The Womanly Art of Teaching Ethics

There is no one “womanly art of teaching ethics,” of course. There are as many womanly kinds of teaching ethics as there are women teaching ethics—and that is very many when you consider all the mothers and wise women and others at work in the world. I cannot tell you about Everywoman; I can tell you about me, how I teach ethics and why, and what I think it has to do with my being a woman. I can tell you about some of the ethical questions I’ve asked myself along the way, and what, so far, the woman in me has answered.

Like many other women college teachers, I work half time. In my own case, this is a choice, one I’m glad to be able to make. So it happens that when winter term comes around, I have my full attention to give to teaching my two sections of introductory ethics. It’s given me time to reflect upon what I’m doing, to develop and change it. I will tell you something of how I conduct these classes, and especially about a technique I use for talking over questions among us, a technique I believe helps my students (and me) to find our ethical voices.

Let me begin, then, with voices.

Dan: “When they wanted to send me to Vietnam, I told them that I could never kill another person. So they said, ‘OK, we’ll make you a medic.’ You’re out there in the fight like everyone else, but you don’t have a gun. Well, that seemed fair; I wasn’t objecting out of being afraid. I didn’t know anything about medicine; they trained me. They gave me my kit, and sent me out there into the jungle.” Many of Dan’s stories have haunted me in years since he told them. Like this one:

“Once, when we took a village . . . They’d rounded up most of the people, and were searching through the huts for rifles and stuff—when somebody yelled out, ‘Hey, medic, there’s a dame in that hooch havin’ a baby. Git in and take care of it.’

“In I went—guys with rifles with me. When we got inside, there were a lot of people there, old people, mostly, and in the middle was this woman. I could see the people were just terrified of us. I knew a little Vietnamese; I tried to explain to them that we wouldn’t hurt them, that we were just there to help.

“Then I walked up to the woman, trying to remember anything I’d ever heard about delivering babies; of course they hadn’t taught me that. I tried to get her to understand that I was just a doctor. I knelt down, and as my hand touched her leg, I felt her body tighten; she went absolutely stiff. And suddenly I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’

“So I stepped back and apologized. I told the people, ‘Please, please go on with what you were doing. I’m sorry. I’ll try to see you’re left alone.’ The soldiers and I went outside and stood guard by the door while it lasted.

“The arrogance of what I’d been doing, the blindness, it was suddenly so clear to me.”

And then there was Rochelle’s voice this last winter, when we talked about abortion:

“You know, the question about is there a certain point in the fetus’ development where killing it is killing a person? When I think about how I really feel about it, in my own case, I’d have to say that it seems to me that to kill this baby I’m carrying right now, that would have been wrong at any point.

“But when I was 15 . . . You guys talk about how the girl should be responsible enough not to get pregnant. I was just moving out into the world, coming off an awful childhood. . . . And here’s this man who’s telling me I’m beautiful. That I’m the most wonderful, beautiful thing in his life, how lucky he was to find me. . . . I would have done anything he asked me to. Getting pregnant was the farthest thing from my mind. . . . Have a kid? I was a kid m self.

“If I’d had that child, my life would have been totally changed. All the growing I had to do yet, all the learning who I could be. Along the way, I’ve had a child; he’s excited about the baby, too, at least for sure if it’s a boy. We’re all so ready for this kid. And the way if feels to me is that I could have this baby because I didn’t have that other one. That one’s not being born is what makes this baby able to be.”

And there is Gerri’s voice, once when dying was the topic: “When my cousin was 17, he was in a car accident that put him in a deep coma. There was no sign that anyone was at home in his body, and he didn’t seem to be getting any better. The doctors said he could well be like that from now on. But the family wouldn’t give up on him. We talked to him just as if he could hear us. We told him we loved him; we told him the news; we held conversations in his room together; we told him he could get better, that we knew he would. . . . He said later that that was what made him able to do it. He had been there inside; he remembered the things we’d said then. Our knowing he was there, he said it was like a rope he could hold on to to come back. He’s fine now. And we’re all so glad to have him with us again.

“Some of you talk so easily about people in comas being ‘vegetables’; but it’s not always like that.”

Can ethics be taught? Can we pass moral understanding on to our students?

Part of my journey has been in learning not to assume that it’s not already there.

Pearls of wisdom don’t drop from everyone’s lips, of course. That there is foolishness and prejudice afoot among us is evident to all; but listening to foolishness and prejudice and seeing what one thinks about it can also be instructive.

The course is Introductory Ethics. Classes begin with an enrollment of 50 students, thought that will thin out a little.

Our subject matter is: war and peace, death and dying, abortion, family values, gay and lesbian rights, sexual ethics, religion, drugs, Violence, racism; there is a long list: The first day I go through it, describing each topic, evoking questions we could think about in connection with each. I ask the students to write down which things especially interest them, and why, to pick their five favorites, and also to say if there’s anything they don’t want to talk about, and, if possible, why.

Using this feedback, I chart our course. Our schedule of topics is some compromise between what they have voted for and what I know works well, or what I think would be good for them to think about even if they don’t want to now.

I often begin the class period by handing around some books, with a few words on each, books garnered from our school library and from my own at home. Students can borrow these from me if they wish. (I’ve only lost a couple of books this way; to me, it’s worth it to be able to put the books into their hands, rather than just giving them a list.)

In the lecture, perhaps I’ll talk about what various philosophers have said, or how these matters have been viewed by other cultures, other times. I may pursue chains of reasoning, balance pros and cons; I may read passages I find evocative, questing through the reading and thinking I’ve been doing, and the life I’ve lived, for the questions that feel alive. Rather than focus on one question to be debated, I usually choose to cast a broader net, searching for clusters of questions about the rights and wrongs here. Always I conclude by asking, “What do you know of these matters? What are your experiences, feelings, ideas?”

For the remaining time, we form ourselves into a couple of discussion circles. (The best arrangement is to be in separate rooms, if possible.) An orange is passed around the circle; when it comes to you, you have the floor. It’s your chance to address the topic at hand from your own point of view, to share your thoughts, give arguments, ask questions, speak of your own experiences, have your say in whatever way you wish. Or you can pass.

It’s a form of interaction I first met in the Oregon women’s community; peace groups practice something similar, and probably others as well. I’d been impressed seeing it at work as a way of finding solutions, giving the group the benefit of each woman’s perspective.

In our class it began as an apple, that day ten years ago we put aside our book and I fumbled in my bag for something to pass around. “An apple for the students,” I said, wanting to know whom I was talking to, remembering the women’s circles I’d seen. “We can call this the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Over the years I’ve found that oranges, compared to apples, have thicker skins. This is a good quality to have in an ethics class, both in ourselves and in our symbolic orbs.

One of the things I like about using this form in the classroom is that it cuts down on certain people’s dominating the discussion, and helps people to speak who are often silenced by traditional classroom interactions. But above all I value the kinds of things that are said, and the kinds of listening that happen.

Being heard: that’s a lot of what this class is about. Learning to get and give a respectful hearing. Learning to speak out about what we know of right and wrong, learning to say our say, and to listen to others. I do what I can to build trust among us. I encourage risk—taking by taking risks myself. I try to create an atmosphere of safety for speaking out.

. . . Perhaps I’m making it sound all soft and uncritical; but there’s lots of disagreement, criticism, second and third thoughts. And the forum provides for this. If you disagree with what someone says, when it’s your turn you can give a counter-argument, or tell a story that supports a different point of View, speak your piece about what someone has said. But first we give each other a hearing. I believe this tends to help us avoid false arguments, quibbles over words, and the like, and get down to looking at the sources of our ethics in our lives and convictions. There is less needless disagreement, and more understanding of our differences as rooted in the varied lives we’ve lived, all containing moments of knowing.

Is that relativism? or uncritical acceptance? We could call it giving someone the benefit of the doubt that they may have some wisdom to share, some light to shed. We could speak of the blind men and the elephant. We could invoke the ghost of Wittgenstein summoning us to map the terrain rather than demarcate the borders.

. . . That first year of passing round the apple, as I listened to my students, to their varied lives and ways of looking at the world, I began to wonder: Perhaps the reason it’s so hard to come to agreement in ethics is not that there is no truth to be had, but that there is so much of it.

. . . I don’t seem to find many relativists among my students, at least in the sense of people who think there’s nothing to be so learned here, that the search for truth in ethics is a sham. That’s a very different thing, I believe, from the willingness to consider that truth may have many faces.

. . . But I don’t want to give the impression that we are all milk-toasty. We criticize each other’s arguments, assumptions, and attitudes. However I do believe the quality of it is different when people have a chance to be heard first. I do think people are more open to hearing others’ points of view when they don’t feel silenced by them.

“That first day, when we talked about drug laws, remember?” a student asked this year in our class review. “People got so upset, and were coming from such different places. I thought ‘this is never gonna work. ’ But by now, . . . it’s not that we don’t still disagree, but we care about what each other has to say.”

The emotional advantages of the orange are not just matters of having a turn to speak one’s piece, either. After all, ethics deals with things on which people have feelings. And sometimes they cannot talk about their own real thoughts without their feelings showing. The class is no “encounter group,” but if our feelings show sometimes while we’re saying what we’re thinking, there’s no harm done. Sometimes it can help the hearers understand. Hume argued that ethics is based on “fellow-feeling”; if there is some grain of truth in this, then surely the development of empathy can’t be dismissed out of hand as having nothing to do with ethical learning.

So there’s that aspect of using the orange: it allows for that mixture of feelings and ideas that constitutes ethical reflection. But beyond its emotional advantages, the orange also allows for some creative kinds of intellectual happenings that I find interesting. To explain how the orange works in this respect, perhaps it would be useful to contrast my own experiences as a graduate student in what was then the normal form of “class discussion.”

As an undergraduate I’d been an articulate student, but in graduate school I found myself falling more and more silent.

“Why jump into the fray with yet another point of view,” I’d think. Was it really worth all it took to get a verbal foot in the door?

. . . And then the thing I wanted to say never seemed to fit exactly onto the ongoing conversation. It might be about what someone had said fifteen minutes ago, a station we’d already passed. Or I’d want to go off on a branch the discussion had not taken, a juncture unexplored. Sometimes, too, my own point of View seemed to be off to the side, as it were; and I didn’t always know how or if it connected to the points others were voicing.

“Save it for the paper,” I’d decide. My professors thought me quiet and enjoyed my writing; I thought myself quiet.

Now, one thing I like about the orange is that it can provide a forum for those hidden points of View, those second thoughts, those comments “from left field.”

The kind of classroom discussion I grew up with might be called “linear,” for want of a quick monicker—but actually it’s a lot more like that childrens’ game called “Follow the Dots.” Remember? The page was a maze of meaningless dots, with perhaps a teasing riddle for a caption. But, the thing was, the dots were numbered; and if you took your pencil and began at number 1 and went carefully from each point to the next one, by the end you would find you had drawn a grinning dragon; or some other picture had emerged. That similar things can happen in philosophy classes is one of their greatest charms, and highest virtues.

But, on the other hand, a follow—the-dots procedure does leave some things unexplored, unvoiced. What about people who seem to glimpse another way to connect the dots? Or lots of little pictures? And What about doubling back on the track, trying out a path not taken by the discussion as it zagged from A to B? Or what about points of view that may not connect with the track, but still are a part of the terrain?

It’s not as if these things can never be addressed in the more traditional forms of classroom interaction. But I do like it about the orange that it seems to make room for so many kinds of voices, so much truth.

. . . When I became a teacher, I began to find the voice I had lost in graduate school. Having to stand there for 50 minutes and say something, I found I had things to say, and could say them, even elegantly sometimes. Given a relatively quiet, respectful, listening audience, I could come to have a voice in philosophy.

Perhaps, then, “the orange” is one way of trying to hand that experience on to my students. For a part of our class time each of us becomes a teacher, though I’d never scare them by putting it that way.


Here are a few things I’ve learned as to when this technique is likely to work well and when it’s not, and what can make it better:

0n the whole, I could wish for more compassion among my students sometimes when it comes, for example, to hunger in Africa, or the fate of the whales, or anything else far from their own experience. The overwhelmingly white cast of the student body here in southern Oregon tends to make my students not an always-reliable fund of insight about racism, for instance. Nor do I believe that I, cast from the same mold, am the best possible guide to this subject. Lately, I’ve invited a guest speaker, a black teacher, to talk with us about her own life and her own understandings and thoughts about racism. Often students tell me, “Just hearing that one black person’s story taught me more about racism than all the theoretical discussions I’ve ever been through.” After listening to her, a day spent talking on our own is likely to prove more fruitful. Again, a breaking of silence: White students in my classes, even if they have known people of other races as friends, seem seldom to have talked with them about these matters.

Similarly, when we’ve talked about disabilities I’ve invited a man who’s been through such an experience, and is now a counselor in that field, to tell us temporarily-able-bodied’s, as he reminds us we are, what he’s learned from his experience, and how we may all be more conscious about how we react to the differently—abled people in our lives.

Ethical learning is not all about learning to make complex ethical decisions. It’s also about learning compassion. Ethical intelligence is not only a matter of making good choices between possible courses of action A and B: an important dimension of ethical intelligence we shouldn’t forget is asking, “But couldn’t we try C?” . . . And ethics is broader than any of this high drama of deciding ethical dilemmas;—it’s manifested every day in our actions and attitudes, in the daily, the personal, the “where it connects with our lives.” For instance, when our class talks about war and peace, we not only consider ideas about “just war,” but talk about the reaction so many of us have that goes: “Of course this balance of nuclear terror is a terrible state for the world to be in. But even if I knew what we should do about it, I could spend my whole life, all my resources, trying to change things and never make a dent. I’ll just hope they know what they’re doing, or that we’ll squeak through somehow. At least I’m going to enjoy my life while it lasts.” Part of ethical learning can be second thoughts here, alternatives other than “not thinking about it” and “martyrdom for the cause.” Part of ethical learning is learning how to care about others without surrendering the legitimate claims of the self to its fair share of consideration in the scheme of things.


A few practical matters I should mention:

It is better when the class can be an hour and a half long, as the energy has to be raised all over again each time we return to a topic. And there’s often more energy generated than can be used up in an hour. The opportunity to have a second chance to talk, or to talk longer, often helps to deepen the discussion.

About the size of the groups: They are large, around 20 each. The groups are bigger than we’d like; but there are some advantages to this size. With two groups we can usually manage to be in separate rooms; there’s often an empty classroom or cubbyhole where half the class can go. It’s very important for us to be free to concentrate.

Also, there’s a certain energy to larger groups. There’s more chance to hear ourselves in all our diversity, for one thing. And, for another, there’s more chance there’ll be someone there who will understand and share one’s point of View. (The hope of being heard and understood is so basic to being able to know what one does truly think and feel. For this reason, people are always free to switch to a group with which they feel more comfortable.)

I mix the groups one way and another so we’ll all get to know something of each other. (And there are points in the term where it’s good to come back together as one large group, to have a sense of all of us as a class.)

If we cannot have two separate rooms, having a carpet helps to cut down on the noise. . . . And while I’m mentioning the physical environment, I’d like to put in a word for classrooms with soundproof walls and adequate ventilation. It’s extraordinarily hard to spin a philosophic spell with a movie booming through the wall next door. And any teacher can tell you students aren’t at their best in rooms from which the oxygen is gradually being depleted. I hesitate to mention the obvious; yet in my experience, such considerations don’t always seem to get the notice due them.

Some classes will gel better than others, of course. It helps if there are not too many 19-year-olds. Students who’ve lived longer bring a needed perspective; and the generations talking to each other is something everyone enjoys.

Indeed, every sort of variety is good. Foreign students, for instance: to hear about the nature of families in Nigeria and the importance they have within that society, from someone in that world, can add dimensions to thinking about our own family system. As can hearing someone who says his friends are his family of choice, talking of the bonds other than blood that matter.

I would say it’s important to have enough women in the class mixture, that it’s hardest to generate the right atmosphere in a class such as one I had last year that was 70% male. Perhaps women are more practiced in conversations on this level, more at ease in them. . . . No sooner said than multitudes of counter—examples leap to mind, men giving of themselves, making the classes be wonderful. Still, the presence of too many men can tend to silence the women in the class, and can even silence some men.

A couple of points about the use of the orange: At first I insisted that the rule be that if you held the orange, only you could talk; but that’s changed. Now other people can ask questions, if that’s what you want; you can create a rousing argument if that’s what you’d like to do with your time. Many students feel some give and take with their listeners can help to ease the feel of being in the spotlight; it all depends. The point is, the person who has the orange is in control of what interactions happen, if any.

To help students spark off of each other’s ideas, I encourage them to keep notes as we talk, to write a few words to remind themselves of thoughts that cross their minds as they listen, things they might like to mention when the orange comes to them.

I take my turn with the orange: after all, it doesn’t seem fair for everyone else but me to get to have their say; nor would it be right to keep my anonymity here. Too, I can set an example by speaking from the cutting edge of my own thoughts and feelings, the state of the art within myself on these matters, insofar as I am able to find it. And it seems to me especially appropriate to express myself here in this setting, as we pass the orange, where I am less “the teacher” and more just another person trying to figure things out.

Questions about privacy are important to consider, given that our lives are a part of our subject matter.

First of all, if there are personal things you’d rather not talk about, there are lots of other ways to approach the matter. Stories from our lives are valued, but so are good arguments and interesting suggestions. So is just saying how you feel. And when the orange comes to you, it’s always perfectly honorable just to pass it on, or to talk later.

Secondly, we can talk among us as a class about the importance of being sensitive to matters of privacy. I try to encourage respecting people’s right not to be gossiped about, for instance. But in the end we can only depend on each other’s goodwill. It can be an important learning experience finding ourselves speaking out, defending a minority point of view, often finding it wasn’t as impossible as we expected, or that people can appreciate the courage it takes to speak up, even when they don’t agree with what we say. We all make our own decisions about what things from our lives and convictions we will share. There should be no pressure about this from the teacher; and I am careful to respect people’s decisions here, and to give them alternative ways of responding to the questions.

So, now, what does the fact that I am a woman have to do with how I teach ethics?

For one thing, it’s made me sensitive to the issue of silencing. We are learning that women in our classrooms are still being silenced, and have identified some of the mechanisms by which this happens.1 Looking back, I understand that I, as a woman among all males, may have had unique problems getting my conversational foot in the door. At any rate, an instinctual concern that people not be silenced is a part of what has led me to teach as I do.

I feel that my choice of focus, too, is a womanly choice, striving to include the daily and the personal within the range of ethical consideration. I focus often on the familiar, the points where these questions touch our lives. I feel that for too long ethics teachers have played little Jeremy Benthams educating the upper classes about the best ways to make the laws and policies. “What rules we should have” is a very important ethical matter; but surely it’s far from the only one. Thus, when I choose among the many issues we could consider, I’ll choose ‘children’s rights’ over ‘capital punishment’; I’ll choose to discuss how we can be wise in handling dying, or to consider Violence and its alternatives—matters that come up in everyone’s life. There is so much more to ethics than making and following (or not following) rules; there are all the subtleties and adjustments and decisions and assumptions we make every day. And there are all the changes in outlook, the coming to know others, the taking of long thought, that constitute ethical learning.

This choice of focus I see as “womanly” in that it is the women’s culture, in the voices of writers like Susan Griffin, Tillie Olsen, and the religious studies teacher Lynda Sextonz, that has fostered in me an interest in the personal as ethically important, a new respect for how attention to the daily can be illuminating. And it was the women’s culture, after all, that first introduced me to the practice of speaking in a circle, and showed me how it could work.

I should mention one more aspect of my woman’s experience that has probably been important in shaping my teaching style. Before I finished my doctorate, I took four years off to concentrate on being a mother. Those years taught me much, as I watched the sturdy drive to learn unfold, the naturalness of philosophic wonderings. It was a delight to know a mind only slowly joining our conceptual system; it was play. And constant work, tending the growth of ethical awareness, nurturing in this new person the understanding that other people have rights and feelings—that she has rights herself, and feelings—and that we can talk it over.

One of the things I like about teaching ethics is hearing from students that they find themselves thinking about the questions we have raised, being struck by a thought while driving, spending odd moments pondering. They tell me they talk about this stuff with their roommates, mothers, husbands. I could have cheered the day Bill, our retired southern gentleman doctor, told us how, the night before, he’d gotten to talking with his neighbor about nuclear weapons, and what did he really think about this war and peace stuff? They’d sat on the porch a long time. “We had a real good talk,” he said.

It’s true: I am out to convince students that ethics is fun. That it’s something they want to do, to think about these matters, write about them, and talk them over. That it can be satisfying to take a chance and say what you really think, and to hear what other people think. And that wherever you are is the place to start from, with everything you already know.

There is a course on ethics, I believe, because educators hope that if people take such a course they will be able to think better and more deeply together about matters of right and wrong, and how to live. So I have been asking myself:

what things do help people to think better about ethical questions? Isn’t part of it getting to have our say? Isn’t part of it learning to listen? Isn’t part of it loving to mull it all over? It’s the kind of world I want to live in. And if I’m helping to build it, then, as a philosopher entrusted with the teaching of ethics, I think I am doing right work.



  1. See: “The Classroom Climate: a Chilly One for Women?” Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1982. Copies of this paper, which was supported by a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, are available for $3 from the Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1818 R. St., NW, Washington, DC 20009.
  2. See: Ordinarily Sacred by Lynda Sexton, Crossroads Press, 1983, New York, and my review of this book in Womanspirit Magazine, Winter, 1983, Issue 38.