One of the challenges of teaching an ethics class in a non-denominational college is accommodating students who arrive with a particular religious background. Given the demographics of my classrooms this is typically some form of Christianity, and quite understandably some students struggle with disparity of viewpoints when in their minds their particular tradition and its particular scriptural exegesis tell us everything we need to know about ethical decisions and actions. Nonetheless, they have to take the course because it is a gen-ed curriculum requirement.
That raises the more important question: what is the purpose of a gen-ed ethics course in the college curriculum?
The typical rationale, “to expose students to alternative views,” is just plain silly. First, our ethics texts do a far worse job of that than do the syndicated and social media. Second, as teachers we are not in the business of forcing exposure, we’re supposed to be imparting competence and capability. And finally, we’re no more effective at bringing the “everyone is entitled to their own ethics” camp to an adequate understanding of diversity than we are the firmly entrenched doctrinal believer.
Wait, you say, isn’t the “everyone is entitled to their own” position exactly what we are supposed to be teaching? I certainly hope not! It’s an untenable ethical position. The “everyone” camp don’t really believe that sound bite any more than their divinely guided peers do. Just watch their reactions in the classroom to more draconian “alternate views.” Take the “everyone” position completely seriously, and you behave unethically when you get upset with alternative views. You can’t argue that religious or cultural tenet X is repressive towards sub-group Y, at least not from an ethical point of view, because Everyone is Ultimately Justified.
The fundamental problem here is we don’t know what diversity – as an ethical rather than a socialization concept – really means in a college curriculum. To expect the divine law and order students to be tolerant of others despite their religious beliefs is intellectually intolerant, for it essentially dismisses the lived truth of their religion. To uncritically promote the “everyone” agenda is intellectually irresponsible because that agenda is fundamentally flawed.
‘Higher learning’ institutions must decide if they want to teach ethics or teach civics. If the task is to socialize students, be honest and call it a class in civics. If the task is to teach ethics, decide whether that will be an historical survey of ethical theory, or a course in philosophy where ethics is the subject. Put differently, it’s time to decide whether our primary goal is instilling behavioral patterns, or disseminating content knowledge, or promoting critical thinking and reflection. I’m sure you’ve already guessed that my vote is for the philosophy ofethics course. There at least the students can examine these inadequacies and tensions and they can struggle with the challenging, discomforting issues they raise in the personal, educational, societal, and political spheres.
If that sounds like it takes some effort and forces us out our comfort zones, it certainly does. But so do conscience or tolerance or compassion.