9

A MORAL PROBLEM IN THE TEACHING OF PRACTICAL ETHICS

Virtue shuns ease as a companion. It demands a rough and thorny path.

Montaigne, Essays II.xi

Teaching practical (or applied) ethics invites reflection both on teaching methods and the ethics of teaching. The preceding two chapters grew out of reflection of the first sort. This chapter grew out of reflection of the second sort. While its focus is quite concrete, answering a criticism of something I do in a particular philosophy course, the answer requires sketching a general theory of the ethics of teaching. That theory, though (I hope) familiar once stated, seems to have remained largely unstated until now. I believe its statement will prove useful to those university teachers interested in understanding the ethical fundamentals of the practice to which they are devoted.

I proceed in the following way. First, I describe what I do in class in enough detail to suggest why someone might be justified in registering a moral objection. Next, I try to make the objection plausible. Doing that is complicated. There are many side issues. Sorting through these, I reach a version of the objection resting on two assumptions: (a) that teachers are responsible for what their students do with what they teach; and (b) that teachers have some responsibility for distributive justice between their students and others. Clarifying these assumptions reveals much of the moral substructure of teaching. Clarified, these assumptions also help explain why a questionable teaching practice is in fact morally permissible. The objection misunderstands the context of teaching, especially the division of labor making teaching a distinct activity.

-175-

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