TOK Ethics: balancing detachment and engagement

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It’s easy to spark discussion in TOK when the topic is Ethics.  This area of knowledge offers its own tinder, and a spark can quickly flame.  But what then?  How much should we fuel student engagement with the case studies or issues, and how much should we instead encourage them to take a giant step back?  In treating Ethics in Theory of Knowledge, we walk the line between two extremes, excessive engagement and excessive detachment.

Excessive Engagement

At the one extreme, students can become caught up completely in a sample topic – such as whether they should do X or Y ethically in a particular situation, or whether acting in a particular way is morally wrong.  If the topic is one that affects them, it can stimulate lively interaction, with plenty of opinions.  It can leave students feeling that they’ve really had a good TOK class.  But they’d be wrong.

Unfortunately, if they are engaged entirely in the specific case study or situation, they haven’t detached enough to consider the kinds of arguments they are making, or the differences from approaches that their classmates might be taking.  They’ll have generated lots of heat, but very little light!  Unless as teachers we guide them toward reflection on the assumptions and lines of argument that emerge from example situations, we give them very little that will transfer to general understanding of ethics as an area of knowledge.

We want our students to follow and make general ethical arguments, to understand good argument (with good justifications) as a method of establishing knowledge claims, and to see the structure of thought of major ethical systems that use this method.  Arguments based on consequences (utilitarianism), for instance, take into account different factors from arguments based on duties or principles (deontology), make different intellectual moves, and encounter different problems in establishing their knowledge claims. If students understand how ethics works and therefore why our systems of ethical thought don’t always deliver universally accepted answers, they are more likely to appreciate what the area contributes to our knowledge – despite its uncertainties.

Excessive Detachment

At the other extreme, what are we giving our students?  What do we teach them if we encourage them to recognize and apply ethical arguments and counter-arguments with none of the engagement sparked by a real life topic?  If students come to treat ethics as if it’s a game of ping-pong, bouncing arguments neatly back and forth only to score, it may look like slick TOK.  But wouldn’t we be teaching them that ethics is just a verbal game, intellectually oh-so-clever — but necessarily oppositional and emotionally arid?

What’s the point of the whole area of knowledge if it is reduced to debates whose lack of perfect resolution is seen as a grand failure? And why, then, would our students ever turn to ethics to give insight or understanding in life cases when they care?

It’s a balancing act for TOK. We want to detach for argument and analysis, and at the same time still recognize and foster the caring engagement that is also characteristic of ethics. How?

Finding a balance

In my mind, the balance depends on keeping the stress on concepts and general patterns – on how we know, or at least attempt to know, about goodness and right action. I’d say, though, that we need to anchor the thought in the world around us, with judgments that are often difficult but have significance for individuals, societies, or even all people of the world. I think we need to demonstrate the difficulties of condemning evil or approving good, but not become so mired in the difficulties that we suggest that the attempt is futile. We’re not out to undermine areas of knowledge but to illuminate them and, where we can, even celebrate them as achievements.

I have a few suggestions, and I’d welcome comments from other teachers. You may think I have it all wrong, or you may have other ideas on getting it right.

  • Emphasize the humanity of ethics as an area of knowledge – the lofty aspirations and the range of ways of knowing (all of the WOKs!) involved. All areas of knowledge are human achievements, but its obvious involvement in life, with all its complexities, makes ethics stand out. If it doesn’t always give tidy answers, surely that’s a reflection of the subject matter with which it deals.
  • Emphasize not just when it’s controversial and when its alternative systems reach an impasse, but also when it works fairly easily, so that we don’t leave students thinking ethics is an area of intractable disagreements. Ethical arguments converge, more or less, for most of the choices in our lives.
  • Keep the case studies real. Yes, there’s a place for those endless trolley problems and other “thought experiments” that cut out or control the variables of context. However, once students grasp a line of argument then surely it’s more illuminating to move to the messy world of pandemics (but dedicated medical practitioners), falling bombs (but attempts at ceasefires and arms control), and fleeing refugees (but compassionate rescue and settlement).
  • Use stories of individuals and their struggles to do the right thing in the messy world. There are so many admirable people responding to need wherever you care to look, drawing on many ideas of ethical behaviour and often facing troubling dilemmas. Personally, I think that we might even highlight the aspiration that so often lies at the heart of ethics – and often the inspiration as well. Here I suppose I may be stepping beyond TOK into larger ideas associated with the IB. But perhaps not. After all, part of understanding an area of knowledge is seeing what motivates it and why it matters.
  • Connect TOK with issues that students’ IB subjects sometimes raise, for instance issues of academic honesty or acceptable methods of research. Connect with Creativity Action Service (CAS) to consider – in context of their own lives – what we owe to others, and what understanding of personal responsibility is provided by ethics as an area of knowledge.

Conclusion: What TOK Does So Very Well

It seems to me that our treatment of Ethics in TOK is particularly important in these days of nasty screaming on the internet – these days of lurking trolls, cyber-bullies, and claims that are outrageously false!  In TOK, there are things that I think we do particularly well.

For one thing, we benefit our students greatly as we help them make distinctions in their thinking between facts and values. Disagreements over factual issues aren’t resolved by public debate, but by checking evidence and the consensus of appropriate experts. (e.g. Vaccination does not, in fact, cause autism, regardless of some opinions.) Values, however, are open to different opinions on what’s good or bad, ugly or beautiful, and discussion can be enriched by multiple points of view. When the values are moral ones, then that’s when ethics as an area of knowledge steps in – helping discussion become more thoughtful and better informed.

For another thing, we contribute enormously to our students’ education as we give them a space in which to differ – genuinely differ over topics that they care about – and at the same time to listen to each other and be able to offer alternative arguments and views with civility. As we do so, we create a context for appreciating that contrasting perspectives are neither a failure nor a threat, but provide alternative ways of thinking to be considered and assessed. Many classrooms give students this chance to practise peaceful and respectful disagreement. But, to my eyes, Theory of Knowledge, with its stress on perspectives as animating knowledge, is awfully well placed to do this particularly well. As a TOK teacher – just as unbiased as I am – wouldn’t you agree?


cartoons on ethics by Theo Dombrowski, used here with permission.  He gives permission to you, too, if you want to use these in your own classroom.