Ethics and Morality: Two Classes Compared

When I can squeeze the time, I still take some free online classes from the buffet of offerings currently available from sources like Coursera, Open2Study, iVersity, and MIT OpenCourseWare. Sometimes I merely audit the classes, sometimes I actually submit the homework and take the exams so I can get a certificate.

I recently undertook two that make an easy comparison, on a topic that is of no interest for career advancement but of great personal interest to me: Paul Bloom’s “Moralities of Everyday Life,” and Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics,” both offered through Coursera. The first finished just before the second started, and that second is currently in progress.

Moralities_of_Everyday_LifeMoralities of Everyday Life

Yale University. Instructor: Paul Bloom; assistant instructor: Christina Starmans; guest lecturer: Laurie Santos. Course info.

This introductory class extended over six weeks and required listening to lectures, completing reading assignments, and taking weekly quizzes. In addition, students were encouraged to discuss relevant topics each week in the online forum. Weekly topics were divided thus:

  1. The Big Questions: What is morality, anyway? What are the big debates in the field of moral psychology?
  2. Compassion: Where does concern for others come from? How is it related to empathy—and is more empathy necessarily a good thing? And what can we learn from the study of those who seemingly lack normal moral feelings, such as violent psychopaths?
  3. Origins of morality: Here, we ask about which aspects of morality are universal. We discuss evolution, cross-cultural research, and the fascinating new science of the moral life of babies.
  4. Differences: How does culture influence our moral thought and moral action? What role does religion play? Why are some of us conservative and others liberal, and how do political differences influence our sense of right and wrong?
  5. Family, friends and strangers: Our moral feelings are usually most powerful towards our kin (such as our parents and our children) and our friends and allies. We will discuss these special bonds, and then turn to the morality of racial and ethnic bias. Then we use the tools of behavioral economics to explore the controversial question of whether we are ever truly altruistic to strangers.
  6. The Big Answers: We’ll discuss some clever studies that show how our moral behavior is powerfully influenced—often at the unconscious level—by the situations that we find ourselves in. Such findings raise some hard problems about determinism, free will, and moral responsibility. Most of all, if our actions are determined by our brains, our genes, and our situations, in what sense can we be said to be moral agents? The course will end by trying to address this question.

I found this class greatly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. The studio-filmed lectures, tailored for this online class, combined succinct overviews of the history of each topic with case studies and experimental results that test the assumptions and hypotheses discussed. At the end of each week, the instructors selected some of the most interesting questions and discussions found on the forum and answered them in a supplemental video called “Office Hours.”

Dr. Paul Bloom is is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. He has published over a hundred scientific articles in journals such as Science and Nature, and his popular writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Natural History, and many other publications. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, and is the author or editor of six books, including Descartes’ Baby, How Pleasure Works, and Just Babies.

Christina Starmans is a fifth year graduate student in Developmental Psychology at Yale University.  She studies the development of common sense ideas about bodies, minds, and selves, including what sort of a thing a self is, how we think about selves persisting through time, and why we sometimes feel like we have multiple selves.

Dr. Laurie Santos is Associate Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. Her research explores the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of humans and non-human animals, including primates and canines. She is the Director of the Canine Cognition Lab at Yale. She has been a featured TED speaker, and has been listed in Popular Science Magazine as one of their “Brilliant 10” young minds in 2007, and in Time Magazine as a “Leading Campus Celebrity” in 2013.

I had read some articles by Bloom, but not his books.

The course material was well organised and despite the short schedule, provided a solid introduction to the material and even some intriguing supplemental nuggets for those of us who already had read on the topic. While it was not possible to go in-depth into any aspect in such a short course, it whetted my appetite to do more readings, rather than leaving me feeling abandoned after the appetizer course (ha-ha).

The required readings were substantive but approachable and provided useful insight into the topics covered. In addition, suggested further readings provided an excellent starter list for a bibliography of the subject matter. The guest lectures were also excellent, and I absolutely loved guest lecturer Laurie Santos for her no-nonsense attitude and sense of humour.

When this class runs again (you can subscribe to Coursera’s notification system), I strongly recommend catching it if you have an interest in this topic, even though it is introductory. If I see other classes by these instructors, I will likely attend them.

practicalethics-logoPractical Ethics

Princeton University.  Instructor: Peter Singer; guests: Charles Camosy, April Dworetz, Holden Karnofsky, William MacAskill, Matt Wage, Zell Kravisnky, Julia Wise, Alexander Berger, Dale Jamieson, Anthony Appiah, Russel Nieli. Course info.

This class, also at the introductory level, spreads over twelve weeks with a break in the middle, i.e., a full term. It requires listening to lectures, completing reading assignments, submitting four papers, and peer reviewing the papers of four other students for each of the four assignments (total of at least 16 papers peer-reviewed). Like in Dr. Bloom’s class, students are encouraged to discuss relevant topics each week in the online forum. The weekly topics are:

  1. The nature of ethics
  2. Normative ethical theories
  3. Brain death and persistent vegetative state; Abortion (Part 1): Women’s rights
  4. Abortion (Part 2): The moral status of embryos and fetuses; Drawing distinctions in end of life decisions
  5. Making life and death decisions for infants; Voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
  6. Effective altruism (Part 1): Poverty and affluence; (Part 2): What is the best cause?
  7. Effective altruism (Part 3): Choosing an effective career; (Part 3): Choosing an effective career
  8. Effective altruism (Part 5): Are we violating the rights of the poor?; Climate change (Part 1): How should we allocate greenhouse gas emissions?
  9. Climate change (Part 2): Is geoengineering an ethical option?; Animals (Part 1): How ought we to treat animals?
  10. Animals (Part 2): Experimenting on animals; (Part 3): An ethical Thanksgiving dinner
  11. Environmental values (Part 1): Is anything other than sentient life of intrinsic value?; (Part 2): Intervening in nature
  12. Equality and affirmative action; Why act ethically?

The lectures are filmed live as Dr. Singer gives his freshman class at Princeton the same week. Thus, they do not have the polish of a studio-filmed lecture, there is background noise, Dr. Singer hems and haws and sometimes rambles the way professors do in any live lecture. While his diction and voice are very clear, making him easy to understand, he is not riveting — this is no Richard Feynman. Moreover, the class is clearly aimed at young Princeton students, making some of the questions it tackles less vibrant for the Internet audience.

Dr. Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He specialises in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, preference utilitarian perspective. He is known in particular for his book, Animal Liberation (1975), a canonical text in animal rights/liberation theory.

I had read several articles and extensive excerpts from Singer’s books, but I don’t think I’d read any of them in its entirety.

Probably because of the live format and the young audience, I don’t find the lectures nearly as well organised or persuasive as the ones in Moralities of Everyday Life.I also find he does not submit all arguments presented to the same scrutiny, giving short shrift to arguments that he doesn’t like and giving a pass to ones he favours. I come out of the lectures feeling that he assumed he could just tell students the “right answer” as if this was a physics class because it is so basic from his perspective.

I’ll be honest: I have limited patience for pure philosophy. I like learning about the ideas, but we always rapidly get to a point where I want some ground-truthing before I follow the thinker out on a limb. In Moralities of Everyday Life, the philosophical background was presented but then the instructors rapidly delved into practical cases and laboratory experiments that supported or contradicted the philosophy. With Practical Ethics, however, we are in the domain of pure philosophy even though the questions approached are practical, or at least have practical implications.

Where Bloom presented support for pretty much all assertions he made and amply played devil’s advocate against his own position, Singer throws a lot of assertions that he may have demonstrated to his own satisfaction somewhere else, but are just free-floating in the context of this class. As a result, I feel argumentative and cantankerous in Singer’s class, even though I agree with so much of his opinions; while I felt pleasantly mentally stimulated in Bloom’s class even when I disagreed with him.

If you’re going to take Practical Ethics, then Moralities of Everyday Life makes a superlative introduction—but maybe a little bit too good; you may find yourself, like me, wishing Dr. Bloom taught both classes. I admit it’s unfair of me to not wait until Singer’s class is complete to compare the two, but I will update this post later if the rest of the class changes my impression 25% of the way in.


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