Headmaster's Thoughts: May 2023

This month I am cheating by reproducing a presentation I made to an educational conference, this April, on the teaching of Ethics to high school students. Last month’s “Thoughts” were hopefully amusing. The same cannot be said for this presentation:

Good Morning. My name is Ronnie Stewart and I started York Prep School in 1969 with my wife and have been Head of School for the 54 years it has served its students in New York City. For most of those years, I have taught Ethics to all members of the Senior Class.

Let me start by welcoming questions at any time. In other words, please interrupt if you have a question. I should also say, right from the beginning, that the teaching of Ethics requires that the school and its community leaders act as examples of moral leadership. Modelling ethical behavior is part of the teaching of Ethics to all students.
So what right have I to teach Ethics? Well, I was a barrister in London before I started York Prep. In England, you study law as an undergraduate, and the BA program at Oxford is three years. In fact, I stayed on an extra year at Oxford to do a B.C.L. and then went to the bar. So I was always the youngest (and now, of course the oldest), and I defended my first murder case (a plea of guilty) when I was 22. At 24, I was the junior counsel for Charles Kray in what was to become the longest murder trial in England. At the end of that trial, in which Charles Kray, unlike his twin brothers, was not found guilty of committing any murders, I left the bar, brought my wig and gown to remind me of memories, and came to New York to found York Prep. Whether having a life-long interest in philosophy, and having experience defending and prosecuting in the Old Bailey in London, gives me any expertise in Ethics is debatable. After all this time, one thing I do respect is that in Ethics there rarely is one right or wrong answer.
Let me tell you how I begin my class each year. When I was doing my graduate degree, I taught Roman Law at women’s colleges at Oxford. I got to know Philippa Foote, a philosophy Don (you might call professor) at Somerville College. She wrote a now famous article on direct and indirect consequences, focusing mainly on abortion: Do you kill the baby to save the mother (indirect and unfortunate consequence) or do you kill the baby to kill the baby (a direct and intended consequence). In that article, she also presented a problem that has become famous and much discussed. She postulated that a trolley was going down a hill when the brakes failed. If it pursued its path, it would kill five people on the tracks. But, before those five people were hit, there was a siding and if you, and only you, who happened to be there, pulled the switch and diverted the train on to a side track, there was only one person on that side track who would be killed. Would you pull the switch? That question is one that assumed even more importance after 9/11. Would you shoot down, over let us say a town in Westchester, an airliner aiming for the World Trade Towers?  Philippa, and others who followed her, did not stop at the single trolley question but asked a second question. If the trolley is going down the track, and the only opportunity to stop it was to push a fat man with a backpack sitting on a bridge off that bridge in to the oncoming path of the trolley, would you push the man off to his death, and save the five as a result?
And here we are immediately presented with direct and indirect consequences. Diverting the trolley on to the siding and killing one person, who happens to be there, is an unfortunate and indirect consequence. You do not want to kill the man. There could be more than one, but less than five. Do you do it? Most people say yes. And this problem crosses cultures. It could be a boulder rolling down a hill; do you divert it to a path with only one person? Do you divert a man-eating crocodile on to a tributary, and so on. But, while most people would pull the switch, a minority of people would push the fat man off the bridge. That is a direct consequence. You are, effectively, killing someone. I can go on about this problem of trolleyology, but, needless to say, it drives the students to discuss the options and, with my encouragement, to discuss different scenarios of what would you do? There is no correct answer, although, interestingly, we find that the logical part of the brain is triggered with the switch scenario, and the emotional part is triggered at the prospect of pushing the man off the bridge.
There are some objections to the lack of reality in the trolleyology question (and the spelunklogy question too, which I can discuss if anyone wants to go into the dilemma), but it is not threatening enough to discourage discussion. I think it has pizazz, and it is important to start any course with an interesting and new concept that all can chime in on. It is a safe problem in that no-one is defensive about the issue because it is such an unlikely scenario.
Using that question of trolleyology, I then start at the beginning of philosophy, with Parmenides and Heraclitus, and proceed through the entire History of Western Philosophy (because I do not, regrettably, know enough about non-Western philosophy). I introduce words that may be new to the students but represent part of the vocabulary of philosophy; the dialectic, hypothetical versus categorical imperative, empiricism and what can we really know, and what existentialism means as opposed to idealism. In referencing trolleyology, sometimes there is no clue in the philosopher’s writings as to how they would solve the trolley dilemma. And sometimes, Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians being the most obvious, there are direct answers to the trolleyology problem.
I discuss Socrates and Plato (dealing with his cave analogy) Aristotle, the Sceptics, Stoics and Solipsists, Aquinas and then modern philosophy starting with Descartes, then through Kant and the deontological argument, and the empiricists and finally, if time allows, I finish up with Marx, Ayn Rand, Sartre and John Rawls. But time usually does runs out because I try and have a general discussion of ethical issues between each philosopher. I introduce speakers every year including a billionaire and a street peddler, both friends of mine. And the issues I raise such as abortion, legacy admissions to college, euthanasia, drugs and disabilities, the environment, and animal rights are general problems in which I hope to encourage the students to debate among themselves. Indeed, during those discussions, the less I talk the better except to encourage the seniors to see both sides of a problem. In a time when our culture is in somewhat of a state of flux, I think it is important to encourage all views without prejudice.
As a criminal prosecutor and defender (one does both in England, one day hired to prosecute and one day to defend) I go into detail about the theories of punishment. Retribution versus deterrence. If fortunate, we have great debates among the students. I just act as ringmaster in those situations.
Inevitably, I introduce a number of challenging legal cases. My favorite is Regina versus Dudley and Stephens, which is the case where shipwrecked sailors ate the cabin boy. I also introduce the golf case of Casey Martin, and the rights of the handicapped, the Cheryl Hopwood case against the U of Texas Law School where she claimed that she was discriminated because she was white, and the Gozo twins case where one twin would have to be sacrificed for the other twin. The goal is to raise questions and to show both sides. I hope to get out of the way as the students discuss difficult issues where you have alternatives, all of which are not good. Humor needs to be part of the class, if possible, because the issues can be very serious. Let me give you some of the questions that I ask when the class lags (and I never pretend to know the answers)…

Science and Religion…are they compatible?
What do we owe animals?
Is it okay to have a pet fish?
Is Chicken Parmesan authentic?
If you try to make a sculpture of a fish and it finishes up looking like a bird, is it a sculpture of a bird or a fish?
Are people innately good or bad (or neutral)?
Should you kill baby Hitler?
Do people who like dark chocolate taste it the same as people who hate it?
How do you cope with the mortality of your parents?
If Superman gets his energy from the sun, how come he does not have sunburn?
What, if there is one, is the meaning of life?
Should I give money to the homeless in the street?
When you buy something made in a poor country, are you contributing to the exploitation of their workers?
If the world is warming dramatically, is it okay to have kids?
What makes a word sexist?
If someone buys you a drink at a bar, do you owe them anything?
If I put ketchup in a blender with ice and grind them together, do I have a smoothie?
Should we live in the present?
Why bother? Why care?
I have been asked if one can impact the ethics of young people. I think that an open discussion of such topics as turning in a friend who did something criminal or staying behind at the scene of an accident, present the issue of what we owe society and our neighbor and, hopefully, at least give the student thoughts about improving their ethical obligations to all members of their community. If Hitler could negatively impact the ethics of young students by injecting thoughts of hate and violence to the minority of Jews, then surely we can, in the exact reverse, encourage respect and kindness to the weak and disadvantaged. Nelson Mandela famously said that “no-one is born hating another person because of his skin, background, or religion…if they can learn to hate they can learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Ethical education encourages discussion about issues that should be discussed, and rarely are, in high school. And I am always happy to discuss, or rather let them discuss, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I think that debating such issues encourage curiosity, deeper thinking, and greater empathy. At least I hope so.
So the goal of any Ethics class is to open the minds of young people to issues that are rarely thought of, to help them become curious, and to encourage them to look at all sides of any issue. The Ethics teacher has to be prepared for individual students to privately ask questions as to what they should do. With the understanding that there is no right or wrong answer, I think you can give an opinion. I have been asked, by a senior, whether he should tell his father, a divorced man, that his father’s current younger girlfriend invited him to meet at a hotel? I gave my opinion, with the caveat that it was just that.
Some of you might be interested in what I answered, but to open this up, I hope that you might also have some questions already as to the core issue of teaching Ethics, remembering that I never profess to know the answers, I just hope I know some of the questions.
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep