"You should follow the principles that are true for you"; "what's right and wrong is just what your culture tells you is right and wrong"; "no-one else can tell you that your morality isn't the right one".
Sound familiar? Anyone who has taught Intro to Ethics (and probably a lot of other intro classes too) has probably heard statements like this on a pretty regular basis. At its worst, the knee-jerk relativism to which many students instinctively revert can seem like it's going to render the entire class pointless.* Why worry about the arguments for and against utilitarianism or Kantianism if it's all relative anyway? Now we're at the end of the school year, I'm finding myself wondering if there's any way to tackle this phenomenon that's going to work better than what I've tried so far, and I'd love to have some help from my fellow Cocooners. To get us started, here are a few strategies I've either tried or thought of trying:
1) The "nip it in the bud" approach
When I look at other people's syllabuses for Intro to Ethics classes, I often see an article like James Rachels's "Why Morality is not Relative" as the first reading assignment. Clearly the thinking here is that some crisp distinctions and arguments ought to nip the problem in the bud and make sure that knee-jerk relativism doesn't survive past the first week of class. I can certainly see the appeal of this strategy, but it also leaves me with some questions: a) will it work? and b) would I even want it to work?
On the first point: my experience in intro classes is that we need to spend a lot of time on an issue if students are really going to come to grips with it, and I'm not convinced that the issue of relativism is any different. Maybe in two or three weeks we could begin to get a good sense of the arguments, but at that point it might start to feel like the issue of relativism is taking over the whole class, with no guarantee that the question will have been "nipped in the bud" in any definitive way.
With respect to (b): in my more sympathetic moments, I'm often inclined to think that students have good reasons for their relativism. They've been brought up in a culture riddled with spin, lies, and bullshit, and have become quite rightly suspicious of anyone claiming to be selling them any kind of absolute or universal truth. In many cases, their relativism seems like the first blossoming of a genuinely independent mind, and I'm not sure that's something I really want to nip in the bud. In general, my approach to teaching philosophy is not to try to convince them of my views, but to help them to cultivate and deepen their own, so why should my approach to this issue be any different?
2. The "bypass" approach
In my experience, students are much more likely to revert to knee-jerk relativism in the context of certain kinds of discussion. If we're talking in very general terms about "how one ought to live", the pull of relativism is very strong. One thing I've discovered, however, is that there are certain questions that simply seem to bypass the possibility of relativism altogether. Friendship is a great example: I'm not sure I've met a single student who didn't have quite strong views about how to be a good friend, and almost none of them are tempted by the idea that we all have the right to define friendship however we like. The most obvious reason for this is that friendship is something that has very immediate significance for them: when you're in college, one of the things that matters most is the question of how to be a good friend. This phenomenon has tempted me simply to "bypass" the problem of knee-jerk relativism altogether by focusing on issues like friendship where it's unlikely to come up. The main drawback, I think, is that as soon as we get on to larger moral issues, knee-jerk relativism is likely to rear its head again, and then it's going to feel like we've not so much bypassed the problem as avoided it.
3. The "define and conquer" approach
This strategy is similar to the "nip it in the bud" approach, but slightly less directive. One thing I've tried in the past is simply to provide students with clear definitions of various forms of relativism, subjectivism, etc., and make it clear to them that these positions are significantly different from (and in some cases probably inconsistent with) some kind of general principle of toleration. The hope here is that students will come to see (in an almost Wittgenstein-y therapeutic way) that knee-jerk relativism isn't really the position they want anyway, without any attempt on my part to argue them out of it. I think this approach has some potential, but one drawback is that, at least in my experience, if you give students a "menu" of different positions they will often plump for the one that sounds good to them without much consideration of the arguments, and then continue to identify with that position throughout the class in an almost religious way. In a way, this worry is similar to the one about the "nip it in the bud" approach - i.e. that it risks giving relativism too much air time.
So: those are some of the strategies I've tried, and some of my concerns about each of them. How do you approach this issue? Do you use any of the strategies above? Something different? How has it gone? I'd love to know!
*I'm aware that although I'm using the word "relativism", some of the positions I'm talking about here would probably be better described as some form of radical subjectivism. I've stuck with "relativism" just to keep it simple, but I think the basic point applies no matter what variant you're dealing with.