Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How It Will Go, Episode 1: Teaching Kant

I'm starting a new series on this blog today, which I've named How It Will Go (hereafter, HIWG).  In each installment, I will anticipate how teaching a particular figure or text will go in my class, based on patterns that I've seen previously.  If something unusual or noteworthy happens, I'll report back on it, but I don't expect that to happen often.

First up:  Immanuel Kant's Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals

Context in which I teach this figure/text:  I include Kant's Groundwork, in whole or in part, in almost every one of my courses. Since most of what I teach falls under the general categories of moral or political philosophy, Kant's articulation of the Categorical Imperative is an indispensable element for all of my course content.  In an intro-level "survey" course, the Groundwork is particularly useful, as much for its brevity as for its clarity. Perhaps more than any other figure or text, I have found students' responses to Kant's Groundwork  to be incredibly regular and predictable.

In sum, this is HIWG:

For the first 1-2 class periods: Students will resent what appears to them to be my intentionally cruel commitment to speaking in some kind of bizarro philoso-code.  (WTH, a priori?!) They will insist that there is no reason to over-complicate simple terms that everyone already understands just fine, like "good will" and "duty."  They will also emphatically refuse to concede that Reason operates according to necessary and universal rules and those rules are not person-specific.

Sometime just before or during the 3rd class period:  Students will "get" Kant.  Having just figured out how the Categorical Imperative actually works, they will take up the CI like a shiny new toy gun and, with a righteousness unbecoming, begin firing it recklessly and with little to no aim all about their world.  They will be transformed into genuinely dangerous (and totally insufferable) moral agents for a short while.

In the last (for me, the 4th) class period: Students will work through Kant's "On a Supposed Right to Lie for Philanthropic Reasons" and will realize that, for Kant, lying is always morally wrong. They'll formulate an entirely predictable thought experiment that involves their hosting Anne Frank and lying to the Nazi who knocks at their door looking for her, and they will express real human outrage when they are not permitted to universalize the maxim "lying is morally permissible." They will be forced to reevaluate the CI and many of them will immediately dispense with it, tossing it aside with the "THIS TOY SUCKS!" exasperation of a toddler.  Others, realizing that their peers are now unarmed (having not yet read J.S. Mill) will fire upon the consequentialists at will.

And so it goes.

1 comment:

reykjaviksexfarm said...

In the UK version of this - In the first week all the students will say "Kant" with a cockney accent whereupon the the whole class will fall into fits of giggles. I calmly remind myself that this is still not grounds for a mercy killing in the courts....