The revival of teaching ethics

Should an engineer speak up if he detects a flaw in his employer's product? If a patient is not expected to live, should the doctor continue treatment? Should a lawyer conceal evidence detrimental to his client? Should a journalist reveal his news sources?

These kinds of questions are pricking the conscience of Americans. Ethics are back in fashion, and the teaching of moral values is experiencing a revival. Some 12,000 courses in ethics have been added to undergraduate curricula and professional schools during the last decade. By signing up for such courses, many students are proving that they are more interested today in these issues than students were only five years ago.

Is it all just a passing fad?

For the last two years a group of 20 experts who are now teaching ethics at college and university level has been assessing this new burst of enthusiasm. They have analyzed its causes, studied objections that have been raised to ethical instruction, and reached conclusions regarding its future.

Drawn together from universities across the nation, these professors have been assigned the task by the Hastings Center at Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., an "institute of society, ethics, and the life sciences."

The center's recently released nine-part study, an important work financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, includes one overall report called "The Teaching of Ethics in Higher Education," another on "Ethics in Undergraduate Curriculum," and seven other "how to" books on teaching ethics in the professions. Each report suggests guidelines on how to set up a course, and offers its own reading list to any teacher who wants to start a course. Some 45,000 brochures describing these new publications have been mailed to campuses across the country.

The project grew out of "concern in our society about various issues that have ethical dimensions," Dr. Sissela Bok, a philosopher who lecturs at the Harvard Medical School and the author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" says. She and Dr. Daniel Callahan, founder of the Hastings Center and author of numerous books on ethics, directed the teaching-of-ethics study. Many individuals in the professions have asked philosophers like herself to help them think through these and other moral issues, she reports. And professional groups have grown much more interested "in trying to sort out ethical problems that they now sense exist within many different professions," she says.

"For instance, the American Bar Association is just finishing going over its code of professional ethics. A great many other associations are beginning to do so. Even fields that hardly existed 10 or 20 years ago are now thinking about their ethical problems.

"We are pretty certain, after having studied the matter, that interest in teaching ethics is no passing fad. But that makes it more important that it should be well done from the very beginning."

This concern is what fired the Hastings study. The center, a nonprofit organization, was established in 1969 to meet the challenges arising out of rapid developments in the biological, medical, and behavioral sciences. The center's founders believe that all the questions raised by such innovations as heart transplants, genetic engineering, and behavior control through electrical impulses to the brain are ethical.

They are also convinced "that it is possible to make progress on disputed ethical issues, that insight, reason and careful inquiry are still the most valid means of confronting even the newest and most vexing moral dilemmas."

The Hasting Center has fostered an interest in what it terms "bioethics" -- the teaching of ethics in medical fields. A decade ago, it reports, "medical schools were doing very little to prepare their students to cope with the personal and professional moral problems they would almost surely encounter in their later practice. The last 10 years have seen a dramatic change. The field of bioethics, despite initial suspicion and objections . . . is now well under way." Since 1970, Hastings says, almost every medical school in America has initiated at least some introduction to medical ethics and over half have very serious courses. Courses have also been added in many schools of nursing and allied health care, and by the hundreds at the undergraduate level.

Now, thanks to "a much wider concern with the teaching of ethics in higher education," the center is expanding to include other professions. Its new study is a first step in that direction.

More and more courses are being offered in such fields as business and accounting, journalism, and public policymaking.

"One of the most interesting groups we studied," Dr. Callahan says, "was the military. It is clear that the Vietnam war was a searing moral experiene for them. Now all three United States military academies have fairly ambitious programs in ethics.They are reliving that war and trying to think through some of the moral dilemmas they encountered there."

Authors of the Hastings report see various reasons for the desire to face up to issues of ethics and morality:

* A what-are-we-coming-to confusion on the part of the public, "a sense of drift, of ethical uncertainty, and a withering away of some traditional roots and moorings," and concern about "the absence of fixed and firm guidelines for both personal and institutional behavior."

* Dwindling confidence in the professions. "From the outside, almost all the professions are beset with criticism concerning the moral behavior of their members -- physicians negligent toward their patients, lawyers who engage in outright criminal activities, engineers or scientists who conceal information necessary for public safety, social scientists who systematically engage in deception to carry out research, businessmen who exploit the public, cheat the government, and worship the dollar as the only important human value, . . . unethical practices by college students.

* Inside all professions, a range of dilemmas, brought on by technological and social changes, that traditional standards are not equipped to handle and that have left many professional people uncertain about the right course of conduct.

* Within universities, realization that "questions of personal morality and integrity are not being sufficiently addressed in the classroom, and that larger social questions of public policy, justice, freedom, and the economy are not being examined from a moral point of view."

* Concern that during the decades when ethics were not being taught (only schools of religion and philosophy kept it alive), something vital was lost.

* A perception that Watergate, and all the other corruption in government and business, is due at least in part to omitting ethics from the curriculum.

* A conviction that something must be done about unethical conduct, and that the colleges should be doing it. Those who now want the teaching of ethics to occupy a more important part are really urging only a return to its former prestige.

Douglas Sloan, who researched ethical teaching in the American undergraduate curriculum from 1876 to 1976 for the Hastings report, notes:

"Throughout most of the 19th century, the most important course in the college curriculum was moral philosophy, taught usually by the college president and required of all senior students. The moral philosophy course was regarded as the capstone of the curriculum."

By the late 1800s the social sciences began to branch off from philosophy, taking their discussion of ethical questions with them. But the scientific aspect of these courses soon took over, and ethics eventually faded out of most curricula.

Though interest in teaching ethics has grown enormously over the past 10 years, it is not universal. Far from it. The trend is only beginning. Future professionals receiving any training in the moral choices they will face are a tiny minority.

Many who teach such courses have no special qualifications. Good textbooks and case studies are scarce. And ethical training is spotty -- stronger where the humanities are taught, weaker in technical schools.

"To me, the most striking aspect of our whole study was the enormous ambivalence we found toward the subject," Dr. Callahan says. "A lot of courses are being taught, but they are erratically distributed." It is difficult, he adds, to find a nurse who is not interested in ethical problems, or an engineer who is.

"There are now required courses in some 90 percent of the law schools in the country," Dr. Callahan reports. "But our general conclusion is that most of these courses are not terribly good. They are not well taught. And they are considered at the very bottom of the totem pole of subjects.

"In the field of public policy, one finds a range of interest from enthusiasm in some schools, and a lot of courses, to indifference and outright hostility in others."

In many professional schools, he says, the subject is considered "soft, irrelevant." Students come to professional schools to learn technical subjects, it is said, not to sit around talking about the moral problems of their professions.

Others, he explains, contend that ethics can't be taught at all, that people are either virtuous or not virtuous, and that the subject can't be dealt with in a rational way.

The cost of adding another course is a source of resistance in the financially pressed professional schools, according to Dr. Callahan. And so are the crowded curricula.

"Some people contend there is no point in introducing a course in ethics unless one can guarantee that people's character will be improved or their behavior will change for the better," Dr. Callahan says.

"Our conclusion is that ethics cannot guarantee more virtue on the part of students. . . . We argue that a good course in ethics ought to alert students to ethical issues, and get across the idea that if their moral analysis of issues leads them to see the necessity of changing their behavior, they certainly ought to do so. But to automatically look for a change in behavior seems to us a misplaced goal. For one thing, many people already may be behaving perfectly fine and one would not want to change that."

Some opponents equate ethics with religion, and contend that instruction in ethics could blur the separation between church and state. Others argue that in classes in ethics professors would push their political view.

"We found no straight-out cases of indoctrination in any school," Dr. Callahan says. "Nonetheless, the worry is there, and in many places it is a major reason why ethics is not in the curriculum. . . .

"To us it is astounding that many professional schools don't want ethics in the curriculum, thus depriving students of an opportunity to wrestle with the very real problems they are going to have to face. How any school could consider such training irrelevant to their professional education is a mystery to us."

Authors of the report distilled their conclusions in these recommendations on how courses in ethics should be conducted:

* Though not explicitly seeking to change students' behavior, they should aim to help them develop "those insights, skills, and perspectives that set the stage for a life of personal moral responsibility, manifesting careful and serious moral reflection."

* They should help undergraduates to form personal values and moral ideals, expose them to ethical theories and moral traditions, and provide them with an opportunity to debate problems of applied ethics.

* Teaching ethics in professional schools ought to prepare future professionals to understand the kinds of moral issues that are likely to confront them, and to introduce them to the moral ideals of their profession.

* "Indoctrination, whether political, theological, ideological, or philosophical, is wholly out of place in the teaching of ethics."

* An advanced degree in philosophy or religion is the minimal standard for teaching these courses. Where knowledge of one or more fields is necessary, teachers should have the equivalent of one year of training in the field in which they were not initially trained.

* Training programs for teachers of ethics are vitally needed.

* Every undergraduate should have at least one semester course devoted to both ethical theory and applied ethics. Every professional student should be exposed to the ethical problems of his profession.

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