Teaching moral philosophy using novels: issues and strategies.

Author:Aoudjit, Abdelkader


Philosophy instructors have long noted that students often find ethics courses unrelated to their lives--abstract, dry, and dull. I believe that using literature in conjunction with ethical theory is not only an effective way to teach moral philosophy but it also makes ethics classes more interesting and more relevant to students' lives and concerns. The purpose of this article is twofold: to argue in favor of using literature in ethics classes and to show that this is carried out most efficiently by using a couple of novels--preferably two that have different takes on the same issues--rather than short selections as advocated by some authors. To illustrate my case, I will describe an ethics course in which I use Mouloud Mammeri's L'Opium et le baton, (1) Albert Camus' The Plague, and Oliver Johnson's Ethics: Selections from Classical and Contemporary Writers as the primary texts. (2)

  1. Advantages and Limitations of the Standard Methods of Teaching Ethics

    College instructors usually adopt either a theoretical or an applied approach to teaching ethics. The former approach takes the form of either a presentation of the philosophies of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill--virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism--followed by the standard objections to them, or the examination of important themes of ethics such as autonomy, rights, justice, etc. In theory classes, real-life problems are sometimes discussed in the light of theories, but lectures and discussions are usually directed towards the evaluation of arguments and the analysis of ethical concepts, principles, and theories. Applied ethics courses, on the other hand, are case-based. Books in applied ethics usually start with a chapter in which normative theories are explained. In the subsequent chapters, the theories are applied to analyze real and hypothetical moral problems in medicine, business, the environment, etc. In these courses, the focus is on application rather than on theories for their own sake. When students are asked to examine cases, they are expected to (1) describe the pertinent facts of the case, (2) clarify the moral problem involved, (3) identify the stakeholders, (4) present alternative solutions, (5) articulate and critically evaluate reasons for each one of them, and (6) recommend the solution in favor of which one has the strongest arguments.

    Each approach to teaching ethics outlined above obviously has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the theory approach is the grounding in philosophy, historical depth, and exercise in conceptual analysis and argumentation that result. The case approach to teaching ethics has the advantage of making ethics concrete. It also allows students to imagine tackling moral problems they may encounter in their professional lives and may be useful to teach students how to deal with some relatively noncontroversial and simple issues, such as informed consent and confidentiality.

    The major disadvantages of the traditional ways of teaching ethics are their abstraction and their oversimplification of the moral life, and this is precisely what makes them dull and uninteresting: students tend to dismiss course material in which the people do not think, feel, and behave the way they expect ordinary people to think, feel, and behave and tend to get more involved in courses in which they do.

    Indeed, for modern moral theorists, moral values can be compared on a common scale, duty for deontologists and utility for utilitarians. But, as Bernard Williams pointed out, lived morality contains, in addition to duty and utility, all sorts of values that cannot be compared on a common scale: gratitude, friendship, commitments, the sense of personal responsibility, and the aspiration to become a certain kind of person (Williams, 1981, p. 76). In addition, according to deontologists and utilitarians alike, morality is essentially a question of knowledge: Emotions are irrelevant and possibly dangerous; they, therefore, ought to be set aside because they undermine the possibility of shared morality and destroy its rational character. In everyday life, on the other hand, emotions and imagination play an important role in morality, not only in the sense that sometimes they enter in conflict with one's sense of duty but also in the sense that, as Aristotle asserted, right feeling is necessary for right judgment and, ultimately, for good character and happiness. (3) As Martha Nussbaum puts it,

    The agent who discerns intellectually that a friend is in need or that a loved one has died, but who fails to respond to these facts with appropriate sympathy or grief, clearly lacks a part of Aristotelian virtue. It seems right to say ... that part of discernment or perception is lacking. This person does not really, or does not fully, see what happened. We want to say ... [that this person] really does not fully know it, because the emotional part of cognition is lacking ... The emotions are themselves modes of vision, or recognition. Their responses are part of what knowing or truly recognizing or acknowledging, consists in. (Nussbaum, 1992, p. 79)

    Modern moral theorists also think of moral principles as independent of time and place and have the tendency to regard the self as detached from entanglements of society and history (Hare, 1981; Kant, 1959). By contrast, lived morality is interpersonal in the sense that many moral problems are not limited to dilemmas within the minds of individuals who perceive conflicts between their own values or between their values and their inclinations but involve interaction and conflict with other people. Lived morality is also often social and political; many moral disputes are manifestations of deeper political conflicts. Finally, while deontologists and utilitarians alike think that all moral problems are, in principle, resolvable, for many philosophers, such as Lyotard (1989) and Hampshire (1987), morality is essentially conflictual. Conflicts of ideals, obligations, and interests are pervasive and often irresolvable. Williams sums up the weakness of moral philosophy as follows:

    The resources of most modern moral philosophy are not well adjusted to the modern world.... In other ways, notably in its more Kantian forms, it is not involved enough; it is governed by a dream of a community of reason that is too far removed, as Hegel first said it was, from social and historical reality and from any concrete sense of a particular ethical life--farther removed from those things, in some ways, than the religion it replaced. These various versions of moral philosophy share a false image of how reflection is related to practice, an image of theories in terms of which they uselessly elaborate their differences from one another. (Williams, 1985, pp. 197-198)

  2. Reasons for Including Literature in Ethics Courses

    In response to some of the aforementioned problems, some educators have advocated the use of literature to supplement philosophy textbooks. At least three books have recently been published for that purpose: The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics through Literature by Peter and Renata Singer (2005), The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature by Louis Pojman (2007), and The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics by Nina Rosenstand (2004). The works of these authors represent a move in the right direction; literature can, indeed, make ethics concrete and therefore more interesting and more relevant. One of the qualities that make a good novel is its capacity to convey a sense of the complexity of the problems that confront people in everyday life even when it deals with fictional situations and characters.

    To be precise, unlike many philosophical works, such as Immanuel Kant's, that reject emotions and anything that is not fully intelligible, (5) literature is not limited in its subject matter; everything can, in principle, be a proper object of literature: facts, thoughts, feelings, what makes sense, and what does not. Also, unlike philosophers who rely on logic and conceptual analysis and repress ambiguity and contradiction, novelists are free to use narrative techniques, style, and language in creative ways, even to distort them. As John Adamson rightly remarks, while philosophy is "tidy," literature has a "disorderly, spontaneous, and messy character" (Adamson, 1998, p. 87).

    These two features of literature make it uniquely suited to deal with moral experience in all its details, nuances, complexity, and messiness. "Through literature," Iris Murdoch writes, "we can re-discover a sense of the density in our lives" (Murdoch, 1997, p.293).

    To start with, many works of literature depict moral problems from the perspective of those who experience them in all their ambiguities and contradictions. Likewise, many works of literature ring more true to life than philosophy does because they presents a person's moral point of view in the context of the narrative or narratives that shape his or her self-understanding. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains:

    Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question, 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question, 'of what story or stories do I find myself a part?' (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 201)

    Many works of literature also present moral problems in terms of the histories, relationships, and conflicts of individuals and groups rather than just as dilemmas of solitary moral agents. Furthermore, many works of literature attend to the social context of moral problems. L'Opium et le baton's and The Plague's characters' moral dilemmas mirror the social and political conflicts of...

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