How to Structure an Ethics Class: A Guide for Selecting a Syllabus, Designing Exams and Keeping Students Interested

I intend this piece to be applicable to both teachers and students of an introductory course in ethics. I have been an independent instructor and teaching assistant in Ethics, and have developed some thoughts on which curriculums work, and which don’t.
Use original and secondary texts. This idea is quite crucial. I have been associated with classes that have used all original sources, as well as ones that use all secondary sources. Neither were successful. The argument for using all first-hand sources, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork, etc., is that students ought to be exposed to the great works and that perhaps their only window to ever do so would be an Intro to Ethics course. Unfortunately, though, first-year and second-years college students can really struggle with these works, especially when not supplemented with some other sources. One very good Introductory text is James Rachels’ Elements of Moral Philosophy (4th ed.) which provides a clear, accessible introduction to the basic positions in moral philosophy. This text, or some other suitable secondary source, would be especially helpful for additional reading, along with the primary sources.

Which positions to cover? This is a tricky question. Obviously, the ‘big four’ views of consequentialism, deontology, contract theory and virtue theory must be covered in any course worth its salt, but one might wonder whether this is done best by introducing met ethical concepts such as ‘moral objectivism’ and ‘moral realism’, etc., at the outset of the course, or to leave met ethics out of the story and focus on normative ethics. My guess is that a clear introduction to at least some skeletal met ethical positions gives a helpful framework within which even first and second-year students can think about normative positions, and in a more organized way than they perhaps would otherwise. A good text to use for getting some ideas on this score is Shafer-Landau’s Moral Realism, although this text is far too advanced to actually assign.

What to assign? I find that a great way to give an exam in an Intro to Ethics course is to give a list of four very specific essay questions, and select one question on exam day to be the focal point. Giving vague essay questions is a disaster in an undergraduate course, although it is perhaps more desirable in a graduate course. The level of specificity should be maximal, I think, especially for first year students. Stress that clarity of thought is of central importance, and that students should avoid a vague or ambiguous ‘literary’ style. In addition to two essay exams, it is a good idea to have weekly ‘pop’ quizzes, which are 10 true/false objective questions. This keeps the students on their toes and prepared for class.
Also, a bit of heuristic advice: as you probably know, many freshman are very sympathetic to the idea that Cultural Relativism is correct. It is important to dispel students of this assumption from the very get go. Fortunately, C.R. is such a bad view that you need not go to any extra work to convince students of the falsity. Simply present, clearly, arguments for and against C.R. and let the arguments do the work for you.