Theoretical Commitments

I have long thought of myself as something of an agnostic on matters of moral theory.

From the beginning I have concerned myself with practical decision-making, first with environmental ethics and policy and more recently with engineering ethics. I am now mainly concerned with how best to teach ethics to undergraduate students in engineering degree programs. In those efforts, I have come to think of moral theories as resources for ordinary practical decision-making, lenses through which to see ordinary basic values of one kind or another.

I could, I have thought, go on using these frameworks, playing them one against the other in expanding and enriching the variety of values taken into account in any decision, without committing myself to any one of them. As a teacher, I have thought I could offer the frameworks to students with complete neutrality, allowing them to figure out for themselves how to balance one kind of value against another. It is not for me to indoctrinate them, after all.

As I am, after a quarter century, re-reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I begin to see that such a neutral perspectivism is untenable. In fact, telling myself I am neutral among perspectives is simply false: everything I do has a frame and a direction, based on a particular – though still developing – understanding of human cognition and of the ends of human life in the world. Continue reading

Thinking about Virtue: A Bit of Scaffolding

I have been reading back in some literature on problem-based learning (PBL), and related matters, in preparation for writing a paper on my ongoing course-design process. Along the way, I made a discovery – or a re-discovery – that was immediately and urgently useful in the classes I’m teaching this semester.

One of the basic ideas behind PBL is that teaching and learning can be modeled as a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins 1987, Newstetter 2005). The challenge of course design is to create a learning environment in which students, working on their own but with guidance, develop a particular set of cognitive capacities.

Part of the knack of course design is to make a realistic assessment of how far students will be able to go in this development within the limits of a semester; another part of it is providing just those kinds of support students need to go that far.

(I could get into some of the theory behind this, some of which is derived from Vygotsky’s work on human cognition, especially his notion of the “zone of proximal development” . . . but I’ll leave that deeper dive for another time.)

What I want to get at in this post is the idea of scaffolding, an artificial structure provided to students that can allow them to operate at a higher cognitive level than they could otherwise reach. The hope and the aim is for students to be less dependent on the scaffolding as they go, until they can work at that higher level on their own.

The key, and the thing I was missing, is that scaffolding can and should have a physical component to it, or at least a spatial and even tactile way of arranging cognitive elements that directs the students to make distinctions and connections among those elements. Continue reading

Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.

Piaget on Cheating in School

I really have just a quotation and a few comments for today; I’ll have another brief entry, tomorrow, on a related matter.

From Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans. Marjorie Gabain (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), pp.286-7:

Cheating is a defensive reaction which our educational system  seems to have wantonly called forth in the pupil. Instead of taking into account the child’s deeper psychological tendencies which urge him to work with others – emulation being in no way opposed to cooperation – our schools condemn the pupil to work in isolation and only make use of emulation to set one individual against another. This purely individualistic system of work, excellent no doubt if the aim of education be to give good marks and prepare the young for examinations, is nothing but a handicap to the formation of reasonable beings and good citizens. Taking the moral point of view only, one of two things is bound to happen. Either competition proves strongest, and each boy will try and curry favour with the master, regardless of his toiling neighbour who then, if he is defeated, resorts to cheating. Or else comradeship will win the day and the pupils will combine in organized cheating so as to offer a common resistance to scholastic constraint.

Let me highlight one passage, which could very well be written of the system of public education in the U.S. in the current decade: Continue reading

Consideration Without Judgment

The unifying idea behind my courses is that students should be able at need to offer considered judgments on the ethical aspects of decisions and actions in response to complex situations. This is a fairly conventional notion lifted from the philosophical tradition, whereby a judgment based on nuanced awareness and careful thought is preferable to mere opinion.

Judgment is easy; consideration is more difficult, and the means of focusing on and improving consideration can be elusive if judgment keeps getting in the way.

One of the frustrations I have had with the conventional argumentative essay is that it keeps the focus on judgment which, for many students, simply defaults to prior established opinion. What I have encountered in student essays in the past suggests that, for many, to write an argument is simply to build fortifications for the opinions they already hold, using whatever material is at hand, a process that need involve very little in the way of genuine consideration. Continue reading

On Helping My Daughter Learn to Drive

I’ve noted already that things I learn in private life sometimes converge with what I’m thinking about in my professional life, and this morning brought an especially complex tangle of such convergences.

(I am a practical ethicist, though, so I suppose some spill-over is inevitable. In fact, I used to observe that it’s very hard for me not to talk shop in social situations, since the whole world of human experience is shop.)

My older daughter is 15 and has her instructional permit for driving. I took her out this morning to the parking lot of a nearby mall so should could continue getting used to being behind the wheel and developing basic skills.

We’ve been to the parking lot several times in recent months, but at irregular intervals, so her progress toward competence is slow. She is improving, though.

I was talking to her, as I drove home, about what it’s like to be an experienced driver.

It’s a matter of paying attention, I told her. More than that, it’s a matter of having ingrained habits of paying attention. So, if I’m at an intersection or driveway trying to turn right, I have to be sure to glance to the right before I hit the accelerator, in case a pedestrian is crossing in front of the car. Continue reading

Noticing, Responding, Thinking

In the first days of classes, this week, I provided students something of a gloss on the learning objectives of my courses in practical ethics, which are stated formally in the syllabus of each.

I told them the aim of the course is for each of them to cultivate a richer moral imagination, which comes down to a particular set of cognitive skills or capacities: Continue reading