Teaching Moral Philosophy Using Novels: Issues and Strategies

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Philosophy instructors have long noted that students often find ethics courses unrelated to their lives--abstract, dry, and dull. I believe that using literature in conjunction with ethical theory is not only an effective way to teach moral philosophy but it also makes ethics classes more interesting and more relevant to students' lives and concerns. The purpose of this article is twofold: to argue in favor of using literature in ethics classes and to show that this is carried out most efficiently by using a couple of novels--preferably two that have different takes on the same issues--rather than short selections as advocated by some authors. To illustrate my case, I will describe an ethics course in which I use Mouloud Mammeri's L'Opium et le baton, (1) Albert Camus' The Plague, and Oliver Johnson's Ethics: Selections from Classical and Contemporary Writers as the primary texts. (2)

I. Advantages and Limitations of the Standard Methods of Teaching Ethics

College instructors usually adopt either a theoretical or an applied approach to teaching ethics. The former approach takes the form of either a presentation of the philosophies of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill--virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism--followed by the standard objections to them, or the examination of important themes of ethics such as autonomy, rights, justice, etc. In theory classes, real-life problems are sometimes discussed in the light of theories, but lectures and discussions are usually directed towards the evaluation of arguments and the analysis of ethical concepts, principles, and theories. Applied ethics courses, on the other hand, are case-based. Books in applied ethics usually start with a chapter in which normative theories are explained. In the subsequent chapters, the theories are applied to analyze real and hypothetical moral problems in medicine, business, the environment, etc. In these courses, the focus is on application rather than on theories for their own sake. When students are asked to examine cases, they are expected to (1) describe the pertinent facts of the case, (2) clarify the moral problem involved, (3) identify the stakeholders, (4) present alternative solutions, (5) articulate and critically evaluate reasons for each one of them, and (6) recommend the solution in favor of which one has the strongest arguments.

Each approach to teaching ethics outlined above obviously has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the theory approach is the grounding in philosophy, historical depth, and exercise in conceptual analysis and argumentation that result. The case approach to teaching ethics has the advantage of making ethics concrete. It also allows students to imagine tackling moral problems they may encounter in their professional lives and may be useful to teach students how to deal with some relatively noncontroversial and simple issues, such as informed consent and confidentiality.

The major disadvantages of the traditional ways of teaching ethics are their abstraction and their oversimplification of the moral life, and this is precisely what makes them dull and uninteresting: students tend to dismiss course material in which the people do not think, feel, and behave the way they expect ordinary people to think, feel, and behave and tend to get more involved in courses in which they do.

Indeed, for modern moral theorists, moral values can be compared on a common scale, duty for deontologists and utility for utilitarians. But, as Bernard Williams pointed out, lived morality contains, in addition to duty and utility, all sorts of values that cannot be compared on a common scale: gratitude, friendship, commitments, the sense of personal responsibility, and the aspiration to become a certain kind of person (Williams, 1981, p. 76). In addition, according to deontologists and utilitarians alike, morality is essentially a question of knowledge: Emotions are irrelevant and possibly dangerous; they, therefore, ought to be set aside because they undermine the possibility of shared morality and destroy its rational character. …