Moral Reasons and Time Constraints: Reflections on Ethics Education in Summer Camp Settings
By Brianna Larson, Philosophy PhD Student at University of Cincinnati
The Cincinnati Ethics Center, established in January of 2022, recently concluded its 2nd year of ethics programming at the Youth Cadet program. Youth Cadet is run by the Cincinnati Police Department and aims to educate 16-19-year-olds about policies and procedures in policing. Over seven Wednesdays this summer, philosophy Ph.D. students from the University of Cincinnati and staff from the Cincinnati Ethics Center participated in Youth Cadet by providing ethics education. This education resulted in a greater understanding of moral language, strengthened students’ critical reasoning skills, and helped them think dynamically about real-world issues that impact their communities.
After a few sessions of basic ethics education on concepts like harm, autonomy, justice, and character, students began reviewing the official 2022-2023 Regional High School Ethics Bowl case set to prepare for competition. Ethics Bowl is a competition where two teams discuss and analyze real-world ethical issues. While this was my first experience working with the High School Ethics Bowl in Ohio, I have three years of experience with Ethics Bowl programming in Nebraska. I enjoy these events quite a bit; seeing high schoolers engaged in deep, critical thought about contentious topics is empowering. These competitions differ from debate competitions in that students often argue for viewpoints they endorse rather than being assigned a specific viewpoint. Ethics Bowl events value and promote collective thought, collaboration, and rigorous, respectful dialogue.
Philosophers and educators have been making a concerted effort to teach philosophy to children for years. Philosophy can strengthen critical thinking skills and moral reasoning. Furthermore, philosophical education can help us think more holistically about issues that seem nearly impossible to solve. One such issue that has been the topic of tense discussion in the United States centers around policing and the judicial system. My team was the most interested in such a case. Regional case number 14, “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied” covered the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. We spent two sessions covering this case in depth, exploring the various dimensions of the case, and relating it to present-day political and social issues they care about.
Working at the Youth Cadet program was different from other Ethics Bowl-related work I’ve done. Some details of the program (sponsored and run by the local police department) and student demographics (mostly black teenagers) made covering cases like “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied” complex. Given my experience with the Ethics Bowl, the intricacies of the Youth Cadet program, and my own philosophical and political leanings a few questions came to mind.
First, how can we encourage students to engage in moral and ethical debate on contentious, politically charged topics that involve policing and justice? Second, and potentially of the most interest to educators in the 5-18 age range: how should we approach teaching philosophical material to youth with a single 1-1.5 hour session per week? I will briefly discuss both questions, starting with the first.
As educators and philosophers, how can we encourage students to engage in moral and ethical debate on contentious, politically charged topics that involve policing and justice?
Youth have been rallying and organizing around causes they care about for generations. Yet, adults tend to think that youth are “too young” to understand complex social and political issues. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With the rise of social media, global news (written, audio, and video) can be accessed at the touch of a button, and parents often have little control over what their children see. Rather than silencing children or assuming they are not knowers, we should embrace their lived experience and knowledge as valuable in public and political discourse. Adults and educators can act as figures who encourage youth to share their thoughts on social and political issues. There are a few ways we (adults) can be encouraging.
One way we can encourage students to engage in moral and ethical debates on topics such as policing and justice is by modeling respectful discourse. It’s important that the students know they can disagree with each other and the views of their instructor. In fact, it’s good if they do! Disagreement allows the instructor to extract reasons from the students. By giving students the space to elaborate on their reasons for holding some belief, we show them that we take them seriously, that their views are worth consideration, and most importantly that it’s possible to have disagreements and maintain a respectful, enriching conversation.
Another way we can encourage them is by challenging their beliefs and having them generate challenges for their own beliefs. My team split into two smaller teams and competed against each other in true Ethics Bowl fashion. Even if both sides agreed on the proper course of action in an ethical dilemma, I encouraged each team to come up with arguments against their position. Over time, I saw significant growth and maturity in their argumentation style and critical reasoning. Students gave deeper consideration to the various dimensions of the ethical cases and were more willing to entertain positions that were not their own. Furthermore, they often collaborated to generate the best course of action, even if it was antithetical to their original opinion.
How should educators approach teaching philosophical material to youth with only 1-1.5 hours per week?
One of the methods that P4C (Philosophy for Children) employs is creating a community of philosophical inquiry. Sarah Vitale and Owen Miller (2020) helpfully elucidate the different dimensions of creating and maintaining such a community. Generally, in a community of philosophical inquiry, the educator or teacher acts as a facilitator rather than simply a deliverer of information. How might this look in practice? Instead of simply telling students about moral concepts, they might lead discussions to help them discover moral concepts like harm, autonomy, justice, and character. Probing students’ intuitions in this way can take longer and might be challenging for educators under strict time constraints. Having students engage in such activities promotes active learning and can make facilitation easier over time as students warm up to each other, create community, and get comfortable sharing their ideas.
Acting as a facilitator rather than a content deliverer can be beneficial in a few ways. First, it validates the experiences and knowledge of the students. Second, it engages the students and allows them to feel a sense of ownership over the discussion. One of the difficulties I faced with this approach was extracting ethical and moral reasons rather than psychological or religious reasons from students. The students I worked with had little to no experience with ethics or philosophy. At first, students provided mostly psychological or religious reasons for choosing actions. After some guidance and discussion, they could separate moral reasons from other reasons. In this sense, content-delivery-focused education was necessary until students had the same foundation to work from. After this, facilitation reigned supreme.
Is facilitating a robust community of philosophical inquiry possible given the time constraints of summer programs like these? The jury may still be out. I have discussed some of the ways that our time with the participants was productive above, but some issues are still relevant. One of those is time. We had roughly 1.5 hours per week with our students. One week between meetings likely contributed to a loss of learned information and the need for content-delivery teaching rather than facilitation-based teaching. In short, the brevity of the program may render building a community of philosophical inquiry difficult. Building such a community requires mutual trust and time, the latter of which was scarce. Nonetheless, I believe as philosophers and educators, we should aim for facilitation-based philosophy rather than mere content delivery wherever we can. Philosophy is a group effort and when we empower youth to feel valued and included, it makes their learning experience more enriching.