Your Feelings Are Wrong

  • Stephen Miller


We live at a time when many aspects of our educational culture are declared to be in crisis. Increasingly, the STEM movement dominates initiatives at the same time that there is less agreement about what constitutes a Humanities or liberal arts education. Relatively broad consensus indicates that it should make students somehow “better”. Within the field of pre-college normative ethics surveys, a survey of textbooks shows that most agree on what a course like this should look like. In evaluating the effects of an ethics curriculum, however, most show diffidence to claim moral transformation in their students. At least part of this problem seems to stem from mainstream philosophy’s longtime bias against and misunderstanding of emotions. A closer look at emotions and how they might be educated offers a very different picture how a successful ethics curriculum could look.

A typical ethics curriculum of any level presumes that a course neutral in regards to which, if any, of the normative ethical theories covered is true. However, any such course begins with a host of implied values that might not necessarily be shared with the students. If it’s the case, as contemporary moral psychology suggests that at the very least, our rational minds inform our behavior and moral judgments far less than we might have thought, then a course in normative ethics needs to engage emotions far more effectively. Martha Nussbaum’s recent work Political Emotions suggests some important ways that desirable emotions like civic love and undesirable emotions like disgust might relate to a curriculum. With the right approach, perhaps we can begin to claim that a moral philosophy course might make someone more moral.