Campus Quandary: Ethics. Courses at many universities are again considering moral issues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THERE'S no need to raise ethical issues today, says Dennis Thompson, the head of Harvard's university-wide ethics program: The issues will be raised for us. Ethical quandaries are presenting themselves faster than witnesses before a Senate investigating committee. The question now is, ``Do we make the [ethical] decisions with some understanding of the traditions ... that people have used to think about these things before,'' Professor Thompson asks, ``or do we wing it?''

Harvard University's answer is its three-year-old Program in Ethics and the Professions - specifically, law, medicine, public policy, and business. Its major aim is training faculty to teach practical ethics, stimulate research in the field, and thus help equip students to make ethical decisions.

Students today are ``probably more attuned to moral questions than they might have been several generations ago,'' Thompson says. But until very recently professional educations were designed ``to make them put those moral questions aside.'' Law students, for example, spend their first year learning to drop personal sympathies and ``think technically, like a lawyer,'' he says.

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Moral education used to be a centerpiece in higher education in America. In the 19th century, a course in ethics was required on prestigious campuses and was usually taught by the college president. But education grew more specialized in the 20th century, the consensus on ethics broke down, and college presidents began to be selected for their ability to raise funds and manage a corporation rather than for their moral acumen. ``Ethics'' was relegated to the religion and philosophy departments.

Ethics sank into a kind of navel-contemplating stasis from about 1950 to 1975, says Bernard Rosen, a philosopher at Ohio State University. Philosophers ``were more interested in the analysis of ethical concepts than in solving ethical problems,'' says Professor Rosen. The rise of ethics teaching coincides with the reenergizing of the profession.

Indeed, the teaching of practical ethics is surging in today's complex world. ``It's harder to know what the right thing to do is,'' says Thompson, ``even if you know what the right principle is, and even if you have the right disposition.'' ``Loyalty'' is a fairly simple concept for a marine in combat. But what does ``loyalty'' mean to that marine if he's on the National Security Council?

Dan Callahan, director of the Hastings Center (an ethics think tank), sees the agitation over ethics as a symptom of deeper problems and uncertainties. ``Well-established societies don't have to think about ethics,'' he says.

Thompson speculates that many trends have helped spur the ethics debate. Among them:

Higher stakes. Power is becoming more concentrated in huge health-maintenance organizations, in unprecedentedly large legal firms, even in news-media conglomerates. The scope of the decisions made by government bureaucracies has widened. Decisions made at the top affect more and more people. Bad decisions are amplified.

More exposure. Political indiscretions were abundant in the past, but the public seldom heard about them. Watergate and the Vietnam war certainly contributed to a heightened sensitivity.

Technology. Medical schools began teaching practical ethics in the 1950s, at the beginning of the revolution in medical technology. Today the issues generated by bioechnology are ever more perplexing: gene-splicing, new diagnostic methods, controversial therapies, questions of access to costly treatment.

A more diverse society. The clash of views over abortion and AIDS, plant closings and nuclear deterrence, results from the fact that ``more people of more diverse values are involved in making decisions,'' Thompson says. Women, ethnic and racial minorities, even people from different regions have more of a say than they used to.

Such debates can be disruptive, and there is a danger that they will not be resolved to anyone's satisfaction - abortion, for example. But ``the fact that we get concerned that ethics is on the agenda and that we disagree a lot is one of the healthiest signs in American public life that I've seen in a long time,'' he says.

In the past, there were fewer questions about ethics because the decisionmakers (mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men) held the same views. One view was that moral questions were not fit topics for public discussion. Abortion was a matter between a woman and her physician; today, it's a question of public policy.

Anonymous computer links, hard-to-detect surveillance devices, and electronic flows of capital have proven hard to resist. More unethical acts may be committed today, says the Harvard professor, but he doubts it. ``I would guess that the morals of people in high places are about what they've always been - no better, no worse,'' he says.

If you're going to teach ethics, whose ethics will you teach?

``It doesn't matter,'' says Dr. Callahan at The Hastings Center. ``Whose theory of economics should one accept?'' he asks rhetorically. Just as one teaches various economic theories, so one teaches various ways an ethical question can be decided.

The goal of Harvard's program is not indoctrination, but teaching a way of thinking. ``You can't make good people out of bad people,'' Thompson says. ``But you can keep good people from becoming bad sometimes through ignorance, carelessness ... or lack of intellectual or sometimes emotional resources.''

A Harvard Final Exam

THERE are no ``right'' or ``wrong'' answers on an ethics exam, says Harvard's Dennis Thompson. Students are graded on their ability to identify ethical issues, clarify them, and invoke various principles to try to resolve them.

Here's a question from last spring's final in Professor Thompson's political ethics course. Students had three hours to answer three of five questions posed:

It is 1990. Following executions of leading members of the African National Congress and other resistance organizations, racial tensions in South Africa have erupted into widespread revolutionary violence. A majority in Congress believe that support for the revolution will only prolong the violence and will also jeopardize vital American interests elsewhere. Suspecting that the administration is planning covert support for the revolution, Congress passes a law barring government officials from providing military aid, directly or indirectly, to the revolutionary forces.

After secretly traveling to Africa and meeting with leaders of black resistance groups, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs concludes that the revolution has a chance of success, and that the US has a moral obligation to support it.

He assumes that the secretary of state and the president agree with him, but in order to protect them from charges of violating the new law, he does not tell them of his plans. During his trip, the assistant secretary stopped in Uganda, where he met with Idi Amin, who has returned from exile to reestablish his brutal dictatorship. In return for a promise that the assistant secretary will permanently end his campaign against the human rights violations in Uganda and work to restore humanitarian aid to that country, Amin offers to supply food and arms to the South African revolutionaries. The assistant secretary believes that even a few months of shipments could make a significant difference in the early phase of the revolution, and he agrees to that deal, although he does not keep his side of the agreement.

Evaluate the assistant secretary's action, and consider what he ought to do now.

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