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Teaching Ethics

Volume 19, Issue 1, Spring 2019

Elizabeth Lanphier, Amy McKiernan
Pages 17-34

Thinking about Thought Experiments in Ethics

In this paper, we propose some ways in which teaching thought experiments in an ethics classroom may result in marginalizing or excluding students underrepresented in philosophy. Although thought experiments are designed to strip away details and pump intuitions, we argue that they may reinforce assumptions and stereotypes. As examples, we discuss several well-known thought experiments that may typically be included in undergraduate ethics courses, such as Bernard Williams’s Gauguin and Derek Parfit’s The Young Girl’s Child. We analyze the potential value and dangers or teaching these thought experiments. We conclude with some practical suggestions for how to teach thought experiments in ways that encourage students to expand their moral imaginations and think critically about their own assumptions and the assumptions built into thought experiments.

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