I too have been teaching applied ethics courses for several years. Yet my enthusiasm tapered off when I saw how the stu- dents reacted. I was especially disturbed by comments students made again and again on the course evaluation forms: "I learned there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad
6 THE PUBLIC INTEREST arguments." Or: "I learned there is no such thing as morality." I asked myself what it was about these classes that was fostering this sort of moral agnosticism and skepticism. Perhaps the stu- dents themselves were part of the problem. Perhaps it was their high school experience that led them to become moral agnostics. Even so, I felt that my classes were doing nothing to change them. The course I had been giving was altogether typical. At the beginning of the semester we studied a bit of moral theory, going over the strengths and weaknesses of Kantianism, utilitarianism, social contract theory, and relativism. We then took up topical moral issues such as abortion, censorship, capital punishment, world hunger , and affirmative action. Naturally , I felt it my job to present careful and well-argued positions on all sides of these popular issues. But this atmosphere of argument and counterargument was reinforcing the idea that all moral questions have at least two sides, i.e., that all of ethics is controversial. Perhaps this reaction is to be expected in any ethics course primarily devoted to issues on which it is natural to have a wide range of disagreement. In a course specifically devoted to dilem- mas and hard cases, it is almost impossible not to give the student the impression that ethics itself has no solid foundation. Uneontroverslal truths The relevant distinction here is between "basic" ethics and "dilemma" ethics. It is basic ethics that G. j. Warnock has in mind when he warns his fellow moral philosophers not to be bullied out of holding fast to the "plain moral facts." Because the typical course in applied ethics concentrates on problems and dilemmas , the students may easily lose sight of the fact that some things are clearly right and some are clearly wrong , that some ethical truths are not subject to serious debate. I recently said something to this effect during a television interview in Boston, and the skeptical interviewer immediately asked me to name some uncontroversial ethical truths. After stammering for a moment I found myself rattling off several that I hold to be uncontroversial: It is wrong to mistreat a child, to humiliate someone, to torment an animal. To think only of yourself , to steal, to lie, to break promises.
TEACHIN G THE VIRTUES 7 And on the positive side: It is right to be considerate and respectful of others, to be charitable and generous. Reflecting again on that extemporaneous response , I am aware that not everyone will agree that all of these are plain moral facts. But teachers of ethics are free to give their own list or to pare clown mine. In teaching ethics, one thing should be made central and prominent: Right and wrong do exist. This should be laid
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