Instructor: Dr. Jan Garrett

Updated: August 16, 2002

This page is new. It will be updated as I identify more FAQ's with your help.

I. Questions related to Course Requirements and Characteristics

1. Is reading important in this course?
2. Is writing important in this course?
3. Why is writing so central to the student's grade in this course?
3a. I thought PHIL 320 was no longer a writing course.
4. Why does the instructor insist on the importance of word count in various papers?
5. Why are citations, i.e., directly quoted text material, not normally counted toward the word count?
6. How can I use other writers' ideas without quoting them?
7. What is the purpose of the web pages on the Course Website that discuss ethical theories and specific controversies?
8. This course seems to be conducted in a somewhat impersonal way. How can I make this a more personal experience?
9. What can I do if the lectures or the reading do not seem to be at the right level for me?
II. Questions related to Instructor-Student Relations
1. I don't want others, including the instructor, to impose their ideas on me.
2. It is shocking and depressing to see red marks all over my paper when it is returned. And it is puzzling when in addition I receive a pretty good grade on the paper.
3. I don't understand something you wrote on my paper or exam.
4. When is a good time to meet with you to discuss aspects of the course?

III. Questions regarding the Idea Content of the Course (this section to be developed)

1. Why not just let the law tell us what is right and wrong?
2. Why not just let [choose your favorite book of life instructions] tell us what is right and wrong?

I. Questions related to Course Requirements

1. Is reading important in this course?

Absolutely. (But reading is not more important than writing.)

Ethics can be described as the (philosophical) inquiry into and discussion of morality and moral choice. It emerged historically and is at home in the culture of literacy. (The ancient Greeks were probably the first people to develop an alphabet that contained vowels. This made possible the expansion of literacy. Philosophy and ethics, as described above, emerged in the West in ancient Greece around 600-400 B.C.)

Without reading literacy it is very difficult to extend your range of familiarity beyond what you can directly perceive yourself or directly hear from others based on their experience. Reading is one of the best ways to encounter new information, new ideas, and new ways of reasoning.

Gaining reading literacy is not a once and for all achievement. A basic level will enable you to understand a shopping list and follow a story in which the actions are mostly physical and the emotions of the characters are simple and naturally expressed in a dramatic or violent way. Let us call this level I.

But the most important aspects of most actions are not visible on the surface and the most interesting feelings are not directly expressed by physical movements. To understand most action and feeling you need to be able to operate with more complex vocabulary (a vocabulary that includes words like "guilt," "regret," "intention," "responsibility," "duty," "justice," "virtue," and "vice"). Let us call this level II. Well-written novels often operate on this level.

But novels are still stories, and while their purpose may be to convey a general idea in a concrete way, the novel still describes events in the life of one or more concrete (although often imaginary) individuals.

Ethics, by contrast, looks at actions and feelings from the perspective of general principles. Among other things, it evaluates actions and feelings by using principles as yardsticks or criteria. (In reading Ethics one seeks to understand what set of principles one should use in evaluating particular cases. Doing so involves understanding the discussion in which authors or representatives of ethical positions help each other and their readers discover the best set of principles.)

One sometimes needs additional vocabulary to do this. At the very least, to do ethics one must pay more deliberate and conscious attention to the meaning of the moral and ethical terms that emerge originally in level II literacy. Thus we can say that ethics requires level III literacy.

Level III literacy is the most reflective and self-critical type out of the three levels of literacy.

Level III literacy is needed to understand discussions conducted by those who are educated in ethics, such as the authors of the articles in the Social Ethics textbook.

Some developments in our culture may tend to undermine rather than promote literacy. I have in mind television (not all but most television programs) and video games (especially the more violent ones, but generally the games that emphasize graphics and a lot of visual movement). If we are not conscious of the ways these media tend to train our minds, our own skills, habits, and preferences will be affected by them, perhaps for the worse. (For more on this controversial claim, see the discussion of Philosophy and the Televisual Age.)

2. Is writing important in this course?
To be able to do well and benefit most from an ethics course, probably nothing is more important than writing. I suspect that students most likely to panic at “crunch time” (just before papers are due or exams) are students who are trying to slip through the course without taking this point seriously.

Like reading literacy, writing literacy might be divided into levels. Writing Literacy I would enable you to express likes and dislikes and describe physical actions and simple, fairly intense, easily dramatized emotions. Writing Literacy II would enable you to describe more complex actions and feelings and mental states. If you have the skill of WLII you are able to correctly refer to “moral” feelings like regret, shame, and gratitude and mental facts such as intentions, decisions, and moral habits (like courage or generosity). You are not completely unfamiliar with basic moral notions like duty, rights, justice, and responsibility, and you can often use these ideas correctly.

In Ethics, Writing Literacy III builds on but goes beyond Writing Literacy II. Ethics not only describes events and actions using the skills of Writing Literacy II. It evaluates those events and actions in terms of proposed moral principles. It tries to clarify and refine those moral principles. In so doing it tries to clarify (often by defining) the key terms used in these principles (such as person, duty, right [as an adjective or as a noun], justice, the good, responsibility, happiness, virtue).

Using WLIII Ethics tries to discover or build the most useful and complete set of basic moral principles. It considers diverse proposals for what should be included among the basic moral principles. It discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal. (These proposals are the ethical theories to which we will devote a significant amount of time in this course.)

Ethics, which operates at literacy level III, is generally more active, thoughtful, and free than activities at the other literacy levels. The reason is that ethics involves self-examination and critical evaluation in a way that the more basic levels of literacy do not. (For literature majors: I grant that highly skilled and creative novelists operate at a more active and thoughtful level than novices in ethics. Literature has its own distinct level III, about which most readers are ignorant.)

The authors of the articles in your textbook possess advanced abilities in Writing Literacy III. Even to adequately understand their articles you must begin to acquire some of this skill yourself. For that reason, it is not a good idea to wait to start writing until two or three days before the first paper’s due date.

For a short note on how speaking skills are related to literacy levels, click here.

Ethics Writing for Yourself

From the beginning of the course you should be trying out and practicing these skills. You will need to do this even though I shall not be looking at everything you produce. (I will devote time occasionally to looking at short pieces and giving you feedback if you wish.)

You could:

  • Start by considering short descriptions of actions that call for moral evaluation, or situations in which a choice is called for but not specified—perhaps composing them yourself (using WLII), and then stating how you think they should be evaluated or decided, and why.

  • As you read articles in the textbook you should write about them for your own benefit: write summaries of the author’s view in your own words and/or summaries of the views against which the author is arguing; discover points of agreement or disagreement, and elaborate them—find fresh applications of the moral principles the author defends or give additional reasons if you can think of them for supporting the author’s conclusions, or provide reasons for your disagreement and try to imagine how the author would respond, and what you would say next. Try always to avoid careless reasoning and name-calling!

  • Take careful notes in class and go over them carefully outside of class. Restate them so that you reveal connections between ideas. Sometimes ideas are opposed to one another; sometimes they are consistent with one another but do not seem to fit together to make a “picture” that fits together as a whole; sometimes they fit together as a whole. Whole sets of ideas that have this last feature are sometimes useful, sometimes not useful but not harmful, sometimes positively harmful, sometimes harmful in one way and helpful in another.

  • Among ideas that seem to hang together, some are intended as support for others. This is where reasoning or the construction of arguments comes in. Arguments can be evaluated as valid or invalid, sound or unsound, strong or weak. (This is where skill at logic comes in. Nobody gets to college without having some logical skill but most of us need more practice and improvement in our logical skills.)
  • This sort of writing before the papers are due—even before you have chosen a paper topic--will probably have one or more of the following results: (1) increase your ability to ask questions and/or contribute meaningfully in other ways to class discussion; (2) help you develop interests that may later lead to choice of paper topics; (3) allow you to master connections between ideas that will be important for understanding the articles in the textbook and ethical theories (about which you may be tested on exams); and potentially in other ways as well. What you get out of it (generally) depends on what you put into it. OK, that’s a cliché but it is true here.

    To do this sort of informal writing for some course credit, see The Ethics Journal Option.

    3.Why is writing so central to the student's grade in this course?

    What this course seeks to teach is a method of considering, processing, and expressing reasoning on ethical questions. This is a method we learn by doing and by receiving corrections and advice when we do it in ways that could be improved.

    Sometimes it is possible to do this in oral presentation and oral feedback, but given class size and the relatively little time we have together this method has limited usefulness. So you will be expected to use the written method of presentation.

    There is another reason for the emphasis on written material. Writing is a way that we can get outside our ideas, look at our initial statement of them, reflect on whether they say what we wish to say, whether we are supporting them as strongly with evidence or reasons as we can, and so forth. A written product ("hard copy") also gives the instructor a chance to reconsider his initial reaction to a student's reasoning and make a more careful response.

    A final reason is this. If the student wishes to discuss the instructor's feedback or even the grade, there is some object in front of them that the instructor and student can discuss. If you have a proposal to use another medium that would accomplish these purposes as well or better, please let me know.

    3a. I thought Ethics was no longer a Writing Course under the new General Education Requirements.

    It is true that the university, for reasons of its own, has dropped the noncategorical designation "writing course" from the recently adopted General Education requirements. Under the new regime, PHIL 320 is not a "writing course" in the old sense because the old designation "writing course" has been abolished. However, instructors are permitted to emphasize writing in courses where doing so is appropriate. We may be morally obliged to do things that our superiors have not commanded.

    4. Why does the instructor insist on the importance of word count in various papers?

    Word count, with some subtractions, is the best purely quantitative measure of a student's effort that I have found. Of course, there are many non-quantitative characteristics of a paper which are also important. Word count, with subtractions, gives a minimum measure.

    Thanks to the wonders of electronic word-processing, students can easily vary font sizes, margins, line spacing, paragraph spacing, in many ways. It is possible to print the same paper on two pages or four pages or six, and yet the word count would be the same.

    5. Why are citations, i.e., directly quoted text material, not normally counted toward the word count?
    Because such passages, even if they have been copied correctly, have been merely copied from their source and represent very little thought and work on the part of the student.

    However, I recognize that the selection of an appropriate citation is in fact an art. The instructor will notice whether it serves a useful function or not in relation to the rest of the paper. But this has to do with the qualitative aspects of the paper, not the quantitative.

    6. How can I use other writers' ideas without quoting them?
    Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is also an art that one learns to do well only through practice. You have to understand what you are paraphrasing and put the idea into words that mean the same as your source but are, for the most part, different words. Here's where you must be careful to avoid the subtler forms of plagiarism (for example, changing very few words and pretending the result is original paraphrase or failing to refer in an embedded reference or an endnote to the source of an original or controversial idea.) On the other hand, key words and technical terms must often be kept from the original source.

    You could not get very far discussing Mary Anne Warren's arguments in chapter 1 of the textbook relating to whether the fetus is a person without not using the word "person." In fact, you might not even have to put the term in quotes unless you were discussing the term itself (as in "Warren defines 'person' as follows: . . . ")

    You might even have to quote a few of an author's key phrases to make sure you capture her precise point. Quotation is not bad but it can be excessive.

    This is not a course devoted primarily to teaching you the art of paraphrase. Knowing how to paraphrase is something one should have learned in high school or, if not there, in his or her 100-level English Composition classes. If you do not know by now how in general to paraphrase, please see the staff of the Writing Center (see Writing Center Hours) and ask for help in this art as soon as possible.

    7. What is the purpose of the web pages on the Course Website that discuss ethical theories and specific controversies?

    These web pages have been created to help the student in the following ways:

  • They might enable students who have missed class for legitimate reasons to learn material they might otherwise have missed.

  • They might give students who do not take complete notes a chance to see what they omitted in their note-taking.

  • They might help students clarify what they have written down in their class notes.

  • They might help students reviewing for an exam.

  • They might provide additional discussion of ideas not covered in the textbook or in lecture.
    These ideas could have been conveyed to you through additional textbooks which you were required to purchase or the instructor could have given you an assignment to go to the library and look up discussions in library books on reserve. If you wish to make such purchases or investigate materials in the library, there is nothing in the organization of this course preventing you from doing so.
  • They might contain your instructor's paraphrase of original material which in its original form is relatively difficult and complex, but which can be simplified and made more accessible.
  • 8. This course seems to be conducted in a somewhat impersonal way. How can I make this a more personal experience?

    Alas, I suppose the use of this FAQ sheet is another sign of that impersonality! It's a trade-off. When students are likely to have similar concerns it is more efficient to deal with those concerns in a standard manner. Where the standard manner is not satisfactory, the student can then seek more personal assistance.

    The learning environment could, no doubt, be improved if instructors in General Education courses at WKU were given smaller classes. However, for reasons beyond their control, the classes are normally large. This semester (Fall 2002) I have about 110 students, about 90 of them in two sections of Ethics.

    A primary concern of mine as an instructor is to treat my students fairly. Fairness is by its nature impartial. It is, as the saying goes, "no respecter of persons." More carefully put, the idea is that we should respect persons equally and evaluate them on the basis of the same set of rules.

    This does not mean, of course, that we should ignore special circumstances, but even special circumstances fall under rules. For instance, a student who has a genuine excuse related to illness (especially with evidence to back it up) might have a justified claim to an extension on the due date for a paper. (That's an impartial rule too.)

    How can I make this class a more personal experience?

    One thing you can do is to form study groups with classmates, and meet regularly to go over your classroom notes, to discuss the readings that have been assigned, or even to explore ethical topics that are not part of the course syllabus but of which you have been made aware by the class or recent events. I know many students do this sort of thing just before an exam, but there is no general reason why it could not be done throughout the term.

    Warning: the friendships you form in such groups raise their own moral temptations and ethical problems. The papers that you submit should be substantially your own work. Friends can help correct grammar and spelling and tell you when statements in your draft paper do not make sense or do not seem to support your conclusions.

    Another thing you might do is to suggest an alternate product that might be substituted for a paper but still meets specifications requested by the instructor. Of course, the alternate product would have to be compatible with the purpose of the course and demonstrate most of the same skills as a paper. It would have to be approved in advance by the instructor.

    A variation on the previous suggestion would be to use the Ethics Journal Option. This provides a natural basis for interaction with the instructor early in the course and is flexible enough to permit a certain amount of adaptation to preexisting interests. (I assume you have some prior interest in ethical questions.)

    If you are having difficulties that you think are unique, you may contact the instructor to discuss them.

    If you would like suggestions about additional readings in areas of ethics that especially interest you, ask the instructor.

    There are library and internet resources that can aid the learning process for the struggling student. Ask the instructor about them.

    9. What can I do if the lectures or the reading do not seem to be at the right level for me?
    The textbook Social Ethics was chosen on the basis of the instructor's judgment that it balances accessibility with a good selection of serious articles by careful writers on serious ethical controversies. It may not be the best textbook theoretically possible but, in my current judgment, it is among the best in print.

    Remember that what may be a strength for some may be a weakness for others. Some of the ways of addressing the issue raised in the previous FAQ may provide a solution to problems understanding the textbook. See making the course more personal.

    It is a constant challenge to find the right level at which to present ideas to an audience that has a variety of different interests, attention spans, personal ideals, and learning styles. It is often false that the best level for one student is the best level for all or a majority. What some students find difficult to understand others may find so obvious as to be trivial. Both types of student might benefit from study groups as described above. On the other hand, it is possible that the lectures need to be adjusted to a more slowly or more quickly learning audience. The instructor can sometimes determine this after grading a set of papers or an exam, but that may happen fairly late in the semester. So it is better to give the instructor feedback on this issue early in the course if it is a problem. If necessary, we can take a survey of the class.

    Have you found this FAQ page useful? Would you like to suggest additional questions to improve it? Is there any answer that needs clarification (please be specific)? Contact the instructor. Thanks!

    A Note on Oral Literacy.

    In responding to FAQs 1 and 2 I mentioned Reading and Writing Literacy. We could also speak of "Oral Literacy," and the contradiction is only apparent. What I mean by this phrase is the speaking skills that you acquire when you develop the corresponding reading and writing skills. If you give an oral report that contains writing at Level III and then answer questions provoked by your report, you may be operating at Oral Literacy level III.