Thursday, November 29, 2018

Philosophical Community Service Assignment

I teach an "Introduction to Philosophical Ethics" course in an interactive, discussion-based and skills-focused manner. The core skills involve trying to figure out whether a reason given in support of some conclusion on a moral issue is a good one or not. We start with common arguments, things that ordinary people often say, and then move onto arguments that philosophers focus on. Here's my simplification of what we do:

I try to provide a minimal set of concepts to do what we do, with a one-page handout "Philosophical Ethics: Almost Everything You Need to Know" and a video on formulating arguments in logically valid form, typically as syllogisms. We practice these skills on a variety of contemporary moral issues, mostly in the order presented by Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy book.

Their final assignment involves students sharing their moral reasoning skills with an audience of people not in our class. Students have to show this audience how to rationally evaluate moral arguments, using examples they provide, and then teach the audience some basic skills at doing this, involving arguments that the audience provides. I call this "philosophical community service."

Here is the assignment:

Philosophical Service Project

For this assignment, you will perform some “philosophical community service.” The service you will provide is demonstrating to some members of your community how to think 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 syllabus, or develop your own, with approval of the instructor. Here are some of the topics we’ve covered:

the treatment of disabled newborns, euthanasia and assisted suicide, female genital mutilation, male circumcision, homosexuality, polyamory and monogamy, abortion, absolute poverty, reparations for slavery, racism, sexism, and speciesism, vegetarianism and the treatment of animals, drug use and the criminalization of drug use, the ethics of grades and extra credit, racism and dating, at least.

3. Develop at least 5 arguments in logically valid form on this topic. You will want to review the video on syllogisms, to remind your self how to make arguments in valid form:

4. Find an audience of at least 3 people, not from this class. This can be three people from "real, in-person" life, or people online, say via Zoom or Skype or the like.

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: tell them what arguments are and what makes arguments good and bad and how you can tell (explain - with examples - the concepts of arguments logical validity, soundness, counterexamples). State and explain your five arguments in logically valid form and fully evaluate them as sound or not: explain whether each and every premise is true or false and why. 

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: address each and every premise.

8. Formulate any conclusions from your discussion and conclude your discussion, reviewing what you did.

9. Write up a report on what happened, using this form: you may also cover this content in a video if you'd like (upload that video to Youtube or something and share the link in the submission box: do not upload a video to Blackboard.

Philosophical "Community Service" Project:
Report Form
Your Class Time: 

  • Group members, or just your name if not in a group: (note: each member must submit this report via Blackboard: failing to do this will result in a zero for the assignment for the student who doesn't submit the report, if he is a member of a group). 
  • Your topic:    
  • Summarize the introduction to what you will do in your presentation. You will need to explain to audience what 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. 
  • Present at least 5 arguments on that topic, stated in logically valid form. 
  • Evaluate those 5 arguments as sound or not. Fully explain why they are sound or not: by explaining whether each and every premise is true or false (Note: merely stating whether an argument is sound or not does not explain why it is sound or not: explanations of whether each and every premise is true or false and why is needed). 
  • Your audience members’ names: 
  • Your audience’s reactions to the arguments that you presented and your evaluation of them: 
  • The 3-5 arguments from the audience: 
  • These arguments stated in logically valid form: 
  • Your, and the audience’s, evaluations of these arguments as sound or not: 
  • Your conclusions and summary of this activity that you presented to the audience. 
  • Your group’s reflections on this experience: what went well? What was interesting? What was surprising? What was challenging? How was this experience, overall? 
This assignment results in students going all sorts of interesting places (bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, etc.) to talk with interesting people (sometimes people they know, other times new people), to discuss all sorts of interesting topics. Typically, students appreciate the opportunity to "be the teacher" and confirm that they really learned something in the class, and they find their audiences appreciate learning some new, systematic ways of thinking about moral issues.

Here's a recent final reflection from a student (used with permission) that is representative of a common reflection on the experience:

The whole activity went well. I believe that I explained moral arguments very well because the audience was able to understand the basic concepts of moral arguments. It was interesting to hear what arguments the audience would make. I thought it would be challenging for the audience to get the hang of making moral arguments, but it wasn’t hard for them at all. This was a great experience, I really enjoyed it and the audience enjoyed it as well. I really enjoyed being able to show what I have learned in this class. I also like the fact that I was able to benefit others with my knowledge.

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