Teaching Ethics Today

Today I am going to be dealing with how ethics is taught in schools today.

First I want to just mention that I think philosophy in general and ethics more specifically should be required courses at much lower levels than university undergraduates.

Now, the actual part:

Walking into seemingly any introduction to ethics course in university during the first few days of the semester will lead to you hearing the teacher supplying an “ethical dilemma” in the form of some sort of absurd and extreme situation.  Try it one day.  Two situations that seem quite popular are based upon train tracks.

The first situation is that you are in some form of control over a tracked vehicle: train, trolley, whatever so long as the vehicle is stuck on very specific paths and you cannot just drive around something like you, theoretically, could do in a normal car.  You, the driver/pilot/conductor (whatever you happen to want to be called), look up and notice on the tracks ahead of you is a young child/baby on the tracks and somehow unable to move off of the tracks, there is no way you can stop in time to not hit the child.  But, there is also a split in the tracks where you could keep going straight towards the child, or turn down another set of tracks and instead hit a larger group of people, say about 5 adults who also are incapable of moving.  You also happen to have the ability to hit a switch so your vehicle will go down that path instead; now choose who do you kill?

The other situation used is fairly similar: a tracked vehicle is still the main problem, only now you are outside of it and watching it hurtling towards a group of people.  You also happen to notice this incredibly large person nearby and if you roll them onto the tracks and into the path of the vehicle you can stop the others from being killed, but this large person is going to die.  Do you roll the larger person onto the track or not?

So, aside from just the absolute somewhat laughable absurdity of these situations, which admittedly I phrased to come off that way,  there are serious issues with using these types of situations as the introduction to ethical thinking.

The first issue is the absurdity and extremity of the situations themselves: these are simply not situations that arise in everyday life for most people.  Therefore, I think, they are not remotely applicable to real people as real ways to deal with ethical issues.  You can attempt to argue that they are akin to situations that could happen in real life: say you are driving a car and about to get in a crash, you can either aim for a car or a group of pedestrians.  But, in my opinion, these are similar situations in the characteristic of having two choices, both of which are not ideal, that is all though.  In this car wreck incident you have to take into account the fact that the pedestrians probably can and will move if they take notice of the situation, they are not magically stuck in place.  Also, the other person in the car can also notice the situation and will react accordingly changing the circumstances drastically.  Again, you can attempt to claim that both sets of people will not notice that you’re about to get in a wreck but you, as the driver, have a set of breaks which probably will be working and a horn which is loud and obnoxious.  Not to mention that in the end, the person in the car should be wearing their own seat-belt (it is assumed in all ethical dilemmas that the people are perfectly law abiding citizens in every way except those times they screw up to cause the dilemma) along with having a car that is designed to protect them in the event of a crash.  Also, who is going to take the time to try to reason through the decision anyway? It is going to be a reaction and it will be an automatic decision as to the best way to go, no logical discussion involved.

This lack of reasoning is the second issue with these extreme situations.  They are designed to create a reaction in people, no one reacts logically, they react spontaneously, emotionally, instinctually, no one reacts by wondering “hmmm, what is the best option?” and taking the time to consider the situation.  By basic understanding, reactions are not logical, not philosophical meaning not helpful in dealing with ethics.  You can propose these situations and have a group argue it out as to what is the better choice, but they are using reasons to attempt to justify their reactions not to actually come to a decision about the better option.  The people will be split up according to what their “gut instinct” says is the better option and then they will attempt to justify it after the fact.  This is useless for ethics, ethics is supposed to help a person make a decision, not just justify it later on.  Ethics should be a priori not a posteriori.

Finally, no matter what anyone claims, you cannot spend your life considering every decision in a rational discussion as people attempt to do in these ethical dilemma examples.  You would die before you could figure out what to wear, and if you did make it past that, food.  There could be so many ethical issues in dealing with food it would take probably three lifetimes to make any head-way in that part of life.  As such, ethics should be more of a lifestyle, not a decision making apparatus, you simply cannot try to deal with every single situation ethically.  It is sort of like programming: you cannot build a program that deals with every single situation individually, you have to build up a set of rules by which most situations are dealt with automatically and then deal with the unique circumstances as they come.  Sorry, you have to put some parts of life on auto-pilot in order to live a fulfilling life overall, just how it works.

So, I will now propose a new type of ethical dilemma by which to deal with ethics.  This is a much simpler situation, in my opinion.  You are walking to class, as a university student (a.k.a. in North America, you are paying a lot of money for this class you cannot afford to just skip them always and fail) and you notice someone is trying to probably get to work and their car is stuck.  Do you just keep walking or actually stop and help them?  This is the sort of decision that has to be made in real life, so what would you actually decide?

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