Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Teaching Ethics

Can the Study of Ethics Make Us Better People? At a recent talk for the Ethics Center, William Prior, SCU professor of philosophy, answered that question: It should, it can, but it probably doesn't as currently practiced in American universities.

Prior decried two tendencies in contemporary philosophical pedagogy that he argued work against moral cultivation. The first, intellectualism, Prior defined as the idea that the inculcation of theoretical wisdom was sufficient in and of itself to bring moral wisdom. The second he called "normative neutrality," the expectation that teachers will present a variety of moral theories and potential applications neutrally, without advocating for a particular point of view.

Both, he suggested, were insufficient. In his view, much of what is wrong with the teaching of ethics was described by Epictetus in the first century. It has moved away from the "most necessary topic," the application of basic principles such as "We ought not to lie," and concentrates on more abstruse philosophical questions, or, as he put it, "At the same time that we lie, we are very ready to show how it is demonstrated that lying is wrong."

The purpose of teaching ethics, Prior argued, should be to help students mature into the ancient ideal of the sage; that is, a person who knows both what is valuable and what to do. A sage, he said, "is someone who really lives by his principles and everyone knows it." Ideally, Prior said, ethics should be taught by sages, "but since most of us don't qualify," he proposed as good candidates "those who take the search to become sages seriously."

Prior's ideal teaching method would encourage professors to explain why they favored particular theories and show how they applied in particular cases, either drawn from literature, film, biography, or even their own or students' lives. "A university that was serious about teaching moral philosophy," he said, "would try to get its members-students, faculty, administrators-to engage in a serious consideration of the question, 'What is the morally best life?'" Such discussions would be cross-disciplinary, and they would also extend beyond the classroom, with professors modeling a commitment to the search for a moral life.

May 2005

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