Justice, Truth and Knowledge

Ethical Reasoning is a cornerstone of the new general education program
Portrait of student Mohamed Elsayyad Class of 2022

Studying philosophy definitely helped me analyze the different dimensions of a problem. Philosophy is a concept that can be applied to real-life issues. It’s not a book sitting on a shelf collecting dust.

Mohamed Elsayyad ‘22 has a passion for helping others. He is majoring in nursing, and already works as a personal care attendant at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. On campus, the honors student also works as a resident assistant.

“It’s a passion for taking care of people,” Elsayyad said. “Making people smile and relieving their pain is something I feel passionate about.”

Through the honors program, Elsayyad enrolled in Professor David Svolba’s course on comparative ethics. 

“It was a very heavy class, but very applicable to real life,” Elsayyad said. “We were applying an objective, philosophical lens to observe a current issue, rather than just using our own opinions.”

He found the discussions stimulating, particularly when they waded into ethical waters around the medical response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Who deserves the ventilator, the 90-year-old who’s lived their whole life, or the 19-year-old who has their whole life ahead of them? There’s no right answer. For us, it was about how you make the decision. It’s about logic in the form of argument.”

Ethical reasoning is one of the creative and critical thinking skills that is foundational to the new general education program.

For Professor Svolba, a member of the Humanities Department faculty, discovering a love of philosophy was unexpected. “I wanted to be a writer,” he said, recalling his early college days. When a short story class was canceled for low enrollment, he took a chance on an Introduction to Philosophy course.

“It was at a time in my life when I needed to find something I was good at,” Svolba said. “I was an 18-year-old kid who was insecure, who was trying to find out what life was all about. When I found out I was good at philosophy, the skies just opened up. I loved the questions, and I loved how you could think seriously and rigorously about really important questions – like justice, or truth, or knowledge, or the good. It sounded really foundational, in a way that other things didn’t.”

Svolba continues to enjoy the spirited discussions that emerge in the undergraduate courses he teaches now. The study of philosophy imparts important skills, he said, like how to make an argument, or unpack and evaluate another’s argument.

The new curriculum is furthered by this study, Svolba said. “Curricular turnover is a good thing,” he said. “I think it sends a good message that Fitchburg State includes ethical reasoning as a core objective. It’s very common for first-year students at a university or college to have no sense of what philosophy is. I hope this exposure leads them to fall in love with the subject, and the critical examination of important ideas.”

In recent times, ethical dilemmas have taken on front-page prominence. During the early days of the pandemic, for example, ethical questions abounded over issues like who deserved access to a limited supply of respirators, whether people should be able to volunteer for then-unproven COVID tests, and how access to limited but life-saving resources should be determined.

“These issues are as concrete as can be,” Svolba said. “To be able to think about this in a lucid, reasonable way, is crucially important to being a good citizen and a reflective person who makes up his or her own mind.”

Svolba likes that philosophy and ethics discussions are relevant and robust. 

“Some students assume that ethics are handed down as complete, and others will think it’s a personal thing and rooted in one’s gut feelings,” he said. “When you get students to see there are better and worse ways of answering ethical questions, we can start to think about how rationally defensible those answers are. Why should I accept that claim? Why should I agree with you? Once you get them to accept that, it opens up a new intellectual reality to them.”

The study of philosophy is a way to awaken students to the excitement of serious thinking, Svolba said. “At the end of the day, whether you’re talking about widgets or truth and beauty, thinking is thinking, and logic is logic. The target may change, but the skills and the abilities you hone and develop in a philosophy class do not. There’s a reason that philosophy is called 'the ultimately transferable set of skills.' It’s great that way.”

Elsayyad agreed. “Studying philosophy definitely helped me in terms of analyzing the different dimensions of a problem,” he said. “The biggest thing I took from the class was how to look at an issue from a 360-degree angle instead of 180 degrees. My 6 could be a 9 to you. When you’re making a compelling argument, your right argument could be false, and your false argument could be right. Philosophy is a concept that can be applied to real-life issues. It’s not a book sitting on a shelf collecting dust.”

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Contact magazine.