Teaching with Moral Moments

Example of a Critical Essay about a Moral Moment

Copyright © 1996 by Joel Marks

Each essay in the book, Moral Moments, by Joel Marks, can serve as grist for the student's commentarial mill in a critical essay of his or her own. Take as an example the essay, "Sitting While Standing." Here is how a commentary might go:

Marks's essay "Sitting While Standing" seems to be an attempt by the author to justify his career, or even the writing of his book. Marks himself is a so-called professional philosopher, and more particularly, a professional ethicist. Those are job titles that would make Socrates barf or Epictetus, whom Marks quotes, gag.

The problem for those ancient philosophers and ethicists is that Marks's professional activities seem to have little if anything to do with being a philosopher or being ethical. As Marks points out, his two main activities are teaching and writing ("standing" and "sitting", respectively, in the essay). The former activity seems to call for the teacher's adopting a neutral stance, lest some students be intimidated by the teacher's having an opinion which is different from theirs; while the latter activity is conducted comfortably in an office before a computer -- far from the blood, sweat, and tears of real-life commitments in action.

Marks claims to be in essential agreement with this criticism of professionalism in his field, but he also seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Marks has come to realize that integrity demands he be a person of deed and not just of word. But on the other hand, the "deed" he ends up committing himself to most turns out to be none other than the "wordy" one with which he began, for example, writing his essay! So has Marks really evolved into a more truly philosophical and ethical being as a result of his philosophical reflections on ethics, or has he merely discovered a clever rationalization for what he already enjoyed doing, regardless of its ethical value?

I don't have an answer; I simply raise this as an issue.

A criticism I have of the essay as a work of writing (as opposed to a work of philosophy or ethics) is that it is thematically disjointed. Ask yourself: What is this essay really about? At the beginning it looks like it's going to be about hypocrisy, or the danger of hypocrisy for someone who has the luxury of being able to write about ethical issues without necessarily having to do anything about them. Hence: "Here I sit at my word processor, taking stands."

But then the essay suddenly shifts to the story about the vegetarian student, and now the point seems to be that it is somehow inappropriate for a teacher of ethics to be undecided about ethical issues: "If a professional philosopher, who devotes his entire life to this sort of thing, can't make up his mind, how can a business major be expected to make up hers?"

Being noncommittal is not the same as being hypocritical.

How, then, does the essay conclude? Do the two themes come together in the end? Perhaps. Marks has argued in favor of making commitments and then, having made them, of living in accordance with them (that is, not being a hypocrite). Finally -- frosting on the cake -- it turns out Marks himself is not being a hypocrite, for his professional activities are just what the doctor (as in "PhD") ordered. This is because teaching and writing about ethical issues, when done in the right, committed way, can be effective ways of living one's commitments, in other words, of helping to make this a better world.

I suppose there is something to be said for being a teacher and a "gadfly" like Marks. After all, if he dropped those activities and went off to feed the hungry in Ethiopia, he might end up doing less good for the world overall. As a teacher and publicist he can inspire maybe ten people to go off and feed the hungry in Ethiopia, as well as hundreds of other students and readers in untold ways.

The question is: Will he be credible? He can't inspire if he's not. Certainly taking stands is going to help. But has he shown a sufficient level of commitment -- enough to avoid the original hypocrisy doubt -- if his main activities continue to be just teaching and writing?

I still wonder what Socrates would say.

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