Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hard cases

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" I've been giving the class half an hour each Wednesday to discuss whatever issues they want. We've done the "speed dating" thing twice; for the last two weeks, students who had brought in a problem or question got to spend 15 minutes with two other students, one of whom then had to tell the rest of the class what their discussion was about. I hope they're noticing that most of the problems are lost in translation, at least in part.

We seem to have at least three approaches. A first kind takes an everyday experience. For instance: your roommate's girlfriend (whom you don't like) keeps eating your oranges; what do you do? These lose least in translation and make for the most helpful and generalizable discussion - though there's a temptation also to get personal.

A second kind is more the sharing of a perplexity: something is troubling in ways the questioner can't quite put her finger on. While it loses detail in translation (I won't try to summarize one), this kind gains in clarity, as the discussion has usually arrived at at least a possible name for what's at issue. ("What's bothering X seems to be...")

The approach which does least well is the most familiarly academic. A student has an issue in mind and imagines or researches a case he thinks illustrates it. For instance: was it OK for robbers to make off with $50 million worth of diamonds from some corporate types who were insured? (It happened at Brussels airport.) Turns out the questioner actually has several questions in mind, not just one. (In this case, questions about victimless crimes, Robin Hood issues, whether extreme wealth is ever legitimate, etc.)

I suppose there are several morals to this story. Grounding ethics in actual experience (1) is helpful, and sometimes life gives you lemons. Life is complicated (2), and it's worthwhile spending time trying to name what's going on. Thought experiments (3) are hard to design, since they're supposed to keep the complexities of life out... but might be illuminating if understood as a variety of (2).

The next step in our explorations should probably be focusing on how the generation of cases, actual or imagined, is part of ethical discernment and deliberation. It's not that life poses questions and we try to answer them, but that things happen and, in our efforts to understand them and respond int he right way, we describe other cases, similar and contrasting, from our experience, from history, literature and the news, or abstract. And it goes on...

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