Friday, April 11, 2008

Philosophy and Ethics Across the Curriculum

This week we're discussing a bureaucratic issue here at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. The university is trying to develop "Ethics Across the Curriculum," specifically ethics seminars in the Agriculture, Business, Computer Science, Engineering, and Nursing programs, among other possibilities. The problem is, should my fellow philosophers and I insist that courses in ethics necessarily involve input from philosophers? (And, for example, should such courses be "cross-listed," given two course codes, one in philosophy? As I say, our problems are largely bureaucratic.)
I think that the answer is no. There are non-philosophical elements of my opinion, such as the fact that our little Philosophy Section is "the mouse that roared" so far as the Business School or the College of Engineering are concerned, but there is also a substantial philosophical point so I'm posting about it here.
It's true that in the classical tradition moral instruction, understood as How to Live the Good Life, was considered to be the province of philosophers. But at that time the term "philosophy" was much broader than it is now: there was "natural philosophy" and "moral philosophy," moral philosophy encompassing what today we would call history, political science, and in general the humanities and social sciences, although it is true that we have lost the classical idea that students ought to be studying to be good persons (perhaps this is too collectivist for us).
Today, philosophy is something much more specific. I would define it as the study of metaphysics and epistemology. However, that doesn't mean that ethics is not an area of philosophy. Ethics, like aesthetics, religion, psychology, science, and mathematics, to name some prominent examples, is interesting to philosophers because ethical propositions have a metaphysically and epistemologically ambiguous relationship to "natural" propositions, propositions about, roughly speaking, the physical world (I say "ambiguous," I don't necessarily believe that ethical propositions cannot be naturalized; I don't accept the "naturalistic fallacy" argument, for example).
I'm not, then, a metaphysics jock who "doesn't do" ethics. I'm covering ethical theory in my Intro course right now, as a matter of fact. I'm interested in empiricism and ethics, specifically non-cognitivist theories and the role of logic in ethical reasoning, and the difference in the way rationalist approaches and empiricist approaches fix the extensions of the sets of moral patients and moral agents (Kant thinks they're coextensive, Mill and Singer, say, do not), and I have discussed the naturalistic fallacy in earlier posts as well as the law of effect as a basic empiricist principle. I definitely "do" ethics.
It's just that I don't think that the metaphysical and epistemological investigations of philosophers qualify philosophers in any way as experts on normative ethical codes (specific ideas about what sorts of things are right and wrong), or as social and political critics (analyses of the justice or lack thereof of social and political arrangements). I think that there is a basic conceptual error here: the fact that ethics is philosophically interesting doesn't make it the exclusive domain of philosophers, or necessarily any domain of philosophers. Physics is philosophically interesting too, but if one wants to learn about physics the place to start is Intro Physics.
Where do we start if we want to learn ethics? I think that "ethics" is a highly heterogenous concept. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that if you want to learn how to be a good person, find someone who you feel certain is a good person and watch what they do. So for Agricultural Ethics or Business Ethics or whatever it may be, it seems sensible that one finds an instructor with some experience and reputation of ethical conduct in that field. I don't see how the student in another profession is going to be much improved by listening to a professional philosopher explain consequentialism vs. deontology, say, as philosophically interesting as that distinction may be.
One final thought for the blog (not something to belabor in a faculty meeting, in my opinion): philosophy isn't the most important thing in the world. Discussions of cultural and ethnic biases, of sexism and racism, of economic and social justice, are discussions that in my opinion, and speaking as a philosophy professor, are all more important than the rather abstruse topics philosophers choose to chew on. As a society we should be (and we are) spending more time on those issues than we are on philosophy. But that doesn't mean that those are the topics that a responsible philosopher ought to engage with, any more than a good professor of, say, organic chemistry or 17th century Italian opera needs to stop everything and plunge into a political consciousness-raising session.


  1. I agree with you. I think the desire to adjust the curriculum comes from a handful of people in the colegio that have a preference for ethics. They are to lazy or simple do not have any interest to go outside their preferences and give something more "variado".

  2. I agree with you, too. I don't think is necessary to teach Mill's Utilitarianism on Ethics for Engineer's course. That's what Introduction of Ethics and Contemporary Ethics courses are for. A person of the field, like you have said and following the 'Engineer' line, an Engineer with an impeccable curriculum and experience would be the best man or woman to handle the job pretty well.