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Ethical Thinking

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

I have always wanted to teach ethics and philosophy in a high school English class, and this year I started my AP Literature class with Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. I like to call this an “anchor-text,” as it provides a framework for understanding the literature we will be investigating throughout the course. But it is really much more powerful than this. We can use ethics to see the choices of literary characters in a more objective way, and not in a morass of relativism and emotional confusion. But also, as literature imitates life, so can our analysis support a more robust understanding of ourselves and our own choices.

Students need a framework to think about their values and how these connect to their behavior; ethics gives them that vocabulary. Aristotle in particular shows them that action is important above all else. I teach ethics in my high school English class because it helps my students understand how a character’s actions shape who that character becomes. By proxy, it also shows my students the connection between the actions they take and who they are. What you do is who you become. Literature, then, becomes a mirror students can hold up to themselves so that they can assess their own actions.

At the heart of my teaching philosophy is the notion that empathy can be taught, and literature is a pathway to developing a vibrant moral imagination. This way we can understand what it is like to be another person. By using ethics, we can bridge the subjective experience of the individual and an objective assessment of character. This powerful inquiry is at the heart of living the examined life, and our best hope at becoming the most excellent versions of ourselves we can be.

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