"It depends"

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Dealing with students who say: “It depends”

In ethics like many areas of human enquiry a very sensible initial response to a question may well be “it depends”. However when some students have the tendency of saying with a certain degree of self satisfaction “it depends” (arms folded, smug smile) as though to say check mate!

It’s important to realise in ethics as elsewhere acknowledging that the answer depends on some further features of a situation is not a complete answer. Far from it. This is true of even the most straightforward of questions. If your house mate asked you “I’m going to the shop do we need any milk?” an initial response may well be “it depends”. But if that was all you had to say on the matter your housemate would be pretty frustrated. What does it depend on? How do these relations of dependence work and why? These are the interesting questions.

In the case of milk, it depends on whether there’s any milk left in the fridge. From this we can sketch a general rule. If there is milk the answer to the question is no, we don’t need any more. If there’s none left them yes, we do. And of course the matter could depend on a number of additional considerations too. For example if there is milk left, but just a small amount, enough for one or two cups of tea – then the answer is, yes we probably do need some more. Furthermore, if there is none left, but you know that no one will be in the house over the weekend to drink any milk. Then the answer is no we don‘t.

From this exercise of spelling out some of the ways in which the answer depends, we can draw general, and ultimately more useful conclusions. The answer to the question “Do we need any milk?” broadly speaking is affected by the fact that milk is both a perishable and a staple. We mustn’t buy too much as it will turn sour but equally, we must try to avoid running out. The answer therefore will depend on the likelihood that we will have a just enough or else an excess or deficiency.

Although this kind of detailed analysis of milk is probably implicitly obvious among housemates, when we’re dealing with more complex issues. It helps to spell things out as best we can. “It depends” is only ever a first move, never check mate.

This post is by Grace

Philosophical Questions