A Field Guide: A First Sketch

This blog grew out of an idea I had, sometime last year, to write a Field Guide to Basic Values for use in my ethics courses, building on the idea of attuned awareness to which I referred in my previous post.

I once used this analogy with students:

There are no doubt some people who can walk outside on a morning in spring and simply not notice that birds are singing. Others might notice, but it might seem to them an undifferentiated sound to be filed under the general heading, “bird song.” A few, if they have any practice at all in birding – observing and identifying birds – will pick out the songs of individual birds, identify them by species, or even by variant, and note the ones they can’t identify just now. When I hear the call or the song of an unfamiliar bird, I immediately long for my binoculars and field guide.

I suggested that, as a matter of lived experience, ethics is much the same.

In any given situation, some might perceive nothing of any ethical interest, some might have a sense that there’s something important about the situation, that a decision involving some kinds of values may be called for, and some who might be able to give names to this or that particular ethical value that is in play.

What I would like my students to aspire to is a more finely tuned awareness, and a curiosity about basic values that might have them reaching for their equivalent of binoculars and field guide, whatever frameworks of meaning and value they have available for making sense of complex situations.

And so, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to actually produce a field guide for my students’ use, and perhaps for use by others as well. It would be, above all, a practical guide to ethical awareness, with a focus on identifying and differentiating the various kinds of basic values.

I even imagine a taxonomy, inspired by the work of Anthony Weston, built around broad families of values to which I have already referred in this blog: the good, the right, virtue, and care.

(There are other ways to divide of value – perhaps justice should be a separate family? – but I have found this four-way split a useful starting point.)

The field-guide project has not yet advanced beyond the stage of a first sketch, really just some notes jotted down. I’m not yet convinced it’s a viable project.

(It may be that this blog will help me determine the viability of the project.)

Here, unedited, are a few preliminary notes on the way to a preface:

the story of how this book came about – in the context of practical ethics courses at Georgia Tech. Problem-based learning; ongoing, iterative design process.

Focus on a particular set of cognitive skills involved in critical inquiry in practical ethics . . . finding a closer and closer fit between learning outcomes, assignments and assessment . . .

Not opinion, not problem-solving per se, but something prior to all that, more basic: explore a messy problem situation in depth, generate an array of options, and consider the implications of each option, one way and another, without coming to conclusions.

They can come to conclusions, I tell them, on their own time.

The point of this – isolate skills of ethical perception and imagination in the complexity of human experience of the world . . . an emphasis on particularity rather than abstraction . . .

Theory serves as a set of tools for perception and imagination . . .

Combatting the tendency to fortify opinion, to stop at conventional rules.

what I was asking from students was really a kind of list of concrete instances of basic values that fall out of the various options they consider: not the conclusion that the option increases net utility, for example, but that this person over here may be worse off in this particular way, while that person over there might be better off in that particular way.

Reaching for ways to express this to students, I hit on an analogy with a pastime from my youth, one that has largely fallen into neglect, but which I revive from time to time: birding.  The point is to be able to identify a particular bird in a particular setting, and to develop a sense how it came to be where it is, how it fits into its habitat, what its habits and tendencies are.

What you all need, I found myself saying aloud to my students, is a field guide to basic values.

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