Reading Aristotle with Engineers

Since I switched to problem-based learning in my ethics classes, I’ve been experimenting with different ways of introducing my students to ethical theory as such and helping them to develop a working knowledge of a small handful of particular theories.

Part of my struggle in the past has been with trying to have them start using three different theories at once, at least so far as to be able to make distinctions among the good, the right, and virtue. For this, I used Anthony Weston’s 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (Oxford), especially the chapters on families of moral values and subsequent chapters on theories.

Since the courses were arranged as a kind of spiral, and because ours was to be a practical engagement with theory, all they needed at first was a broad approximation, with further refinements coming along later as we dug more deeply into more complex problem situations.

When I say ours was to be a practical engagement with theory, I mean that what I expected of my students was that they use the theories as heuristics for digging out and connecting varieties of basic values. I did not expect them to be able to recite first principles, or quote primary texts, or write essays and reports steeped in the literature of philosophy.

I think this approach met with some modest success, though I was frustrated at so often having to back-fill with lecture. My preference would be for students to discover the need for and the uses of theory more on their own, with less direct instruction from me.

That’s the point of problem-based learning, after all.

In a political theory course, last semester, I tried something different. In the first half of the course, I set students to work together on understanding three texts in democratic theory: Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

I provided relatively little guidance, other than ideas on how to use books to develop understanding. After they had worked through each of the books, I set them an in-class, individual exercise I dubbed a distillation, in which they could use only the book and a pen or pencil in filling out a worksheet on which they were to set down an interpretation of the core ideas of the book.

I was impressed and encouraged by the way students took up the task. They would spend whole class sessions flipping back and forth, reading passages and debating their interpretation.

I won’t say they had mastered the texts, not by a long way, but they emerged into the second half of the course with enough of a working understanding to address the problem situations with some sophistication and, at least for many of them, with a basic trust in the usefulness of the books themselves.

That said, it seemed to me, in the end, that the whole set-up was far too heavy-handed, too much of a slog, with too little payoff for practical understanding of the normative aspects of democratic decision making.

So, back to the drawing board.

For my engineering ethics class, I have decided to start with just one theoretical framework, Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and let other values work their way in later on. I have also narrowed the first task: they are to pick one of Aristotle’s virtues, explore it in depth, perhaps including consideration of variations from other contexts and cultures, then find some creative way of presenting to the class a situation that calls for that virtue and three possible responses to that situation.

The first step, though, is to develop a working understanding of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.

Taking up the idea of last term’s political philosophy course, I set them to start reading the Nicomachean Ethics.

In class on Tuesday, it became clear to me that they were entirely at sea in it, unsure where to drop anchor.

So, in spite of myself, I did a little too much lecturing, a little too much framing, a little bit too much of cherry-picking passages from the book for them.

I set up a group discussion of Book I by illustrating the kind of means-ends thinking from the opening passage, and the idea that some ends are higher and more encompassing with others, but that one end must be the highest and most encompassing of all.

From their reading, they had at least identified happiness as Aristotle’s candidate for the highest, most complete and sufficient good.

I set them to look through what they’d read to pick out Aristotle’s own definition – no easy task! – but most of them came around to the passage at 1098a that pegs it as “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

I said, “Okay, those are the words. Now, what do they mean? Activity as opposed to feeling? Then what role does feeling play? And what does he mean by soul? And virtue?”

And so on.

They were at a loss, so I told them their task for next time would be to use Book I and as much of Book II as they needed to figure out what that definition means, by way of which they might begin to understand how this theory works: Aristotle doesn’t just throw around the words “happiness” and “virtue” (or “blessedness” and “excellence”); he tries to give them determinate meanings and to weave them into a coherent account of human life in the world, consonant with his understandings of psychology, biology, physics . . . and politics.

Unable to resist helping them, I told them just a little about his psychology and biology, about the centrality of purpose or function in his thinking about nearly everything.

I even explained a little of what he means by soul in his other works, though I think I may have gotten caught up in it – I find Aristotle’s biology and psychology fascinating – and talked too much.

I left the room feeling dissatisfied with myself: I hadn’t trusted them enough to muddle through and figure things out for themselves; I was too directive, and may have over-ridden an interesting synthesis definition by one group that encompassed a feeling of satisfaction that might accompany complete virtue.

Why should I rule that out ahead of time, imposing my own interpretation of Aristotle on them?

I’ll try to attend this more closely in class this afternoon.

I’ll try to trust students to muddle through.

It’s that trust, and the letting go of control, that may be the most difficult part of the kind of teaching I’d like to do. It’s one of the things I’m trying to force on myself by my course design, this term: a colleague of mine, reviewing my plans, called it “power-sharing.”

To make that trust work well for the students, I’ll need to attend more closely to the setup and the design of those particular class sections. If, last Thursday, I had fed them just one thing – pointed out the passage at 1098a – and set it as their task to figure out what Aristotle might mean by it, then their first reading might have been more focused and productive.

I would have given them an anchor, which might have given them the basis for exploring on their own.

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