The Response of College Freshmen to the Ethics of Animal Rights: An Example of Applied Learning Theory

Article excerpt

A telling arena for observing ethical human behavior is the human treatment of nonhuman animals. How one treats or mistreats animals is a decision mostly grounded in his or her ethical beliefs. This article examines animal ethics and discusses the value of intrinsic motivation through the lens of teaching a freshman animal ethics. In addition, this opinion piece argues the merit of the pass/fail paradigm in lieu of the traditional grading paradigm by using the triad of Kohn's (1999) intrinsic motivation, Thorndike's (1913) law of readiness, and Bandura's (1997) social cognitive notion of self-regulation while exploring the human ethical notions related to learning about animal rights.

Keywords: intrinsic motivation; animal ethics; ethics; social cognitive regulation

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

-Mahatma Ghandi

A telling arena for observing ethical human behavior is the human treatment of nonhuman animals. How one treats or mistreats animals is a decision mostly grounded in his or her ethical beliefs. In the fall of 2011, I taught a 1-hour course for my university called "Introduction to Animal Rights." The course was only available to incoming freshmen and was offered by the Department of University Studies (USTU). It became an interesting opportunity to introduce ethics to college freshmen by introducing them to animal rights. I have a great intrinsic interest in animal ethics, and I was uncertain whether I would be able to motivate students who required extrinsic motivation in the subject of animal ethics/rights. I am typically unsuccessful with that particular endeavor. In short, something else besides my teaching skills was required to get students interested in the subject at hand.

Animal rights is often considered a prerogative of the fringe, but this is incorrect. Animal rights may be closely tied to human rights; one with compassion for animals may very likely have more compassion for humans than the average citizen. The biocentric worldview is an egalitarian one that is not solely focused on animal well-being, as some misunderstand it to be. Ethical human behavior may be linked to how one learns as well. If one is engaged in learning about a topic one considers ethically important, one may be more intrinsically motivated to learn about it. During the class, I observed several learning theories at work as we explored human ethical behavior as it related to animal rights and ethics. Furthermore, the course was an opportunity for me to explore the classical grading paradigm and its extrinsic flavor of motivation, which I am not entirely convinced is useful. Applying the concepts and theories of Kohn (1999), Thorndike (1913), and Bandura (1997) illustrates the distinct possibility that the traditional grading structure of assigning grades may not cultivate the highest level of learning. Also, Thorndike and Bandura's theories outlined what happened regarding student motivation in the class. As it turned out, my limited teaching abilities were not an issue because the students were ready to learn the subject and they self-regulated their approach to learning. In addition, the pressure of grades was relieved. More specifically, this opinion piece argues the merit of the pass/fail paradigm by using the triad of Kohn's intrinsic motivation, Thorndike's law of readiness, and Bandura's social cognitive notion of self-regulation while exploring the human ethical notions related to learning about animal rights. Thorndike's law is especially helpful when examining student learning in the subject of animal rights. It is an ethical subject so dominated by polar debate that students cannot approach it with a ready and open mind until they are ready to examine something outside of the status quo.

LEARNING DEFINED

I believe that learning occurs when one is acting on intrinsic motivation slightly outside of one's comfort level. …