Global Ethics in the Classroom
November 20–21, 2009
Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
The second semester of the intermediate English course which I teach uses an interdisciplinary approach. One of the thematic units I use for the course is ethics. As Charles Taylor pointed out in Sources of the Self, our identity is tied to our moral growth. Taylor explains that we often surprise ourselves when we do something that we thought we would never do. Our experience presents us with a clearer version of who we are, which contrasts with who we want to be.
But how easy is self-reflection, the process where we determine who we really are and what we really believe, as opposed to what we are told we are and what to believe by media that aim to seduce us, to convince us that we can package ourselves to be whom we want to be? The same media have also limited our world view. We do not see 100 percent of the world, but instead a narrow version of it. Problems are personal, local, or national. Disasters are sudden and live briefly in our minds. The ongoing disasters of world hunger, disease and war are absent from the radar.
To engage students in an analysis of their own ethics, I begin by having them write about what they believe being a good person entails and whether they ever surprise themselves by doing what they believe is wrong. There is little real analysis and development in this first essay. They believe their superficial story about themselves.
The main non-fiction reading I assign is a long essay from The New York Times entitled “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” by Peter Singer. Alongside this, I hand out short excerpts from Charles Taylor’s book Sources of the Self, Simon Blackburn’s Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics, and Plato’s The Republic.
The Singer article refers to Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die, the 1998 Brazilian movie Central Station, sociological studies on people’s reactions to the pain and suffering of others, and the fatal health problems suffered by children in the developing world. Since Singer’s article is a persuasive essay, I choose the evidence he presents in the article before letting the students read the whole article so they can develop their own opinions. They read the excerpts from Sources of the Self to imagine who they want to be.
I then present some of the ideas in Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, such as, is it better to be harmed than to harm? Can only people who are powerful be good? We look at Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills and discuss utilitarian ethics. What is the most good for the most people? Should people be expected to make personal sacrifices, even of their lives, in order to achieve the greater good? And who is included in “the greatest number”?
Then we look at Unger’s hypothetical situations which I take from his book Living High and Letting Die. They have already read Unger’s story about Bob’s Bugatti, which Singer uses in his article. Bob puts all of his assets into a Bugatti as a retirement investment. He takes it for a ride and parks it near some railroad tracks. He sees a child on the tracks and a train coming. He can pull a switch and change the track of the train, thus destroying his car, or let the train kill the child. He lets the child die (Unger, 136-139).
We also watch the movie Central Station. In the movie, Dora is a retired teacher who squeaks by writing letters for illiterate people in the central train station. Here she writes a letter for a woman who is minutes later killed by a bus, leaving her nine-year-old son homeless. When Dora learns that she can earn $1,000 if she takes him to a certain apartment, where the people will place him in a home with a rich foreign family, she brings the boy to the apartment. Later a friend tells her that the boy is too old for adoption and will certainly be killed and his organs sold.
The students discuss and write about what Bob should have done and whether Dora would have been guiltless if she had left the boy with the organ dealers, and continued to believe that he was going to be adopted by a wealthy couple. I then assign them Peter Singer’s entire article, where he argues that all of us who live in rich nations are in the positions of Bob and Dora. We can save a child’s life by sending money to a charitable organization. But he asks that we save more than one life. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world’s poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.
Students are assigned to interview five people using the hypothetical situation about Bob and his Bugatti and then confront them with Singer’s argument about their own culpability for not giving to relief organizations. They must design and write questions that reveal what the person feels about what right and wrong are, how they react to the story of Bob, and how they react to Singer’s arguments that we are all guilty of letting children die. In his article, Singer lists many of the common excuses for not giving money to relief organizations, which can help them record and categorize the reactions of the interviewees.
When they return with their interviews and categories, we discuss what similarities there were in the reactions and look for patterns. Did the people who condemned Bob also look for excuses for themselves? What were the excuses? Did they give as much as Singer suggests?
Before we go any further in the discussion, I present an argument made by the philosopher Simon Blackburn, whose book Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics, contains a chapter entitled “Seven Threats to Ethics.” The threat that is pertinent to this discussion is what Blackburn calls “unreasonable demands.” If you set the bar too high for being ethical, then people will stop listening and ignore you.
It is easy to preach this, but much harder to practice it. Indeed there is usually something ludicrous about the well-fed person preaching charity, or the even better-fed academic arguing that justice is not served unless we have voluntary or involuntary redistribution programs which carve the entire cake equally, perhaps leaving every single person just above a poverty line. If we accept, though, that morality demands this of us, then again a natural reaction is to shrug off its demands. It’s not going to happen: it impractical; we can ignore it (Blackburn, 48-49).
Is Singer’s solution an unreasonable demand?
The final discussion centers on the idea in Plato’s The Republic that it is easier to see ethical questions when viewed in the larger format of the state than in individual lives. “Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them” (Plato, 52).
Plato never makes any comparison between the individual’s actions and the state’s actions. Instead, he envisions a society where there is harmony. I explain this to the students, but do not tell them Plato’s solution, although some of them may have read Plato’s The Republic or part of it in other courses.
What type of society would increase the probability of Bob saving the child rather than his car? Why is there greed? Why is there selfishness? Can the state in any way influence human behavior to improve the lives of others? Students discuss what conditions might have helped Bob make the right decision. For example, without his car, he has no resources for his retirement. Would a society that insured comfortable retirements decrease greed or would it only increase irresponsibility?
The final assignment is to write their own essays using all the sources, including their first essay, and analyze arguments and counter arguments. This process forces them to reflect more deeply and gives me a chance to evaluate what they have learned. Later they will look at the ethical implications in stories, such as The Guest of the Nation by Frank O’Connor, and discuss them in terms of human nature, unreasonable demands, and how a certain form of society affects ethical behavior.
Blackburn, S. (2001). Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Plato. (2004.) The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Barnes and Noble.
Singer, P. The Singer Solution to World Hunger. The New York Times. September 5, 1998.
Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Unger, P. (1996). Living High & Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. New York: Oxford UP.