We continually forget that the sphere of morals is the sphere of action … [that] a situation does not really become moral until we are confronted with the question of what shall be done in a concrete case, and are obliged to act upon our theory.” So wrote the American social activist and reformer Jane Addams.

It’s never been easy to decide “what shall be done”, but previous eras at least had the moral absolutes specified by religion to help as a guide to ethical action.

In this modern, increasingly fragmented, world with its focus on rights and identity, an atomized media and no end of diverse opinions expressed on the internet, the question of what doing “the right thing” – acting ethically – entails is not so clear-cut.

But it’s not impossible to establish, says moral philosopher Dr Sandra Lynch, the inaugural Director of the Institute for Ethics and Society and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Sydney campus.

“The problem with ethics is not that we don’t know what the right thing to do is – often we do – but we don’t feel empowered to be able to do it in the contexts in which we find ourselves,” she says.

Lynch has a particular interest in helping school and university students to exercise what she calls their “moral muscle” and so to “give voice to their well-considered values”.

“We don’t give students enough opportunity to practice precisely what they might say and do to act with integrity in a particular situation, so that they begin to develop the moral muscle to speak up – perhaps on small issues initially, as they gradually develop a capacity to deal with more complex issues,” she says.


Promoting critical and creative thinking skills

Lynch has a developed deep professional interest in areas including applied and professional ethics, ethics and values education, and critical thinking.

With a background in education, she has had a long-standing involvement in the Philosophy in Schools Association of NSW and the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations and in promoting critical and creative thinking skills in schools and university classrooms.

Her research interests lie in the areas of ethics and values education, and in developing “best practice” in the teaching of ethics so that students “develop the confidence and competence to contribute to the flourishing of their professions and of the societies of which they are part”.

“I think that philosophers in tertiary education – particularly ethicists – have been very good at teaching the theory of ethical decision-making and raising ethical awareness,” she says.

“But one of the things we have not done well is to take that work into the context of particular discipline areas – law, business, medical, nursing – and say to our students, ‘ok if you confront this particular kind of issue, how will you act on your values with integrity, but without alienating your colleagues or undermining your position within the organisation of which you are a part?’ ”

The most rewarding part of her career teaching ethics, she says, “is to see students coming back to class having been on placements in hospitals, law firms or at work in business to say – ‘I confronted this issue’ – and then discussing with one another how they responded to resolve the issue or how they might have done so more effectively”.

After studying to be a primary school teacher at the then Wollongong Teachers College and teaching in NSW and WA, Lynch moved to the US were she studied for a BA at the University of Illinois. Moving back to Australia, she completed a Masters in philosophy from Macquarie University followed by a PhD at UNSW on David Hume’s view of the self as a fiction.

Why philosophy? “I initially started to do some philosophy of education subjects because I had been a teacher and had felt underprepared by my initial studies to respond to some of the demands of teaching children. I didn’t feel well educated. I incidentally discovered the mainstream discipline of philosophy and loved it – the opportunity to inquire, reflect and to consider how that might impact on everyday life was exciting.”


Engaging with problems, issues and ideas

Within the context of the more than 25 years that Lynch has been involved with the Philosophy in Schools movement, she emphasises its aim of facilitating the development of critical and creative thinking skills.

“Our approach is not to introduce students to the ideas of eminent philosophers, but rather to draw students into communal inquiry into problems, issues and ideas that interest or puzzle them – to encourage them to become philosophers,” she says.

“The development of students’ critical and creative thinking skills is an absolutely crucial aspect of the educational enterprise for teachers and it’s one that invigorates the classroom. It increases the engagement of students and enlivens professional practice for their teachers.”

However, she says it has not been easy to get Philosophy in Schools programs fully accepted by educational administrators and authorities in both schools and university departments of education because they are often perceived as just another addition to already crowded curricula.

“But what we’re offering is a critical thinking program and it doesn’t need to be taught as a separate subject,” she says.

“It needs to be embedded within every approach to teaching in every area of the curriculum, and it can be – but to be able to get that message across is difficult, especially when much of the work of Philosophy in Schools Associations has been done on a volunteer basis for decades”.

Nevertheless, the programs have been successful and she says children and older students are keen to engage in discussion of difficult and contentious topics and are often remarkably prudent and judicious in their reflections.


‘If you eat too many lollies, you will get sick’

She recalls a conditional thinking exercise she presented to a kindergarten class of five- and six-year-olds.

“On the surface it was relatively simple – the students had three categories (‘certainly true’, ‘certainly false’ or ‘uncertain’) into which to put various statements. So, for example, the statement ‘If today is Tuesday, then tomorrow is Wednesday’ – is one that was categorised by the students as certainly true. One proposition – ‘If you eat too many lollies, you will get sick’ proved more interesting”.

“All but one of the students wanted to put that statement into the uncertain category. They had all overindulged in lollies and there was disagreement among them about the effects of this. However, one student insisted the statement had to be categorised as ‘certainly true’. What made him correctly insist on this, was the phrase ‘too many’- he assumed that if he ate too many lollies he would necessarily get sick, because it was too many to stay well.

“There are many young students capable of that level of engagement with language, logic and ideas within their own experience. We don’t take enough opportunities to draw these capacities out, and we don’t train our teachers in this regard to equip them to competently and confidently facilitate the development of such capacities.”

At the university level, she says, there are some students who can’t see the point in any philosophical training and who resist engagement with compulsory core curriculum courses in philosophy and ethics, but there are others who thoroughly enjoy them and see their value for enriching their professional studies.

Focusing philosophical inquiry on issues that students are likely to deal with in their professional and personal lives is a good strategy for engaging students who approach core curriculum courses reluctantly, Lynch says.

“For example, medical students are very capable, but immersed in a competitive context and like many students intently focused on getting their degrees. Philosophy can appear a superfluous addition to their studies. But if we approach philosophy through the interrogation of problematic issues they might have to address with patients, for example, difficult conversations about organ donation, futile treatment or vaccination, this can really grab their attention.”


How to help the ‘snowflakes’

A pejorative neologism now current brands many of today’s students as “snowflakes” – the implication being that they are prone to easily take offence and lack the resilience to deal with the strong opinions of others.

Lynch agrees that this may be the case – but suggests it’s not necessarily explained by identifying a fault in the student cohort. Their parents, teachers and lecturers could have something to do with this tendency.

“I think as parents, teachers and lecturers we can forget that we have some responsibility in helping young people to gain resilience.

“We are the ones who are setting the standard – and unless we provide them with a foundation when they are young that helps them to accept and deal with the challenges life presents, and face some of the realities of life, then we create a burden for them and for ourselves.

“Children and young people can be helped to become resilient. The other side of this coin is that we shouldn’t be too worried if we make mistakes occasionally as parents and teachers because that helps children become resilient too – they discover that we’re not perfect and that can also help them to recognise and develop their own coping mechanisms.

“We do need to keep your eye out for students who are vulnerable – but in general helping students deal with challenges depends on the way in which we present issues. For example, we can present competing arguments about contentious issues in a balanced and dispassionate way that allows students to engage with those arguments, to examine the facts of a matter – rather than encouraging them simply to defend their own views or the views of others on a particular issue.”


Diverse philosophical and ethical ideas

The proliferation and popularity of many YouTube videos dealing with diverse philosophical and ethical ideas may also represent a desire by many to engage with difficult moral problems.

“I think it’s a recognition of the degree of concern about such problems and the relative lack of reasoned and rigorous public debate about them. At the same time, there is agreement that we should show compassion and respect for others, even though that agreement may have its limits,” she says.

“Engaging with others who are prepared to thoughtfully interrogate contemporary ethical issues helps us to understand how complex ethical decision-making can be and how messy morality can become. While we may be committed to particular principles, when we are seeking to apply those principles judiciously in a complex social or workplace setting, and to take account of other people’s perspectives, it can be very difficult to come up with a quick or easy resolution to a problem.”

Although modern technology gives us easy opportunities to make judgements about human behaviour, she says, “we often do so without sufficient knowledge of the situation, without awareness or recognition of the consequences of making a judgement – either for others or for ourselves – and without compassion.

“If we think back in time to a less globalised world, a time when access to media and communication channels were limited and when it was more likely that people shared many aspects of their lives together, we can recognise the impact that membership of smaller, less fragmented and less varied or differentiated communities might have had on the impulse to make quick judgements about the behaviour of others.

“More intimate interaction with neighbours and fellow community members can open us to an appreciation of the complexity of their lives. Knowing more about the motivations, beliefs, pressures and expectations influencing the behaviour of others is likely to make us more measured in the judgements we make about their behaviour.”


The ‘moral climate’ is undermined

In today’s “moral landscape” people such as media commentators and politicians may put forward views and opinions that are self-serving and which have little relationship to the truth of a situation.

“The moral climate is undermined when major actors express views that are contradictory or illogical, make unwarranted assertions and refuse to present rational justifications of their views or their actions,” she says.

“If enough people take that approach to dialogue in the public domain, this undermines the expectation and perhaps the possibility of rational moral judgment.”

There will always be topics that reasonable people will disagree about, “often because they argue on the basis of completely different initial premises”.

“Within a civic community we can learn to get on with one another and accept different perspectives despite disagreement – but if we don’t bring reason to bear on the issues at hand, if we have recourse to feeling or unexamined assumptions, we lose the opportunity to appreciate one another’s perspectives and to reach whatever kind of ethical agreement might be possible in a pluralistic liberal democracy. Reasonable tolerance provides a good foundation for our civic engagement.”


Creating a space for debate on contentious issues

Often young people put pressure on one another to have an opinion without having spent the time required to develop a well-justified opinion, she says.

“I think that is something we must do in the university classroom. Not every student enrolls in a philosophy course, but every student will do some philosophical ethics, even if they don’t realise that they’re doing it.

“Ethical ideas arise within all the discipline areas – those ideas naturally emerge and if teachers can facilitate rigorous student engagement with those ideas they can open up and enlarge a space for reflection on different perspectives in which informed arguments can be prosecuted.

“The teacher’s role is not to attempt to force a particular view on students, rather it involves teasing out from students what their views are, how those views relate to the views of others, and requiring them to defend their own views, and to expect the same willingness to provide reasons from others.”

She adds: “If we can do that I think we can begin to get a deeper, and more dispassionate engagement with ideas and create an open and productive space for debate on contentious issues. The question about public debate relates to what we are trying to achieve: are we encouraging the presentation of self-righteously defended opinion, or are we aiming to develop an expectation that people engage well in civil discussion about very difficult problems? I’d be suggesting it should be the latter.”


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