Ethicists who matter

If I ever become a philosophy professor, there’s a good chance that at some point I will have to teach a class on ethics, because classes on ethics are in much higher demand than classes on most other areas of philosophy. And if I do that, I think I might seriously consider seeing if I can get away with teaching an entire class on Peter Singer.

Why? Because Singer consistently writes about stuff that matters. He has a tendency to write urging readers to make radical changes in their lives, whether it’s becoming a vegan or donating 10% or more of their income to charity. And when he’s not urging people to do things that will significantly impact their day-to-day lives, he’s at least urging them to rethink how they think about some very important decisions they’ll have to make at some point in their lives.

But of course there are advantages to exposing students to a wide range of authors. So: who else goes in the hypothetical intro ethics course? Peter Unger is similar to Singer in his writings on charity, though doesn’t cover as great a range of topics. G.E.M. Anscombe is a candidate I like more: coined the term “consequentialism,” though she was against it, in fact she publicly opposed Oxford’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Harry Truman on the grounds that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan made him a mass murderer. I think Anscombe would be a good counterpoint to Singer.

Who else? Judith Jarvis Thompson, probably. Anyone else?

Why I’ve decided to start deleting jerky comments more often
When passing a law is the easy route
Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
How selfish are voters?
  • Reginald Selkirk

    Laura Purdy. Strong emphasis on the importance of empiricism to ethics.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Totally unfamiliar with her work. Where can I get an introduction to it?

  • Grassie

    Drop the philosophy part of ethics, and add the descriptive parts. Like evolution of morality (plenty of decent books about this one), history of morality (Pinker’s Better Angels?), and plain old moral psychology (like Jon Haidt), maybe even cultural anthropological findings.

    Try to insert as much evolution of morality as possible. The theory and data in this field can be mindblowing. Use birds instead of humans if you want. Try to emphasise the futility of classical moral philosophy in explaining morality in light of psychology and evolution. (When bringing up virtue ethics, talk about how this and that chimpanzee might develop a disposition towards being ethical! Haha! And discuss intentional ethics in the context of Langurs. Lolz.)

    Also be sure to mention that blogpost about moral philosophers not being more moral than other people, Thomas Nagel’s moral realism argument against evolution, and the many different uses of of the term “naturalistic fallacy”.

    Oh, and another thing. While Nietzsches Genealogy of Morality may had som insights about this sort of descriptive moraity for its time, show that we can now use theory (from behavioural ecology, history, cultural anthropology, etc) to test many of the claims he made in that book. An important part of a good course in philosophy is to learn never to trust a philiosopher, at least not when there are scientists studiying the same thing. By the way, this book is short and quite captivating. I think you should read it because a lot of people considers it to be magical in its wisdom.

    So, for me, the point of a course in ethics is:
    * Inform students about where their ethical intuitions come from, and the range of them. (Like why is premarital sex considered immoral? Why is it never immoral to count with one’s fingers?)
    * Demolism all the foolish attempts at systems of morality.
    * Shed light on the historical development of morality, Pinker style. (Yeah, we’re much kinder now!)
    * Abolish all hopes of you becoming a better person by studying ethics, and slap moral realism hard in its face.
    * Don’t trust Nietzsche, even though his writing is charming. And never trust a moral realist like Thomas Nagel!

  • Verbose Stoic

    If you’re talking about doing an actual intro course, then I’ve found that using texts that are directly arguing for a point are problematic. They tend to be a bit unfair to opposing views and can unduly bias students in one direction. So you’d want to represent consequentialists, virtue theorists, deontologists, and so on. Also, you’d need to give a progression that shows the reasons each view is considered reasonable and what problems each have. Which then does tend to get you back to the classical arguments: talking about Aristotle and the Stoics for Virtue Ethics with some supplements from modern Virtue Ethicists, talking about Kant with supplements from modern Kantians, talking about Mill with supplements from modern Utilitarians like Parfit, and so on.

    Also, definitely cover Hobbes. Most of the athiestic ethical systems seem very close to his Social Contract theory.

    Another thing to do is use selections from Philosophy and Popular culture. Tying the views to specific things in the world risks cluttering the issues with personal considerations and personal history, but not including those sorts of examples risks it seeming too academic and unimportant. But I’ve found in reading the books themselves that the fictional cases strike a good balance: familiar and obviously important enough to get the students involved, but artificial enough that they can be assessed objectively.

    If, on the other hand, you just want to do a specific and more advanced class on empirically informed ethics, you should include Prinz. One of the best things about him is that he is obsessive over addressing and refuting opposing views and so you get a more complete view from him than from others.

    You could also look at the Sinott-Armstrong collection, three volumes, on Cognitive Science and Ethics.

  • Alexander Johannesen

    Hmm, of late I’ve read quite a bit of Patricia Churchland which I’ve enjoyed; ethics from a neuroscientific viewpoint.

  • hf

    Note that the bomb is a strange example, since we could easily oppose it on consequentialist grounds. Japan did not surrender until after the Soviet Union invaded their Chinese territories. Stone claims the Japanese talked more about this comparatively understandable event while deciding to surrender, and in fact had previously said they would have to end the war if this happened.

    I’m also having trouble understanding why an anti-consequentialist would automatically find Hiroshima worse than the other civilian deaths of the war. Did she think this because neither Truman nor the US started WWII? Or simply because the bomb targeted civilians (technically, a bridge) though we know and Truman probably knew that war always kills non-combatants?