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Liberal Arts

Question the Answers

By Linda McHugh and Adrienne Frank

Alan Feltus and Lani Irwin’s spring exhibition at the AU Museum was a homecoming of sorts. Feltus taught painting at AU in the 1970s and ’80s, while Irwin earned her MFA at AU in 1973. Among the featured works: Feltus’s From Page to Memory.

Alan Feltus and Lani Irwin’s spring exhibition at the AU Museum was a homecoming of sorts. Feltus taught painting at AU in the 1970s and ’80s, while Irwin earned her MFA at AU in 1973. Among the featured works: Feltus’s From Page to Memory.

In AU’s philosophy department, the conversations are poignant and passionate.

Philosophy is experiencing a resurgence at universities across the country—and at AU, in particular.

The philosophy department, housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, counted an even dozen majors just 12 years ago. Now, it boasts 100 majors, about half of whom are double majors. Five general education courses are always full with undergrads eager to engage such pressing ethical issues as abortion, suicide, drug penalties, and torture.

“There’s been a shift towards new ways of thinking and problem solving,” says bioethics professor Kim Leighton. “Putting emphasis on math for math’s sake and science for science’s sake doesn’t solve the kind of problems that emerge in a multimoral, multicultural, global society.”

Here, philosophy professors and CAS dean Peter Starr discuss the discipline’s rise and the important role it plays in the twenty-first–century university.

American: Ethics and philosophy are enjoying a new popularity in universities. Why do you think that is?

Tschemplik: A while ago an article in the New York Times said that throughout the country there is a great interest among students to major in philosophy. The reporter speculated that . . . in philosophy, you get to ask all the questions and try to rethink some things.

Leighton: I think ethics is central right now in American culture because the conflicts that have arisen in the last 30 years have been ethical conflicts. The way we are questioning and framing issues now is less about political questions and more about what is a good life, what is a quality of life worth having.

Reiman: I agree. In the 1930s people were anxious to vote for their economic interests. Today they are not doing that so much. We see working class people, who are relatively well off by world standards voting Republican because they resonate with those moral values, while many prosperous liberals who would probably do better economically voting with Republicans are voting Democratic because they resonate with those moral values.

Leighton: That’s why I think discussion is central to teaching ethics, because ethical issues can so quickly be frozen into a pro vs. con. We don’t teach ethics, especially applied ethics, that way at AU. 

American: How does AU teach ethics? Is it a discipline in philosophy?

Reiman: I think of philosophy as asking: What is the nature of the world, in three questions—What is it? How do we know that? How do we live in it? That third question is ethics. So ethics is more than a discipline, it’s part of the definition of philosophy.

Feder: We teach ethics as part of the practice of philosophy, and what is distinctive about that approach is precisely that we are looking at the questions. Trying to figure out what questions there are, what questions one can ask, what questions we should be asking. When ethics moves into other disciplines, the emphasis is no longer on the questions but on the answers. We can get things like ethical codes—a kind of formula that is designed to provide answers.

Reiman: We’re not trying to make people better in some particular way—other than better thinkers, clearer thinkers, better questioners, more aware of the depth of the questions that can be posed, and of the range of answers. And on thinking, you know, we don’t mind coming up with some answers.

Feder: Of course not, but one of the lessons of history is that the most egregious moral errors occur when people fail to recognize that there is a moral issue.

Tschemplik: To piggyback on that, I used to be reluctant to teach moral philosophy or ethics because I had this idea that given today’s state of affairs everyone would say “I have this problem: let’s talk about euthanasia, abortion. I have my opinion; you have your opinion.”

The first time I taught it at AU there was this struggle. I had to persuade students that the class was about reading texts, thinking about those texts, and articulating theories from them. And maybe, I said, after you understand the theories, you can apply them to your questions and come up with a more meaningful answer than you have right now.

American: It’s very exciting; you’re not memorizing facts, you’re thinking.

Tschemplik: Yes, these are debates that they had in ancient times, and they are still relevant to our students. I think it’s refreshing to them that they can actually question.

American: How do you get your students to start thinking critically and questioning?

Feder: I take a student through the first 40 minutes of their day to identify the points of ethical decision making they encounter. They’re very skeptical because they don’t think of themselves as moral reasoners, but they get it quickly. The alarm goes off, you wake up, you have a class . . . hit the snooze button, or don’t? Moral decision? Sure.

They have roommates. Take a shower, don’t take a shower? Are there people in line? How much hot water is available in the house? What about water usage? Are there energy issues?

Go downstairs for breakfast. Toast or cereal; organic bread, bacon? The moral decisions can get piled on.

Tschemplik: I’m very much in their face the first class. I ask why they are here in this class. Why they’re in college. I put that question right alongside Socrates who lived a certain kind of life and was executed for it.

Are they here because their parents told them to? Because they have nothing better to do? They don’t like that. But, I want to know—are they here for no reason other than the fact that they had the money and they’re going to get a better job?

I try to get this unexamined life is not worth living thing across.

Leighton: I bring in a problem. The Monday after the Olympic luge accident, I said it seems that the way the sport is developing involves greater and greater risk. So my questions for this class are: Do we have an ethical responsibility to limit risk? Is there such a thing as ethical risk? If there is, how would we ground the claim that we should put a limit on the development of technology based on the amount of risk?

American: Where did the students end up?

Leighton: Many of them relied on the argument the media made, that as long as the participants were fully informed, they were making autonomous decisions.

Reiman: You don’t like that?

Leighton: No, I don’t. So the students started to complicate what a free decision was—if this is your sport, and this is your goal, and the end goal of your sport where the highest competition can happen is the Olympics, simply saying ‘Oh no, that’s too scary, I won’t do that’ isn’t an easy choice. It isn’t a possible choice for many people who dedicate their lives to the sport. But, we were trying to get to the question of how far should we push human nature, and to what end? What would justify that much risk?

American: As the semester goes on how do you know they’ve “got it?”

Leighton: My whole course last semester was secretly about ambiguity and uncertainty in ethics. Sometimes that’s frustrating and they’d say “well, we can just keep going.” At other times they had intuitions about where to stop an argument. They recognize that if we start from the claim that the meaning of ethical conflicts is how we discuss them and how we engage with them—if they are not participating in the discussion other people are making the decisions.

Reiman: I heard a philosopher once characterize himself as an argument-smith who teaches people how to think about and understand arguments. That’s part of what we do.

It’s one reason to study philosophy no matter what you’re going to do. The skill of identifying an argument, seeing how it works, how it goes through its steps, seeing the kinds of questions that are raised is a universal skill.

Feder: No one studies philosophy for vocational reasons.

Tschemplik: Not often, but last semester I taught a freshman philosophy class. Quite a few of them got really involved, and one young woman said, “I am so sorry this class is over . . . because I have to do the major that I signed up for . . .”

I told her it was possible to double major and she asked “What does philosophy have to do with international affairs?” I invited her to my office, we talked it through, and she was delighted that she could double major in SIS and philosophy.

I also enjoy watching our students listen to outside speakers and then ask a really intelligent question. The speakers are sometimes taken aback when they’re asked this very constructed question, that shows “I’m thinking along with you and I’m wondering what the next step would be.”

Leighton: You watch students become stronger and excited and jubilant, even . . . almost like learning a sport . . . there is a kind of power that comes with it.


What Is the Ethical Mission of a Modern University?

American: President Kerwin has said that one of the foundations of AU is that it is a values-oriented institution. How does a university articulate its values in a nonpolitical, nonsectarian way?

Starr: Being a “values oriented” institution is fundamental to the very notion of a university. Before access to knowledge exploded, everyone brought their small piece of information to the table and new knowledge was accumulated over generations.

Today, with so much information at our disposal, the problem is no longer one of bringing new knowledge to the table—it’s sorting through that information—and developing a kind of intellectual judgment. Understanding what really is important and what isn’t is the first step towards understanding what values are.

Leighton: The values ethics teaches include the value of contextualizing, of complicating, of looking at and trying to justify our moral commitments.

My top commitment in teaching is to develop“ethical citizens”—people who learn to think through the issues and participate in public and private practices that help form ethical concepts.

Starr: I think that’s precisely what a university education is all about. We try to teach students to flip an issue around in their minds, to project themselves into the positions of people they disagree with. That develops empathy, which is truly liberal.

American: What are the challenges to accomplishing this?

Starr: We have to do it in the context of polarizing public debates between people who don’t acknowledge the responsibility and humanity of the other person’s position. That’s a paradox.

I also think technology and the media are pushing us in two directions at the same time—in the direction of polarization and the direction of empathy.

American: So, how do you develop what you call an ‘ethical citizen?’

Leighton: Humans can’t have access to absolute truth because that requires stepping out of human life to decide what’s true or not. So we always have to keep questioning our arguments; and the questions keep changing.With the expansion of access to information, I think we have a greater responsibility to help our students find answers to these questions. But our society doesn’t always encourage the kind of processing and time that real ethical thinking can require.

Starr: That’s a critical point. Ethics takes place in a dialogue in time.

While online and distributed learning have value, the key issues of our time take time to grasp, and that dialogue takes place as a back and forth exchange—with yourself, with others, with a community.

If you want to talk about what’s truly robust in an ethical education, you need that face-to-face dialogue that you get in a classroom, when all of the sudden sparks start flying. But a lot of it is also what’s happening at 11:30 at night when you and your friends get into an issue in a very serious way.

What we do in modern universities is teach the hard things, we revel in difficulty, particularly in the difficulty of ethical choice.