Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy Conference, March 7-9, 2002

Commentary on "Towards a Really Practical Ethics: Reconstructing the Introductory Ethics Course," Anthony Weston / Submitted by Lara Trout, Penn State University

Anthony Weston’s paper "Towards a Really Practical Ethics: Reconstructing the Introductory Ethics Course" is a tribute not only to a Deweyan view of ethics but to Deweyan pedagogy as well.  Weston emphasizes how basing our introductory ethics courses on a Deweyan foundation leads to a reconception of ethics itself.  It also presents us with the challenge of reconceiving ourselves as philosophers according to the very ethical skills promoted in our reconstructed ethics courses:  process skills, attentiveness to values, responsiveness to values, critical thinking skills, and creative problem-solving skills.

My commentary will focus, first of all, on the pedagogical strength of Weston’s ethics course, emphasizing its empowerment of students through training them to truly think about ethical issues.  Such empowerment, which calls to mind Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, equips Weston’s students to "make a constructive difference in real problematic ethical situations" (Weston 2002, 2).  Secondly I will discuss the issue of democratic citizenship which underlies Weston’s efforts.  I will then pose several concrete pedagogical questions – "how to" questions which address the fact that Weston’s paper does not present an abstract project, but instead offers us insights based on his actual work in the classroom.  (note 1)

I will begin by calling attention to a Deweyan pedagogical insight which infuses Weston’s paper and provides an additional challenge to the conventional introductory ethics course.  This insight is the importance of thinking as a pedagogical method.  In Democracy and Education (note 2) Dewey notes that "all which the school can or need do for pupils, so far as their minds are concerned … is to develop their ability to think" (DE 152).   For Dewey thinking, in general, "finds its origin in what is uncertain in the subject matter of experience, … aims to locate the nature of the perplexity and to frame hypotheses for its clearing up to be tested in action" (DE 331).   To teach our students how to think is to teach them to be actively engaged in problems which arise within the world around them, rather than to be mere passive recipients of knowledge (DE 152ff).  For Dewey,  philosophic thinking in particular – the type of thinking Weston promotes in his ethics course – is characterized by  "the fact that the uncertainties with which it deals are found in widespread social conditions and aims, consisting in a conflict of organized interests and institutional claims" (DE 331).   The objective of philosophic thinking is "a harmonious readjustment of the opposed tendencies" and is dependent upon  "a modification of emotional and intellectual disposition" (DE 332).   

Weston follows a method of philosophic thinking in his classroom, as he follows Dewey’s recommendation of giving students, not pre-processed facts or theories to memorize, but rather problems which are grounded in real-world situations to which the student can relate experientially (DE 152ff).  Weston gives his students neither answers to the ethical problematics which are examined in class, nor ready-made articulations of ethical issues as dilemmas.  Instead he develops his students’ ability to think about these issues without depending on outside answers or assumptions.  Moreover, the skills Weston helps his students develop – process skills, attentiveness and responsiveness to values, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving – are skills which, I think, facilitate the ‘modification of emotional and intellectual disposition’ which Dewey recommends.  They are also skills which empower students to be active subjects in the realm of ethical discourse.

            His students are required to think in ways which transcend the usual intellectual demands made of students in conventional introductory ethics courses – courses in which, as Weston puts it, "the usual theories are introduced, their relative strengths and liabilities are examined, and then they are ‘applied’ to a variety of contemporary issues" (Weston 2002, 1).  Learning the ins and outs of these conventional theories and being able to apply them to contemporary issues may be demanding for students and may help them learn about and respond to their world in new ways.  However, while students in the conventional course are probably encouraged to be proactive in determining their own opinions on contemporary moral issues, the issues themselves as well as the theories drawn on to articulate these issues are GIVENS.  Thus students are often introduced to ethics by means of learning the dance steps (note 3) of ethical discourse which are not to be questioned, so much as mastered so that the student can step onto the dance floor as a conventional participant in ethical debate.  Weston’s Deweyan ethics course encourages students to think as subjects about ethical issues, as subjects who have a contribution to make to the complex, multi-layered problems which ethical issues present.  Their proactivity goes far beyond the rendering of a theoretical interpretation or reasoned opinion on a given ethical issue. 

            Moreover in Weston’s class, students are treated as ethical subjects from day one, as already having "ethical intelligence" which is to be developed and strengthened by means of the course (Weston 2002, 2).  The training which Weston gives them is designed to shape students into empowered thinkers who are familiar and comfortable with questioning ethical issues in their very articulation and supposed impasses, with maintaining an on-going dialogue despite the all-too-common habit of merely taking sides, and with offering creative solutions which can be easily missed by those locked into the familiar dance steps of traditional ethical debate.  And perhaps most importantly, Weston extends his course beyond the walls of the classroom, requiring students to engage with the world around them directly – to develop their ethical capacities through hands-on involvement in their community.  This of course is a classical Deweyan move which enables students to experience bringing the world into the classroom and the classroom into the world (DE 358-59).   Such experiential learning adds social, bodily, and emotional dimensions to the thinking which is developed in Weston’s class, and assures students that ethical issues are live issues involving real people, as so vividly illustrated by the comments from Weston’s students who volunteered in the homeless shelter.

Weston tells us that he views his students as "proto-citizens," and it is not difficult to see the ways in which Weston’s ethics course helps to shape its students as citizens within a democracy.  By training students in open-mindedness, process thinking, value attentiveness and responsiveness, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving, Weston gives students the tools they need to truly bring about change in the world around them, to "Make a constructive difference."  Such constructive change is key to democracy, and thus education which fosters the skills to bring about such change is crucial, as Dewey notes:   "A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability" (DE 88).  

            In reading Weston’s 1992 book, Toward Better Problems: New Perspectives on Abortion, Animal Rights, the Environment, and Justice – in which he articulates a Deweyan approach to ethics and how such an approach can help us reconstruct our approach to ethical issues – I was struck by a particular, concrete example he gives of a creative, pro-active approach to ethics in the context of the American democratic landscape.  In a discussion of how the abortion issue might be reconstructed along Deweyan lines, Weston recounts a rare instance of political ethical creativity in which a Wisconsin state legislator, in 1984, brought leaders from the opposing sides of the abortion issue together, in order that they might create legislation that was acceptable to both sides.  Weston notes,

The resulting bill passed the legislature – unanimously – and is now law.  Among other things, it provides money for sex education and pregnancy counseling, with the hope of reducing unintended pregnancies, and for a state adoption center and adoption hotline, to encourage adoption as an alternative. … It also makes protestors guilty of criminal trespass if they enter an abortion or family planning clinic with the intent to harass. (Weston 1992, 61)   

Surely this instance of legislative creativity can serve as a prototype of  "making a constructive difference" by means of the types of skills Weston fosters in his ethics classes.  With Deweyan ‘adaptability and personal initiative’ in mind, we can question the extent to which the conventional introductory ethics class fosters such dispositions in its students as far as ethical issues are concerned.  

            The scope of his present paper precludes Weston from a discussion of connections between his pedagogical ethical project and the democratic underpinnings of Dewey’s philosophy of education.  I would be interested in hearing more on this topic.  For example, in Democracy and Education, in addition to extolling the virtues of making the classroom one with the community outside the school walls, Dewey stresses the need of cultivating community within the school and the classroom.  The communal life of the classroom provides a practice ground, so to speak, for democratic citizenship (DE 358).  How does Weston address this internal dimension of uniting classroom and community in his classes?   How, more specifically, does the  "constant, in-class, dialogue- and issue-oriented practice" of which Weston speaks play out? (Weston 2002, 5)   Furthermore, is democratic citizenship specifically thematized within Weston’s ethics classes?  If so how do students respond to the connections between their ethics course and their role as citizens?  Is there an explicit or perceived change in students’ attitudes towards being citizens within a democracy? 

            At this point I have further questions relating specifically to the nuts and bolts of Weston’s courses, questions which are motivated by my interest in implementing Weston’s Deweyan approach in my future ethics courses. 

1.  I am curious about how Weston handles the ethical "bad habits" students bring with them into the introductory ethics course, bad habits which range from the usual categories of culturally-fueled stereotypes, political partisanship, religious loyalties, etc. –  to bad habits which may occur as a result of primary or secondary educational experiences which discourage students from thinking creatively, while rewarding them for memorizing material and reproducing it in a test.  Does Weston find that a student’s native ethical intelligence can be impaired or significantly clouded by any or all of the above factors?  For example, to draw on Weston’s reference to the cultural example set by talk-shows (Weston 2002, 3), do students who watch enough Jerry Springer become cynical about the possibility and value of sincere, collaborative ethical conversation? (note 4)  What about students who feel it is a betrayal of their religious faith to be open-minded about the abortion issue?  What about students for whom ‘thinking outside of the box’ is something they have been encouraged not to do?   In a conventional ethics class, such bad habits can peacefully coexist with learning theories and applying them to specific ethical issues – but how do they effect a Deweyan ethics class?   Do such bad habits present a significant threat to the classroom dynamic and to an individual student’s performance in the class – to the student’s being able to learn the skills of process, attentiveness and responsiveness to values, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving?   If so, are there particular pedagogical strategies which Weston implements to address the threat?

2.  My second question concerns the ‘responsiveness to values’ skill – Weston says:

Responsiveness…does not simply mean some kind of vague and occasional good-heartedness that can be left undiscussed and unexplored.  It calls for settled, wide, and expansive sympathies, carried into action in specific, directed, effective ways; and like any other kind of such action, ethical ‘response’ in this sense needs foresight, guidance, development.  That is, it needs to be deliberately taught.  It’s a skill after all, and not an easy one either. (Weston 2002, 4)   

How does one teach the "settled, wide, and expansive sympathies" called for in value responsiveness?   Furthermore,  I wholeheartedly agree with Weston as to the essential role played by service work – but am in need of his ideas as to how, as a teacher, he helps his students through the emotional dimensions of doing service work?   How does he prepare his students for this challenging entry into the community? 

3.  My final question is a brief one – how does Weston handle the evaluation of his students within his innovative classroom context?

In conclusion, I would like to re-iterate my admiration for Weston’s reconstructed ethics course.  I think his ethical pedagogy is a masterful implementation of Dewey’s philosophy of education, and it offers hope that the future of ethical discourse – and philosophy in general –

might be one which embraces creativity and initiative in the face of previously unquestioned assumptions and dilemmas.

End Notes:

1. The ideas in this commentary are shaped not only by my study of Dewey’s philosophy of education, but also by authors I have used in teaching Philosophy of Education courses, who – along with Dewey – have enhanced my appreciation of the relations among democracy, citizenship, and education:  Nussbaum, Martha. 1997. Cultivating Humanity.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press; and many of the authors represented in a collection edited by Steven M. Cahn, Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. 1997. New York: McGraw-Hill:  Paulo Freire, Amy Gutmann, Maxine Greene, and Israel Scheffler.

2.  Dewey, John.1944 (1916) Democracy and Education.  New York: The Free Press.

3.  My use of the dancing metaphor is inspired by my reading of the psychological work of Harriet Lerner, author of such books as The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Intimacy.

4.  I owe my articulation of this particular point to a personal conversation with my friend Mike Ventimiglia.

Works Cited:

Dewey, John. 1944 (1916). Democracy and Education.  New York: The Free Press.

Weston, Anthony. 1992. Towards Better Problems: New Perspectives on Abortion, Animal Rights, the Environment, and Justice.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press.


____________. 2002.  "Towards a Really Practical Ethics: Reconstructing the Introductory Ethics Course."