I need an ethics book that's interesting
June 24, 2009 8:44 AM   Subscribe

As a [high school] teacher, I'm being encouraged to include a little bit of ethics into my courses. Can anyone recommend a book about ethics that's not boring or difficult to understand, and can that can help me with this?

I'm currently taking an ethics course myself, but most of the required reading leaves me thinking "wtf? I didn't understand a word that said!", and is not very practical.

I'm not asking for a high school level book, just something that I can understand, if I've never had much studies in ethics or philosophy.
posted by CrazyLemonade to Education (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn is a very good introduction to most of the basic schools of ethics.
posted by minifigs at 8:49 AM on June 24, 2009

Oh, forgot to say, I won't be teaching my students any ethics theory. What I'd try to do, would be to maybe have some discussions, problems or cases with an ethical aspect to them.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:59 AM on June 24, 2009

It sounds like you're looking for something in what's called "applied ethics". Google/Amazon/etc. that phrase; I'm sure there are a lot of good anthologies.

A good example is Peter Singer's Applied Ethics. I haven't read all the articles listed in the table of contents, but off the top of my head I can tell you that smart high school kids would understand (& find interesting) Nagel's "Death", Thomson's "In Defense of Abortion" (the famous article with the famous violinist), Singer's "All Animals Are Equal", and several others.

Have fun!
posted by kestrel251 at 9:17 AM on June 24, 2009

One of my favorite books from my college ethics course was The Sovereignty of the Good by Iris Murdoch. It's short and an easy read.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 9:24 AM on June 24, 2009

What is your main course? Are you supposed to blend ethics into it? If you're an English teacher there are plenty of novels that come to mind. If you are a math teacher perhaps you can discuss how math has been used for making the holocaust so "successful" and also to combat hunger in third world countries. Science also brings up so many issues... I think it really depends on what subject matter you're focusing on.
posted by ohyouknow at 9:25 AM on June 24, 2009

I really like The Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics - the author, Mary Warnock, has decades of hands-on experience with various committees in the UK which deal with such issues as human embryology, the education of people with disabilities and euthanasia. She therefore has a very practical approach to difficult questions.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:36 AM on June 24, 2009

The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels. It's a short book that explores each of the ethical theories and provides many real-life ethical dilemmas as fodder for discussion. The newest edition will be released in August.
posted by Lobster Garden at 9:49 AM on June 24, 2009

I teach a Human Relations course and an Entrepreneurship course.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:15 AM on June 24, 2009

Another good title by Simon Blackburn is Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:23 AM on June 24, 2009

No clue if it is any good or not - but a google search gave me this - Teaching Ethics, a website about incorporating ethics into a history curriculum.
posted by quodlibet at 11:46 AM on June 24, 2009

Stanford's online Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great resource. I would start by introducing the is-ought distinction:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. - David Hume

Hume is drawing our attention to the important difference between talking about the way things are (facts) and the way we think they ought to be (values). Knowing facts about infants and poison makes it straightforward to determine what will happen if you poison a infant ("it will die"), but it's an entirely different task to determine the moral value of doing so ("a person dying, or one's killing of it, is bad"). It's debated whether values can be derived from facts at all, but even amongst those who believe they can it's widely acknowledged to be difficult.

This ties in naturally with the questions of meta-ethics, which you should at least mention. Basically, we have to ask ourselves what value really is ("what is goodness?").

After those foundational issues, one of the most basic debates in ethics is what the object of valuation should be. Virtue ethics contends it's the character of moral agents that's of primary importance. In contrast, the deontological approach ("duty ethics") views actions as the appropriate focus. Consequentialism, which in it's various forms is very popular these days, asserts that the results of actions are what really matter.

One good way to engage your students and help them make up their minds on these matters it through thought experiments. A long standing favorite, typically brought up in the debate between deontological and consequentialist camps, is the trolley problem.

Disclaimer: I have no academic credentials, and have a totally amateur interest in these matters. I was a high school student less than three years ago though.
posted by phrontist at 12:11 PM on June 24, 2009

Quick clarification: The trolley problem is seen to be connected more specifically to utilitarianism, a type of consequentialism.

I also just found this helpful wikipedia category.
posted by phrontist at 12:17 PM on June 24, 2009

I second the Peter Singer rec. He's probably the most lucid and provocative moral philosopher alive.
posted by paultopia at 12:29 PM on June 24, 2009

Yeah, nthing Singer. Practical Ethics rocked my world. Is that the same book as Applied Ethics? I can't tell.
posted by SamuelBowman at 2:04 PM on June 24, 2009

@SamuelBowman: no. Practical Ethics is a book he wrote; Applied Ethics is an anthology he edited -- articles by lots of people.
posted by kestrel251 at 3:05 PM on June 24, 2009

Thanks everyone for the answers. I'm not marking any best ones yet until I take the time to look around Amazon for the books and some reviews.

Phrontist, I'll give you two thumbs up for your answer. It gives me somewhere to begin my own online research on the subject.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:42 PM on June 24, 2009

Ideally you would fit this into whatever regular subject you are teaching. For instance, most professional associations have a code of ethics of some sort, so just think of whatever professional associations are associated with your particular field(s) and search for their code of ethics. This will likely give you all sorts of ideas about particular cases or examples you could use in that field.

Just to take one example out of left field, here is the code of ethics for the music teachers association.
posted by flug at 8:56 PM on June 24, 2009

If you're not teaching theory then it might not be the book that fits the bill, but I wanted to chime in to say that the two Simon Blackburn books recommended above are actually the same book released under two different titles.

(It/They is/are great but I suspect that you'd rather not pay twice for the same book. Although the ethics of Mr Blackburn putting you in a situation where that could happen is something that you could then discuss with your students, right? That was probably his plan all along.)
posted by Del Chimney at 7:00 AM on June 25, 2009

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