Teaching with Moral Moments: CLASS DISCUSSIONS

Talking in Class About the "Last Class"
or What Are We Talking About?

Copyright © 1996 by Joel Marks

Each essay in the book, Moral Moments, by Joel Marks, can serve as a talking piece for a philosophy class. Take as an example the essay, "Last Class"; surely much more could be said on the subject. A follow-up discussion might go like this:

Arnie: I'm confused. So should the student lie to the customer about the product, or not?

Betty: Of course not; that would be wrong.

But doesn't the essay say that the student ought to tell the lie?

Debby: No it doesn't; it says he believes he ought to tell the lie.

Erik: And also that he believes he shouldn't. That's what's so confusing.

Felicia: But that's the point. The student is confused. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

Do we know what we're talking about?

Helen: Sure we do; this is an ethics class. We're supposed to be deciding what's right, what's wrong, what's good, what's bad, what we should do and what we shouldn't do.

Isaac: But is the essay saying we should just go ahead and do whatever we have to do to save a business, or to save our skins, or just be selfish ... or what??

I think Marks's whole point is that most of us don't have the foggiest idea what ethics is. That's why it's so easy to ignore it. That's why, when the student has to choose between telling the lie to save the business or doing the right thing, he chooses to lie. He doesn't have any idea what the alternative is.

Ken: I agree. But that still doesn't tell us what the alternative is, does it?

Larissa: Maybe there isn't one! Maybe ethics is nothing! Maybe it's just words: "Do the right thing!" "That's wrong!" "You shouldn't do that!" Maybe that's all just a lot of hot air, and we shouldn't pay any attention to it.

Matt: Yeah. If you can give a reason, like the essay says, then OK, you've got something to base your actions on. The student had a reason to lie -- to save the business. But what reason did he have not to lie? All he had were some words: "It's wrong to lie." That's no reason! Why sacrifice your business for some words?

Nadine: But it is wrong to lie.

Oak: But what does that mean?

It means he'd get arrested if he told the lie. It's against the law to mislead a customer about your product. That's fraud.

Quin: Aw, he wouldn't get arrested. People get away with that stuff all the time.

Rosemary: But that's not the point, anyway. Even if you do get arrested, or it's against the law, it doesn't mean you've done the wrong thing. It used to be against the law to help a slave to run away in this country, but that was the right thing to do!

Sal: Forget about the law. "Wrong" just means you'll get hurt. If the student really tells lies like that when he's in business someday, eventually the customers will find out and his business will go bankrupt. That would certainly be bad for him, so it's wrong for him to lie.

Tamantha: But that doesn't make any sense. The student decided that he should lie to save the business, not that he shouldn't.

I still think he's wrong. I don't care what happens to his business: You shouldn't lie!

Marks: Well, Folks, I think you can see the problem now, both theoretically and practically. In the abstract we seem to be at a loss to provide definitions of ethical notions like "right" and "ought." And in concrete terms we then find ourselves at a loss to persuade people to do the right thing, or even to be motivated ourselves, because we lack understanding. This looks like a job for ... lovers of wisdom!

Veronica: Say, who is that guy?

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