed to read and understand over the weekend. Things like that.

No, student relativism doesn't stem so much from some disdain for good arguments as what has been considered "reason." This has been a contested subject, but a claim which would seem to me to be a good basis for confusion.

Wikia's definition of reason says,

"...Reason is sometimes narrowly defined as the faculty or process of drawing logical inferences...."

So, my thought is this understanding of reason is itself the basis for relativism. Maybe a disputable point, but a different issue, and one that can't be blamed on students. I don't blame students at all for their concluding that relativists have a point.

Does your practice of teaching ethics involve supporting the claim that reason is a matter of logical inference? Is there any discussion of this claim and the relationship between it and the end result that student's become confirmed relativists?

In my department, this question never arose.

2:56 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for all the comments.

GF-A: I partly agree about Singer. But I am wary of being too moralistic or censorious (more-virtuous-than-thou). So, although I teach "Famine, Affluence and Morality", and talk about the difference it would make, I don't stress it as much as might. That could be a mistake.

Cole: Singer's arguments are good to teach, partly because they are often simple and imaginatively gripping. I don't accept his claims about other species, but for reasons that are not easy to explain in an introductory class. So I tend not to assign that work.

My favourite example of a good philosophical argument (with which to "valorize reason") is Thomson's demonstration that there is a gap between having a right to life and having a right to whatever one needs in order to live, so that standard objections to abortion are flawed. Whatever one thinks about the moral permissibility of abortion, her contribution clarifies and improves the debate.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Steven Andresen: I don't think your example of everyday argument is evidence of faith in the power of reasoning to change or justify fundamental moral assumptions. Nor did I say that students "aren't good at reasoning": the question was about its value. And it's very rare for philosophers to assign lots of reading (unlike political scientists!). I tend to give 10-20 pages a week.

But I agree with you in wanting to distinguish reasoning from logical argument.

Most philosophers would make a similar distinction. We should not conflate inference (the psychological process) with implication (the relation among propositions). And we should allow for arguments that appeal to what is probable or plausible.

There is a deeper point. As I said in an earlier post, good abstract or theoretical reasoning (of the kind characteristic of philosophers) may not be sufficient for good moral judgement, or for practical reason, which is (I think) a matter of good character.

This doesn't conflict with the argument above. One can resist the enervated relativism I was trying to describe without having an unrealistic view of the power of philosophy to generate moral agreement or insight.

10:22 AM  

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