Getting Ethics into Non-Philosophy Courses & other Strategies for Expanding Ethics Instruction


Questions about right and wrong action, what kinds of things are of value, and what kinds of persons we should be—i.e., ethics—arise in nearly every area of scholarly inquiry. This provides opportunities for philosophy departments to play a role at their universities outside their traditional courses.  

Recognizing this, some philosophy departments have expanded their offerings, providing courses tailored to students pursuing other majors. Business ethics is probably the most widespread example of this, along with courses for pre-med students, such as bio-medical ethics or nursing ethics. Here at the University of South Carolina, the Philosophy Department has regularly offered an engineering ethics course aimed largely at engineering students.

Besides stand-alone courses, some other means of spreading ethics across the curriculum include guest lectures in courses, team-taught courses, short-term “modules” inserted into preexisting courses, ethics training for professors in other disciplines, requirements for students to attend talks by visiting speakers on issues related to ethics, and…?

Prompted by a conversation I had last week with Maggie Little about Georgetown’s very interesting Ethics Lab, I’m seeking from readers (a) accounts of their departments’ attempts (successful or not) at bringing the study of ethics to an audience at their university outside those taking standard philosophy courses, and (b) some brainstorming about how to do this. Unconventional approaches encouraged.

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Michael Deem
4 years ago

The new MS Genetic Counseling program at my institution, Indiana State University, requires genetic counseling students to complete two graduate-level ethics courses. One course focuses on ethical and social issues associated with the genetic counseling profession specifically, and the other course focuses on broader bioethical and conceptual questions arising from genetic/genomic research and medicine. A philosopher teaches the latter.

The MSGC program at ISU, which is associated with The Center for Genomic Advocacy, was developed by biology faculty and a genetic counselor. In conjunction with the philosophy faculty (who incidentally were looking to secure a faculty line for the philosophy program), they hired a philosopher who would design and teach ethics courses for the Center and the MSGC program, and join the philosophy faculty. In my institution’s case, securing a prominent place for the study of ethics within biology and genetic counseling graduate programs was the result of cooperation between philosophy and biology faculty to achieve each group’s specific goals.Report

Bob Kirkman
4 years ago

My own long-term goal here at Georgia Tech is to integrate ethics into one or more senior capstone courses in engineering, not as an after-thought guest lecture or even as a tacked-on module, but woven into the course itself.
My colleagues and I in the School of Public Policy and the Center for Ethics and Technology have taken various initial steps toward that end. A number of us have developed problem- or project-based courses in ethics; a number of us have team-taught with colleagues from other disciplines; and many of us have engaged in other collaborations across disciplines that could lend insight and substance to the integration I have in mind.
The guiding light for much of my current work along these lines is a deep connection between ethics and design, connections that run in two directions. On the one side, following Caroline Whitbeck (in her book “Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research”, second edition), interesting ethical problems have much in common with interesting design problems, and can be approached with a similar mindset. On the other side, there are always ethical values at stake in design work, perhaps especially in engineering, values concerning “the basic needs and legitimate expectations of others” (following Anthony Weston in “A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox”, third edition).
Last spring, I co-taught a version of our engineering ethics course with a colleague who has a joint appointment in Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design. We wanted to title our section “Design Ethics”, but the Registrar’s system couldn’t cope with a bidirectional arrow; instead, we called it “Design Ethics”. In the course, students worked on a design problem for a client in Atlanta, with frequent pauses to reflect on and articulate the ethical values in play in particular design decisions they were making.
We’re still processing the assessment data from the course, and hope to run a control study in another engineering ethics course this Fall, but we both found the general approach of a project-based, interdisciplinary course integrating ethics and design to be really promising.Report

Bob Kirkman
Reply to  Bob Kirkman
4 years ago

Hmm. Looks like the comments here also can’t handle a bidirectional arrow. We wanted to call the course “Design [bidirectional arrow] Ethics” . . .Report

J. Stewart Singerkantmill
J. Stewart Singerkantmill
4 years ago

I have taught both normative ethics and professional ethics and have found the following, confirmed by friends in business schools: normative ethics courses (“Intro to Ethics” in colleges) — while wonderful in my view! — doesn’t well serve the goals of professional ethics training. The standard intro courses teach ethical sophistication — familiarity with arguments and theories in favor of certain types of action or ends. But courses like business ethics aim, or should aim, to spur ethical sensitivity.

The biggest issue facing these students is not how to resolve a moral dilemma or “hard case” but whether and when to care about morality altogether. Many don’t see ethics as a concern in how to conduct their professional lives. Put crudely, the goal is to wake up the conscience, not guide it.

This, of course, can be done and philosophers have the tools to do it. But they need to recognize it’s a DIFFERENT pedagogical goal from the usual stuff. Report

MBC
MBC
4 years ago

I think it’s not uncommon for computer science to require ethics as well, as it should. My understanding is that many engineers tend to consider their innovations ethically neutral; what becomes of technology they develop is for someone else to consider. So either companies need to hire more philosophers, or computer scientists need more ethics training in their lives. (…Or both.)

Since many such students are likely to be annoyed at having to take ethics courses (it’s not what they want to be doing – they want to be learning how to do more things, not how to consider the ethics of the things they want to learn to how to do), and might not be best served by lectures, perhaps their departments can partner up with philosophy departments to create required courses which are part debate/part problem solving, which each week bringing new scenarios students have to solve in mixed teams (scientists and philosophers). Not sure how this would work with many university administrations, but I’d like to see the results of the two groups experiencing working together while they’re all still students. Could stimulate a little competition and conversation, meet an ethics requirement for non-philosophers, and meet an applied philosophy requirement for philosophy majors.

I would have taken it, anyway, if given the chance. Report

Dale Miller
4 years ago

My department teaches business ethics, environmental ethics, and bioethics. I teach the first two myself. These courses satisfy a somewhat odd general education requirement according to which students must taken either a lower-level philosophy course, such as Intro. Phil, or an upper-level ethics course. However, this requirement was instituted in a way that allows other departments to meet it as well, and indeed the college of engineering has created a course for its students called not just Engineering Ethics but Philosophy and Ethics in Engineering. My department had no say in the name and has not been asked to provide any input into any aspect of the course. So while I think that Justin’s original post assumes that ethics will be taught by philosophers, that’s not always the case. (I may or may not have made up a poster for a faux course titled Engineering in Philosophy and Ethics and had a few posted in the engineering building. It may or may not have said that the course would cover questions including “Can you build a bridge over the same river twice?” and “How many angels can dance on the head of a weathering M24 tension control bolt?”)Report

Michael Nagenborg
Michael Nagenborg
4 years ago

At the University Twente (Netherlands) all study programs at BA level have to include an overall workload of 10 EC (280 hrs.) in Philisophy or STS. The content is decided in collaboration with the programs, which often opt for Ethics. I have been teaching Ethics for Medical Technologies and as part of our contribution to the Industrial Design. (I also teach Philosophy of Mind for Psychologists). The major lesson I learned so far: it’s hard to give general recommendations, because the specific learning culture of the program and the level of support from your colleagues in that program play an important role. What works well in one program, can turn out to be a disaster in the other. If there is any general advice: take your time to get known about the teaching style in the program, talk with your colleagues from the other departments, and don’t take things personally. Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
4 years ago

I have a somewhat unusual position in that in addition to my typical responsibilities as a faculty member in philosophy I help with Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training sessions at my university. Any institution that receives federal funding (e.g., NIH) for research is required to provide training in the responsible conduct of research to trainees (e.g., students, post-docs). At a bare minimum this can involve merely learning the federal regulations and definitions of research misconduct, but some institutions at least have a genuine interest in incorporating ethics proper into the RCR curriculum. Philosophers with an interest in research ethics/bioethics/science and ethics/ethics might contact their institution’s Research Integrity Officer to discuss ways in which they might get involved in shaping the RCR curriculum. Such activity can also lead to connections with the wider university community. Some scientists (but of course not all) are quite interested in the ethics of what they do and appreciate the expertise of philosophers.

One might also contact the Institutional Review Board of the university. Sometimes IRBs can use additional members and sometimes they might simply like to know there are philosophers/ethicists around who know who they (IRB members) are and what they do. IRBs (or individual members of the IRB) might appreciate knowing that there are interested philosophers willing to consult with them about ethics.Report