Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Syllabus idea: "Making a Difference"

I think a lot of people -- and perhaps especially college undergrads -- want their lives to "make a difference". So I think it'd be a lot of fun to design a practical ethics course around this theme.

We might begin by asking Why Make a Difference?, with possible answers including Singer-style moral demands, along with more self-centered arguments concerning what it takes to lead a genuinely meaningful life (cf. Nozick's experience machine).

A second brief section on Maximizing Impact would start students thinking rigorously about practical matters by introducing insights from the likes of GiveWell on charity evaluation (e.g. why 'overhead' is not a good measure of impact, why 'room for more funding' is important, etc.) and 80k hours on career choice.

The bulk of the course would then explore a range of broad "causes" that have at least a prima facie claim to being of great importance. We'd need to examine both empirical evidence (to get a better sense of the facts relating to the issue) and fundamentally philosophical arguments (concerning the normative significance of those facts). Candidate "causes" might include:
* Global poverty
* Animal welfare
* Abortion
* Immigration reform
* Prison reform
* The "War on Drugs"
* Pacifism and War
* Environmentalism / Global Warming
* Existential Risk

... along with more "topic-neutral" / indirect / procedural improvements like:
* Research
* Education
* Institutional reform (e.g. Lessig on corruption)

Of course, thus far the course has mostly interpreted "making a difference" in broadly utilitarian terms. So I think it would be good to wrap up with a section exploring Competing Ideals, e.g.:
- Should we favour our “nearest and dearest”? (Agent-relative value)
- The Simple Life (Agrarianism?)
- Art, Faith, and the Sublime (Perfectionism)

Any thoughts? Suggestions -- whether for fleshing out some of the above ideas, supplementing them with further ideas, or restructuring / developing the theme in a different direction -- would be most welcome!


  1. I have pretty much this exact same idea. I think it would be a blast to teach, and I think a lot of students would be pretty into it. If you do this, I think it would be great to put huge amounts of course material online. If it were a big success, I think something like this would be great as a giant online course.

  2. It would be a useful course. But would it help students send desired signals to future employers and mates? There are after all lots of useful things colleges could teach, but don't.

  3. I'm a high school math teacher (did philosophy as an undergrad) and I'm putting something similar to this together for this next year. I've blogged about it here:

    1. Well, maybe I was a bit rash in saying that my course is similar to the course you're discussing.

  4. Asking 'what does a difference look like?' could create some space to historically examine people (great white men?) who have made a difference, and the motivations that drove them.

    Also, in regards to asking 'why make a difference?', it is might be worth taking to time to step back and examine today's neoliberal world of personal responsibility, in which we are told the task of fixing the world falls on every kids shoulders (unfortunately crushing a lot of them).

  5. Why not a discussion of modern politics including discussions of NGO/Non-profit/Foundation politics, party politics, and issue politics? In addition, you could create a space to talk about the international NGO system (with the UN and US Government at its top) and how that creates paths of 'optimal' development.

    I'm thinking specifically of a discussion of the difference between macro/wholesale change and micro/retail change.

  6. Sounds awesome. You might also address the common worry: I'm just one person; can I really make a difference (or the related thought: I'm just one person, does it really matter what I do)?

    Lots of good stuff about voting, the environment, vegetarianism. There's Kagan's recent PPA piece and Nefsky's reply, lots on the rationality of voting, Unger's discussions in the first chapters of LHLD, interesting stuff on collective action problems and the tragedy of the commons...

  7. For my general ethics course I have a service learning component -- they volunteer somewhere (student's responsibility to decide where; there are very, very broad guidelines, but I keep it pretty open -- but for a course like the one you're suggesting you would need to be a bit more specific) and do a journal and class presentation relating it to what we discuss in the course. It's a lot of work to design and integrate properly into the course, but (1) it keeps thematerial of the course from being purely classroom speculation and discussion, forcing students to think in terms of relevance-to-practice not just in the abstract (which is the level too many ethics courses stay at) but also in the concrete; (2) students almost always end up liking it quite a bit; and (3) makes it possible for students actually to be doing ethically significant activities in their ethics course, which is the main reason I started doing it. If the journals are to be trusted, it also makes clear that actually improving the world isn't just about ideals and good intentions but also about navigating practical details.

  8. Something on the ethics of care could go in too, as a competing ideal (possibility under "nearest and dearest", I suppose, but I would think it could sustain itself as a topic).

  9. Maybe add Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a how to manual.

  10. This sounds great! We'd love to chat to you at 80k - we've got 1-2 people working on the cause selection content. Drop me an email.

  11. Maybe it's because I already have an employer and a mate, but the course sounds great to me. I'm interested in some of the "indirect" questions -- whether things like large-scale cabalistic cultural interventions (Zeitgeist Engineering, you might call it) could be pulled off by people like us and our friends and our friends' friends. I'm also interested in some of the classic consequentialism vs. non-consequentialism questions -- is ecoterrorism ever justified? What about forcible enhancement of people's empathetic capabilities?

    1. Hmm, yeah, moral enhancement could be another fun topic to add to the "indirect" list.


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