Religious conservatives often complain that the public schools in America are values-free, and does not instruct students in personal responsibility or moral conduct. Of course, they would like the opportunity to squeeze religious indoctrination into the curriculum, but I think it would be worthwhile to provide instruction in moral reasoning that introduces basic concepts and the major ethical systems.

My thought is that the class should be presented a moral dilemma (more realistic than the subject of the ‘A tough decision?’ folder.) The class should have a discussion, and then should hear (or read) answers from different ethical perspectives. They should learn the characteristics of moral reasoning from the perspective of a utilitarian, a rationalist, a pragmatist, or from religious or humanistic values. The discussion questions should of course be age appropriate.

Any thoughts? Any suggestions for moral dilemmas that would bring out the differences between the different lines of moral reasoning?

Tags: ethics

Views: 6

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

When I first came across this, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of years ago, it really had me stumped. I'm a consequentialist, sothe conclusion in each case was very simple: One person dies so that five people will live. Then I read that, when they would have to push a person off the bridge to save the five, 80% of respondents would let the five people die, I strugled to figure out the difference. One dies, five live. One dies, five live. For the life of me, I could not see how one could avoid throwing the one fat guy off the bridge. So it surprised me to read that the authors of the test thought that the answer, which was unthinkable to me, was "hard-wired."

I think it shows that ethical training does have an effect. I've accustomed myself to consequential reasoning, so that now it is most natural for me.
How about the situation that Dawkins mentions in The God Delusion, in which there are five patients in the hospital that need organ transplants (each needing a different organ...heart, kidney, lung, pancreas, liver). They all have the same blood type. If they don't get a transplant in the next few hours, they will die. A man comes into the hospital with, say, a broken leg and happens to have the same blood type as the patients needing transplants. Is it okay to kill him and take his organs in order to save the five other patients?
A medical person would say first do no harm.
A guy with a broken leg (or one of the doctors for that matter) would say that murder for harvest is essentially punishment for no reason.
A philosopher might note that bad things that happen for no reason are considered to be morally superior than bad things that one inflicts for any purpose, even an arguably ethical purpose.
A more interesting ethical argument is this. 5 people need a transplant and a perfectly healthy man walks in and says "I'd like to save the lives of five people. Please kill me and harvest my organs." Should the doctors comply?
My point was in reply to George's statement of not seeing a difference between diverting the track to save 5 people and pushing a man off a bridge to save 5 people. Pushing a man off a bridge to save 5 others is just as much a punishment for no reason as killing a man for his organs to save 5 others.

Also, why push another man off the bridge when you could jump yourself and possibly stop the train?
That is an excellent point, Freethinker. The life of the moral agent is of no greater value than that of the man standing with him on the bridge.

Freethinker and Jason Torpy, I think that these are excellent questions for ethics study for higher grades, in junior high school or high school. It would be instructive for them read the different perspectives of a consequentialist and a deontologist.
Here's an example I've made up.

A man is dying and is making a will. He needs to decide who to leave his money to. He is a widower with one adult, unmarried daughter who lives with him. He is considering whether he should leave all of his money to his daughter or whether he he leave all his money to a charity dedicated to providing vaccines to poor children around the world, where his money can be expected to prevent at least two or three children from dying from a deadly disease, or whether he should leave some of his money to his daughter and some of his money to the charity.

Who do you think he should leave his money to in the following sets of circumstances:

(i) his daughter has a well-earning job but she would appreciate the money and her feelings may be hurt if he left her with nothing;
(ii) his daughter has a learning difficulty and can only keep a low paid job. Without his money she would not starve but her standard of living after his death would be substantially lower than what she has become accustomed to throughout her life;
(iii) his daughter cannot earn at all as she is severely disabled and could starve without the money;
(iv) would your answer to any of (i) to (iii) change if he had told his daughter that he would leave all his money to her?
(v) assume he had told his daughter that he would leave all his money to her and, at his request, she had sacrificed her career to look after him during his long illness;
(vi) would your answers to any of (i) to (v) change if the man had got all of his money from an inheritance from his father?
What points are you trying to make about moral reasoning and obligation?
I think that the most likely answer that a strict utilitarian would give to each of the above questions would be that the money should be given to charity (unless the utilitarian made a rather complicated argument that putting family first / keeping promises would in the long run lead to the greatest good for the greatest number).
So I am pitting utilitarianism against :
(i) family ties / obligations to support [Questions (i) to (iii)];
(ii) prior promises [questions (iv) and (v)]
Question (vi) perhaps provides an opportunity to discuss rationalism. The man's actions do not suggest that he would want a decision to give all of his money to charity to be made a universal law because he was seemingly happy to keep his inheritance from his father rather than, say, giving it to charity.
Since a utilitarian considers the morally correct action to be the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number, he cannot count the interests of the members of his family – or even his own interest – with greater weight than anyone else’s. So any selfish action, favoring himself or his family, at the expense of a widespread benefit to others, requires a special justification,

Peter Singer takes this seriously, and donates a large portion of his income to Oxfam America each month. But a reasonable ethical question is, where does he draw the line? Why should he not donate all of his income to Oxfam? Obviously if he starves his charitable donations will come to an end, but at least it seems to show that a utilitarian is obligated to an austere life.

I think there is a folder somewhere on Atheist Nexus that asks if marriage is moral. I’ve wondered that myself. Marriage obligates a person to take care of the material needs and happiness of his spouse and children. He therefore has, because of marriage, a diminished ability for self-sacrifice.

Do you think that a Christian or a Rationalist or Pragmatist or a person who bases his morality on Humanistic values would handle your question differently than a Utilitarian?
I haven't come across any Christian writings on the issue but here is a Jewish perspective. It clearly recognizes the existence of special obligations between family members. I'm not Jewish so I'll just quote:

From the book by Goldstein, W Defending the Human Spirit : Jewish Law's Vision for a Moral Society, Feldheim Publishers 2006 :

"An important and unique feature of Jewish law's welfare provisions is the dual public/private nature of tsedakah. Each individual is legally obligated to give of his resources to the poor, yet the distribution of the poverty relief funds takes place at two levels: private and public. Private distribution takes place from one individual to another, while public distribution takes place from a public welfare institution to the poor ... The advantage of private welfare is that it is direct and therefore cost-effective because money is not wasted on financing a large bureaucracy. Furthermore, it pinpoints the needs of the recipient exactly and can be tailored accordingly. On the other hand, public welfare has advantages in that it should ensure that nobody slips through the welfare net and that it is more dignified for a poor person to receive from a public institution than from a private individual" pgs 407 - 409

"Private welfare funds can be distributed at the discretion of the donor, whose primary responsibility lies with close family but who is also encouraged to distribute such funds as widely as possible after a large portion has been set aside for indigent relatives" pg 416

With regard to the Humanist approach, I think that a Humanist may query whether your Utilitarian perspective adequately takes into account the human condition. The Humanist may argue that kinship ties exist across cultures and may query whether it is realistic to demand that a person give the same weight to interests of remote and unidentified persons as to the person's immediate kin. The Humanist may argue that in practice empathy and altruism in a child is generally developed in the context family relationships and that the weakening of family bonds may result in less empathy and altruism of any kind. Thus, a Humanist may be receptive to the recognition of the existence of special obligations between family members.

Pragmatism, as I understand it, promotes an empirical approach to identifying worthwhile values and to choosing actions to promote such values, while taking into account what has appeared to work in the past. Although I think that the Pragmatist would be sympathetic to both the concerns of the Utilitarian to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number and the concerns of the Humanist as set out above, I think that the Pragmatist would tend to differ from the Utilitarian in giving more weight to the fact that both presently and in the past societies have recognized the existence of special obligations between family members, and in tending to presume that the conventionally recognised good provides the maximum satisfaction in the long run.
You’ve convinced me that it would be good to have the ethics instruction include examples of favoritism for family members. The students would benefit from being exposed to the different conclusions reached by differing schools of ethical reasoning.

I don’t think that the problem should be addressed strictly to utilitarians, as you indicated earlier, because it presumes a preference for family members that conflicts with the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. But, as you point out, your example can be stated to point out the differences between utilitarianism and other perspectives such as humanism and pragmatism.
The responses so far have been about what kind of ethics to teach. That is definitely a difficult question.

This reaches a fundamental issue with the American educational system. A simple way to look at it is reading, writin', and 'rithmatic. The three Rs and rote memorization are the heritage of our educational system.

What you're suggesting here, rational thinking methods, would be a great thing. That plus skeptical inquiry and the scientific method would teach kids out to think. Teaching methods rather than memorization would be a great improvement on what we have now. It would also give subject matter that would facilitate a departure from test-based evaluations and favor one based more on learning (rather than evaluating).

RSS

Support Atheist Nexus

Donate Today

Donate

 

Help Nexus When You Buy From Amazon

Amazon

AJY

 

Latest Activity

Loren Miller commented on Loren Miller's photo
14 minutes ago
Luara commented on Loren Miller's photo
19 minutes ago
Grinning Cat commented on Claire Donnelly's group LGBTQI atheists, nontheists, and friends
23 minutes ago
James M. Martin commented on Claire Donnelly's group LGBTQI atheists, nontheists, and friends
32 minutes ago
James M. Martin replied to James M. Martin's discussion Because Men and Women Had Shameful Same Sex Lusts, God Created Them as Gay and Lesbian (Please Pick Me Up Off the Floor When I Quit Laughing)
39 minutes ago
James M. Martin replied to James M. Martin's discussion Because Men and Women Had Shameful Same Sex Lusts, God Created Them as Gay and Lesbian (Please Pick Me Up Off the Floor When I Quit Laughing)
43 minutes ago
Patricia commented on Sentient Biped's group Godless in the garden
45 minutes ago
Michael Penn replied to James M. Martin's discussion Because Men and Women Had Shameful Same Sex Lusts, God Created Them as Gay and Lesbian (Please Pick Me Up Off the Floor When I Quit Laughing)
46 minutes ago
Loren Miller commented on Loren Miller's photo
55 minutes ago
Morrigan Wolf joined Claire Donnelly's group
1 hour ago
Freethinker 31 replied to James M. Martin's discussion Because Men and Women Had Shameful Same Sex Lusts, God Created Them as Gay and Lesbian (Please Pick Me Up Off the Floor When I Quit Laughing)
1 hour ago
Grinning Cat commented on Loren Miller's photo
1 hour ago

© 2014   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: Richard Haynes.

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service