Clayton Morgareidge

Clayton Morgareidge

For most of his 37 years at Lewis & Clark, Clayton Morgareidge relished the challenge of convincing teenagers inclined to embrace a relativist moral philosophy that the ethics by which they govern their lives truly matter.

Morgareidge, who joined the College’s philosophy department in 1965, taught ethics about once a year beginning in the mid-1970s, and nearly every semester since the mid-1990s. To each new group of about 30 students, he employed a variety of engaging teaching methods geared to one consistent message: “Ethics,” he says, “is the part of philosophy that most directly engages people in the questions of how we should live.”

He began prodding students to consider those questions at the very outset. In one of the first classes, he asked students to write about a personal moral dilemma they once faced: whether to tell dad about the dent in the fender, for example, or whether to confront a best friend who’s cheating on her boyfriend. “They realize then that, at least in practice, they had to determine the right thing to do,” he says.

Morgareidge and his students would refer to some of those papers later in the semester as they discussed specific philosophers, following a sequence often determined by the students themselves. After providing a thumbnail sketch of prominent philosophers, Morgareidge asked students to determine the most promising starting place, a strategy that proved to elicit greater participation. Questions lingering from the discussion of one philosopher invariably pointed the way to the next.

To illustrate ethical arguments, Morgareidge screened movies such as the classic 1950s Western High Noon, in which Gary Cooper exemplifies Kant’s ethical beliefs as the sheriff who insists on following his moral code even though he risks near-certain demise. Morgareidge divided the class into teams and helped each group prepare to lead a “somewhat ragged, always interesting” discussion on a key philosopher. He initiated daily reading-response writings and often crafted illuminating role-playing exercises.

Over the years, Morgareidge fine-tuned his methods according to their success rates as well as the makeup of each class. “He was constantly working and reworking the class, always hunting for ways that would engage his students,” says William Rottschaefer, professor of philosophy.

By the time students reached the end of the course, Morgareidge hoped they had thought through the moral dimensions of their own lives as well as society’s collective existence. “The question of how we should live,” he says, “is one we always have to face.”

—by Dan Sadowsky