Making sense of Ethics and Moral Philosophy


“In philosophy, there is no right or wrong answer. Any action can be understandable and unforgivable at the same time. We get to consider and define what is right or wrong for ourselves. This is not a definitive answer on a single topic, but instead a skill that will accompany and guide us in life,” reflects Dinh Ngoc Lam, a student who has completed “Ethics and Moral Philosophy,” a course currently taught and coordinated by Professor Ian Kalman at Fulbright University Vietnam.

Amidst the current COVID-19 outbreak, the Fulbright campus is on precautionary lockdown, while some classes have continued online. This is the case for “Ethics and Moral Philosophy.” We discussed with Ian the objectives and methods of his class, as well as the role philosophy can play, both in life and in times of crisis.

A fundamental discipline

Covering Western philosophical texts, from Plato to Arendt, and Eastern classics, such as Lao Tzu and Confucius, the objective of the class goes beyond the scope of an Ethics class, and into the fundamentals.

In contemporary use, “ethics” will tell you if you could get arrested for what you do. It is a code of conduct of sorts, in medical fields, in business, journalism, everywhere. Some even see it as an instruction guide to life, but it will only give you partial answers. Moral philosophy is what allows you to test or dispute the guidelines in the first place. It speaks to the fundamental questions, challenging your assumptions, goals and desires. And with better questions come better answers.”

At Fulbright, Ethics and Moral Philosophy is a core course, which means it is obligatory for all students, regardless of future specialization. Although some might question the utility of the subject for future engineering majors, for example, studying philosophy holds profound implications regardless of career choices.

Ian explains: “There’s a synergy of knowledge in which you gain depths to other fields, whether you want to be an engineer, marketer, political scientist or a lawyer. This is why we have core education. Having a deeper understanding of the world and a better understanding of the path to achieve your goals is immensely beneficial. We also live in a complex, interconnected world, with no easy answer. Trying to study subjects as separate units misses a lot of the nuance and sophistication required to see the bigger picture.

Innovation, in particular, comes out of questioning, challenging convention, and creating change. In our class, we begin with Socrates, who just asked a lot of questions. He kept asking us to define and understand the words we employ – and therefore the world and ourselves – ever more deeply. Building those habits will have a lasting impact no matter what you study.”

Dr Ian Kalman

This is doubly true at Fulbright University, where a culture of innovation and creative, multidisciplinary problem solving is already growing deep roots, for students and professors alike.

“Our students are particularly socially aware, active and conscious. For me this is because those who apply for and come to this school are looking for a specific sort of education.

We equip them with the right tools, we work with the classics, and encourage them to come to their own conclusions, building lasting habits and intellectual rigor. Even if they want to go into business, or math, or another field seemingly unrelated to philosophy, the form of education provided here will have a profound impact on the way they make mindful decisions and change the world around them. We are training, at Fulbright, the next generation of philosophers and thinkers, whichever field they dedicate their minds and energy to,” says Ian.

Training a generation of thinkers

For Ian, there are 3 main components to the class: Discourse, Reflection and Synthesis.

Discourse is a primary function of the classroom, as it allows students to engage with, challenge and analyze foundational texts. “I’ve been very impressed with how mature, responsible, and reflexive students are, both encouraging and challenging each other. I’m also really impressed by how we’ve managed to foster that online,” relates Ian. While classes happen on Zoom, with digital blackboards and online lectures, Ian manages a Facebook group, a platform where most of the dialogue currently happens. Students are given prompts, polls and links responding to student posts or to questions, and the latter produce information on the message board. These are often broad philosophical questions, which Ian then asks they support with text, or question and challenge, to improve the way their classmates think about it.

Students are also supported in taking ownership of the texts studied. Reflection essays encourage students to take a concept they have been learning about and apply it to their own life in short form writings, but also constitutes a major aspect of the class. “The goal is to take a philosophical text, which was written in one context and bring it into the context of your own life. In order to do that, you need a somewhat substantial understanding of the philosopher.” Ian explains. Student chosen topics include how Plato’s allegory of the cave helped them think about depression in different ways, or how Aristotle talking about unequal friendships made them see their roommate situations and responsibilities in the household in a different light.

“If we look around us, everything holds philosophical implications, from presidential elections and debates to business and science. Studying philosophy and mastering different schools of thought can be dry, and dense, and challenging. But it holds the key to overcoming obstacles and making sense of the world,” reflects Dinh Ngoc Lam.

The final exam mobilizes all the knowledge students are expected to have. This includes a history of philosophy, important thinkers, core concepts, fundamental discourses that have taken place over thousands of years. But for Ian, the most critical aspect, and the key to mastery, is to provide thoughtful analysis articulating several thinkers. Synthesis isn’t simply knowing the concepts – because you can memorize those – but connecting the concepts to each other.  “Yes, they should know what a social contract is, and what the Socratic method is.  They should have good understanding of what Confucius’ idea of filiality was. But then we take that one step further: How does Confucius’ concept of filiality relate to Aristotle’s idea of family? This is something that could be in the exam. It demonstrates the ability to connect people who weren’t talking to each other. Throughout the course, we push students to connect ideas in class, and build the skills to talk about and process information in this way.”

Philosophy in the face of crisis

With schools closed, routines disrupted, worries and uncertainties, some find safety and reassurance in the continuation of classes, and Ian provides much needed regularity with the course. But inevitably, those concerns also find their way into the safer spaces of academic pursuit. “Although the Co-Design Year is finished, I still believe in the spirit of Co-Design, and the class is still evolving. I’ve tried to treat this a learning opportunity. The students have been amazing, flexible and thoughtful, sensitive and reflective, and I think philosophy can help on many levels.”

In terms of helping us make sense of the crisis, Ian mention that Aristotle suggests the purpose of life is a specific type of happiness: eudaemonia or flourishing. This is a form of happiness that is not just rewarding but enduring, standing up to challenges. “Both the Aristotelian and Confucian approach to ethics, is a cultivation of personal growth. So that when difficulties arise, you have the tools and habits to think about it rationally and have a measured response. Your sources of happiness are also not fully external, which means you can find comfort or purpose in the face of adversity. Finally, you have the support structures and friendships that help you weather the storm,” Ian continues.

Philosophy can also make you a more effective leader: “The Utilitarianism school of thought has had the most enduring impact on public health care, the idea that the greatest good for the greatest number is how we should think about disease control. But other philosophical approaches are important, such as asking: what rights do people in areas with disease have, what are the responsibilities of some parts of the world to other parts of the world? What’s the importance of human dignity? And how can we protect that at times that are trying? In my opinion, the ability to think through those things can make you a more resilient observer and participant in trying times, to be more aware of what you’re trying to do, to achieve your goals as best as possible, or just to be there for your community,” Ian concludes.

Antoine R.Touch

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