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If you are to read one opinion essay prompted by recent events in Ukraine and Israel, I’d recommend a piece by the bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel entitled “Hamas and the Moral Failure of Our Institutions of Higher Learning.” His essential argument is that when students exhibit moral obliviousness and spout ideological catchphrases, it’s a sign that our campuses are failing to give our students “the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.” 

Apart from Catholic colleges, he notes, most secular institutions do nothing to ensure that students acquire the essence of a liberal education: the ability to think critically and reason morally about the most fraught issues of our time. He urges the faculty to ask itself, “What is in our curriculums? What do we think it means to be well educated? What moral stands are we taking?”

Dr. Emanuel, a physician and the vice provost for global initiatives and a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that campuses might require two courses in ethics: a general introduction to the subject and a class that focuses on a specific area, for example, military ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, political ethics, the ethics of the market and the ethical issues surrounding technology.

During their college years, students encounter many ethical issues. These include issues of academic integrity, including the temptation to cut and paste, copy someone else’s work and present it as one’s own and take credit for the group work performed by others; respectful relationships, including respecting boundaries and privacy and obtaining unambiguous consent in sexual relationships; and dealing with hazing, peer pressure, substance abuse and discriminatory or prejudiced behavior and remarks.

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I know full well the objections to a suggestion that colleges require ethical education, beginning with the fact that apart from philosophers, faculty members have no formal training in ethics. I regularly read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s New York TimesThe Ethicist” columns, which offer “advice on life’s trickiest situations and moral dilemmas.” But I am often left disappointed, because he rarely discusses in any depth the conflicting principles that should underlie ethical or moral decision-making.

To be sure, no one would confuse an advice column with a serious academic course, but this does raise an issue that faculty members would have to ponder: how to ensure that such courses have instructors who are not only knowledgeable about ethics but can also teach this subject effectively while respecting the diverse opinions and backgrounds of students.

Then there are a host of other concerns about taking ethics outside the department of philosophy, that

  • Teaching ethics is inappropriate in a pluralistic society with diverse value systems.
  • Courses on ethics might be discriminatory by privileging one set of values over others.
  • There is a danger that instructors will impose their own moral beliefs on students.
  • Since moral codes vary widely, it is difficult to do justice to such a subject in more than a highly general, superficial manner.
  • If, as moral relativists claim, ethics are subjective—the product of individual or cultural beliefs or emotions—teaching ethics is ineffective and impractical.
  • Moral and ethical education should be left to religious institutions, not secular colleges and universities.

These arguments have a certain validity. But if ethics is taught with an approach that respects diverse viewpoints, such courses can help students

  • Learn how to reason morally and think critically about their values and the impact of their actions as individuals or as members of a larger group or polity.
  • Consider issues of justice, rights, consent, complexity and the common good in rendering ethical judgments.
  • Encounter diverse value systems and provide them with the tools to navigate moral complexity more thoughtfully.
  • Better prepare themselves for the ethical dilemmas they will counter in their professional lives.

So what might a college-level course on ethics and moral reasoning do? It should provide students with the tools to engage critically with moral issues, understand and analyze various ethical theories and perspectives, and apply these theories to real-world situations.

It might, for example, examine the difference between ethics, morals, values and laws; investigate how different cultures and religious and philosophical traditions approach moral issues; explore the role of emotions in ethical decision-making; and encourage students to reflect on their own ethical beliefs and practices.

Topics that might be covered include:

  • Medical ethics, including such issues as abortion, euthanasia and genetic engineering.
  • Environmental ethics, involving human versus nature-centered ethical frameworks; nature’s intrinsic and its instrumental or utilitarian value; animal rights and welfare; preservation versus conservation; the value of biodiversity and the ethical implications of species extinction; the concepts of environmental justice and environmental racism and ecofeminism; the connections between environmental degradation, patriarchy and gender; and land rights and environmental justice from Indigenous perspectives.
  • Business ethics, including corporate social responsibility, ethical issues in advertising and marketing, insider trading, market manipulation and fiduciary responsibility, ethical considerations in data collection and use, product liability, whistle-blowing, and global business ethics, including labor and environmental concerns in supply chains.
  • Media ethics, involving the tension between reporting accurately and objectively while not avoiding matters of judgment, the tension between the public’s right to know and individual privacy rights, ethical considerations in the portrayal of genders, races, cultures and minority groups, conflicts of interest between content and advertising pressures, protecting sources and whistle-blowers, manipulation and staging in photojournalism, ethical issues in war reporting and the ethical challenges posed by AI-generated content, deepfakes and virtual reality.
  • Military ethics, including the criteria for justly initiating or intervening in an armed conflict, ethical conduct within war, duty and honor during military service, discrimination between combatants and civilians, weapons ethics, the ethical treatment of prisoners of war, the duty of care to veterans, and ethical considerations around drones, cyberwarfare and targeted assassinations.
  • Political ethics, including the ethics of wielding power and its potential for abuse; the legitimacy of authority and the right to rule; the concept of political obligation and civil disobedience; types of corruption and strategies for promoting political integrity; theories of justice, equality and rights and their place in politics; the moral duties of citizens in a democracy; ethical challenges in international relations; and issues of global justice, including wealth distribution, human rights and environmental concerns.

Let’s not ignore ethics education—and let it languish as a subspecialty within philosophy, where it can become too abstract and less practical or applied. At the very least, let’s do a better job of preparing students to be able to hold two competing ideas in their heads and to hold more nuanced views about complex topics.

Dr. Emanuel’s article points to a big problem at today’s universities: the lack of any collective agreement about what kinds of students we want to graduate or what the ultimate responsibility is among those who are charged with educating undergraduates.

But I am growing more optimistic. The winds of change are in the air. Recent events have underscored glaring gaps in the higher education that colleges provide their students. There is a deepening sense that we are producing graduates who can’t write as well as they ought to; lack the mathematical and statistical literacies needed to function effectively in a data-rich, data-driven society; aren’t sufficiently literate about the social and natural sciences; and, worst of all, are succumbing to overly simplistic, unnuanced views of dizzyingly complex issues.

The most practical answer, I suspect, may not lie in stand-alone courses on ethics and moral reasoning, but in embedding ethics education across the curriculum. How about incentivizing faculty in every discipline to incorporate an ethics component in their classes?

In my U.S. history survey classes, I teach a host of ethically fraught issues involving slavery, Indian removal, territorial expansion, foreign intervention, the use of atomic weapons, persistent racial inequality and much more. I myself need to do more to treat these as ethical issues.

Regardless of your discipline, you, too, have opportunities to incorporate a serious discussion of ethics in your classes. Let’s do it.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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