In this section, Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Brendan de Kenessy share how the ethics seminar grew of a partnership between the MIT Philosophy Department and the Technology and Culture Forum (now Radius). They discuss key aspects of the course design, including how philosophical methods and perspectives create a framework for engaging students in grounded discussions about issues that often spark heated and emotional responses.
Radius logo, capturing the forum's focus on "exploring the ethics at the center of science and technology."
Beginning with Radius
24.191 Being, Thinking, Doing (Or Not!): Ethics in Your Life grew out of a partnership between the MIT Philosophy Department and the Technology and Culture Forum (now known as Radius). At the time of its founding in the 1950s, the Technology and Culture Forum was primarily attended by faculty members committed to discussing ethical issues at the core of scientific and technological endeavors. During the time of the Vietnam War, however, there was a feeling that the Technology and Culture forum needed to engage not only faculty, but also the wider MIT community in dialogues about how science and technology were shaping events in the world and how the community might work toward promoting a more just society. Fortunately, MIT emerged from that tumultuous era without any violence on campus, and since that time, the Technology and Culture Forum has involved the MIT community in thinking deeply about how ethics shape our work and how we live our lives.
Engaging Undergraduate Students
While graduate students attend many Radius events on campus, undergraduate students tend to do so less frequently. Professor Sally Haslanger, a member of the Radius Steering Committee and a faculty member in the Philosophy Department, and I (Patricia-Maria), the Assistant Director of the Technology and Culture Forum, collaborated to offer the undergraduate ethics seminar to better reach these students.
We thought it would be wonderful to create a course that would stretch students’ thinking about the role of ethics in everyday life, without stressing their minds and bodies. To accomplish this, we made the grading scheme in the ethics seminar pass/fail and decided to keep homework assignments to a minimum. Today the course involves suggested readings, three short reflections, a brief final presentation and fascinating guest speaker experiences. We tell students every year that the hardest part about this course is finding the classroom on the first day! What we mean by that statement is that the thinking is heavy, but the out-of-class demands are not.
Making a Difference in the World through Small Changes
Almost all MIT students want to make a difference in the world, but many are not quite sure how to go about it. They’re overwhelmed by the task and they’re not sure how to start. We designed the course to help students identify small changes they can make in their everyday lives that will help them actualize the difference they hope to see.
One of the classes we facilitated this semester featured a panel of students who were all activists in their own ways in different fields. We think it was one of the best classes we’ve ever had because all of the panelists made it clear that their activism didn’t overwhelm their lives. They were all making a difference in small ways (one week out of the year in one case and an hour each week in another). In other words, the small changes they were making didn’t require them to give up everything else in their lives.
This was a powerful message for our students, because it demonstrated for them that if you’re passionate about an issue, but don’t have heaps of time to devote to it, you don’t have to shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well.” There are small things you can do to that will impact the situation. Indeed, one of the main messages we try to convey in the course is that students can make a difference in the world and it doesn’t have to swallow them up. There are contributions students can make that are compatible with their everyday lives.
Leveraging Philosophy as a Framework for Discussion
The course is not explicitly about philosophy (our focus is not on philosophical works), but it is about discussing the choices students make in their daily lives—choices about politics, ethics, and practices. Philosophers are specialists in having discussions, pinpointing the heart of a disagreement, clarifying the different questions that arise around an issue, and separating issues from one another. The purpose of having a philosophy professor as a co-teacher in the course is to model rigorous argumentation and to infuse the discussions with philosophical perspectives and methods.
Before entering the class, students tend to say, “I feel this way, but I’m not really sure why, and I can’t articulate why I think a particular stance is wrong or why I think it’s right.” But once we provide them with philosophical tools, they begin to articulate why they feel the way they do. They also begin to use logic to frame discussions about topics that can often spark heated responses. They learn how to articulate their points of view and to defend them in a way that avoids taking an I-need-to-win-the-argument stance. Students shift to thinking in terms of “Here are some points in favor of the way that I’m thinking that even you who disagree with me might be able to accept.” They learn to respond to the arguments of people holding opposing views and to engage these people in conversations, as opposed to dismissing them.
In other words, the course is more about helping students develop the skills to have discussions about real-life, difficult matters, than drilling any particular type of content. It’s about taking the kinds of skills philosophers use to engage in dispassionate, careful discussions and applying them to cases where people tend to be anything but dispassionate.
In fact, one of the major objectives of the course is for students to step away from their default views—the ideas they hold absolutely—so they can see why someone might disagree with them. It’s only after going through an intermediate stage of feeling confused by understanding both sides of an argument that they can get to a more grounded conviction as opposed to just a knee jerk reaction to an issue. We feel we’ve succeeded as teachers when students come out of the class more confused than when they started! It means they’re considering all sides of an argument and realizing there’s so much more to know about an issue than what they initially thought.