Sunday, September 06, 2009

Scanlon on Rational Revision

What's the best way to introduce undergrads to the idea that one can reason about ethical questions? Suggestions welcome. In the meantime, here's a nice passage from Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other (pp.66-67):

"What grounds can I have for deciding that I was mistaken to think that something was a reason? How can I be justified in calling this a process of correction rather than merely a change in my reaction? To answer this we need to see what such a process may involve.

Suppose, for example, that you are enraged by your child's defiant and insolent behavior. This behavior seems to you a reason to strike the child. But is it a reason? What kind of reason would it be? Is violence appropriate because it creates fear or shows your power? Why is that desirable? Is it supposed to be good for the child, or simply to demonstrate something about you? If the latter, what does that imply or signify about your relations with the child? If the former, why think that the effects will be good? What alternatives are there, and what would their effects be? The process here is first to clarify what kind of reason this is supposed to be and then to see whether the initial tendency to take this as a reason stands the test of reflection. ...

[H]ow does the process that you went through support you in taking the later judgment to be the one that is correct? Here are two reasons. First, the later conclusion is supported by a clearer and more detailed conception of what the reason in question might be -- of exactly what it is that is supposed to count in favor of striking the child. Second, in virtue of this reflection, it is less likely to be affected by distorting factors such as your rage."


  1. I assume your original question is exactly what you say is "that we can reason about ethics" (i.e. its possible), not "we ought to reason about ethics" and the issue here is about teaching this to undergraduates.

    My best attempt at this was to take a different angle. When teaching undergraduate courses in ethics the relativist seems to loom large. Thus, I try to rhetorically, through examples, establish something different in the first couple of classes: we, us humans, are always taking stances on ethical questions. I also avoid all talk about whether this can be ultimately justified. The words "justification" and "reason" seem to be conversation killers.

    Basically, I am trying to establish what I take to be an observational truth - we humans are always taking stances on ethical questions - and this phenomenon (restricted to a problem area) will be our subject matter for the entire course.

    I showed my students last time this little commercial, which I believe was a Swedish public service announcement:

    Its a funny and relevant. Next, I have a list of scenarios that show how pervasive moral reasoning is (they are rather quotidian and everyone gives, basically, the same simple answer). Next, I give some historical examples (nothing crazy) that show where we think morally reasoning to have gone terribly astray. Then, we go through some scenarios (difficult ones that will parallel the topic of the course) that generally cause some strident disagreement among the students. I let them debate a little. Hopefully, the scenarios are relevant enough that most of the students think that we should have straight forward answers to them (as they did in the straight forward scenarios).

    The last movement, then, should rhetorically establish not that we can reason about ethical questions but, rather, that there are ethical questions and concerns that demand the attention of your most precise thinking/reason.

    If the relativist jumps in here, you now have him at a rhetorical disadvantage; he has to acknowledge that there is no answer to the relevant ethical questions that we disagree about. Moreover, he asserts it without having looked for a reasoned answer to the admittedly open ethical questions.

    It worked pretty well.

    There's my two cents.

  2. I teach a combined politics/ethics intro course. So, I have a bit of an advantage when it comes to convincing undergrads we can reason about ethics. They're oddly quite open to the idea that we can reason about politics -- we can have sensible discussions about the role of government, limits of liberty, etc. It's then just a hop and a skip to the underlying ethical questions which are driving a lot of our disagreements. Students seem to make the necessary connection there: since the underlying ethical disagreements are what leads us to disagree about politics, and since we can reason about politics, then we can reason about ethics, too.

    It's when I try to tackle metaethics head-on -- so, say, the issue of m/e relativism -- that things go south. Somehow, I haven't yet been able to bridge the gap in the same way: that what drives a number of ethical disagreements is that we're disagreeing about something metaethical. Got a new idea I'm trying this semester, though, so I'll have to see how it goes.


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