Philosophical literacy

HSV Public Lecture by Dr Patrick Stokes, Deakin University, at Balwyn Library on 25 September 2014

How much moral philosophy do you need to know?

Dr Stokes said he had the opportunity to represent philosophy in the media, for example through contributing on-line opinion pieces to The Conversation. He then commented that philosophical communication is only in its beginning compared to science communication. He suggested three reasons for this current difference between the spread and effectiveness of communication in philosophy and science.

  1. There is now a genuine appetite for philosophy.
  2. Like all researchers, their findings are precarious when applying to Australian Council of Educational Research (only two out of four philosophical projects are considered useful).
  3. Most people are not familiar with the ‘tools of moral reasoning’.

Dr Stokes made mention of the philosopher William James’s Gifford lectures at University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Will to believe’. In these, James gave an example of a ship-owner of an old ship. The ship-owner honestly believes the ship will make the trip across the Atlantic to the new world. It goes down because it is over-loaded and the ship owner collects the insurance.

Stokes said that political reasoning is a form of moral reasoning, but we are not giving people the tools to do this well. As a species, we take a long time to reach maturity as there is a lot we need to know, before we can act as independent moral agents.

What about teaching ethical thriving along with the ‘three Rs’?

But there are problems with this suggestion, because:

  • there is no agreed set of norms that students can be taught, and
  • there have been many developments in the last few centuries.

Therefore, there is a fair bit of resistance to teaching students moral philosophy. But moral education needn’t be thought of as indoctrination into a set of beliefs. Rather, consider it an introduction to techniques of philosophical reasoning.

Stokes gave Raimond Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog as an example of a more accessible book by a philosopher that can contribute to training people in a philosophical way of thinking.

So why include philosophy in a curriculum?

He suggested there is always an urgency to moral reasoning reflected in what issues are topical and require moral considerations. For example, euthanasia, where we currently find Dr Philip Nitschke in conflict with other voluntary euthanasia advocates. Other examples include surrogacy and self-driving cars, which take decision-making away from the driver.

Stokes then suggested five things that need to be conveyed when people are offered a grounding in moral philosophy.

  1. Ethics and morality are essentially the same thing. Although people try to differentiate them, the two words may be used inter-changeably.
  2. Morality is necessarily subjective.
  3. You shouldn’t impose your morality on to others. However, taking this view is itself a moral decision and can be seen as imposing a liberal framework on others.
  4. Natural doesn’t mean right.
  5. We need awareness of three big frameworks:
    • Consequentionalism (Jeremy Bentham) – ‘The ends justify the means’, meaning if the goal is important enough, any method of achieving it is acceptable. Actions are right or wrong because of consequences.
    • Deontology – Kant’s view that actions are either right or wrong.
    • Virtue ethics – emphasises the role of one’s character and the virtues that one’s character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behaviour.

He concluded by saying education in moral reasoning that covers these five concerns helps people to see the moral landscape by enabling them to glimpse issues from different perspectives.

Report by Howard Hodgens and Rosslyn Ives

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