Today is the middle of the second week of classes. In my media ethics class we spend much of this week discussing students’ personal reactions to the “overview” to the textbook — a crash course in the philosophy of ethics prior to studying the applied ethics of the media professions.
I ask them to identify with one or more of the various theories of ethics or at least talk about something they found interesting. For many students these are their very first stabs at thinking about ethics on purpose.
I try to jump in with short observations or anecdotes to illustrate something about what they are saying. I also ask questions to drag every last little bit of thinking out of them that I can before moving on to the next student.
I find myself using a lot of traffic examples these days instead of media examples (which is OK because we have not arrived at the professional application part of the class — all of these students are road users, none of them are media professionals yet).
Several students agreed with the idea that other human beings are not means to our own ends; they are ends in themselves. And I chimed in that living up to this deontological ethic would argue that, say, we should not treat people on the road (using whatever conveyance) as objects to be gotten around; rather we should treat them as people sharing a public space.
This is where the discussion gets interesting because acting in this way flies in the face of what the culture teaches us driving is and what the automobile — the machine itself — teaches that we should expect. And guess what? A big part of what the culture and the car teach us is that traffic laws are suggestions, enforcement is a hassle unless it’s happening to the other (object) guy, and 40,000 people dead per year is just the price you pay for a transportation system.
How do we change that? Well, I’m an acquired-virtue thinker (and a Golden Rule guy). I believe in acting “as if” until such time that the ethic becomes who we are. I’ve been a rotten, stupid, inconsiderate, selfish driver for all but the last few years (and I still fall from grace occasionally). But these days I act “as if” I’m not the only person on the road (which, BTW, is not at all easy to do). I act “as if” I’m sharing a public space with others who 1) have an equal right to use the space, and 2) are deserving of my care and attention.
Next week we get into the media stuff.