I have been teaching Ethics at Framingham State University (in the greater Boston area) for a few years. This course is for one semester only. I usually teach in the Fall and in the Spring, but not during the Summer. I am in the Psychology/Philosophy department, and have created my own approach to this academic discipline.
I start with theoretical issues, such as, How free are we? Where do we get our ethics from? What are Virtue Ethics? Then, I move to classical material that deal with ethics. We read and study in class a number of texts taken from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls, Koran, Greek literature, rabbinic material, medieval philosophy and contemporary literature. The third component of my course is dedicated to the discussion of modern issues, such as legal ethics, racial prejudice, environmental ethics, and sexual ethics. During the fourth and last part, I ask my students to debate a particular issue before the class, such as a specific death penalty case, an extortion issue, or gender identity dilemma.
The response of my students has been positive. I love to engage them in ethical debates, and want them to take a position, however uncomfortable. One of my favorite cases comes from the rabbinic literature (Sifra on Lev. 25: 36): Two people are in the desert. They have only one flask of water. If both drink, both will die; if one of them drinks, he/she will survive. You carry the flask. What would you do? Then, I make the case even more complicated: I say, the other person is your child. Here, most participants vote to give the bottle to the child. But, if I say, the other person is your hated brother-in-law, opinions change.
What do I want to achieve?
a) I want my students to think, and to think logically, and weigh the outcome of the issues at hand in a rational way, without, however, ignoring the needs of the heart. I don’t want them to act impulsively, but to look at both sides of the issue before making a decision.
b) I want my students to realize that we make ethical decisions all the time, and we need to develop a sensitivity in this area.
c) I stress that certain things are clearly wrong: to be a Nazi is despicable; there is no other side. To be a racist, is bad; there is no justification for it. But, at times, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. To save a life, your own or someone else’s, people often behave in an “unethical” way. For example, a woman who willingly commits adultery with a terrorist in order to save her life. Her behavior is understandable, and justifiable, even if it is not totally moral.
d) Finally, I want my students to have empathy. This is more than caring about another individual. Empathy requires that you put yourself in that person’s shoes, almost to be that person. When you show empathy, you are more likely to behave in a humane way. And, that is good.
What do you think?
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Sept. 5, 2017