Friday, June 01, 2007

Teaching Ethics

Janet Stemwedel has an interesting post on science ethics. One thing often done in (well-taught) business ethics courses is not to focus on what's right and wrong at all (which, as DrugMonkey points out, is usually not that difficult to figure out in the abstract when sitting in a classroom), but to focus on ethical risks and crises. That is, the course is geared toward identifying types of ethical crises in business (like the Arthur Anderson fiasco), their anatomy, the risks that are taken that increase the likelihood of their occurrence, the practical steps that can be taken to avoid those risks altogether and reduce the likelihood of the ethical crisis, and (perhaps equally important but so often forgotten when ethics courses are taught) what practical steps to take when ethical crises actually do happen in order to restore trust and good will. That fits very well with her two suggested approaches.

A problem is that this works well, and is at least somewhat effective, because there's a lot of demand for the general sort of things taught in those classes; but the reason good business courses came to be taught in this way is less that there was originally enthusiasm for them, and more that massive ethical crises actually occurred, so massive as to put entire professional fields under critical public scrutiny, and people in those fields began to look around for something to help them avoid new crises and weather the scrutiny. I suppose the worry is that there's a danger that scientists will follow the same pattern, and only become interested in ways of making sure things are done ethically after something happens that leads the general public to lose faith in their ability to do anything ethically. Faraday, when asked why he went into scientific work rather than the trades (where with his knack for invention he could obviously have made a lot of money), attributed it to the greater ethics of scientific practice. It would be a sad day that led to new Faradays being turned off of scientific careers because everyone has let them get a shady reputation.

I think it's a sign, incidentally, of how very poorly ethics is generally taught in philosophy departments these days that in an ordinary ethics course you get almost nothing of this practical aspect. After all, individuals take ethical risks; they find themselves in ethical crises; they need to know what practical steps to take to reduce those risks and avoid those crises; and (again, just as important, but only barely touched on in modern ethics) what one might do to make things right when the wrong has already been done. Students need to be introduced to methods that have been suggested for living better, for improving their habits, for avoiding even the occasions for temptation, for making reparation. If you look at your typical ethical syllabus, however, you get virtually nothing of this; the only practical features of ethics you get have to do with ethical reasoning, and those only when the courses are taught relatively well. So students learn how to reason like utilitarians, like emotivists, like deontologists; they get a few tools to help them make more sophisticated ethical arguments and a chance to pick their own preferred pattern of reasoning. That's not a trivial thing, and when people teach it right it's a great thing to teach; but it's the absolute minimum, and it's not good that we are OK with the absolute minimum on a matter of such importance.

[Added Later: It occurs to me that one might call this, using the term a bit loosely, a Confucian approach to teaching ethics, since the emphasis is on self-cultivation. The Internet Encyclopedia article on Chu Hsi gives you the general idea.]

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