Left-Leaning Bias in Ethics Textbooks

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.

Natural Lawyer

Natural Lawyer is the lead editor of Rightly Considered. He teaches philosophy somewhere in the southwestern United States.

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  1. There’s another way in which content tends to be biased: when the (leftist) authors included make the case against some alternative view held by philosophers excluded from the anthology, they tend to present a caricature of that view.

    For example, when Rachels argues against the active euthanasia/passive euthanasia distinction and the killing/letting die distinction, he assumes that he can represent the passive/letting die option with a scenario that most traditionalists would regard as just another instance of the active/killing option: a guy who freely and knowingly refrains from saving a drowning child in hopes of getting his inheritance.

    Probably the content is biased in this respect because it’s biased in the other respect. People like Rachels were trained on anthologies and reading lists that excluded the more serious and sophisticated presentations of the views they think they oppose. Then these caricatures get passed on down the generations, and like a bad game of telephone the excluded view gets ever more distorted over time.

  2. Echo…chamber…dying….

    So much bluster and flail. So little attention, fewer and fewer comments. Starving snowflakes.

    Stop commenting on each other and go do your jobs, a** hats.

    • It’s amazing to me that anyone of even marginal intelligence would criticize this blog for being an echo chamber given that it is the sole respite from the vast leftist echo chamber made up of every other prominent philosophy blog. Besides, most of the posts here are substantive engagements with leftist thought, not echos. If you want to hear echoes, just visit those other menstrual rag excuses for philosophy blogs.

    • SJW projection at its finest. The entire university system is an echo chamber for Social Justice Warriors.

    • Echo chamber?

      Jacques and I are having a lively disagreement on Walter Montgomery’s latest post about the Syria Strikes. Like the disclaimers on the right-hand side of your screen explicitly read, there’s a family resemblance intermixed between the members and visitors of Rightly Considered. But like a family we bicker and often don’t see eye-to-eye on many positions.

  3. Hmm. I have used “JS” when commenting before but the above JS is not me. Perhaps he’s the Jim Sutton fellow? Maybe I’ll stop commenting if he’s taken to trolling….

  4. Well of course the blog will die out eventually, there aren’t enough conservatives in philosophy to maintain enough writers/readers. We have seen conservative blogs come and go. Everything dies out eventually, as will all your progressive dreams and utopian aspirations. You’d know this if you were an actual philosopher, namely one concerned with wisdom–the philosophy Socrates talks about as the “practice for dying and death.”

  5. The problem is of course much more widespread. When prominent philosophers of science/race such as Appiah, Machery, and Mitchell talk about race in recent interviews and educational videos, they invoke intra-racial variation and the vagueness of racial boundaries in order to question that there is a biological basis for race distinctions. But they leave well-known objections to these arguments, such as “Lewontin’s fallacy”, entirely unmentioned.

  6. Surely being prolife is a left wing position. Telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies is a provision of the controlling left wing.

    Personal freedom to make your own choices (I.e. Pro-choice) is a right wing position.

    • I guess this is a joke but “personal freedom to make your own choices” is really a classical liberal or libertarian principle not a “right wing” principle. (It’s a principle of the right wing of the left, I suppose.) And liberals or libertarians usually qualify that kind of personal freedom with a harm principle or non-aggression principle, so that when one person’s exercise of “freedom to make your own choices” involves killing an innocent human being that might well go beyond the legitimate personal freedom they have in mind.

      Anyway, lots of important “right wing” schools of thought reject this liberal principle. It’s rejected by traditionalists, reactionaries and fascists, theological conservatives, ethno-nationalists, alt-rightists, etc.

      Setting aside these uninteresting labels, the abortion issue is a great example of _some_ kind of irrational bias. Go back to the classic “pro-choice” papers that get anthologized, like Thompson’s or Warren’s. Their arguments are just obviously terrible. For example, Thompson using this silly violinist analogy which (as Warren finally points out) has no bearing on any typical case of abortion given that the woman typically had some agency and responsibility for the pregnancy. Or Warren making this relatively strong case about moral status and personhood, but then just asserting with _no_ argument that a 7-month or 8-month old fetus has _none_ of the traits she associates with persons, and is “no more person-like than a guppy”. Then lamely conceding that, yes, her position does imply that infanticide is not intrinsically different from abortion but morally different for all kinds of other (really weak, really ad hoc) reasons. Better pro-choice arguments are available, but these obviously terrible arguments got published and they keep getting taught.

  7. Rachels and Rachels _The Elements of Moral Philosophy_, a widely used ethics textbook is full examples to illustrate the general theories that are predictably left-wing causes (e.g., homosexuality, abortion, drug use, etc.) Here’s a nice passage:

    “Can a racist point to any differences between, say, white people and black people that would justify treating them differently? In the past, racists have sometimes tried to do this by portraying blacks as lazy, unintelligent, and threatening” . . . “If such accusations were true, then different treatment would be justified in some circumstances. But, of course, they are not true; there are no such differences between the races” (pp. 80-81 of the Eighth Edition)

    So, with a casual “of course, they are not true”, large swaths of social scientific research, criminal statistics, and common sense are dismissed out of hand. The undergraduates “learn” the “right” lesson, and the leftist academic machine lumbers on.

  8. Jim Sutton always signs his own name because it’s auto-filled on my laptop. I’ve had plenty of discussions with people here. I don’t need to comment here on things like sexual morality. I always wonder why it is the case that some type of conservatives are always caring about where people stick it and lick it.

    One of the more surprising debates I’ve had here is that people deny the egalitarianism of morality itself. This is seen as ideology, but not because what morality is. Accordingly, morality has two conceptual features (no matter the content which is under dispute here). Morality is overriding of one’s personal desires, and impartial.The same standard must apply to everyone equally and these standards are motivating on their own. Oftentimes, if I am worried about say the structural violence of capitalism (epi-pens costing 3 times their price) or am critical of a tradition, I am labelled a social justice warrior even if I am an ethicist by training and even if I have a moral argument. “SJWing” people is often just an ad hominem and a platitude of righteousness masking as groupthink.

    The real annoying thing about coming here is the same caricaturing, strawman, and shit that all of you accuse of leftist professors you do yourself against them. All of you are so obsessed with the victimhood status of holding your own points of view that you bitch and moan and rarely give an argument.

    The Marquis article is anthologized all the time because it’s the only essay in all the literature that rests on a moral argument, not a religious argument.

    • Hi, Jim Sutton, who “always signs his own name”. I don’t sign my own name, ever. You know why? Because my career would be destroyed if I did. Is that “bitching and moaning”? Why don’t you try living in the closet for several years, scared that you will be discovered or outed, and see how you feel about it.

      I could post on here and give long, complicated arguments for various positions. But why bother? Only two people comment on here or probably even read the blog. And nothing I say would convince leftists anyway. The most I would get is for a few leftists to say “well, it’s complicated” or “yes, the issues here are subtle an nuanced”, and then go back to holding the same leftist views they always held,. What is the point? There is no discourse. It’s a civil war and your side is winning. In fact, you pretty much already won.

    • “I always wonder why it is the case that some type of conservatives are always caring about where people stick it and lick it.”

      Perhaps they’re professional, conservative philosophers/ethicists who, let’s see here, have arguments, specifically moral, against such sticking and licking. Did that ever cross your mind or what?

      “The real annoying thing about coming here is the same caricaturing, strawman, and shit that all of you accuse of leftist professors you do yourself against them.”

      What an odd comment. So, who’s forcing you to come here?

    • Also, Jim, I just saw that you had a long exchange with Jacques in a different thread in which he laid out several, highly detailed arguments with no straw-men, etc. So, you can’t mean to include him in your criticism. And his excellent criticism proves my point. His remarks to you contain more honest and serious and sensible philosophy about the topic of race and IQ than all the combined talks and papers on the topic that I’ve seen from the entire remainder of academic philosophers. And where does this excellent commentary appear? On an obscure blog that is all but entirely ignored by the “profession”. It appears there because that is the only place it can even get an airing. A philosopher doing the best “philosophy of race” that exists in the “profession” but only while forced to write under a pseudonym for an audience of virtually no one. Not the kind of conditions that motivate one to write that much.

  9. Jim,
    I’ll allow that morality consists of “impartial” rules that should over-ride my personal desires, and which apply to everyone “equally”. Though I think the phrasing has some (typical liberal-leftist) redundancies. (If rules against double-parking apply to all drivers, what is really added by saying they apply “equally” to all of them?)

    You’re confusing reasonable claims about the nature of morality with “egalitarianism” of the kind that some rightists deny. Consider this principle:

    (NS) “For any Aryan person A, there is some non-Aryan person NA such that NA is the natural slave of A.”

    Whoever you are, Aryan or non-Aryan, principle NS applies to you. Or it would apply if it were true. (And it even applies “equally”, if you like to talk that way.)
    We can say that NS is “impartial” too, or could be applied “impartially”. (Or maybe I need some explanation of what “impartial” means in this context, and why moral principles or standards are necessarily “impartial” in some sense that NS is not.)

    Someone who’s willing to throw himself on a grenade (even though he wishes to go on living) just because he wants to uphold NS seems to satisfy the conditions you mention. But this person is clearly not an “egalitarian” in the relevant sense.

    I guess you may say that the principle in question (NS) is not one of those “standards” that “are motivating on their own”. Since I’m not sure what that means, I don’t know whether that would be a plausible reply. In any case, your reasoning fails because you conflate some highly abstract notion of universality or impartiality or logical consistency with the claim of equal human worth (or equal personal worth, or equal rights, or equal empirical abilities, etc.) People like us object to the second line of thought, not these rather empty points about universality or whatever which may well be constitutive of morality.

    • What is this incessant need to formalize every proposition? Also, I wasn’t trying to be too controversial. You can push and pull many levers to make it appear as if a doctrine of natural slavery could fulfill the two criteria for what counts as moral. In my head, I meant something non-controversial like duties of beneficience or gratitude, fulfilling promises, or promoting some just end.

      I conflate nothing because impartiality and overridingness of desires are not criteria of some normative requirement, they are the conditions that any moral belief must fulfill to be moral–the form of morality, not its content…which is what a belief in equal worth would be.

  10. Jim,
    “The Marquis article is anthologized all the time because it’s the only essay in all the literature that rests on a moral argument, not a religious argument.”

    If that’s true (which it might well be) then _that_ is a really strong sign of bias. It’s trivially easy to show that a fetus, fairly early on, is quite likely to meet at least some conditions on person-hood that even leftists like Warren take to confer a strong right to life. So a non-religious argument against many cases of abortion is trivially easy but, to the best of your expert knowledge, doesn’t exist in the literature. Why is that?

    There is also bias in the idea that “a religious argument” doesn’t deserve (or need) to be anthologized. Many students, quite possibly the majority, are religious people for whom a religious argument would be compelling. Why are they supposed to pretend that they don’t know anything about God when they do philosophy in school? Why is “a religious argument” not just a philosophical argument with some premises that are controversial, i.e., a philosophical argument like any other? Why does “education” in philosophy require everyone to pretend that they’re beginning from agnosticism or atheism–just like they have to pretend they’re beginning from liberalism and leftism, feminism and pro-homosexual-ism?

    • Ah, you see, Jacques, religious assumptions are “biases”. Leftist, egalitarian assumptions – i.e., treating unusual or even freakish sexual perversion or fetishes as normal, pretending that men and woman are the same, pretending that all races are the same, etc. – are “reasonable” and reflects the “moral progress” that has occurred over the last few hundred years.

  11. Good point SJ.

    “Perhaps they’re professional, conservative philosophers/ethicists who, let’s see here, have arguments, specifically moral, against such sticking and licking. Did that ever cross your mind or what?”

    People like Jim think it’s entirely normal that their middle-of-the-road liberal colleagues get so worked up about an old white guy sexting a grad student. They think it’s normal that people care about whether grown men are sticking and licking with little kids. They think it’s normal that feminists scream about “rape culture”. These are just normal, healthy, rational concerns of our totally normal colleagues in a normal, nice society.

    Worries about sticking and licking are only weird (and comical) when the people worrying are right wingers or Christians, and when what they worry about are right wing or Christian issues. Only then, such worries are symptomatic of some unwholesome fixation on other people’s private lives and their sacred freedom to do whatever the fuck they want with whoever the fuck they want, so long as they’re not “hurting” anyone and the whole thing is safe, sane and consensual. Only then, such worries must be a-rational symptoms of small penises or an Authoritarian Personality Disorder or repressed desires for same-sex funny business. Right Jim Sutton?

    It’s good to have Jim Sutton around. If anyone might be tempted to believe his charge of “caricaturing” or “straw man”, his own comments are evidence of just how biased and narrow-minded our enemies really are.

  12. Hi Shopenhammer,

    I get it now. We should just tell students from now on that, in the last few years, there has finally been some real progress in philosophy. Whereas for a while there was a lot of controversy, it’s pretty much settled which kinds of premises are acceptable in a philosophical argument.

    “Bruce Jenner became a woman by giving an interview in Vanity Fair.”
    “A man sticking his penis in the anus of another man is having ‘sex’.”
    “There are no interesting or important natural mental differences, even on average, between men and women, blacks and whites, etc.”
    “White people are ‘privileged’, and massive official discrimination against white people in this very institution is in no way evidence against that claim. In fact, thinking that it might be evidence is itself evidence of just how ‘privileged’ you are–unless you are not white, in which case it just shows that you’re a thoughtful young person who is somewhat misguided.”
    “No western country has an indigenous white European majority with the right to self-determination.”
    “Every non-western or non-white people has the right to come and live in any western or majority-white country in whatever numbers they may find pleasant, regardless of how privileged white people may feel about that.”

    “God exists.”
    “Probably, God exists.”
    “When we consider all the arguments for and against the claim that God exists, it turns out to be considerably more likely that God exists than that God does not exist.”
    “White people have the same collective rights as non-white people.”
    “Scientific evidence suggests that there may be some important natural mental differences between men and women, blacks and whites, etc.”
    “Homosexual behavior tends to make people unhappy and unhealthy.”
    “Most women would be happier and more fulfilled if they were mothers and wives and did not focus too much on having a ‘career’.”
    “Women actually don’t like (and are sexually repulsed by) men who act the way that feminists say men should act.”
    “Islam is not a peaceful religion.”

  13. Jim Sutton said: “The Marquis article is anthologized all the time because it’s the only essay in all the literature that rests on a moral argument, not a religious argument.”

    Wow, what a *profoundly* ignorant comment! (Especially considering that I linked to the Pruss article, which gives a non-religious argument against abortion!) You clearly know absolutely nothing about the literature.

    • As for the Pruss aricle on p. 178, he denies that metaphysics of personhood is not at issue, but I cannot help but think he is exploring the implications of one view of personhood one might find very common in religious worldviews, but you are initially right. This view does not depend upon religious views, but more or less turns on what I would call the continuity property of a person’s worth from fetal origin to adulthood. This is part of Alex’s squishiness though.

      I think Marquis’s article does the best job when I have taught it. I also think that Thomson’s violinist thought experiment is disanalogous to most planned pregnancies and really only applies in cases of rape. I also think the Warren article inherits a problem of supervenience, something akin to the baldness problem. How do we tell when exactly a head is not bald with one, two or three strands of hair? All of a sudden when the fetus is born with Warren the fetus cannot be killed, but no clear reason is given as to why. Her five criteria of personhood inherits this problem.

      I actually don’t think there’s many moral reasons that makes abortion permissible. I don’t know how we got here. Oh yeah, I made some off the cuff comment and Natural Lawyer inferred from one comment that he could know what I have read. I love it when people make inferences with little or no evidence.


    • Hi Jim,

      What is part of Alex’s squishiness?

      You said that Warren inherits a problem of supervenience. Did you mean ‘vagueness’ or ‘sorites paradox’? Supervenience is the relation that non-reductive physicalists often say holds between mental and physical properties.

      Are you claiming that your “off-the-cuff” comment is not to be taken literally? Then what the heck does it mean?

  14. “There are no interesting or important natural mental differences, even on average, between men and women, blacks and whites, etc.”

    That, of course, underscores the crucial difference between egalitarian liberals and six day young earth creationists.

    The latter hold false and foolish theoretical beliefs about the distant unobserved past, and one needs a minimum background of scientific knowledge in order to recognize that these beliefs are unsupported.

    The former hold false and foolish beliefs about the directly observable present, and anyone who doesn’t continuously gaslight themselves for social or ideological reasons can recognize that these beliefs are unsupported.

  15. Hi Jim,
    I think you’re misunderstanding Warren’s view:

    “All of a sudden when the fetus is born with Warren the fetus cannot be killed, but no clear reason is given as to why. Her five criteria of personhood inherits this problem.”

    She says a newborn is a lot more _like_ a person than a 7 or 8 month fetus, and so killing it is harder to justify. But she doesn’t think that “all of a sudden” the fetus is born and acquires some totally new moral status. She does give fairly “clear” (though very bad) reasons against infanticide, e.g., if the parents don’t want the newborn there’s probably someone who wants to adopt it. Her position is that, for contingent reasons, infanticide tends to be wrong even though it’s not intrinsically morally different from abortion.

    I would still like to hear you explain why religious arguments shouldn’t be anthologized or taught just as often as non-religious ones. (Or why you think the fact that religious arguments are excluded or regarded as unacceptable isn’t a sign of bias.) Why isn’t a religious argument against abortion simply a typical philosophical argument–an argument with some controversial premises?

    I’d also like to hear why you think it’s not a sign of bias that Warren’s very bad argument is canonical. You yourself seem to admit that her argument is bad (though maybe you haven’t entirely understood it). And if there are no really good arguments for abortion rights, why do universities teach students these arguments? Is it because there are also no good arguments _against_ abortion? Or is it because the system is biased?

  16. “As for the Pruss aricle on p. 178, he denies that metaphysics of personhood is not at issue…”

    Thanks for your comment. Was the second negation a typo? I thought Pruss disavows the psych. continuity view and at least implicitly adopts “animalism” (the person is identical to a certain organism). If so this suggests an advantage to Marquis’ article in that it avoids contentious claims about personhood.

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