ethics, politics, and pedagogics

I’ve come to the end of our 3-day ethics institute at Cortland. There was much interesting conversation. I think however that we skirted the rather difficult issue of how ethics and politics interested, particularly (in our case) in making decisions about pedagogy.

So for example, as a professor (or generally as a thoughtful human being) one is likely to hold strong beliefs about what we should do about any number of social problems. One likely also has strong beliefs about how we should act toward one another as individuals, groups, and nations. You could call these ethical positions. They are also clearly political positions. Usually the distinction is just semantic. But in school we say it’s OK to teach students to be ethical but certainly not OK to try to convince students to hold a particular political position. This can result in a situation where faculty seek to articulate the teaching of their beliefs as the teaching of ethics.

The institute was helpful for me because it helped to recall some fundamental issues that differentiate ideology, politics, and ethics.

  1. "Statements of fact" are not political or ethical statements, though they are certainly ideological and have political and ethical implications. For example, if I say "white people are ________," that’s a statement of fact. It can be disputed as to its accuracy as a fact, but it is a declaration about the world that is.
  2. Ethical or political statements are statements about how the world should be or ought to be: e.g. "White people should _______."

One can quibble with this and deconstruct these categories, but I find them useful, as I’ll demonstrate here. Sometimes statements of fact boil down to religious beliefs (i.e. believing in an afterlife).  In many cases though, one can contend with an ethical argument by assailing underlying statements of fact. What is also interesting though is that one cannot reach an ethical conclusion based solely on factual statements. Here’s an example from the institute:

  • I gave you a quarter yesterday.
  • You said you would pay me back today.
  • You have a quarter in your pocket.

You can keep adding statements of fact but you can never conclude that you should give me my quarter, unless you also include another ethical statement (e.g. "you should keep your promises."). As such you can also look for the underlying or implied ethical statement in an argument with an ethical conclusion.

These are all possible sites for intervention. The interesting question is should professors intervene?

American students, like most Americans, have occasion to state racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and generally anti-intellectual views. Sometimes these views are based upon empirical statements of fact that can be countered on an empirical level. Many other times they are based on religious beliefs or ideological imperatives (e.g. values of autonomy/individuality). Generally we say the former should not be critiqued. Of late, some have argued that they latter should also be sacrosanct.

Arguments that say we should "respect" others’ religious and political beliefs are finally grounded on the idea that all worldviews are equal. This is a statement of fact that can be contested, beginning by investigating what we mean by "equal."

But this does nothing to answer the question of whether we should intervene. Do we have some kind of ethical imperative to intervene? A professional duty to do so? Are we obligated in the name of human rights? Do we view are intervention as ethical on the grounds of where we believe intervention will lead?

Or perhaps we allow our daily ethical practices to guide us in each moment to make such choices. After all, ethics, at least to me, is about action in the present moment. It is not about speculation or belief.

As I am writing this, I am mulling over an ethical dilemma at work. It’s not about my teaching so much as about institutional policy. I’m not going to discuss it here. At least not now. However, I am curious as to how others approach these kinds of questions.

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