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This is Ethics? An Idiosyncratic Guide

Peter Euben on teaching, classroom authority and dialogue with students

Political scientist and philosopher Peter Euben

Enough of what goes on when teaching is intuitive, serendipitous, idiosyncratic, and distinctive to a subject matter that I am uneasy about elaborating a pedagogy as if what I teach is necessarily what is learned. My unease is compounded by a recognition that we teach ourselves as much as a subject matter as illustrated by a colleague of mine who taught radical democracy in an authoritarian way. It is compounded further by the fact that ethics is often a matter of questions that do not yield answers or solutions but further questions, like the riddles that confronted Oedipus. So my first task, or rather attempt, is to get the question right and get the right questions while avoiding a self-righteous moralism or a flippant moral cynicism.


All this speaks to the importance of establishing a dialogue among the students and between them and me even in a class of 75. Of course, dialogue has become a cliché: who is against dialogue? But too many dialogues are covert monologues. My idea and practice of dialogue is more substantial in intent (if not in execution). It entails becoming a student of my students in order to become a better teacher of them and, just as important, having them see me do that.

I know Plato's Republic in Greek and have taught it some 35 times. Yet invariably an often first-year student will ask a "naïve" question that draws me back to the basic questions of the text, reminds me what is at stake in it, and forces me to recognize how ossified my reading of it has become. Again, it matters that I say that to the students when it occurs. Dialogue also entails listening with a third ear, responding not just to what is explicitly said but to the subtext of the saying, to the unstated context which gives a point depth and significance. It also entails inviting students to bring what really matters to them into the classroom (and my office) and to bring the classroom into their everyday lives and for me to do the same.


A student once asked, "If there is a God why do we need to study ethics at all? The answers are there." Having taught for 34 years in one of the most secular areas of the country (Northern California) it never occurred to me to take religion that seriously in an ethics class. But as long as I didn't I could not speak to nor really hear what a number of my students were saying, what drove their moral lives and, often, what brought them to the class. I am still religiously unmusical but their concerns have become mine. Thus, I begin the course with the Book of Job and, beginning last year (because of what students in my previous classes suggested), I include Dostoyevsky's The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.


The choice of Job was also the product of a different conversation, one that led to an intense exchange of views. I began with a portrait of a homeless person seemingly deranged, smelly, dressed in rags, living in a cardboard hut with scabs all over his body, talking in tongues. The portrait was meant to describe Job, and my argument was that ethical life begins with being able to acknowledge, "There but for the grace of God go I." But a number of students felt they earned what they had achieved and they could not envisage a world where they could be Job. The dialogue was memorable not because it was between me and my students as much as something between my students that I initiated. Many walked out shaken and angry. I consider that healthy.


Such a dialogue encourages as it presumes a context of trust, playfulness, and passion. Trust because an honest discussion of race, for example, requires it; playfulness to take the edge off intense disagreements that are essential to the development of moral imagination, by which I mean that ability to see the world from another's point of view; passion because the issues matter and because texts like Job or Dostoyevsky's cannot be understood without it. Based on casual remarks by "my" students, I think they are curious and perhaps occasionally inspired by a 70-year-old man who finds the life of the mind and what the mind can bring to the world a wonder.

Syllabus: "The Challenges of Living an Ethical Life"

The Book of Job I & II

Sophocles, Oedipus the King, Antigone

Plato, The Apology of Socrates, The Crito, The Republic

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority

Craig Haney et al, "Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison"

Thucydides, Pericles' Funeral Oration, The Coreyra, Revolution and the Median Dialogue

Niccolo Machieavelli, The Prince

Friedrich Nietszche, The Genealogy of Morals, preface, first and second essays

Herman Melville, Billy Budd

Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken"

James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," "Letter to My Nephew"

Jean-Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands

Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation (selections)

Vaclev Havel, Living in Truth

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

The dialogue I try to generate mirrors and builds upon the juxtaposition of a substantial variety of texts: Job and Nietzsche, Plato and Machiavelli, James Baldwin and Herman Melville, Sophocles and Sartre, Max Weber on ethics and politics, Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, Samantha Power on genocide, Zimbardo and Haney on the meaning of the Stanford Prison Experiment.


The ultimate aim, of course, is to have students think about their lives with depth and passion. What does it mean to live an ethical life? How can one do it and who among us gets it right? What sort of attentiveness and sensibility does it involve? This entails de-parochializing their experiences while also honoring those experiences as the basis of their identity and the grounds of their contributions to the class-wide debate. It means rejecting clichés and political correctness, or preset answers, and having them remove the "corrective" lenses they didn't know they were wearing. And it means being alert to the way the ethical dimensions of life and action are denied by "naturalizing" them, as was done with women and blacks, as well as making them alert to the ways ethical questions and issues are obscured by partisanship, power, self-absorption, and indifference. What cereal you choose is hardly an ethical matter, until you discover who makes it under what conditions with how misleading the information on the package may be.

Finally, the dialogue entails students learning how to make ethical arguments. What, if anything, is distinctive to an ethical versus some other kind of argument? Is it a matter of making a case or finding an answer? And if there are no "final" answers available to ethical questions, does that mean anything goes, that all ethical views are primarily emotive?


The point is, firstly, to make the class an illustration of the issue: How do you want to be treated in an argument? Secondly, to ask what canons of mutuality and reciprocity are especially necessary in a moral argument. Or is a good argument a good argument and putting "moral" in front of it doesn't get us very far? Thirdly, math problems have solutions; do moral questions? If not, are moral arguments more like making a case than finding an answer? Fourthly, is Socrates paradigmatic here, i.e., dying for ideas he knew might be proved incorrect in his next dialogic encounter?


But even more important than this is the relationship between moral arguments and stories. What we remember about Socrates is less his arguments than the kind of life he led. How important are moral arguments against telling the story of, for example, Socrates or Job or Billy Budd?


If there is anything at all distinctive about the way I teach it is the "use" of the classroom to enact the texts we read and the issues we study. Insofar as ethical relations demand reciprocity, a radical attentiveness to the views of others, and the development of what I called moral imagination, then what goes on in the class becomes an example of what the authors we consider are arguing about. I also "use" the classroom when I take the last two-hour class and invite them to reverse roles with me: How would they teach the class, who would they include in the syllabus, what issues would they emphasize, how would they change the format? Would they continue giving papers and no exams?


Inevitably after I ask them, for instance, which authors to include in the course, someone will say, "get rid of Melville," only to be met by the response, "Billy Budd was my favorite text," and so the debate is on. But for either side to make headway rather than simply reiterate their preferences, students have to offer reasons in terms of the themes and purposes of the course which become explicit in the process of their debate, much as the purposes of political and moral life do in the Socratic dialogues.


Maybe the best reaction of all, though it surely did not seem so at the time: "Why are we reading Plato's Republic? It is an old book by a foreign man and I find it boring. Why do we need to continue to accept the idea that this is a great work?" It drove me back down to the beginning, to what had attracted me to Plato and to my own initial response, which was to throw the book in the garbage. For a moment I became a student sharing my frustration about a "dialogue," having so many "Yes, Socrates"; "Absolutely, Socrates"; "Whatever you say, Socrates." There was an intimacy and forthrightness to the conversation that rarely happens in a class or out of it.


I do not always take the students' advice. The final responsibility for the course is, after all, mine. But I sometimes do and the course has evolved over time because they have made good arguments and I have learned from them. Thus their voices are present each time I plan the syllabus, the sequence of lectures that frame the discussion, or imagine how the discussion of an issue or text is likely to go. That is what I mean when I talk about students co-authoring the course. Of course it matters that I tell them all this.