Can Teaching Ethics be “Safe”?

Though I’ve taught college level ethics classes for fifteen years, I’m still overwhelmed with feelings of both exhilaration and apprehension as I enter the classroom and face forty or more intellectually bright and highly motivated health care majors. For fifty minutes a day, three days a week, we talk about some of the most critical, complex, and controversial issues of our day: embryonic stem cell research, cloning, abortion, genetic engineering, artificial reproductive technology, and physician-assisted suicide among other topics. I try to come prepared, having spent hours and hours reading the latest journal articles and books. My notes, PowerPoint slides, and videos are in good order. I’ve developed a reasonable strategy for saying what I believe needs to be said, but I’m also ready to adjust to “the moment.” Who knows what each class period will bring? Over the years, I’ve found class prep and engagement with students to be exhilarating.

Lately, however, I’ve felt more and more apprehension as I launch the day’s discussion. In my morning ritual of skimming the headlines for “ethics in the news” items, I routinely stumble across another story of a university or professor in deep trouble for violating “safe zones” or failing to give “trigger warnings.” I’m filled with fear and trepidation as I realize that nothing in the teaching and doing of ethics is “safe.” Ethics, after all, is about what we ought to value and what we ought to do, not what we happen to value and happen to do. Consequently, our viewpoints and behaviors could be wrong and in need of adjustment.

If providing a “safe place” means students’ viewpoints and values will never be challenged, how do you teach ethics at all? More so, how do you discuss the important but volatile issues of our day while guaranteeing that no one will ever feel “uncomfortable”? If a professor has to give advance warning about a topic or discussion that might offend, then broadcast a “trigger warning” before every class. Ethics in general, and discussion of contemporary ethical issues specifically, is dangerous!

I believe wholeheartedly that a college class on ethics should be safe, if by “safe” you mean professor and students will respect one another, will give sincere consideration to the reasoned judgments—even the opinions—of one another, and will speak kindly and considerately to one another, especially when you disagree. “With all due respect” is still a good way to begin a dissenting opinion or an objection. Such “safe zones” invite open and genuine dialogue; encourage the revision of viewpoints when evidence or reason demands it; advance our understanding of complex issues, and foster mutual respect.

But if by “safe” you mean students must be completely sheltered from considerations and viewpoints they might find challenging, unsettling, and different from their own, then how do you teach ethics? I tell students the first day of class, “Before the semester is over, everyone probably will be upset over something that is said by me or your classmates.  The issues we’ll be discussing are too important, too complex, and too controversial not to be ruffled somewhere along the line.  We’ll endeavor to create an environment in which everyone can honestly express their own convictions, thoughtfully consider the viewpoints of others, and sincerely respect those with whom you disagree.”  Over the years, that is what I’ve meant by “safe.”  Recently, being “safe” has come to mean something very different.  In the current climate, “safe zones” may be safe for students, but very dangerous to professors who dare to encourage honest and open discussion on the important issues of our day.

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Trevor Stammers
Trevor Stammers
4 years ago

This is such a helpful piece. Several years ago I had a grievance taken out against me which I viewed as an attempt to suppress any expression of views about abortion which did not support it in an unqualified way. As both a physician and a bioethicist, I could not teach the subject honestly if I had to say that abortion is “just fine”. Fortunately in my case the Catholic University in which I teach supported my stance. This can by no means be guaranteed in a an increasingly “thought-policed” environment however, where to have concerns about abortion or even oppose torture may mean you are considered unfit to teach.

Jeri Veenstra
Jeri Veenstra
4 years ago

Just listening again to John Patrick’s, “The Myth of Moral Neutrality.” Lots of helpful insight for my ethics classroom.