Campus Quandary: Ethics. Courses at many universities are again considering moral issues
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?''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.