For the last few years I have been teaching, on a part-time basis, a semester-long course on Ethics at Framingham State University in the greater Boston area. I have created my own course outline and do not use a textbook. For convenience sake, I put all the study material online for easy access to my students.
I start by introducing them to various theories of ethics. We then read numerous texts that deal with morality through the centuries, such as ethics in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, in the Koran, in medieval literature and in contemporary writings. We follow this with a discussion of various ethical issues covering a number of areas, like legal ethics, environmental ethics, or medical ethics. We end the course with a major debate on a few specific topics (e.g. a case of death penalty, an insanity defense, tax fraud) that various groups of students get together to present to the class for their evaluation and resolution.
My interest is to make students think, and develop the ability to defend their point of view by using rational arguments, because the subject of ethics basically deals with values that are, at times, in conflict with each other. Two people struggling with an ethical dilemma can, and often do, take opposite points of view, and hopefully justify them, not by invoking religious dogma or authoritarian dicta, but by using a variety of cogent arguments. Following the teachings of Aristotle and Maimonides, I encourage my students to take the “Middle Road,” thus avoiding extreme positions.
We don’t know whether we are born with a sense of morality or if ethics are learned from parents and teachers. When I observe the recently born babies, with their aggressiveness to get what they want (e.g., food, shelter), I am more convinced that we learn from others how to behave correctly. (Note: the biblical Hebrew word for ethics is MUSAR, coming from the root YASAR, meaning “discipline” or “chastening”). I consider it my job, to open the mind of my students, leading them to tackle controversial issues by fair and peaceful means. In particular, we have fun dealing with ethical dilemmas, because they force us to take positions on difficult cases. Mostly, we end up with the “best” alternative, even if it is not the worthiest solution.
Here is an example of an ethical dilemma: Three of David’s classmates have created an offensive website that attacks students and teachers in a vicious way. The principal wants to know who did it? David is the only one who knows. You are David: will you lie to the principle by saying you don’t know who did it, or betray your friends?
Here is another: There is a long line in a food court. You ask the agreeable buyer in the front to include your order in his/hers, in exchange for the payment of lunch. You are the buyer in the front. Would you do it?
I would be curious to know what is your position on either dilemma. Please write to me at email@example.com.
Rifat Sonsino, Rabbi, Ph.D.