Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of Bob Fischer, ed. College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You

Bob Fischer, ed. College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You, Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-0190498658, 659 pages, $69.95. 

For better or worse, people tend to have greater interest in ethical issues that affect them personally. Given that, it’s surprising that it took until now for someone to develop a reader for college students in ethics classes on ethical issues especially relevant to college students. What a great idea! Bob Fischer is to be congratulated on having the idea, for working to bring it to fruition, and seeking input from the online community about how to improve the book and advance the overall project of more engaged and engaging college ethics classes (see “A Surprisingly Overlooked Gap in Philosophy,” Daily Nous blog (September 29, 2016)).

The book sets forth a unique and worthwhile teaching program of focusing on issues especially relevant to college students. “Students,” it should be noted, is understood mostly as late-teenager to early twenty-somethings: traditional college students. Surely there are overlooked ethical issues that uniquely confront adult learners and other non-traditional college students. Instructors should be inspired by this book to find those issues, teach those issues, and share these ideas with Fischer and others so instructors can better meet students where they are at, with ethical issues of more personal concern.

I used the book in an upper-division special-topics course aptly entitled “College Ethics: Moral Issues that Affect You” in the spring of 2017. My course involved about 10 students simply working through the readings of the book and having them discuss, present and write about the readings and the issues of the book. There are 55 readings, each 7-10 pages or so, plus Fischer’s excellent introduction to arguments and moral reasoning divided into these six parts:

1.      Sex and Relationships
2.      Abortion
3.      Sexism, Gender and Racism
4.      Affirmative Action in Admissions
5.      Speech and Protest
6.      Drugs and Drinking
7.      Consumer Ethics
8.      Sports
9.      Gaming, Music and Humor
10.  Dishonest, Enhancement and Extra Credit
11.  The Aims of Education.

The complete Table of Contents is available online at Oxford University Press’s site where there are also several online supplements available for instructors, including Fischer’s guidance on how to use the book, various possible orderings of readings, and sample syllabi. Each chapter has Comprehension Questions and Discussion Questions that are well worth assigning. And there’s also an extra page or two very interesting “Case” at the end of each chapter to extend the discussion.

Some of the readings were, of course, far better than others: some are clearer and more direct in their analysis and arguments than others. All the readings, however, raised interesting and important questions. Sometimes the question(s) asked was better than the reading’s answers, especially if the reading was a bit indirect, or long-winded, or had some other vice that I think makes it too hard for many college students to read. The questions that the readings addressed though were so good that I developed a questions-based Table of Contents for the book (see “College Ethics,” Nathan Nobis’s blog (May 16, 2017)).  Asking the questions first before turning to the readings is likely a useful strategy for teaching the book, especially if an instructor’s main goals concern the development of critical thinking skills. These questions can be added to any ethics class to make it more relevant to college students, whether this book is used or not.

After assigning Fischer’s Introduction, we read the chapter by John Corvino on homosexuality (Ch. 1). Some students will find this a more controversial issue than others, but I find it be a good one to practice basic moral reasoning skills, such as making arguments in logically valid form and thinking about the meanings of words. This essay focuses only on two types of arguments about homosexuality: that it is “unnatural” and against the Bible. Students with the skills to evaluate these arguments rationally should be able to extend those skills to many other common arguments on the topic. The other chapters on sexual ethics were interesting and centered on questions that students, and other adults, tend to find very interesting (e.g., When is it wise and unwise to have a sexual relationship with someone? What is it to ‘objectify’ someone and is that wrong, and why? How persistent can one be in seeking a relationship? What personal information of a sexual nature is wrong to share with others? and more). Engaging these questions directly is surely worthwhile.

Next, we reviewed Christopher Pynes’ “Seven Arguments Against Extra Credit” (Ch. 51). Pynes convinced me that most types of extra credit are wrong primarily on the grounds that grades are fair only if they are determined by factors equally accessible to all students in a class, and many forms of extra credit – e.g., attending guest lectures – are not. He also argues that many forms of extra credit are not relevant to the academic content of a class, and so again influence grades on irrelevant grounds.

We then turned to the chapters on abortion (Ch. 9-11). I see how this issue might be different for college students than if the issue were to arise for high school students or independent adults at various ages and stages. Here I was not excited with the readings (too long, too abstract) and instead reverted to my own writings on the topic and standard DIY practice of asking the class, “What reasons are there to think that abortion is prima facie wrong?” and “What reasons are there to think that abortion is prima facie permissible?”, having the class make a list of premises and then using their logical skills to evaluate the arguments.

The section on consumer ethics has a neat paper by Andrew Forcehimes (and a reply by Sadulla Karjiker) that argues that since it’s not wrong to borrow books from the library, many types of books are not wrong to illegally download (Ch. 33, 34): this discussion can be extended to music and movies. There are papers raising the question of whether it’s permissible to buy products that were wrongfully produced, for example, products made in sweatshops (by Lisa Cassidy) and meat and other animal-based food products (by Alastair Norcross) (Ch. 36-39). There are two papers by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Marion Hourdequin discussing what obligations, if any, individual people have to try to help the environment.

A theme of concern for this section is what individuals can and should do regarding big problems where collective action is needed. Many philosophers are interested in this seemingly intractable issue (“Why bother, since your own actions won’t make a difference?”), but I wonder how many college students would be discouraged by it, especially since this concern can be generalized to almost any social issue: why vote, why protest, why do much of anything to try to change society for the better if it’s hard to tell if your actions will make a difference?

            College students, like many other adults, tend to be interested in sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (or whatever music they prefer). I’ve mentioned that the essays on sex and relationships are uniformly interesting. The chapters on drugs, however, were disappointing. The chapter against drugs focused on heroin (Ch. 29), which I suspect is not a drug of choice among college students, and surprisingly gave no thought at all to what, if any, harmful activities the government should imprison people for engaging in. Far better is Michael Huemer’s “America’s Unjust Drug War.” This section also had an informative essay by Caitlin Flanagan, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” that reviews some of the awful things that happen in fraternities and how these organizations are designed to avoid any liabilities for deaths and major injuries (Ch. 32).     Concerning rock-n-roll, there is an interesting chapter (Ch. 44) on morally problematic aspects of singing along to offensive lyrics. There are also interesting papers (Ch. 42, 43) on the ethics of actions done in video games and virtual worlds that would be deeply wrong in the real world. The concerns here are subtle and interesting regarding, not actions, but taking on a mindset and perspective that is evil: fascinating!

To conclude, this is an excellent collection, and the idea motiva­ting the collection is even better, and subject to much potential expansion and development. I again encourage instructors to review the Table of Contents for more of the details on the book’s contents and get a copy of the book to read the chapters that interest them. The book is a good choice for both introductory and more advanced ethics classes. By thinking about ethical issues relevant to students, we hope that that will improve their interest in, and skills in, thinking about ethical issues that they may not think are immediately relevant to them, for example, thinking about the plight of others.  

Nathan Nobis
Associate Professor, Philosophy
Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA

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