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Wesern News | March 11, 2010

ryan robb
Professor of Philosophy, The University of Western Ontario

Thinking about ethical theories in an abstract way is one thing; putting those theories to work in real-life situations is another game altogether.

Philosophy professor Ryan Robb, MA'99, PhD'08, asks students to use ethical theories to help six local non-profit organizations improve their policies, practices and goals. He challenges students to help local non-profit groups address important ethical issues. Robb teaches a new course entitled “Ethics in Action,” which studies philosophies on moral obligation and moral issues.

To better understand these theories in action, students participate in a community-based learning project. Their task: help a local non-profit organization address a specific practice, policy or goal that presents ethical problems. “Ethics is something presumably we all have to deal with everyday. Those of us who do research about that and come up with these abstract theories ... sometimes you get lost in the ’oh yeah, this is supposed to help people someday’.”

This is not your typical service-learning experience. The Student Success Centre: Careers, Leadership and Experience helped recruit the six community groups. The partners include: the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority; the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of London; the Alzheimer Society (London and Middlesex); Dale Brain Injury Services; Unity Project for the Relief of Homelessness; and AIDS Committee of London.

This course is not about considering ethical theories in isolation, such as considering what great minds like Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill might say about what makes an action right or wrong. Instead, the course focuses on real world applications of these theories and “people stand to be affected by the work we do,” says Robb. For example, the AIDS Committee of London has asked the class to develop better arguments to present to the public for why there should be a needle exchange program in the area. Students will run non-profits’ problems through four philosophical theories and provide a well-reasoned assessment and suggestions for improvement.

Deontology - what makes an action right or wrong are the motives (the right action is determined by the ‘right’ motives);

Utilitarianism - the right action is the one that maximizes good consequences (produces the greater good) and/or minimizes bad consequences;

An ethic of care - an action is right if it is respectful and sensitive to the emotions and interpersonal relations of people affected by it; and

Virtue ethics - ethically correct actions are those representing signs of, or contributing to, a virtuous character.

Questioning the practices of non-profit organizations whose main concern is to help their clients – an inherently ‘good’ aspiration – may seem redundant, but Robb believes his students can help groups better fulfill their mandate by putting their practices through these morality tests. “The four theories they will be working with, they don’t provide answers. But they do provide you with the right kinds of questions.”

Students will produce executive summaries and present their findings to the groups. Students will learn being an authority on ethical theory does not mean knowing the right thing to do in all circumstances, says Robb. Part of the learning will be when students are confronted with theories that don’t solve the ethical problems. Overall, the goal is to help students improve critical thinking skills by identifying and making good arguments. “These ethical theories are designed and intended to help us improve the ways in which we relate to each other, and I think that’s all we can hope for.”

Read the complete story: Wesern News

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