Teaching Ethical Theory

I've been thinking quite a bit about how I teach Ethical Theory, and two related problems that keep cropping up.

  1. Students come out of the class with the attitude that they should choose between different major ethical theories.
  2. Students come out of the class flummoxed about ethics, thinking that all of their available options fail.

The relationship between these two is, I think, fairly clear.  Students think they have to make a choice, but have become quite good at knocking (intuitive at least) holes in any ethical theory thrown at them.  As a consequence, they tend to reject all of the theories, and end up unsure of how to make use of what we've discussed in class.

I should not be surprised by this, and the way I teach the class is implicated in these outcomes.  I've followed a fairly traditional structure, content-wise at least, where we work through the major theories (with particular emphasis on Virtue Theory, Deontology and Utilitarianism) and contemporary criticisms.  We dive deep into discussions of counter-examples, and the differences between the theories that these counter-examples illuminate.  Counter-examples or intuition-pumps are also such a natural conversation starter, that they can quickly come to dominate discussion. 

What I'd like to do is rethink the way I approach the content of the course, and I want to start with my goals for the students.  One of the goals of my ethics courses is always to empower students to be better ethical reasoners in their own lives (despite problematic empirical evidence).  Wielding counter-examples is not particularly conducive to that goal.  The aim of using counter-examples is to think about the complex judgments about conflicting values that we all have to make.  If this is the goal, then why not go directly for it?

We might think about the differences between the major ethical theories in terms of the different values that they prioritize.  Kant, for example, places great importance on autonomy and fairness before the moral law, both commitments challenged by feminist ethics.  Aristotle's conception of voluntary action shares some similar ground with autonomy, but differs in crucial respects (and likewise between Kant and Mill on fairness).  While one could still organize readings in the same way as the traditional course, the discussion might be refocused onto these values.  Why might we hold to them too?  Why does Kant, say, hold these values but not combine them with others?

I have kicked around this idea for awhile, but was concerned that it would not produce actual changes in my classroom - after all, discussion of the competing values might be a useful frame, but it could still easily lead to the focus on counter-examples that concerns me.  A colleague, however, suggested an assignment that she uses in her class, where students are asked to design their own ethical theory at the end of the term.  Such an assignment might be the linchpin that holds together a values based approach.

In particular, it encourages a focus on consistency.  That is, students will first work through how Aristotle, Kant and Mill develop (or at least attempt to develop) frameworks that consistently integrate these values, and that other values cannot be easily introduced without also introducing inconsistency.  Students then have to take up this task for themselves, identifying the values that matter to them and working to consistently integrate them into a coherent theory.

I see two principal advantages to this approach.  First, it encourages students to make the material personal (values that matter to them) even at the same time that they are developing a theory which applies beyond their own person.  This speaks directly to the goal of helping students develop themselves as moral reasoners.  Second, it encourages students to think through the implications of their commitments in a way that the critical stance does less successfully.  It is this sort of working out of one's commitments that makes Singer's "Famine, Affluence and Morality" paper so compelling (both philosophically and pedagogically), and this approach might make it clear why this argument cannot be so easily dismissed by pointing to intuitive counter-examples.

This is an approach to Ethical Theory that is a long ways off from coming to fruition, but nevertheless one I'm rather excited by.  Any thoughts, both from seasoned teachers of ethical theory and those who have taken such courses?