Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Teaching Ethics and Sustainability

I'm teaching a lower-level Introduction to Ethics course this year (4 or 5 times), and I have a grant to design it with a sustainability focus. A focus on sustainability fits well with RIT's recent (baby) steps toward energy conservation, and the school's "common book" this year is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy.

I'll use Deep Economy in the course alongside selections from classic primary texts (the usual suspects: Mill, Kant) and some recent but equally common selections on environmental ethics and lifeboat ethics.

I'm pleased with the university's pick of this common text because it provides a framework to bring a discussion of some of my long-time personal interests into the classroom--food ethics, media consolidation, and distributed power generation. There is a confluence, of course, between my pragmatic, pluralist, and empirical philosophical commitments and these issues. And the sustainability framework gives a reason to emphasize social/political philosophy as much as the standard ethical approaches (Aristotle, Kant, Mill). I also like having a unified problem-based framework rather than a grab-bag of issues, some of which seem outdated or distant from my (and my students') experience, such as euthanasia and capital punishment.

But designing the course is not without problems:
1. The problem of burn-out and closed-mindedness on environmental issues. Although I don't think these issues are strictly partisan, people who listen to conservative talk radio have been told that they are. And an Institute-wide emphasis on sustainability could make philosophy seem mainstream rather than exciting and subversive.

2. There are many special events coordinated by the university and related to the Deep Economy book and the topic of sustainability. Bill McKibben is coming to talk, and so is Peter Singer. There will be tours to local farms and to Ithaca's EcoVillage. I can't make these course requirements because of the time slots they are in. But the topic of the course lends itself well to experiential learning, and I can make that a requirement. However, I have large sections of this course--2 sections of 40 each--so I can't exercise the guidance that I do in an upper-level Environmental Philosophy course. How will self-guided experiential learning projects go over in a lower-level course? Does anyone have experience with this?

3. Of course, there are no ready-made textbooks. I'm putting together a coursepack and, even at this late date, would love to hear reading suggestions!


Brandon said...

It was a smaller course than yours, but I have taught an Intro Ethics course with a self-guided experiential learning project; for the most part it worked quite well. Basically students had to have some sort of volunteer experience during the term and give a report on it, describing their experience and using what they had learned in class to discuss different aspects of it. I had a back-up list of suitable volunteer opportunities, but although a few had to scramble a bit, all the students managed to pick suitable volunteer opportunities on their own. Most students identified it as one of the best and most educational parts of the courses. (Although there was a relatively high proportion of older and nontraditional students, so that may have been a factor. I also had two or three students who had started an ethics course before and withdrawn because they had disliked the format of the course; and I was told by them that my course was much more what they were hoping for in an ethics course, in part because of the volunteering project.) Things that I think helped make it a success:

(1) Students were explicitly given a lot of flexibility about what precisely they could choose, so (a) they didn't feel I was trying to ram one particular viewpoint down their throats -- and, as you say, there's always a danger of being interpreted that way even when you aren't; and (b) it reduced how much work I had to do to get the projects going and see them through, since a lot of it could then be the student's responsibility. Of course, the danger is always those few who procrastinate or run into unexpected difficulty, but, as I said, I had some Plan B's available.

(2) I gave lots of reminders to students about how they needed to be on the ball and how important it was to their grade.

(3) I gave the students guidelines for things to think about (topics, questions, etc.) during their experience, to help with writing up their report. I also emphasized the importance of finding out exactly what their volunteering was doing for the mission of the whole organization and for society as a whole. A lot of students liked this aspect of it, and I had several students who were already into volunteering who felt that this helped them see important parts of the experience that they would have otherwise missed.

Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks, Brandon! Great ideas, and I appreciate the encouragement - especially hearing that some students will appreciate the alternative to grades based on writing exams.

In my Environmental Philosophy class, I require a hands-on activity such as visiting the zoo or exploring local parks or wild areas. Students say it's the most memorable part of the course. And it reminds me of what I've done in ecology labs. Like you said, some of the results are flimsy and thin. But I think it's worth taking that risk.

I hadn't originally thought that I would make this explicitly a volunteering experience, but now I think I will make volunteering one of the options and give a lot of latitude.

Excellent suggestion about giving clear guidelines and questions. It's very easy with service learning to fail to help the students make the connection with the course.

Khadimir said...

What's "lifeboat ethics?"

And, I can't recall ever hearing of a course that goes over ethics that knowledgeable people would actually have--not Aristotle, Kant, or Mill?

Anyone heard of such an approach? I have been thinking that it might be an interesting proposal for an upper division ethics course, and might include Catholic variants of personalism, Catholic variants of natural law, Randian selfishness, contemporary sentimentalism, contemporary virtue theory, etc.

Evelyn Brister said...

Khadimir, there was a 1974 paper by Garrett Hardin called "Lifeboat Ethics" that was included in all the ethics textbooks in my generation (late 80's/early 90's). The metaphor is based on a lifeboat scenario: you can fit a certain number of people in the lifeboat before it sinks, and there are lots of shipwreck victims who will drown if you don't help them on board. The more people you bring on board, the less secure the future of those in it. The question, of course, is to what degree rich nations have obligations to poor nations.