Mar 3, 2012

Teaching (Virtue) Ethics: Goods and Values

Last semester, I started teaching Ethics classes for Marist College, and continued it this semester, even picking up an online Ethics class as well, which started in earnest today.  I have to say that, after three years at my previous position confined to teaching mainly just slews of Critical Thinking sections, occasionally punctuated with an "upper-level" (even Intro to Philosophy was dubiously granted that title) class, if it made enrollment -- tough to do with no actual major in Philosophy -- where one of the older profs had staked out Ethics as "her" class, it's really refreshing to be teaching and designing Ethics courses again.

My teaching career actually began more than a decade ago with Ethics, and it was a staple course for me at every other place I taught besides FSU -- a big state university,  a small community college, an extension campus, a struggling 4-year liberal arts college, a prison degree program.  At one time, I worried about being confined to the "Ethics Ghetto" -- not getting to teach what, at the time, seemed more interesting and exotic courses, where I'd have interested philosophy majors rather than students struggling through a required course.  Now, my outlook is very different.  There's nothing like being sent down yet further to make one appreciate what one previously took for granted -- but at FSU, I finally grasped the importance of teaching non-majors in core Philosophy classes, and also incidentally learned how to do it fairly well.

The Marist classes use a course management system which they call iLearn -- really a version of Sakai, an open source CMS platform.  I'd gotten into placing as much of my classes as possible into a similar system, Blackboard -- assignments, course materials, schedule, resources, and the like -- and decided that now at Marist, I'd invest the time and effort to produce a really outstanding learning environment to support my in-class sessions.  I can't say that I'm even close to that yet, but I do keep adding more and more content, linking further resources, opening more discussion forums, designing new modules -- rethinking, even soliciting student input on, how best to teach ethics partly in class, but in large part online to the new, supposed (I'll write another post on this either here or in Orexis Dianoētikē) "digital natives," the students of today and of the future (cue booming narrator's voice, gaze off into the horizon. . . )

This sort of course design and content development consumes an awful lot of time and energy -- so much more than taking the traditional path of assigning a textbook and readings, coming in to lecture or lead learning exercises, collecting and grading occasional paper assignments -- and I've found correspondingly less time for reading, academic writing, blogging, even collegial correspondence.  At the same time, since I'm devoting such a high proportion of the limited thought I have to contribute to working out how better to teach Ethics to non-philosophers, it occurs to me, as I look at a section I wrote today, that perhaps some of this material could be good to embed in my blogs -- that some of it might prove to be of interest or use to at least a few of my readers.

So, without further ado, description, or narrative, I'm going to embark on a small experiment here of providing the content of one of the introductory sections I have students read through, preparation prior to passing the thresholds of actual texts or of my classroom doorway.  I unashamedly stack the deck, skew the study, in favor of a Virtue Ethics perspective in how I present and parse the key concepts of Ethics -- but perhaps that only becomes apparent once one is already at least knee deep in moral theory. . . . .  In any case, here it is -- the first part of that section:

The field of Ethics has been studied systematically by philosophers for roughly 2,400 years -- and the ideas and issues which those philosophers were grappling with and exploring were already reflected not only in the debates and discussions, the ordinary everyday practices, the key kinds of decisions and commitments that human beings find themselves forced to make -- but also in literature already existing at the time.  

Certain very important ideas show up over and over again in literature, in drama, in politics, in religious texts, and in philosophy -- key ideas which Ethics examines.  Why do they show up perennially and across cultures?  Because they are really central to the kind of being which we are -- human beings, or to use one common philosophical definition, "mortal rational animals."  So, it is worth thinking about these a bit before you start heading in to study specific texts, authors, and moral theories.

Moral Values:
Certain value-terms which we use are distinctly moral terms.  When we use them, we are ascribing a kind or mode of value -- roughly speaking, a kind of goodness or badness -- to the thing or person we are talking about.  These often occur in oppositions to each other.  Some of those which, for instance Aristotle, distinguishes are:
  • the pleasant and the painful (or unpleasant)
  • the useful (or profitable, expedient) and the harmful
  • the just (or right, fair, legal) and the unjust
  • the noble (or beautiful, fine) and the base (or ugly)
  • the good (in a broad sense) and the bad or evil
These all fall within the scope of Ethics.  Other thinkers distinguish and tell us about other moral values.  For instance, Epictetus writes of
  • the appropriate (or befitting) and the inappropriate
He makes a distinction in using these terms which you can see other authors, like Thomas Aquinas, making as well.  Plato writes -- in a dialogue which we are not going to read for this class -- about:
  • the pious (or holy) and impious (or unholy)
Others might speak of:
  • the praiseworthy (or socially approved) and the blameworthy
  • the healthy (or life-affirming, etc) and unhealthy
Ethics is concerned in one way or another about all of these values.  Not every moral theory will regard or understand these in the same ways.

Moral Evaluation or Judgement:
We engage in moral evaluation -- or can be said to be making a moral judgement, when we are saying that some thing or person, arrangement, action, etc. is good or bad, right or wrong, in the various ways we've looked at above.  Another way of thinking about this is that we are ascribing a moral value to the matter in question.

Moral judgements or evaluations may be made in a variety of ways or on a variety of different bases. 
  • We may have some sort of rule, like "stealing is bad," or "cheating on one's spouse is dishonorable," which we then apply to the matter we are judging
  • We may be told or informed about the value of something, and just take that information for granted
  • We may be involved experientially with the matter, and we experience it as, e.g. pleasurable or painful, noble or base.
  • We might reason about the matter and come to some sort of conclusion, realizing, for instance, that something we previously thought of as just bad is actually something good, because it is useful.
It should go without saying -- but probably doesn't! -- that we and other people can quite often be wrong in our moral evaluations.

 Goods and Values:
Things, persons, events and experiences, relationships, etc. which we call or regard as good or bad in some sense correspond to these values -- so we can say that some things are good in this or that way, and other things are bad in this or that way.  Or, we can say that something is good in one way, but bad in another,  for instance being pleurable but harmful and wrong.

It should be pointed out that not everyone agrees on what values apply to what good or bad things.  For example, if someone sees using violence against others as something noble and right -- good in those senses -- someone else (particularly the person suffering the violence!) may regard such behavior, and the character of the person engaging in it, as ignoble or base, morally ugly, and wrong. 

Often, when we're doing Ethics, we'll speak in terms of goods and bads (or evils) -- or good things and bad things -- rather than in terms of values.  In fact, use of the term "value" in moral theory is relatively recent (starting in the 1800s).  So, we might for instance, speak of the "good of truth," or of honesty  as "a good thing," when we might just as well say that it as this positive value.  You'll also notice some of the authors just talking about "the pleasant" -- meaning a thing that is good in that way, which has that value -- or "the painful."

Goods and Desires:
Another way of thinking about various goods -- and also bad things or evils -- is in terms of our desires, and desires in general.  Desire is something which we feel, which motivates us -- but also something which we can think about and talk about.  One way in which we grasp something as good or as bad is precisely through our desires, our attitude, our affective stance, towards it. 

If we grasp something as good, we desire it -- we want to have it, produce it, enjoy it.  We may even want others to have it, want it to exist (even if we're not enjoying it ourselves).  If we grasp something as bad, we desire not to have it, to experience it, to suffer it -- we call that being averse to it.

It is very important to point out that we can be mixed up in our desires and aversions.  If we examine and think about ourselves, we might realize that we desire or value some things too highly, more than we should, to a greater degree than we ought to -- or conversely, that we desire or value some things too little, less than we ought to. 

Basic Categories of Goods:
There are a number of general categories or kinds of goods that have been recognized and discussed by major moral theories and theorists since ancient times.  Even though our technology has vastly expanded, our cultures are quite different, our standard of living is unthinkably higher, some things about us have not changed greatly since Antiquity.  Human beings still do tend to desire and pursue the same basic kinds of goods.  So, what are they?
  • Wealth, Property,  or Possessions
  • Health of the Body, Physical Strength
  • Physical Beauty or Good Looks
  • Pleasures of all different sorts, including food, drink, sex, entertainment
  • Honor, Reputation, Being Admired 
  • Power over other people, Political Office
  • Security, being protected
  • Freedom
  • Peace, Not Being Troubled, Leisure
  • Virtues or good moral qualities
  • Duty, Doing what is Right
  • Doing or Having Satisfying Work
  • Wisdom or Knowledge
  • Loving or Being Loved
  • Friendship, Family, and Other Relationships
  • God or the Divine, being in relationship with God
Another overarching good which different moral theories understand in different ways is Happiness -- often viewed as consisting in one or some of these categories of goods.

The Plurality or Unity of Goods:
Some moral theorists and theories think that all goodness and badness ultimately boils down to one kind of goodness or badness -- one range of value.  Hedonists for instance -- those who believe that the good is pleasure and the bad is pain -- reduce all other ranges of value, all other ways of being good or bad, to either pleasure and pain, or to what leads to pleasure and pain.  In this case, we can talk about that theory as asserting the "Unity of the Good"

Other moral theories assert a "Plurality of Goods", meaning that in their views, there are multiple different kinds of good things, and correspondingly kinds of bad things.  Aristotle, for example, in regarding Wealth, Honor, Health, Pleasure, Understanding or Knowledge, Friendship and Virtue as different goods, doesn't reduce these to each other.  They don't have the same worth as each other, and they're not all goods in the same way or for the same reasons.


  1. I love it. Let me see if I have the basic point? Virtue is inherently good while honor can change based on societal trends? Please follow me on Twitter btw. TimothyDCole1 . I'm a public school teacher so my tweets are protected and I don't think you can read any responses on there lol. I appreciate the videos you post to YouTube btw!

  2. This was supposed to be a response to the blog that you did on honor and virtue btw. It redirected my comment here and I don't know how to navigate back lol

  3. Thanks, Timothy. Not sure why Blogger would have bounced your comment on the post on honor to this one -- if you try posting there again, I'm game to engage in conversation on that one as well.

    But just in case there's something screwy with the blog -- yes, you've got the point. Virtue -- if it really is genuine virtue and not some facsimile (Aristotle and other Virtue Ethicists caution us against some of these) -- is inherently good, as well as producing good effects, being socially approved (that is, until you cross the wrong people by being virtuous!), etc.

    Honor is rather unreliable -- some societies are going to honor things that really ought not be -- and again to bring Aristotle in, what is that we want when we look for honor? We want something from others, rather than in us -- and it's dependent upon them.