Introductory courses in applied ethics often utilize anthologies that purport to offer a balanced series of pro/con readings on any number of controversial moral issues. The readings contained in these textbooks are intended by their editors to be representative of the strongest arguments made by scholars on opposing sides of the moral, political, and social spectrum. While a few textbooks admirably achieve this goal, a good number of ethics textbooks — including several that are widely used in colleges and universities — contain either subtle or obvious biases in favor of socially liberal points of view.
There are two main ways in which this bias is typically manifested. First, there’s bias when it comes to the amount of readings that are selected for a certain topic. Bias of this kind consists in completely omitting readings for one side or in selecting a disproportionate number of readings that “stack the deck” in favor of a particular point of view. Second, there’s bias when it comes to the content of the readings that are selected. This kind of bias consists in selecting articles that are either weak or not representative of the scholarship on that side of the ideological spectrum.
Examples of the first kind of bias can be found in two very popular teaching texts: Russ Shafer-Landau’s The Ethical Life (Oxford, 3rd ed. 2015) and James Rachels and Stuart Rachels’ The Right Thing to Do (McGraw-Hill, 7th ed. 2015).
On the topic of sexual ethics, Shafer-Landau has only one reading: an article by John Corvino that defends the morality of homosexual sex. There is a complete absence of any article defending the traditional position that homosexual sex is immoral. And it’s not as if there weren’t any to choose from. Shafer-Landau could have included John Finnis’ “Law, Morality, and Sexual Orientation,” which happened to be published in the same volume from where the Corvino reading was taken. Elizabeth Anscombe’s classic “Contraception and Chastity” would have also been appropriate. Or he could have included excerpts from Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, Patrick Lee and Robert George’s Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge, 2007), or Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George’s article “What is Marriage?” which appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. Some anthologies include some of these articles. There’s also the option of just assigning primary source material from Aquinas and other thinkers.
So what gives? There’s a wealth of possible readings to choose from when it comes to defenses of conservative sexual morality. This omission was very deliberate.
Rachels includes four articles on sexual ethics, but none of them are representative of traditional sexual morality. You would think that if Rachels had enough room to include four articles on sex, he surely would have had enough room to include at least one article defending the traditionalist approach. But nope. So much for balance.
Apparently, this has been going on for quite some time. The 3rd edition of Rachels’ anthology, published in 1999 (when Bowers v. Hardwick was still considered precedent and when same-sex marriage was virtually unheard of) contains two readings on sexual ethics, both of which were unapologetic defenses of homosexuality. No natural law or conservative counterpart is offered. It’s rather hard to avoid the conclusion that Rachels was deliberately trying to suppress the existence of dissenting viewpoints from appearing in his books.
On the topic of drug policy, both Shafer-Landau and Rachels include Michael Huemer’s pro-drug article “America’s Unjust Drug War” without offering any opposing article. While philosophers haven’t written much about drugs in general, they could have assigned, say, Peter de Marneffe’s “Against the Legalization of Heroin” or criminologist James Q. Wilson’s well-known “Against the Legalization of Drugs” as a counterpoint (Huemer even mentions Wilson’s essay in his article, so they must have been aware of it). That they didn’t is quite strange. But at least there is one positive note that I can report: the 4th edition of Shafer-Landau’s book, which comes out later this year, is including a counterpart to Huemer’s article.
I could go on with examples from other teaching texts.
What about examples of the second kind of bias? It may surprise you that I think that the inclusion by many anthologies of Don Marquis’ classic “Why Abortion is Immoral” as the sole representative of the pro-life position falls under this category. I don’t think bias of this kind is intentional, but it still manifests subtle bias in that the Marquis article isn’t really representative of the vast majority of philosophical arguments for the pro-life position. To be sure, there are a few philosophers who adopt his future-like-ours approach in arguing against abortion, but the vast majority of pro-life philosophers use personhood arguments to make their case. So the inclusion of Marquis is quite strange when the argument he uses isn’t actually representative of pro-life scholarship. One explanation I’ve heard is that Marquis is an atheist, and the argument he gives isn’t based on religion. But neither are the personhood arguments offered by other philosophers (who also happen to be religious). So that seems like a flimsy explanation.
Still, it’s better than nothing, but less-than-ideal when it’s used as the sole representative of the pro-life side. This isn’t to say that anthologies should drop Marquis, only that they should supplement it with other articles. One good example of an anthology that has done this is Daniel Bonevac’s Today’s Moral Issues (McGraw-Hill, 7th ed. 2012), which includes Alexander Pruss’ “I Once Was a Fetus: That is Why Abortion is Wrong.” Past editions contained readings by Robert George to supplement the Marquis piece.
I could document more examples of left-leaning textbook bias, but you get the point.
All that being said, there are many fine ethics anthologies. Many aren’t like the Rachels and Shafer-Landau texts. Boonin and Odie’s What’s Wrong (Oxford, 2nd ed. 2009), Cahn’s Exploring Ethics (Oxford, 4th ed. 2016), and the Bonevac text just mentioned are all fine examples of ethics anthologies that do a reasonably good job of balancing readings.
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