Ethics in the Classroom: Empowering the Next Generation

Oct 4, 2022 63 min listen

From climate change to an ever-shifting global order, the list of challenges faced by the next generation of leaders and policymakers is long. This panel brings together contributors from the Carnegie Council’s journal Ethics & International Affairs to explore how ethics can be used in the classroom to engage students and empower them to tackle the critical global issues of our time. Panelists draw on their roles as professors of ethics, international relations, and philosophy to discuss how they help their students to understand ethics not just as an abstract concept but as a practical tool that can improve daily lives.

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BRENT STEELE: Hello, everyone. I am Brent Steele, professor and Wormuth Presidential Chair in Political Science at the University of Utah, and I want to welcome everyone joining today's event hosted by Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council. This panel is part of a special content series in the run-up to Global Ethics Day 2022, which will take place on October 19 of this year. Each year on Global Ethics Day Carnegie Council calls upon schools, organizations, and individuals from around the world to take action to empower ethics, and it is within that framework that we have organized today's discussion, specifically focused on ethics in the classroom and empowering the next generation of students and thinkers.

I am honored to be joined today by Professor Michael Blake, professor of philosophy, public policy, and governance at the University of Washington; Dr. Yuna Han, departmental lecturer in international relations at the University of Oxford, and Dr. Ilgü Özler, professor of political science and international relations at the State University of New York at New Paltz and also director of the SUNY Global Engagement Program.

Before we begin I want to remind everyone in the audience to please use the chat feature to submit questions for our panelists, which we will address toward the end of the discussion.

Today we have two sets of questions to start and shape our discussion. The first asks each panelist to identify which issues you focus on in your approaches to ethics in the classroom and what you find are the biggest challenges for this considering everything that has been going on around us, but are there also opportunities as well? Each panelist can take five minutes apiece for this set of questions, and we will start with Dr. Blake, move to Dr. Han, and finish with Dr. Özler.

Dr. Blake, I will turn it over to you.

MICHAEL BLAKE: Thanks very much, and thanks for having me at this event. I was very glad to get this question because it gave me a chance to crystallize some of the things that I have been worried about over the past couple of years as the world seems to have gotten much more interesting in all the wrong ways. I have occasionally wondered what the point is of thinking or teaching about ethics seriously when the world seems to be so full of just bad things that are recurrent and difficult to dispel.

When you asked the question, "What is the major difficulty that we are facing?" I realized something about my classes, which is that I used to have to argue very strongly for the first couple of weeks against ethical relativism and the thought that there was something going on beyond just pounding the table and asserting your own privilege whenever you made an ethical point. Increasingly that is not the worry. I think my students have moved from ethical relativism to despair, and now the challenge isn't getting students to think that the world might have ethics as a part of it to getting them to think that ethics could be a guide to action, attainable, or anything other than just a benchmark of how far we are falling. I think the challenge is now trying to get students when they look at the international realm to think that there is any hope.

The part that ethics plays in this of course is going to be very controversial, but I have made some moves in my teaching that I think have helped me potentially. At the very least it is how I have tried to respond. One of them is by focusing less on how philosophy in particular has traditionally understood itself, which is with ethical evaluation, overall judgment, and the thrill of condemning others toward ethics as a part of practical guidance, of figuring out where we need to go and why and how to understand that.

I have often tried to begin with much more practical forms of engagement: How can people do right in their careers? How can people become good at the task of being a citizen? To understand that requires practical skill of course, but it also requires some knowledge of final purposes and what it is that we want to do or avoid doing, so trying to move toward a more role-based and positional account of what the point is of doing ethics can help students, especially policy students, who are often intending to work in international development or international politics, with some toolkit and a vocabulary with which to articulate what it is that is the point of their jobs.

I have also tried to move I think away from grand theory. Kant, utilitarianism, and all of these lovely theories are what I was raised with philosophically speaking, and I love them, but there is a sense in which when things are on fire they are luxuries until demonstrated to become relevant.

So I have often started to look more at particular low-to-the-ground issues and dilemmas, especially in the first person. When people face particular worries about disparate goods that they might pursue, what tools can we provide them? That at the very least holds out the possibility of there being some practical guidance to people who are about to go out into a very different world than the one that I inhabited when I was young several million years ago.

I have also I think in a more philosophical vein tried to understand philosophy in particular as offering the possibility of correct rage. I hear from my students and in myself for that matter a lot of inchoate rage at various things including the destruction of our physical climate, the abandonment of longstanding international norms in the past couple of months with the Russian adventure in the Ukraine, toward a sense that everything is awful and nothing is good. One of the tasks of ethics that I don't think we talk enough about is the possibility of clear-headed rage, that to rage correctly is the first step toward practical guidance. I often tell my students now that they come in full of rage, and although I am not a therapist and I think philosophy is poorly suited for therapy it does at least offer the possibility of the technical vocabulary with which rage can be understood, explained, and guided toward practical alteration of a terrible world that people of my age are leaving to the young.

All of that is very much a philosopher's answer because I haven't talked about specific issues or specific things. Instead I have talked about how I talk, but I think at this point I am going to leave that and listen to what other people have said about this question.

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much, Michael. That's fantastic. Next up we have Dr. Han. The floor is yours.

YUNA HAN: Great. Thank you very much. I also was very pleased to get an invitation for this event. It is something that is quite interesting to think about and gives me a chance also to reflect on what is happening in my classrooms.

Just to echo a lot of things Michael has been saying, one of the challenges I see in our classrooms—and I am coming from the perspective of teaching international relations as an empirical political science and not necessarily as a philosophy. The way we have taught international relations I think at a lot of universities as an empirical political science is to have this sharp distinction between the normative and ethical realm versus the more empirical, causal sort of descriptions of how things are and why things come to be in that kind of way. I think students increasingly come in dissatisfied with this stark distinction between the discussion of ethics in normative issues and the discussion of describing the world as is and a more realistic picture of what international politics looks like.

Despite the fact that they are quite dissatisfied with this dichotomy, I think one of the challenges is that they do not know where to go from there, if that makes sense. In addition to a lot of the grand theorizing we have done in international relations as well as a lot of the more empirically oriented theories of causal explanations and why things happen in international politics, we now have a lot of critical scholarship that looks at both the normative dimensions of these causal explanations and its deficiencies. A lot of students come in buying into this and very excited about this, but as I say with my colleagues they don't know what to do with bad knowledge. We can decide that some of these things are "bad knowledge," but the challenge then is to decide what do we do from there. I do think there is a sense of despair or feeling like you're on a cliff's edge or too many things are in flux you don't actually know how to chart your course forward as a student in the classroom but also going into the world.

I think that is the major bigger conceptual challenge that I see. One of the more disheartening things that I see sometimes is that I see students struggling through that kind of issue of "What do I do with bad knowledge?" is to go back to their known priors. A lot of discussions become incredibly based on sovereigntist or nation-state-based understandings of international politics, which is not very suitable for the big challenges that get them riled up in the first place, like climate change as well as the global pandemic that we have been living through.

In that sense this despair sometimes I think pushes students to go back to things that they have known before or they see as tools that they find either safe or noble, other than pushing themselves to think beyond those tools and conceptual vocabulary that we have been providing them with over many years.

One of the things I have been trying to do with a mixed degree of success is to push for them to think creatively about politics, not as is but politics that could be. Sometimes students say, "It feels we are always talking about a potential transformation that will never come." That is the point of it. I remember discussing in the class the degrowth movement as well as thinking about the ethical unit of politics and rights as the planet as opposed to as an individual within the capitalist society.

A lot of students take from that and start back and say: "This is never going to happen in my lifetime. This is incredibly unrealistic." But the point of those exercises is to not necessarily think about how do we implement this tomorrow but stretch our conceptual boundaries and our theoretical thinking so that hopefully when students are about to make their personal political choices, that they have a slightly more creative range of things to draw upon as opposed to simply going back to the known prior that they came into the classroom with.

I think that is one way I have been dealing with that. I will leave it at that here, and hopefully we can pick this up later.

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much, Yuna. That is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Özler.

ILGÜ ÖZLER: I think mine piggybacks into the philosophy and political science and now we are taking it into practice. Translating ethics in the classroom is a complex matter, and for the sake of time I will try to make three points that I try to integrate into my classes: 1) The glass is half-full; 2) We all have impact, but we need to understand our impact in the larger global context; and 3) what we consider to be ethical may not be what is necessarily just, and we need to always try to foster ethics toward justice.

I run two programs, the UN semester and the SUNY Global Engagement Program in New York City with strong components tying theory to practice where students engage directly with hearing from practitioners at the United Nations about multilateralism or they become practitioners through their internships, and we do seminars and colloquium with them throughout this process. In both cases in cause setting we tackle big issues of the day covering multilateralism, the role of global civil society, sustainable development, global climate crisis, human rights, and women's rights, big questions.

The first goal is to understand the problem and the potential solutions. I am a social scientist. We connect theory and policy. Before we can start to translate global ethics into practice we first need to have practical knowledge of what is deemed ethically possible or responsible. For this we start out with the multilateral frameworks created in the international community that make an idealistic base from which to start our work—human rights, humanitarian law, sustainability frameworks. We study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, the basics.

We try to understand global problems using a social scientific lens, acknowledging that social scientific measures have their biases as well. One example that I use in class is the UN Sustainable Development Goal 1, combating poverty, and Goal 10, combating inequality. How we define poverty and inequality has implications of how we measure and combat those issues. While the international community made great progress in the development of these ethical standards for us in areas that we study, these are not perfect, and it is important to understand where and why great progress has been made and what works. That is the glass half-full.

The second point is that we have great impact, however small it might be, yet the individual change is never sufficient. Thus we need to keep the bigger picture in mind, and understanding our place in the larger picture is important.

Here in class we discuss the difference between advocacy and humanitarian work. Humanitarians see their impact immediately. You can help a refugee family settle. You can bring a bathroom to a rural school to help the girl child to go to school. You can help bring tents to a displaced family. These are immediate results, yet these are not finite solutions. They are temporary, stopgap, limited measures to help those who suffer from structural shortcomings and failures.

On the other hand, policy advocates rarely see the results of their work. You might get a sentence or a word into a policy that might make change, but this is rare. You rarely see the results of your work, it is frustrating, and it is slow. There is no immediate visible change for those policy advocates and never enough resources for those who are humanitarians. Thus connecting our micro-impact day-to-day to the larger frameworks becomes a key to keeping the advocates and the humanitarians going. This is something that we address in the class setting.

This brings me to my third and final point: What is positive change? Ethics is about what is right and what is wrong, morally good or bad, how we should live our lives to fulfill our moral values, and in this context it is important that we examine what is acceptable and deemed ethical in relation to justice. We use the classroom as a democratic space to understand our global universal values from multiple perspectives. The ethical practices considered good for one group of people may come at the cost of another. I can elaborate a little more when we are discussing the challenges question. Global ethical practices include an understanding of our global current values and their impact, but most importantly a strong reflection on how ethics intersects with justice is something that we should consider.

Other practitioners and I think about global citizenship as a good thing, but construction of global citizenship is seen as an affront to many local traditions, so we struggle with how you reconcile the local and the global in the context of class. Despite being associated with, for example, social democratic values, cosmopolitan global citizenship still lives in the context of the sovereign state, thus associated with social democracy limited to maybe those privileged in the Global North or Western countries, leaving many behind. So how do we actually negotiate this notion of global citizenship that exists within the context of an understanding of sovereign state and also that has been developed associated with colonial and neocolonial legacies? How do we reconcile those issues, also in the context of the neoliberal economic principles that leave many behind?

Those are some of the issues that we struggle with in our class, and as students change theory into practice we discuss about what they are experiencing on the ground and then use those examples in the classroom setting. I can articulate more if there are any questions about it.

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much, Ilgü.

We are going to move on to a second question, but in the meantime I want to remind the audience to please use the chat feature to submit your questions for our panelists. We will get to those after this next set of questions and some responses.

The second question we asked each of the panelists was: "What kinds of materials do you utilize in your classroom, including strategies and tactics for technological engagement with students? How has this changed over the years, especially in light of the pandemic, if at all for you? Do you still primarily use readings, articles, and texts, and/or do you include podcasts, videos, music, or something else?"

We will go in the same order again. No reason to switch up the batting lineup. We will begin with Dr. Blake, move to Dr. Han, and then finish with Dr. Özler. We can take a little bit less time here, just two or three minutes. Michael?

MICHAEL BLAKE: Thanks. This was also a great question, especially after a couple of years of quietly or loudly screaming about Zoom and its effect upon pedagogy.

I actually want to start with a very old thought, which is that the core of ethics is conversation and that to understand your own beliefs and the beliefs of others it requires first the sight within which you can articulate what you think ethics demands of you, and then you listen to what others say about it, and it has to be a very particular kind of listening that involves treating other people not as presumptive enemies in the face of disagreement but as people who are trying to make the same sense you are of a very confusing moral universe. In most of my classes I end up talking about this wonderful Dickens phrase, "fellow passengers to the grave," that we are sharing a very limited life and the universe is morally confusing, and instead of immediately attacking, why don't we listen?

Technologically speaking anything that enables a better conversation is a good thing. There are some ways in which the past couple of years have shown us both the power and the problems associated with technologically mediated forms of conversation. What's good about it is that it enables conversations that otherwise would be difficult or impossible. If you look at the four faces I'm looking at right now, I think we are all in at least three time zones. I know that. It enables access to these conversations. It enables the ability to reach more people. On the other hand it isn't as effective at producing actual conversation that is deep, immediate, and respectful as seeing faces directly and unmediated.

In one sense I think we have grown more used to this sort of technological mediation, and in another sense I still resist it in favor of some fairly old-fashioned methods. I still like texts because they actually offer the opportunity of slowing down and listening very carefully to what other people have thought about the world, but I do think that over the past couple of years the nature of the text in question has become less restrictive. I think a lot of disciplines, especially philosophy, very jealously guard their borders against "that which is not us," and this sort of territorial, disciplinary boundary-drawing I think is potentially crumbling a bit.

In recent classes I have actually tended to include a great many materials that are not philosophical texts. In a recent class on the nature of political and moral wrongdoing, a taxonomy of ways of being awful, we actually read poetry, we saw movies including Ikiru and After.Life. On the wrongness of imposing death we read a lot of biographies of people who have had to experience horrible things to understand the phenomenology of what it is like to experience forms of evil.

In general I think we are increasingly willing to listen to conversations that don't begin with the disciplinary training that many of us were taught to prize as the only true form of engagement with the world. I think we are increasingly willing to listen, and we increasingly have technological modes by which to listen to others, but I do sometimes worry that we, or at least university administrators, sometimes fall in love with their tools, and they prize novelty because it is novel. That is my grumpy old philosopher moment, so I will end on that.

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much, Michael. Yuna, please.

YUNA HAN: I am also slightly of a more old-fashioned ilk when it comes to the kind of material that I like to use, but that is perhaps because I am at an institution that is quite a few hundred years old, and trying to change this place is a very difficult thing.

When the pandemic hit I think there was a lot of excitement at using things like podcasts and videos in particular to get students engaged, and one of my takeaways from that period of lockdown—in the United Kingdom our lockdown period was fairly long—is that a lot of these multimedia resources only facilitate passive consumption of knowledge and debate as opposed to forcing students to actively participate in that, so it was not a good supplement or a good substitute at all to the seminar discussions that are very prized at Oxford and other places as well that bring that active mode of not just conversing with other students and getting that friction there, but processing what you have learned by talking about it live with your peers and your instructor as well.

I have been thinking about ways to increase that kind of active participation even if it is in this large-scale Zoom environment where you are participating but there is significantly less of that spark that happens when you are in the same room at the same time. One thing I tried is to have anonymous write-ins during the class itself or have pop surveys. I noticed when the session was online, students became much more reserved and timid about sharing their real views because they don't actually know their peers as well as they used to if they were in the same room. I would never release it raw because we all know how anonymized writings can look when it isn't filtered, but I would use it as a way to highlight to the class the diversity of views, that diversity of reactions that can happen to one text or one topic at any given moment, and sometimes I would do that live, I would see all the results but not necessarily the students, and I would try to feed it back to them and say, "Look, we had very different reactions, so let's talk about it for a moment."

Again, I don't think this is a very good substitute to more traditional means of seminar discussion and teaching, but it is I think a different way of using the technology that is not simply about we create a fancy-looking multimedia product that students have to consume because a lot of their lives—and a lot of mine—during lockdown in particular were dominated by consuming passively these kinds of materials. I didn't feel the need to add more onto their list, if that makes any sense.

When it comes to use of texts, again it is partially me and partly the institution that I am at. We are very text-based. Echoing what Michael was saying, what I am trying to do is to get students to understand that there are insights and things to learn in texts that are not necessarily "traditional" academic articles or books, and this goes to newspaper articles, memoirs from a feminist activist, etc., and increasingly I am finding that students respond well to it, but also there is a lot of resistance toward accepting that as the same level of importance as my hard, serious, academic texts. If I gave five or six readings—which you often do at Oxford—for one week, clearly the one the students go to last is always the nontraditional text that I have inserted there. That is the challenge that I have in using those traditional mechanisms of reading and discussing but getting them to read more broadly than what looks like what they consider to be hard academic texts.

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much, Yuna. That is absolutely brilliant. Ilgü.

ILGÜ ÖZLER: Thank you so much. I will talk more about my SUNY Global Engagement Program in New York City, where I have the privilege of having the same set of students for three separate classes. This is the beauty of it. They are doing their internship and experiencing their internship on the ground, and then we have a research colloquium, where they develop a research paper on a subject that is relevant to their internship. This is where I have to be flexible because I have to become an expert on all things global, and then they do their papers.

I try to encourage them to speak to their supervisors to develop topics that are relevant to the organization. This way the students can develop something that is applied and that can be used by the organization and then also be a white paper or something that the organization is going to benefit from. That creates agency for the student, and that is a nontraditional way of looking at it. It would be much easier for me to have them develop a topic that I am familiar with and then have them write on that, but then it wouldn't give the students the ability to see the change that they can bring.

The second thing that we do is our Global Engagement seminar, which is a traditional class where they do three readings every week on an issue that we are focusing on. Usually they are social scientific and quantitative. I am a "quantoid," so I like quantitative stuff. I tell students: "There are findings in this. Think about it."

Also students are the ones who lead the discussion, so I run it like a seminar where the students are in charge. Then I tell them to bring examples from their organizations as they observe the organization as to whether there are consistencies or inconsistencies that they are observing on the ground based on the readings. The reading finds x, and then you are observing that x in a board meeting in your organization—at the International Rescue Committee, for example.

In this process there are rarely things in class where I use media or things like that, but one thing that I use—I think that it works—is that we look at the evolution of humanitarian aid and how humanitarian issues are depicted by the media. We look at the 1984 Ethiopian famine reporting, the famous one. I have them watch that, and then I have them watch other coverage of the situation in Yemen or Ethiopia right now, and based on their readings whether there has been a shift in media in depicting who the culprits are, the political problems.

I have them do some kind of observation through the use of media with little things like that, but I don't think I have changed the way I teach at all in the context of COVID-19 because I did not have to do that much online teaching, to be honest. We did a lot of our work in person still. I don't know how I pulled it off, but we did. I was able to travel to New York City during the height of COVID-19. I don't know how it happened, but it happened.

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much. That's wonderful.

Once again I want to remind audience members—and we already have some questions populating the chat—please put your questions into the chat for our panelists so that they can respond. We have a couple that have been submitted that I will flag, but if I can abuse my privilege here as chair to react to what has been mentioned already and to reflect a little bit upon my own experiences teaching international ethics in spring of 2022. I taught it here at the University of Utah. It is an upper-level class where I use a lot of materials that would be familiar I think to all four of us and many members of the audience but then updating it, especially in light of all of the things that are going on and have been going on and happened during the spring a well.

I wanted to especially plug an article that Dr. Han co-authored in Ethics & International Affairs on "COVID-19 as a Mass Death Event." It was published in 2021, but I assigned it to my students this spring. It thinks about some of the affective and emotional aspects of the classroom but especially in today's day and age that both Michael and Yuna were speaking to and how important it is not just for thinking about a vernacular—or a "technical language" is what Michael called it—for rage but a space for some of that rage but then also grief and some trauma as well. There is a challenge and a risk to that, and I think that is where, Yuna, I shouldn't call this a classical text that you three wrote and published but it is a text in the sense of being an assigned article—that can be very, very useful. It can give us a little bit of a space for especially things that our students are living through in the present and not just in the past. Several of them have had experiences with that as a mass-death event that has impacted their families.

That was a fantastic article. It is in Ethics & International Affairs. I would highly suggest it as a way to shape a discussion on an event that a lot of students—and citizens for that matter—all throughout the world and including here in the United States have lived through. It provided such a helpful discussion.

It had consequences as well. I had students who came up to me afterward and said: "That was a lot. It brought back some things I hadn't really thought about in a few months or so, but I'm really glad that we had that discussion."

I also wanted to mention that Carnegie Council—talking about the multimedia opportunities that they have, I assigned two panel discussions much like this one to my students, recognizing that there are different ways in which they consume this information, these arguments, and these materials, as Yuna speaks to. It is not always great to encourage that passive consumption, but giving them options to be able to do so is great.

One of the panels in October 2020 that Carnegie hosted, much like this one, was transferred in terms of being both transcribed and also as audio and visual that students could listen to on the train on the way into class. It was on "Protests in Perspective" relating to the transnational Black Lives Matter protests from the summer of 2020. That provided a good set of issues for us to debate and discuss in class. There was another one on vaccine equity and ethics that was conducted in December of 2020. I just wanted to plug both the work of a panelist here and also the work of Carnegie Council.

With that, we do have some questions that have been put into the chat. Please, those of you in the audience, continue to put those in there for us. I will throw out this one. It is by Samuel Bradshaw, asking: "Are there any ethical frameworks from contemporary research that are particularly important to include in ethics curriculum today?"

Are there particular frameworks in addition to all the issues that we get to, all the topical issues and/or all of the purposes that you want to have in your classroom and in your class covered, are there any particular ethical frameworks that you would say are the most important ones to cover and/or—let me add on a little bit there—are there some additional ones that maybe are a little bit newer or more recent developments that we need to include?

I don't have a preference on who takes that. Whoever is ready to go, please go right ahead. Michael, please, yes, thank you.

MICHAEL BLAKE: I read this a couple of moments ago and immediately had a panic attack about remembering what the most important frameworks are, either current or otherwise. I think there is a response to this that might subtly change the question, which is, how do you figure out what perspectives are needed and what frameworks are needed?

One thing I have been trying to do more self-consciously has been to increase the number of first-personal perspectives of how it is that we understand the intuitive sense of wrongness that many of us have when we examine certain things going on in the world, and then you figure out how those perspectives can lead to a change in what sorts of theoretical writings that we need to include. Here are two examples from some of the teaching I have done recently.

One of them is about the nature of refugees. We often speak about refugees as a "problem" for us in terms of how do we deal with this cost. In fact, the experience of being encamped is itself a deeply morally fraught circumstance, and some recent work by Serena Parekh has tried to use theorists like Giorgio Agamben and the reduction to mere biology toward mere species being a theoretical perspective that helps us get some purchase on what's wrong with the ways that refugees experience life in these circumstances. The average stay in a camp I think is more than a decade.

Another example from a former student of mine is the experience of women crossing borders in a time of increasing policing of the bodies of people who present as women, especially under circumstances of pregnancy and the ways in which the woman's body is deemed transparent at the borders. The first-personal narratives of women writing about this lead naturally to a discussion of things in philosophy like epistemic injustice, Miranda Fricker's work on how the ascription of knowledge, expertise, and authority over one's own self requires a certain language that can be taken seriously or not by others.

This is a very longwinded way of saying that I think increasingly we have to let the issues dictate the theory as to which sorts of theories are going to take precedence in our teaching. I say this as someone who is making almost a confession against interest because at heart I am a theorist, but as far as teaching and as far as learning goes even about the world, listening to the people who are experiencing the most profound forms of dislocation can I think make a difference in what sorts of theories will make it into our teaching and into our writing.

BRENT STEELE: Fantastic. Yuna or Ilgü?

YUNA HAN: I haven't necessarily integrated this very systematically, but one thing that I find interesting to play around with is to revisit liberal ethics as a starting point, not necessarily because I think that that is the most important thing to understand but because students come in with such an in-built set of assumptions that are built around particular understandings of liberalism. So I think it is important for a curriculum to have a moment to unpack that and think about both its deficiencies and internal diversities and how we can use that to move forward or find different ways of thinking about politics. That would be my two cents there.

BRENT STEELE: Fantastic. Ilgü, what advice do you have for ethical frameworks?

ILGÜ ÖZLER: I was having a pretty standard political science framework in my teachings. As a department last year we did a reflection on our curriculum and how we approach issues of race, and, because traditional international relations does not have that much race as a variable integrated, it led me to incorporate some of the works of, for example, Errol Henderson's work "Hidden in plain sight: racism in international relations theory" into my class, and students reacted very strongly to this work, really opening eyes as to how race as a variable works in international relations.

That is something I did last year that I think changed the discussion throughout the semester because people always reverted back to—we never used race as a variable. We have discussions about Global South and Global North, and those kinds of questions never integrated this discussion from a race perspective. It has been very interesting actually. That is something that is recent for me.

BRENT STEELE: Ilgü, can I ask one question before we move on to another regarding that? Was that something that you consciously did deductively on your own, for lack of a better term, or is that something that was facilitated by the discussions that you had with students? In which direction, induction or deduction, so to speak?

ILGÜ ÖZLER: In our department we went through our syllabus and thought about: How many of our readings are by women? How many of these are from different perspectives? We did a collective soul-searching as a department, and that was based on a lot of the discussion that was going on with our students on campus having these discussions, and for our self-assessment purposes as a department we did that, and when I noticed this was actually a missing element in my class I searched and included that in the class discussion.

I thank the students on our campus because they are the ones who were calling for our curriculum to be more responsive to diverse points of view and that they are not inclusive of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This was very much a reaction to student demands as well. I highly recommend doing that kind of self-evaluation for any department, for any professor, and it was a great discussion in our department too, like "How do we approach these issues?"

BRENT STEELE: Thanks so much. That's wonderful.

We have another question in our chat, and again thank you all in the audience who are providing us questions in the chat. Continue to put those in there, and I will flag them as they come in for our panelists.

There is a question from Adam Read-Brown. I know this has been touched upon a little, but he is curious whether we are all finding a higher degree of "ethical despair"—which was a phrase that Professor Blake mentioned in his opening remarks—among students in recent years with all of the crises that bombard us every day, and if so how you approach that mindset. I think Yuna talked about this as well, and it is definitely coming up in Ilgü's comments. How do you all handle that and mobilize it to some degree and maybe turn it around a little bit? Whoever would like to start with a response to that question, because it's one that I think we all struggle with, not only our students but also those of us who are global citizens or citizens of our local and global communities.

ILGÜ ÖZLER: I am on sabbatical right now from everything, but in my personal life I have also been an activist. I have been active with Amnesty International, and I try to model to students that the struggle over meanings and activism over human rights is something that I struggle with all the time. I struggle still at this stage of my life with, "Is it good to not have a position on war," for example, those big questions that we are struggling with. They have real, finite implications about the kind of activism that you do and how you translate that on the ground.

I tell them that it is okay to struggle with these questions and that it never gets easy, but that means that in addition what we need to do is that question of micro-impact in the larger sense is always important. Do what you can. You cannot put the entire world's problems on your shoulders. As a human being your impact is going to be finite and small, but you can always understand your place in the larger framework.

In addition I try to encourage my students to go into public service, but a lot of my students come from families that are not affluent. They are immigrant students, they are students who are from rural poverty. I tell them, "You might end up having to go into the private sector, and that's okay, but what you learn here is going to have relevance in how you translate and how you behave in that sector."

I had this one student who went into a consulting firm. She was Japanese. She called me and said, "I have taught them about Sustainable Development Goals, and they were all going to invest in Africa," so they are consulting with Japanese firms and they are going to invest in Africa. "I convinced my boss that we should take Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations as a framework in understanding where we should be investing."

That is a tangible change, and she understands that Sustainable Development Goals are not perfect. She understands that they are not the answer to all. They are an imperfect solution to things. But she understands also that her impact is better than the alternative, where they are going to go in and impact for profit only. I want them to understand that their impact is never going to create the ultimate solution to all of our problems, but if they can make it better, then that is a good solution, and that is all they can expect of themselves.

BRENT STEELE: Fantastic. Yuna.

YUNA HAN: I think what I try to emphasize in this moment of ethical exposure I do think has increased a lot, particularly experiencing the past couple of years, is the idea of radical empathy and also radical political imagination. I say "radical" in the sense that I try to emphasize to them that feeling empathetic or being able to understand what things are like for other people, people in radically different situations across the globe, can in itself be a politically radical thing and does not necessary lead toward an immediate tangible impact, but being cognizant of that and using that as your own standard of engaging with the world in and of itself can be a move toward thinking about the world in a very different way from the way that you have been taught or the way we are founded in. That is one thing.

The other thing I mentioned in my opening comment is trying to get them to use their imagination, radical ways to think about political futures, and knowing that these are not going to be realistic in an immediate sense—that is not the point of it—but simply to be able to stretch their imagination in a way that they don't accept the priors as a given standard or framework to work with. Those are the two things that I try to bring in when we are faced with this wall of despair that you often seen in students these days.


MICHAEL BLAKE: I think I might be more of a fan of despair than the other two people who have spoken because one of the places that I often begin with my students is an acknowledgment of loss and the fact that, no matter how good our investment practices become, we are facing a world that will not be sustained in the trajectories of growth that we have had, in which the politics will be most likely considerably less empathetic in the near future, in which the ability to communicate across borders has led not just to positive conversations but to contempt, hatred, and a resurgence of certain varieties of fascism, and in which the students I teach are going to have lower standards of living than their parents most likely and that that trend may continue. I think for me one of the things to do is to not hide these losses and to make sure that it doesn't lead to retrenchment, selfishness, and an insistence on the preservation of what forms of domination these students can find over the other, to begin with the recognition that in fact there is reason to be afraid, there is reason for pessimism, and then to return to this notion of doing what one can where one can along with something that philosophers are absolutely terrible at, which is reminding us of the obvious.

I think philosophers like most academics like it when there is novelty. Like I have always said to my students: "An argument that kicking puppies is a bad thing won't get you a top-five journal publication. An argument that kicking puppies is great might." We like controversy, we like novelty, and so forth, but there is a task for keeping alive the moral truths that we have tried to fight for over the past 100 to 150 years and imperfectly lived up to. There is a place for the preservation of that in favor of a thoroughgoing despair and a willingness to abandon even the attempt to show empathy. This is where I like the term that Professor Han used of "radical empathy." The flame of empathy is a very fragile one, and acknowledging loss and despair might go some way toward giving people reason to try to keep it alive.

BRENT STEELE: That's fantastic.

We have another question that I am going to shorten a little bit because we have about six minutes left in our panel discussion. It is from Dr. Majlinda Keta from the University of Tirana, and she mentions that she has done some work on ethics and the knowledge gained from pre-university level education, so I am going to modify it a little bit for our panelists to respond to if they wish. She notices in her work that there are major weaknesses that are observed in the curriculum of pre-university. Are there examples from our educational systems of how ethics is conceived and how it is incorporated?

If I could put an additional coda to that to our panelists, how do we handle how ethics is treated before our students get to our universities and institutions? That is something that obviously goes beyond ethics. It goes into how political science, international relations, history, or whatever our disciplinary background might be, how international studies are treated before they get to our universities. I am curious as to how we handle that and how we think about either a successful curriculum and/or the challenges that may be entailed by the lack of ethics that could be treated before they get to the university.

MICHAEL BLAKE: If I could just leap in on this because I find that a lot of what I have to do in my first-level class is encourage some unlearning about what ethics is. I often say that philosophy is one of those things that if you go to a Barnes & Noble and look at the philosophy section you will see some god-awful stuff, ranging from astrology to Kahlil Gibran to occasionally Garfield.

Particularly with ethics what I try to say to them is that we have two images before college of what ethics is. One of them is religion, that ethics is fundamentally about god, and the other is something that is unfortunately popular among some university administrators, which is ethics as repair: "I get evil people, I feed them Kant, and that turns them into good people." That is a misunderstanding of people and Kant.

In fact I say, "My job is not to turn Sith into Jedi. It's to give you the tools needed to reflect on something that most of you who aren't sociopaths are already committed to, which is taking other people and other creatures in the world as giving you reasons to act in certain ways. Figuring out what those are is what we are going to do together." But at least the first week is often devoted to overcoming not a pre-college education because in the State of Washington at least we don't have that in philosophy or ethics. Instead it is unlearning what the culture tells you about ethics, which I think is a very distorted view of what it is that ethics might be.

BRENT STEELE: Great. Ilgü, as someone who is working in curriculum as well with all of your work both with the United Nations Program and Global Engagement, I am wondering if you have some reflections on this question.

ILGÜ ÖZLER: I don't make any assumptions about what my students know or where they come from. I think that is very important to set the stage. What I try to do is tell my students that it is a safe space where if they make a statement that is not accepted we can have a discussion about it, and what one person may deem ethical may not be what another person deems ethical, and then we can have that conversation. We don't use the term "ethics" in my classes but rather what is good or bad, what is moral and what is just, and, as I said in my point number three, what is ethical may not be what is just, and that is what we discuss in my classes a lot. What we assume to be good and what we assume will lead to good results may not be actually the just results for everyone, so how do we actually capture that in class?

What I have an advantage of is, especially in my United Nations semester class, I tend to have a very international group. I usually have eight or nine countries represented, students who are international or are exchange students, and it becomes very interesting to see how everybody reacts to the same question very differently. We talk about the role of our political structures and how they impact our political cultures and how they impact our views, where students come from.

I don't shy away from pointing out those kinds of things in class as long as you can create a safe space for students to feel comfortable and not put the entire country's or culture's responsibility on them. I allow the students to react to their own culture as well. I don't know if that answers the question, but that is what I try to do in the classroom setting.

BRENT STEELE: Thank you. Yuna, in our remaining moments I would like to bring you in here for any reflections you have.

YUNA HAN: I also have a very international cohort normally at Oxford so it is hard to say that that is a reflection of the particular UK educational system. We barely have UK students at any given point, especially when it comes to those who choose to take the international relations course.

Again, similar to what Michael was saying, it is a lot of unlearning that needs to be done, particularly about implicitly held understandings of what the relationship between politics and ethics is. Because they are not open, they don't know that they hold these views until they are confronted with the alternative, I find that to be an important task to do. They all come with the idea that international politics operates in this kind of ethics-free or differently organized sphere at the margin of everyday ethical judgments about what is good and bad or right and wrong, so unpacking that often is a challenge.

Relatedly, it is not exactly the same thing, but this is a discussion I often have with colleagues regarding our move toward decolonizing the curriculum, is that they also have a lot of implicit understandings or biases about what counts as legitimate forms of knowledge claims, legitimate forms of truth claims that can be discussed in a classroom, and so if we are to provide a plural platform to think about vexing ethical issues of the day we also need to take a step back and think about the epistomelogical framework that they come in with, which is not the most exciting part of the curriculum for the students themselves, but I think it is one of the more important stepping stones that needs to be done in order for us to move forward in our class discussions.

BRENT STEELE: Wonderful. That's great. That actually speaks to one of the questions that we were not able to fully get to from Dr. JC de Swaan regarding biases coming into the classroom, and Dr. Han handled it I think superbly, so thanks so much.

I would like to thank everyone on the panel—Dr. Michael Blake, Dr. Yuna Han, and Dr. Ilgü Özler—for their reflections, their discussions, and their contributions to this topic of ethics in the classroom. I would like to thank all of you in the audience who joined us today.

I want to remind everyone that a full recording of this event along with eventually a transcript will be available on the Carnegie Council website. We also want to thank Carnegie Council for putting on not only this panel but all of the panels and discussions that they have that we find so incredibly useful, including the fantastic work that is published in Ethics & International Affairs.

Finally we hope that you will all join us in celebrating Global Ethics Day on October 19 of this year. For more information on how to participate, you can visit With that I will thank everyone and wish everyone a good fall here in the Northern Hemisphere and a good spring in the Southern Hemisphere. With that we will sign off. Thanks.

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