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Curtis Edward Clark

Ethical Priorities

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[This is ethics but also epistemology if you read all of it.]

"Susan Dwyer (moral psychology, applied ethics, feminist theory), Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County has accepted a tenured offer from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, effective January 2009." Leiterreports.

I think I had heard the name of Ms. Dwyer before, but I didn't know who she was. Leiter thought she was worth promoting, or possibly she is a friend or working associate.

So, to familiarize myself with a philosopher I didn't know I looked up Dwyer, [click on Leiterreports for link] and clicked on her syllabi. There I found "PHIL 150 Contemporary Moral Issues." Listed under "Outline" was this:

"We will critically examine four controversial topics: Pornography and Free Speech; Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide; Punishment and the Death Penalty; and Abortion. The class has two main aims: (1) to introduce you to some central concepts in ethical theory and moral reasoning; and (2) to help you begin to develop views about the aforementioned topics that you can articulate and defend."

Well, that sounds like a good outline of subjects that are worthwhile of ethical investigation by students. I remember as a young student many years ago investigating them, and from time to time I read something that gives me a new twist on what or how I understand the subject. Sometimes, my opinions are tweaked by what I read.

But directly below Dwyer's Outline is this:

"Among the questions we will consider are the following:

 Is pornography harmful?

 Should the state censor or restrict the publication of pornography?

 Do we have a right to determine the manner and time of our own deaths?

 Is it permissible for a doctor to kill a patient at that patient’s request?

 How is punishment justified?

 Should the death penalty be retained or abolished in the United States?

 What is the right to life?

 Is the human fetus a person?

 What is the relation between morality and the law?"

And I thought, "Wait a cotton pickin' minute. The epistemic emphasis on most of the questions is all wrong."

Asking if pornography is wrong, for example; it leaves open the question of whether its harm, real or imagined, gives one human the right to deny access to it to those he thinks are harmed by it. Why else ask the question? I mean, so what if it is harmful, what is the answer to the answer that it is harmful? The real question and answer are lost.

If my answer in that class was that pornography was not harmful, is someone going to argue with me? Are they going to ask where I got my information? What difference does my answer make, yes or no, until the basic question of whether ethics can do anything about it?

In any question of ethics (moral issues), "The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

"Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?"

“The Objectivist Ethics”; Ayn Rand; The Virtue of Selfishness

go to Ethics continued

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If my answer in that class was that pornography was not harmful, is someone going to argue with me?
Sure they are, and we have some long, long threads that do so. Typically, the arguments presented are ethical, not political. It is not about regulation: most people on this forum would not regulate porn if children are not involved in any sense. Still, that leaves the ethical issue.

What difference does my answer make...
Well, if one is asking it with an ethical perspective, the answer could determine whether you cancel that magazine subscription!

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I find it interesting that these "ethical" questions *all* have a political component. This isn't a class on *ethics*. It's a class on the politics of certain ethical issues.

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I would conclude:

  • Susan Dwyer is not an Objectivist
  • Susan Dwyer wanted enough students to enroll to prevent her course being dropped by the school.
  • Susan Dwyer is actually ambitious enough to expect her students to write clearly and comprehensively about emotionally charged issues (close enough to objectivity to impress me)

I fail to be outraged.

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I just finished a course in philosophy, only a high school ethics course, but one pertaining to the nature of philosophy nonetheless.

I think my teacher, Dr. Preston, taught a wonderful course that I could only wish others could take.

A very small segment of the class was actually debating, but rather he taught us how to debate using If then statements.

Such as....

1. Life is good.

2. If life is good, then absence of life is abscence of good (bad).

3. Death is the abscence of life.

Therefore, death is bad.

A very elementary idea, but instead of having to defend our own ideas and concepts using our personal logic, we had to argue using other philosophers' arguments. One week it was Aristotle, the next St Augustine, and so on in chronological order.

So we had to answer and had to understand how these great philosophers came to their conclusions and use those arguments to defend our points.

As in the case of Marxism or Nihilism, I could hardly say I agreed with their points or philosophy, and I probably had the biggest struggle with Marxism, but I still had to learn how to answer like someone who completely believed in that philosophy....

I'm just saying, maybe she's coming from that angle. Some teachers make you answer very basic questions using different methods of philosophy such as need-based vs. care-based.

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This is a very common college course. The things that bug me about it as it's usually taught:

1. The first day or two is often devoted to "motivating" the students by raising a lifeboat scenario and leading the students through a discussion that is supposed to introduce them to what it means to "think ethically." Read Rand's "Ethics of Emergencies" to see what's wrong with this.

2. The line between ethics and politics is often blurred in these classes.

3. Most professors offer Kant and Mill as the main alternatives in ethics. A few offer others, but only rarely do they offer Rand, which is the third basic alternative. (My advisor at USC, in her version of this class, offered Nozick/Locke to defend a "libertarian" position. But, unlike in her presentation of Kant and Mill, with respect to them she focused mostly on politics which, of course, made the libertarian view look amoral at best.)

So, if you could steer clear of the lifeboat scenarios, and present enough basic ethical theory to give the students the tools they need to address contemporary moral issues in terms of the three main ethical theories, this sort of course isn't half bad.

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Pornography is bad. I am neutral about banning it(though I believe I lean toward a ban). You should not commit suicide (killing is wrong, and good luck atoning while dead). Euthanasia is bad, you should hold onto life. Punishment is an incentive not to do bad things. Laws should be moral. Every person has the right to life, and a fetus is a person

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Pornography is bad. I am neutral about banning it(though I believe I lean toward a ban). You should not commit suicide (killing is wrong, and good luck atoning while dead). Euthanasia is bad, you should hold onto life. Punishment is an incentive not to do bad things. Laws should be moral. Every person has the right to life, and a fetus is a person

Sex before marriage is bad, birth control, including condoms, very bad, divorce horribly bad, we know.

Inquisition good, torturing Galileo good, crusades and religious intolerance wonderful.

We know, buddy we know, and we are very sorry for our sins. In fact I'll go ahead and shoot my fag neighbor right now, send that sinning son of a bitch straight to hell. How dare he say gays deserve the same rights us good Christians do? Satan's gonna be shoving hot coal up his tochus for eternity. Right, guys? Who's with me?

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Sex before marriage is bad, birth control, including condoms, very bad, divorce horribly bad, we know.

Inquisition good, torturing Galileo good, crusades and religious intolerance wonderful.

We know, buddy we know, and we are very sorry for our sins. In fact I'll go ahead and shoot my fag neighbor right now, send that sinning son of a bitch straight to hell. How dare he say gays deserve the same rights us good Christians do? Satan's gonna be shoving hot coal up his tochus for eternity. Right, guys? Who's with me?

Thanks for the laugh, Jake. And of course we need not mention the fact that this thread was about a certain type of ethics *course*, not about the substantive ethical issues discussed in it.

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