Gen Ed Ethics Classes Attract Crowds

Gen Ed category features classes that approach ethics in broader contexts

Several Ethical Reasoning classes—some of which would not have fit within the Core’s Moral Reasoning category—have proven surprisingly popular this semester.

A prime example is Slavic Languages and Literature Professor Justin M. Weir’s new course Ethical Reasoning 28: “Moral Inquiry in the Novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” which saw enrollment skyrocket from an anticipated 40 students to 105 this fall.

On the first day, students crowded into the appointed lecture hall, crammed into window seats, and spilled into the hallway to get a taste of Weir’s class. The course’s sustained popularity led to a change of venue—it is now held in Yenching Auditorium.

“I sort of figured that even though I like Russian writers, they’re not exactly the most popular people in the world,” said Garrett E. Morton ’13, a student in the class. “But there are a lot of other people here who thought a literary bent on ethical reasoning would be fun.”

Whereas most Moral Reasoning classes analyzed philosophical texts, this class uses writing from a different field—literature—to approach the discussion of ethics.

“The two authors offer different perspectives on all the big timeless questions about happiness, the good life, political obligation, faith in a God and so forth,” Weir said. “But they also consider questions that remain politically relevant today.”

While the differences between the Core’s Moral Reasoning category and Gen Ed’s Ethical Reasoning one may seem ambiguous, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said that there is a fairly clear distinction: Ethical Reasoning includes a broader range of classes, allowing students to grapple with philosophy through diverse lenses (like Russian literature) and historical perspectives. It also permits an emphasis on applied ethics, he said.

“The goal [of adjusting the category] was simply to acknowledge the reality that there are multiple ways to enter the discussion about situating oneself ethically in life,” Harris said.

Philosophy Professor Thomas M. Scanlon, Jr. said it seems to him that “if there is a difference, it’s more in how the requirement is being administered than how it actually looks on paper.”

Both categories, Scanlon said, aim to make students think critically about questions of right and wrong, but the context in which these questions are discussed is less restricted under Ethical Reasoning.

Harris said other current Ethical Reasoning courses that would not have fit the Moral Reasoning description include Ethical Reasoning 26: “The Ethics of Atheism: Marx, Nietzsche, Freud,” and Ethical Reasoning 24: “Bioethics,” both of which will be offered in the spring.

Even courses which counted for Moral Reasoning before have seen high enrollments this year. Ethical Reasoning 18: “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” increased from 336 students last fall to 401 this year, necessitating its relocation to Sanders Theatre. Additionally, Ethical Reasoning 21: “Moral Reasoning About Social Protest” has an enrollment of 174.

One class with a slightly smaller enrollment this year (805 versus 872 in 2008/2009) is Government professor Michael J. Sandel’s Ethical Reasoning 22: “Justice.” However, Harris said this could have many causes beyond extended Ethical Reasoning options.

“The other three ER courses are all very popular, and that’s got to be a piece of the answer,” he said. “Perhaps, in addition, the dissemination of the course’s materials in various formats has had an impact.”

All that said, Harris added, “Justice” still has the highest enrollment in the College.

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at