Instructor: Dr. Jan Garrett

Updated: January 10, 2005

Return to complete list of FAQ's.

II. Instructor – Student Relations

1. I feel quite strongly about the ethical ideas I already have. I don't want others, including the instructor, to impose their ideas on me. I am concerned that the instructor, because he is an authority figure, might do that.

A. It is not clear on the surface what this worry about imposing ideas is about. Perhaps it reflects a reluctance on the student's part to consider ideas and arguments contrary to the views that he or she strongly holds.
This is a genuine difficulty for such a student because it is part of the instructor's task in a course in Ethics to familiarize the student with a range of views, including contemporary views, about debated ethical questions. That often means questions that are debated along political or religious lines (insofar as those debates involve positions on ethical issues).

It is not imposing ideas upon students to ask that in their papers they respectfully consider the most plausibly presented views contrary to their own, even to the point of charitably restating those arguments in the students' own words. This is a fundamental requirement of fairness and a fundamental feature of the educational process itself.

If the worry about others imposing ideas on you expresses a reluctance to consider ideas and arguments contrary to the views you strongly hold, try relaxing a little your conviction that you possess the absolute truth and think carefully about alternate views. You are not being urged to give up your conviction but consider whether it might not be improved in some way or given a more reasonable defense. (Well, if I encounter a student who advocates being unfair or making no efforts to avoid injury to others, those convictions might be an exception.) Frequently the way we improve our ideas is to consider views contrary to those we initially hold and try to incorporate insights from them or better respond to concerns expressed by them.

B. Perhaps this worry relates to the fact that the instructor has an extensive website on many topics that contains numerous web pages that he has composed and the instructor urges students to read those web pages.
These web pages have been created to help the student in the several ways, but maybe you are not helped by them because of some special feature of your situation. (See question 5 in Section I of this FAQ page for the purposes of the web pages on ethical theory and contemporary issues.)

Some of the web pages composed by the instructor may not be needed by certain students. If the web pages review ideas already contained in the textbook you might be able to get the ideas entirely from the textbook. If the web pages summarize positions of well-known philosophers like Aristotle or Kant or Utilitarianism's Jeremy Bentham, you might be able to get the ideas from other sources on the Internet or in the Library. You don't have to rely on the professor's web pages.

Most ideas in the course web pages are not original to the instructor. (So, if these web pages are "imposing ideas," the ideas imposed are not by any means be uniquely the instructor's ideas.) For example, the page on Virtue Ethics is heavily indebted to Aristotle and to numerous ethics texts that you have not been required to buy in addition to the main text book. You can find Aristotle's own texts on the Internet and many discussions of the position known as virtue ethics in the library (for example, the Encyclopedia of Ethics or the networked Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy). When it comes to libertarianism, you don't necessarily have to read the instructor's web site about libertarianism. Besides being alert in class when we discuss libertarianism, you can read the John Hospers' article in the textbook Social Ethics and see what a libertarian has to say. J. S. Mill's article in the textbook, although not fully libertarian, agrees with most libertarians on the major dimensions role of government.

C. Perhaps the worry voiced about having other people's ideas imposed on you really means that you want a chance to express your view and present your arguments but you are not given the chance because somebody else has the privilege of speaking and you don't.

This should not be a serious problem in this course. Of course, there is an appropriate time to speak and an appropriate time to listen. The instructor is obliged to present certain materials and review key points in the texts we are considering. Students rightly expect the course to be developed in a more or less unified way. That would be impossible if the instructor were not talking part of the time. But thoughtful expression of differing points of view should be (and is) welcomed at many points in the course. And if we are not sure that somebody else's views are being thoughtfully expressed, we should encourage them to try to improve them.

For a valuable dialogue to occur, however, certain conditions have to be present:

  • People have to be willing to speak and to listen to others.

  • People have to try to consider the strengths as well as the weaknesses of views they initially disagree with.

  • People have to be willing to consider reasoning that challenges their own assumptions.

  • People have to be willing to try to get their facts straight and to look at empirical evidence or probably reliable reports based on empirical evidence.

  • People have to be willing to write down what they think and reflect on what they have written. (Doing so in advance of speaking allows them to participate more thoughtfully in a spoken dialogue.) Are they saying what they really think? Is it based on evidence? Is there contrary evidence? Is what they are saying mere echo of what they have heard from people who could easily be wrong?
  • D. This FAQ speaks of one person imposing his or her ideas on other people. Is it even possible to do this?

    Can anybody at all make you believe something contrary to your freely chosen view? Well, maybe, by brainwashing you, that is, preventing you from having access to any information or reasoning that might undermine what they want to you believe. But that should not be a problem in this course since (1) a variety of perspectives is encouraged by this course and (2) since it meets only 150 minutes per week you have plenty of time to discover arguments and information from other sources.
    E. Above all 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. If such an effort is "imposing" on students, well, we seem to be stuck with it.
    The teacher himself has reached (mostly tentative) conclusions about many debated ethical questions—he is, after all, 59 years old and has been engaged in these kinds of discussions since he was in high school. He knows it would be entirely beyond his power to make you agree with his conclusions if you were not largely in agreement with them to begin with. He does not expect all of you to be in agreement. He does not require such agreement. He is not teaching in order to produce such agreement.

    He may in fact present a position with which he does not agree because he thinks it is worth considering that position on one's way to a more satisfactory position. You might think think you know what his opinion on a particular question but be wrong about it, unless he says, for instance, "this is my opinion." And that should not intimidate anybody. Indeed, when college teachers say "this is my opinion," they are probably admitting that not all generally reasonable people agree with them and (time permitting) inviting discussion.

    On some questions the instructor may not yet have a position.

    On some questions the instructor may deliberately not mention the opinion he himself holds in order to see what views you may discover without any particular encouragement in one direction or another. He might even refuse to take a stand because stating his opinion might make it seem that whether it is true should be the main topic of discussion.

    Life would, in fact, be less interesting if we all agreed, say, on the nature of the good life and less challenging if we all agreed on welfare reform or when military action by the government is appropriate.

    Return to complete list of FAQ's.

    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.

    The red marks are known as feedback. They are provided, more heavily in earlier papers than in later ones in the course, so that students can improve their work. They also serve as notes that I could expand on to explain your grade if you wished to discuss the grade with me privately.

    If the problem is that the feedback is provided in red ink, let me know. I can use blue or green. The color has to be different from the color of your printer ribbon, of course.

    If the problem is that the sheer quantity of feedback seems excessive, please let me know you don't want much feedback. Help me understand, then, what other method I can use to help you improve your work in the future that would not be more time-consuming than the red mark method.

    Why not interpret red marks as guidance for improvement, something that you should be thrilled--or at least not distressed--to receive?

    Precisely because students sometimes do fairly well on a paper that yet could have been improved in several ways, I am given grounds to hope that those students are able to acquire even greater skills in self-expression and reasoning if only they are given additional guidance.

    3. I don't understand something you wrote on my paper or exam.
    Please bring the paper or exam to me office during my office hours and I shall explain it.
    4. When is a good time to meet with you to discuss aspects of the course?
    During pre-scheduled office hours or times of arranged appointments. Call me at 745-5740 or e-mail me at to arrange a time. It is probably not a good time 15-20 minutes before class starts--after class is usually better unless I have a conflicting obligation. The very beginning of the lecture period is definitely not a good time. After all, the instructor is supposed to be present for everybody, not just one student.

    Return to complete list of FAQ's.

    III. Questions regarding the Idea Content of the Course

    This section under development

    1. Why not just let the law tell us what is right and wrong?

    Legal right and wrong can sometimes give us guidance when we are in a hurry or are too immature to reflect for ourselves, but the law can command unjust, immoral actions, depending on the nature of the political system. Referring to moral right and wrong is a way of challenging laws that, say, condone or reinforce slavery, allow corporations to pollute the environment without penalty, or allow politicians to accept campaign contributions that in effect operate as bribes.

    Even when laws are good laws, they are not self-justifying. One has to appeal to moral principles or ideals when defending legislation as good. For instance, one might justify a law by arguing that it promotes the common good or that it treats similar people or groups in a similar way. ("We should promote the common good" and "We should treat like cases alike" seem to be moral principles that can support particular laws.)

    For more on the relation between law and morality, see On Law and Morality.

    2. Why not just let [choose your favorite book of life instructions] tell us what is right and wrong?
    This approach might work if everyone used the same book and everyone interpreted it in the same way. But of course (1) different philosophies and religions that "go by the book" use different books. (2) Even with a commonly found book, such as "the" Bible, there are several versions. (3) Even when people use the same printed version, they pick and choose different parts to give them guidance.

    The first and second problem point to a need for a general ethical framework to deal with problems to which particular philosophical or religious communities offer different answers. The third problem shows that, even within a particular religious or moral tradition, there must be some mechanism for resolving conflicts of interpretation. Solving the third problem may be a reason for developing ethics specialists in particular religious or philosophical communities.

    But we are interested in making progress toward solving the first and second problem, i.e., discovering an ethical framework that is broader than particular religious or philosophical communities, a framework that can enable them to coexist and even thrive when they have differences based on how they relate to some book of life instructions. We are interested in an ethical framework for the common society that we share with people of diverse religious views and personal life ideals.

    For more on this type of question see items 1-3 at Ethics and Religion section of this web site.

    Return to complete list of FAQ's.

    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!