Thursday, May 24, 2018

Introduction to Ethics

Here I briefly sum up my basic goals and strategy in my Introduction to Philosophical Ethics course. 

My approach is: 
  • interactive and discussion-based,
  • skills-of-reasoning-focused, with the hope that students retain these basic skills and attitudes and apply them to future ethical questions, 
  • built on a foundation of "data" -- concerning the reasons given about various issues -- gathered from everyday observations, asking people questions (informal surveys) and, potentially, internet research, and so
  • not readings-based: most readings augment the process; they aren't essential. 
My overall goal is: 
  • to show students that we can systematically reason about moral issues, and teach them how to do that, to develop their skills at doing that. Here's the summary:

See below for the details!


A handout of basic concepts (click on the graphic for a better sized version):

A video on arguments and stating arguments as syllogisms (also known as "simple moral arguments," from Richard Feldman's Reason and Argument):

Some argument completion handouts:

Note: these are old and are much in need of revision. 
The general strategy:

  • Identify an issue as a controversial one: "Do people disagree about this topic?" "Yes.."
  • Identify some common, contrary conclusions on the topic.
  • Ask students to make lists of common reasons, or premises, given in favor of these conclusions. This can be done on their own, in groups, doing surveys (outside of class), internet research, etc.
  • Get these reasons written up on the board/screen.
  • Add some premises/reasons given by philosophers. 
  • Identify question begging arguments, ones with premises that assume the conclusion. Strike those.
  • Formulate remaining argument in logically valid form.
  • Assess arguments as sound or unsound, i.e., whether all the premises are true or not.
  • For general moral premises, identify possible counterexamples.
  • Any overall conclusions on the topic drawn from these activities will depend on the number and strength of the arguments evaluated. 

A worksheet to address that strategy:

This worksheet below provides a step by step process for finding, developing and evaluating moral arguments. 
Download in WordDownload in Google Docs. 

1.     What do you mean, your topic 

In this section, explain what the issue is, and explain what any unclear terms mean (or, at least, how you are going to use the terms: e.g., what do you mean by ‘an abortion’? What is ‘absolute poverty’?  What do you mean by ‘homosexuality’? etc. Here we basically want an explanation what the issue is and the relevant facts and information. 
How to find these? Reflect on your own observations, talk to fellow students, ask (random) people - interview them just about anywhere, do some internet research using any sources, do some internet research using philosophical sources, etc. 

How many reasons to find? This depends on your purpose or your assignment. Maybe the top three would do. Maybe 5-10? Should you focus on common reasons, or ones that philosophers focus on? Again that depends on your purpose or assignment.  

2.     State the relevant conclusions on the topic, for example:

a.      Doing X is wrong.b.     Doing X is not wrong.c.      Doing X is prima facie wrong.d.     Doing X is wrong in these specified circumstancese.      Whatever conclusions are needed, given the goal of having precise conclusions.

3.     Why think that? State the reasons or premises people give, or might give, in favor of these various conclusions. 

4.     Identify any question begging premises at this point: strike those arguments.

5.     Formulate the arguments in logically valid form. (Strike any arguments that are irreparably logically invalid also). 

How many arguments? Again, it depends on your purpose.
6.     Evaluate each argument as sound ( = logically valid and with true or reasonable premises) or not and why.

7.     Tentative conclusions. This might be about just one argument, some of the most common or popular arguments, or broader conclusions, depending on how many arguments you evaluated.

A final assignment of "philosophical community service":

Philosophical Service Project
For this assignment, you will, either individually or in a group (of no more than 3 total), perform some "community service." The service you will provide is demonstrating to the community how to thinking critically about moral issues using the logical methods we've practiced in this class. So, you will model thinking in systematic ways about moral issues, engage some arguments from your audience and help them evaluate these arguments.
Here's what to do:

1. Find a group of 2-3 students. Or do the project on your own. 

2. Pick a topic from the list of topics we have discussed in this course, e.g., from the syllabus, or develop your own, with approval from Dr. Nobis: grading and extra credit, treatment of disabled newborns, genital mutilation (female genital mutilation; male circumcision), sexual ethics (e.g., monogamy and polygamy or polyamory), homosexuality, abortion, absolute poverty, racism and race-related ethical issues, sexism, and speciesism, drug use and the criminalization of drug use, vegetarianism and the treatment of animals, environmentalism, euthanasia and assisted suicide, and capital punishment, among others.

Other ethical issues we may discuss will relate to ethical questions of special interest to college students:

And controversial ethical issues concerning race:

3. Develop at least 5 arguments in logically valid form on this topic. 

4. Find an audience of at least 4 people, not from this class.

5. Present your arguments to this audience. Given them an introduction to what you will do in your presentation. Explain to them what you will do and how you will do it: that is, explain the methods you will use in stating, explaining and evaluating arguments. State and explain your five arguments and evaluate them as sound or not. 

6. Get at least 3 (ideally, at least 5) new arguments, or premises, on the topic from the audience.

7. With the audience, formulate these arguments in logically valid form and determine whether they are sound or not.

8. Formulate any conclusions from your discussion and wrap it up.

9. Write up a report on what happened, using this form:

Philosophical "Community Service" Project:Report Form
1.        Class Time:
2.        Group members:    (note: each member must submit this report via the course management system).
3.        Your topic:  
4.        Summarize the introduction to what you will do in your presentation. What will you explain to audience aboutwhat you will do and how you will do it. You need to explain the methods that you will use to identify and evaluate moral arguments.
5.        Present at least 5 arguments on that topic, stated in logically valid form.
6.        Evaluate those 5 arguments as sound or not. Explain why they are sound or not. (Note: merely stating whether an argument is sound or not does not explain why it is sound or not: so explanation is needed).
7.        Your audience members’s names:
8.        Your audience’s reactions to the arguments that you presented and your evaluation of them:
9.        The 3-5 arguments from the audience:
10.    These arguments stated in logically valid form:
11.    Your, and the audience’s, evaluations of these arguments as sound or not:
12.    Your conclusions and summary of this activity that you presented to the audience.
13.    Your group’s reflections on this experience: what went well? What was interesting? What was surprising? What was challenging? How was this experience, overall? 

See also:

How to Have a Philosophical Discussion

Someone recently asked me how to have philosophical conversations or discussions. Here are some quick guidelines, focusing on philosophical discussions about moral issues:

1. Topic?

You need to clearly identify a topic or issue. Sometimes that's easy, sometimes people "dance around" a topic -- raising related issues about a topic -- before getting an exact topic.

2. Conclusions?

You need to identify a conclusion(s) about the topic. Sometimes you need to think about what various words in those conclusions mean: ask, "What do you mean?"

3. Premises? 

You need to identify a premise(s) or reason(s) given in favor of that conclusion. For many moral issues, at least one premise is often an empirical or scientific claim, and at least one premise is a moral principle, that is, a claim about when an action is wrong or not. Sometimes you need to think about what various words in those premises mean: ask, "What do you mean?"

4. Unstated Premises? 

You need to identify an unstated premise(s) or reason(s) given in favor of that conclusion: these are part of the argument, but are sometimes not yet stated. (However, sometimes they are!) These premises need to be identified so the full argument is stated. Doing this is often called stating the argument in logically valid form. This handout and this video give guidance on doing that:

5. Soundness?

Once the full pattern of reasoning is stated, i.e., it is in logically valid form, you need to evaluate the argument as sound or not: are the premises true or false, supported by good evidence or not? If at least one premise is false, then the argument is sound and does not provide a good reason to accept the conclusion. You need to check the facts to see if any factual claims are true, and try to identify any strong counterexamples to any moral principles.

This process can and should be repeated with any and all premises given in favor of a conclusion, and for different conclusions and the premises given in their favor. You must focus on one and only one argument at a time.

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