TOK: Ethics as an area of knowledge

Sunday 17 August 2014

If Ethics is an area of knowledge then its status in the IB diploma is similar to Biology, which is one of the Natural Sciences, another area of knowledge. So if a student asks, "in a world of food shortages we should use agricultural land for crops to make bio-fuel?",  perhaps a Biology teacher could say, "That's ethics, you'll have to ask your TOK teacher."  That would be clearly wrong, wouldn't it? 

In society how do we decide the answers to difficult questions like this?  Other questions might be, "Is it right to drink alcohol?", "Should we genetically alter crops to improve the farmer's yield?"

Biologists largely agree on the science behind the way alcohol affects the body or on the principles of genetic modification so why do different parts of the world react so differently to these "scientific facts"? The answer is, in short, that these decisions are beyond the scope of Biology.

Biology is a fertile ground for controversial issues about the application of science in society and the scope of Ethics, as an area of knowledge, is to help us to understand how we find answers to these issues. Ethics is the study of the morals which should guide us in all that we do. (many students confuse morals, which we all have, with Ethics - a specialist area of knowledge.)

A TOK teacher will ask students to think about how we use reason, emotion, sense perception or language within Ethics. Students should be able to explain what effect these things have on their understanding of Biology, or the world beyond. Ideally they should also appreciate that others may, quite reasonably, hold different views.

This might be beyond the scope of a Biology lesson but by raising ethical issues within Biology lessons it can help students to link Biology to a TOK lesson and get them thinking more deeply about the subject. Here are a couple of suggestions.

While studying anaerobic respiration:

  • The production and consumption of alcohol varies between cultures. How is alcohol viewed in different  cultures? In what way do reason, emotion and language help to inform the moral philosophy behind these views?

In the genetics topic:

  • In the USA we can buy GM corn without even knowing that it has been modified while in the EU we are forbidden from buying it. How do you personally feel about eating GM cornflakes?  Is it right to take away the freedom to choose in these examples? Did you decide using mostly reason, emotion, or sensory perception?

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