Defending Ethics as a Required Part of the Curriculum


A philosophy department that teaches courses that satisfy a university-wide ethics requirement now finds itself in the position of having to defend that requirement.

[Clyfford Still, “Jamais” (detail)]

A philosopher in that department writes:

I’m wondering if folks who have had similar fights in the past might have advice they can share about how to defend specific college- or university-level course requirements. 

They’re hoping that defending the requirement will lower the odds that someday they might have to defend their existing  undergraduate philosophy program, which includes a philosophy major and a philosophy minor.

Your suggestions are welcome.

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Patrick H Yarnell
Patrick H Yarnell
6 months ago

Among other considerations, I would use Kohlberg’s stages of moral development conjoined with the fact that moral development through these stages is facilitated by the sorts of discussions had in ethics classes.

Laura
Laura
6 months ago

This is not how I prefer to defend having an Ethics requirement – for example, if I was telling a student why they should take the course. However, this is the language administrators who decide about the programs seem to understand: employers consistently say they want students who have competence in Ethics. Sometimes this is a very specific pre-professional requirement, but the desire for Ethics also appears on general “skills we want” lists where critical thinking, problem solving ability, ability to analyze data, and so forth are deemed essential by employers. Many colleges where Philosophy is threatened speak the language of Workforce Development and employment Readiness. Ethics is an essential part of developing that readiness. What is meant by this, when people say they want ethical employees? Much more difficult to say – does it mean they want people who follow rules and expectations, or can resolve workplace conflict appropriately? Does it mean competence with “compliance” issues and legal or regulatory risks? Don’t know, doesn’t matter to me. As long as employers are demanding it, we can provide. (This is not, btw, the main reason why I teach ethics even though I do hope students gain ability in some of those things as a result of taking it.)

Laura
Laura
Reply to  Laura
6 months ago

Here’s another angle if the university generally cares about organizations like the AAC&U: they promote ethical reasoning as a core educational value, complete with an assessment rubric: https://oira.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/297/2017/07/AACU_ER_ValueRubric.pdf
Many other organizations will have some version of this, but I’ve found this one is recognized as important and legit by administrators of different kinds and levels, including assessment and Gen Ed people.
I apologize for the small-c cynicism of these responses – I realize I’m acting as if a robust and genuine defense of ethical education will have no effect. I guess I have been beaten down to the point of suspecting it will have no effect, if one is already on a campus where an ethics requirement is suspect and challenged. What astonished and disappointed me the most is that fellow academics in other departments, people who took ethics or otherwise gained a PhD and expertise, did not think it was valuable at all, or were willing to brush the substantive defenses aside when it came time to divide the pie of limited goods.

Last edited 6 months ago by Laura
Billy
Billy
Reply to  Laura
6 months ago

For my college in the mid-Atlantic area, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is the accreditation body. In Standard III, they cover “Design and Delivery of the Student Experience.” And in Standard III, point #5, they discuss the general education curriculum. In point #5, sub-point b, they say: “Consistent with mission, the general education program also includes the study of values, ethics, and diverse perspectives.” I tend to interpret this as saying: “you should have an ethics requirement in the core — or, if not, you better have some other principled (and clearly explainable) way of incorporating ethics into your core.” I don’t know what accreditation body your institution has to deal with — but maybe it has a similar requirement concerning the gen ed curriculum (i.e., core curriculum).

I have found that substantive defenses of ethics requirements work with some colleagues, but don’t work with others. With those they don’t work with, you have to appeal to something like accreditation-body standards. It’s all they’ll listen to.

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 months ago

I’m slightly puzzled how this post is structured. It seems to take as read that there *is* a good pedagogical reason for an ethics requirement, and then ask how to sell it to administrators. But I take it it’s not *self-evident* that a university should have an ethics requirements – after all, many do not. (Pitt requires one course in ‘philosophy or ethics’; USC requires only some number of Humanities courses.)

Why aren’t we being asked *whether* and *why* a university ought to have an ethics requirement, and then considering what to say to administrators conditional on that answer? And isn’t the answer plausibly going not to be one-size-fits-all, but to depend on the principles behind a specific university’s Gen Ed program?

(I think the fact that this is a *requirement* is important here. I can easily think of good reasons why any student would benefit from studying ethics. But I can also easily think of good reasons why any student would benefit from studying thermodynamics, yet very few universities require physics – let alone a specific subfield of physics – rather than some broader natural-science requirement. *Requirements* of students shouldn’t be made lightly.)

Billy
Billy
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Fair enough…but notice that you’re making a normative claim here: you’re saying we should have a discussion about whether there should be an ethics requirement. In effect, then, you’re doing ethics (i.e., issuing a normative proposal and asking us to consider it). And I think that is telling in the sense that it exemplifies how normative thought has a kind of pervasiveness to our lives — a centrality to our lives — that other subject matters might not have. If only for that reason, ethics at least deserves serious consideration as being a required course in the core (gen ed) curriculum at any given university or college.

To elaborate, there is something inescapable about normative thought: all of us are stuck having normative thoughts — indeed, lots of them — every single day. The same doesn’t hold true for physics: we might be stuck with the laws of nature, but we aren’t stuck with thinking about them every single day. Indeed, most of us don’t think of them often at all. Given that we all do ethics (normative thinking) so often (many, many times a day), shouldn’t we study this and try to do it well? And shouldn’t we at least *introduce* students to this area of study that they are themselves living out every single day as they think their normative thoughts?

Aside from these considerations about the pervasiveness of normative thought to students’ lives, there are other considerations that favor requiring ethics in a core/gen ed curriculum. But I tend to think this “pervasiveness” reason is a large part of why ethics at least deserves serious consideration as a core/gen ed curriculum. (To be clear, I am not saying it’s obvious ethics should be required in a core. I went to an undergrad where it was not required, and I think my undergrad education was good. But I do think there is something more important about ethics than, say, physics for a general education curriculum. It’s in part the generality of ethics that is key here: all of our students live it every day.)

As I noted above, though, these kinds of substantive arguments only work with some people. For others, you have to appeal to procedural things, such as the standards of accreditation bodies.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
Reply to  Billy
6 months ago

Really, telling someone to give reasons for what they say counts as ethics, therefore we ought to have an ethics requirement in universities?

I hope no-one tries that line of argument with the admin.

Billy
Billy
Reply to  Mark Wilson
6 months ago

My argument was not as follows. Telling someone to give reasons for what they say counts as ethics. Therefore we ought to have an ethics requirement in universities.

Rather, my argument was as follows. There is something pervasive in people’s lives about normative thought (ethics). In this sense, normative thought (ethics) is different than something like physics, which one can fairly easily escape thinking about. Because ethics is inescapable and central to people’s thinking (including all students’ thinking), we should seriously consider having an ethics requirement in a core curriculum.

Also, I guess I’ll just be honest here. I did not like David’s comment. Here is why. The original poster has a gen ed ethics requirement at his or her school. It is already in place. He or she is now being asked to defend it. People on this thread are trying to help the original poster do that. But David’s comment was different. It was asking the original poster to justify having an ethics requirement in the first place. This request from David is reasonable. But the context for many of us at many schools across the world is not the same as at Oxford, USC, and Pittsburgh. For many of us, we are at financially struggling schools and are often on the verge of losing our jobs due to our program’s being cut (where the program might be a philosophy major, or an ethics requirement, or something else). I have been in the original poster’s position before. It’s not fun. There are times to be critical — we’re philosophers, and that is our job — and I know David was coming from a good place. But I tend to think, given the context of a philosopher having to defend his or her role in a core and his or her asking for help, this is not the time to be critical. It’s the time to offer some support or help.

Maybe I’m out of line and just generalizing too much from some of my own battles. But that is how I feel. (And, David, to be clear, I do not intend this as an insult to you. I respect you and have appreciated your comments for many years. It’s just this one that ticked me off. And I still want you to comment in the way you always have on this blog. I’m just trying to explain why I feel as I do about this one comment.)

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Billy
6 months ago

I appreciate the honesty in this response (and the compliment!) 

My concerns here, ironically enough, are ethical. I think there is often a lot of bad faith in conversations about gen-ed requirements: departments want to keep or expand requirements to do their courses because it helps their financial position, but instead of making that argument honestly they claim there is a pedagogical necessity for those requirements. I think this is unethical, both because it’s normally wrong to argue in bad faith and because it’s normally wrong to privilege the interests of faculty over the interests of students. I don’t have any reason to think the department that occasioned Justin’s original post is in bad faith in this sense, but I thought the post itself risked encouraging that bad-faith reading.

Of course one can square this circle if one genuinely believes one’s own subject is so uniquely educationally important that it should always have a space reserved for it on a gen-ed syllabus. But that is a very convenient thing to believe and for that very reason one should be very worried about one’s own reasoning. Of course any academic can make the case for why their own subject is important – if they can’t they probably should change field – but gen-ed requirements are an intrinsically space-constrained issue and the mere importance of a field doesn’t justify it getting a reserved gen-ed slot.

I do appreciate that it is easy for me to be dispassionate and high-minded when my own department is not financially threatened. In very partial defense, were I an administrator in this situation – or a faculty member on a gen-ed review committee, more realistically – I would have almost no credence in most of the arguments being presented here, just because I’d expect to hear them whether or not they were correct. (Your own accreditation point is probably an exception.) The sorts of reasons I’d find salient would be much more situation-specific and depend on just what changes are being made to gen-ed and why: is this a general move towards more optionality, e.g. a 3-humanities-course requirement rather than 3 specific humanities subjects? a rebalancing away from the Humanities towards STEM or business? a general decision to reduce the size of the gen-ed requirement? and in each case, what are the supposed reasons (pedagogical and economic), are they reasonable, and if not, how can they be replied to? Without that sort of granular detail, I just don’t see what sort of plausible case can be made to keep a given requirement.

Billy
Billy
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Thanks, David. That all makes sense to me.

Ian
Ian
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

This post is about a department asking for advice on strategies to convince admin. It’s not about the question you are interested in. What’s puzzling about that?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ian
6 months ago

That practically one probably cannot, and ethically one probably should not, come up with those strategies without understanding the specific institutional context and what the reasons are for making changes to its general-education curriculum – unless one thinks, implausibly, both that there are completely general reasons why ethics in particular should be on every general-education curriculum and that these reasons can be stated in ways that will be convincing to academics in other disciplines and not come across as motivated reasoning or a failure to recognize other disciplines’ contributions.

(See my response to Billy for a slightly more detailed version.)

Bana Bashour
Bana Bashour
6 months ago

I have recently designed and implemented a whole Gen Ed Program at my own institution (the American University of Beirut). Among some new requirements, we added a university wide Ethics requirement. The reasoning I gave for the changes included a change in the whole mission of the program, not just cosmetic changes. Historically, at my institution along many others, liberal education came to be seen as valuable because of the set of transferable skills offered to students. The emphasis was on how these skills may be utilized in the future in one’s own workplace. However, I believe this to be an incomplete view of the purposes of education generally and liberal education in particular. The reason a higher education is valuable is because if helps students reflect on their values and roles in the world more broadly. Part of that includes being an effective member of one’s workplace, and the skills necessary for that are taught at the university. But that cannot be the only purpose of a higher education. I honestly believe that the minute we accepted that mission of skill development we lost that fight. If we expand our view of the purpose of education, then we are not only able to defend the ethics requirements, but we will see them as fundamental building blocks for one’s understanding of oneself. Again, these are not only abstract philosophical arguments, but I integrated this philosophy into the curriculum at my own institution without losing any of what administrators find important (e.g. accreditation, funding etc…)

Colin
Colin
6 months ago

We debated this at my institution a few years ago during a revision of the core curriculum.

Basically, the Dean of the Business School argued that the required ethics course in the core curriculum could be eliminated and ethics units could be incorporated into other classes. They argued that the Business School was already doing that.

The Provost was initially quite receptive to the Dean’s argument, but the Philosophy Department countered that most of the rest of the faculty, including those in the Business School, had no academic expertise in ethics, and therefore were not qualified to teach ethics.

We went a step further and argued that there was moral hazard involved in having unqualified faculty teaching ethics. From what we heard from students, faculty in the Business School were teaching legal and regulatory compliance rather than ethics.

The Philosophy Department also defended the ethics requirement using the University’s mission statement, other programmatic documents, and marketing materials, which stressed “ethical leadership.” At the time, there was sufficient concern for consistency and the University’s identity/self-image to make that an effective argument. The Dean of the Business School and the Provost backed down and stopped trying to cut the ethics requirement. It stayed in the revised core curriculum.

Given the procedural difficulty of revising the core curriculum at an institution like ours, I think the ethics requirement will be part of the core for the next ten years or so, at least.

Last edited 6 months ago by Colin
Crystal
Crystal
Reply to  Colin
6 months ago

Colin, would you be willing to share your work? The Catholic institution at which I teach also seems to be preparing to use this sort of argument to eliminate the current philosophy requirement (which includes some ethics).

Colin
Colin
Reply to  Crystal
6 months ago

I’d be happy to share some of the documents we produced. My institution is also Catholic, which is one of the reasons appealing to the mission was important.

Colin
Colin
Reply to  Colin
6 months ago

Moderator: Is there a way to put me in touch with Crystal without posting my email or institutional affiliation here in the comments?

Rupert
Rupert
Reply to  Colin
6 months ago

Ethics as a subject matter is under threat at the business school not only from teachers of compliance but also, and more so, from behaviorists who see “unethically” as a cognitive flaw akin to a recency bias. I bet that eventually the empiricists will have their way outside the business school, too.

Phoenix
Phoenix
6 months ago

At my own institution, defending the importance of ethics as a part of the core has proved easy. The hard part is defending the view that teaching ethics requires special philosophical training. At my home institution, everyone claims to be able to teach ethics, including the business faculty! Indeed, there is quite a push to wrest it from the hands of philosophers. (I’m glad, however, that one commentator here [Colin] succeeded where I suspect my own institution will fail.)

Patrick Lin
6 months ago

“The fact that you don’t understand why we need an ethics requirement is exactly why we need an ethics requirement.”

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

That generalizes, of course…

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

“The fact that you don’t understand why we need a calculus requirement is exactly why we need a calculus requirement.”

“The fact that you don’t understand why we need an astrophysics requirement is exactly why we need an astrophysics requirement.”

“The fact that you don’t understand why we need a rock climbing requirement is exactly why we need a rock climbing requirement.”

**If only you understood my field X, you would agree with me that everyone needs to have a better understanding of my field X8*

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Tom
6 months ago

Presumably, the more charitable reading of Patrick’s claim is this:

“The fact that you don’t understand why we need an ethics requirement is itself bad/harmful/etc. You would know that if there had been an ethics requirement, since ethics studies those things. So, your lack of understanding is all by itself at least one reason we need the requirement.”

I don’t know if I agree with this, but it doesn’t obviously generalize. Even if it’s bad not to understand the point of astronomy, you wouldn’t know that by studying astronomy—except perhaps indirectly—since the subject matter of astronomy is not badness itself.

Last edited 6 months ago by Meme
Michael Fuerstein
6 months ago

We had this fight at my institution (a Lutheran liberal arts college) and won. There were three things we did that were important: (1) We appealed to the internal logic of the institution – appealing to mission statements and curricular language that emphasizes “values,” “lives of meaning,” “justice,” etc. (2) We looked for creative ways of integrating an ethics requirement into the new curriculum, so that it would be seen as an innovative asset to the institution and not just a hand-out to the Philosophy Dept. For example, we put together a proposal to pair ethics instructors with instructors in the social sciences who would take on big topics – climate change, public health, etc. – together over a year-long sequence. This idea ultimately got rejected but received favorable attention from the Board. (3) We did a lot of legwork behind the scenes to recruit allies in more powerful disciplines (political science, economics, biology) who would speak on behalf of the value of ethics in the curriculum. I would say, in general, that the power of making good arguments in these kinds of cases is somewhat limited. Understanding your institution and finding ways to gain leverage in that context are really critical. Good luck!

Steven Mintz
6 months ago

Let me take a different approach to why ethics should be taught. I’ve been told by naysayers that you can’t teach ethics. I respond that I can and have done so for 30+years. The issue can best be described as: I can teach ethics but that doesn’t mean students will learn the lesson, just as is true in any university course. It’s better to have tried and failed than not tried at all. Given the breakdown of a moral society in the U.S. and elsewhere, not to teach ethics is akin to burying your head in the sand. Look around you and see: (1) government corruption; (2) politicians engaging in wrongful behavior: (3) business failures due to fraud; (4) fraud in Medicare and other government programs; (5) senseless violence in our streets and schools including mass killings; (6) smash and grab activities causing businesses to close up shop; (7) cheating in sports and elsewhere; (8) sexual harassment, especially in the workplace; (9) sexual and other abuses; and (10) challenges in society on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. These are just ten that I can think of right now. They are also activities that affect everyone in society, regardless of their academic major. Then there is the emerging issue of ethics & AI. This will be on the radar for years and students should be sensitive to issues such as loss of jobs, bias in data collection, and transparency. We have lost our moral compass. Our society has morphed into a “what’s in it for me” consideration of right and wrong—everything is relative rather than behavior should be based on long-standing philosophies of ethics. Learning about philosophical thought is one way to expose the next generation to understanding what is right and what is wrong; accepting the consequences of our actions; and justice. These are the basics of a foundation of goodness in society, empathy towards others, fair treatment of others, and personal responsibility.

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  Steven Mintz
6 months ago

Gotta be honest: “everyone sucks but me” ain’t a take I’d buy onto and I don’t think it’s one that’d sell. Add that to the fact that by almost any empirical measure (actual number of people who are victims of the sorts of crimes you mention, for example) we live in a miraculously ethical time and this looks to me like a badly badly losing argument.

Last edited 6 months ago by Shay Allen Logan
Meme
Meme
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
6 months ago

Gotta be honest: reading Steven’s point as “everyone sucks but me” ain’t a take I’d buy into. (That said, the empirical objection seems fair.)

Mr Practical
Mr Practical
6 months ago

I think Colin’s remarks are particularly helpful. But let me suggest something more direct than what many others have talked about. I don’t think it’s easy to go to other faculty and administrators and convince them of the broad value of ethics courses or whatever. This is a long road and really tough. I would do something more direct. Find out who is on your university’s core curriculum committee. At my university it was like 8 or 9 faculty. Then make it really clear to those people why philosophy courses help students (get someone on the committee perhaps). I mean, I was at a meeting once and I pulled out the “average GRE scores by major” list that showed Philosophy majors were first or second. It so happened that on the committee were a biologist, psychologist, chemist, etc. and they all realized that Philosophy courses are great for THEIR students as well. This is how you get faculty to include your courses, you show them why it’s valuable not in some abstract sense (“ethics is important in our lives”) but directly by appealing to their self-interest about their students. Do the same thing with Department Chairs if you have to. You’d be surprised how many chemistry and biology etc. faculty have no idea that Philosophy majors do well on the GRE and likely think the opposite. When they see data like that they take it seriously and believe it will help their students, and suddenly everyone’s saying “we don’t want to cut the philosophy requirements.” I think the route goes through individual committee members and chairs.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Mr Practical
6 months ago

This is extremely sensible advice.

Let me draw a general point from it: never mind administrators, most academics in other fields are not going to be moved by general educational cases for ethics, because they will hear ‘this is why our subject is more important, more pedagogically central, than your subject’. Whether or not that’s *correct*, it’s going to fall on stony ground. (Ask yourself how you’d feel if, e.g., your gen-ed requirement includes two humanities courses, and then History makes a clearly-sincere, passionate case that one of those two courses ought to be a course on American history given how important it is to understanding contemporary US society.) Academics in other fields *are* (sometimes, potentially) going to be moved by arguments like the ones Mr Practical identifies.

Colin
Colin
Reply to  Mr Practical
6 months ago

These are really good points. 1) Don’t shout into the void, go to the people that will actually vote on curricular changes — we had a member of the philosophy department on the core curriculum review committee, which meant we had someone on the inside advocating for our position. That won’t always be the case, but it certainly helps when you can get it. 2) Don’t expect abstract arguments about the value of philosophy or ethics to be compelling — faced with practical questions about curricular requirements, even philosophers probably wouldn’t be moved by that kind of reasoning. Instead, appeal to things that matter to the institution (including mission and identity), procedural rules, and practical outcomes that matter to other stakeholders.

Jonathan Surovell
Reply to  Mr Practical
6 months ago

I agree with the general thrust of this comment: the way to go is to give empirical evidence that ethics courses’ discipline-transcendent benefits for students are sufficient to require that all students take an ethics course.

However, I don’t find the specific evidence adduced (average GRE scores of majors) convincing. (For one thing, it’s just a correlation; for another, it doesn’t tell us about the effect of a single course.) Imo, assuming it would be easy enough to agree on what counts as a “benefit” of a college course, empirical evidence for the benefits of ethics courses should be central to this discussion.

There’s good evidence that, with the right methods (mixing explicit CT instruction with domain-specific content, argument mapping, discussion, authentic subject matter), a gen ed philosophy course can have a big impact on students’ critical thinking skills. This means higher scores on the analytical sections of standardized tests. I don’t know whether the ethics course in question would be a mixed ethics-CT course. If not, unfortunately, the CT case for it will be weak.

I’m not familiar with the literature on the benefits of college ethics courses, and the key terms make it tricky to search for relevant research. But it seems like Eric Schwitzgebel has done some relevant research:

https://news.ucr.edu/articles/2020/09/22/can-ethics-classes-actually-influence-students-moral-behavior

Assuming Schwitzgebel and colleagues’ result here holds up, the next question would be whether other departments will be moved by them.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jonathan Surovell
Bart
Bart
6 months ago

We can no more learn to act rightly by appealing to the ethical theory of right action than we can play golf well by appealing to the mathematical theory of the flight of the golf-ball. The interest of ethics is thus almost wholly theoretical, as is the interest of the mathematical theory of golf or of billiards. – C. D. Broad

T K
T K
Reply to  Bart
6 months ago

I strongly disagree with this. There are specific moral changes than can be made when one is rationally persuaded by a moral argument. It has happened several times in my own life. Now, rational acceptance of an argument does not by itself necessitate moral behavior, but it can be an important step in the process.

Laura
Laura
Reply to  Bart
6 months ago

I think most of my students already know how to act rightly. What they don’t know is how to explain their reasoning about right action, or defend what they value. They aren’t familiar with the range of ethical theories that might inform judgments about right action – i.e. a crude example, that we might want to examine a dilemma from the perspective of how to maximize optimal outcomes while minimizing harm, or that we might take another approach and consider what it would mean to do the right thing in this case for the right reasons. I believe that considering arguments like this does make students better moral reasoners, and discussing with others makes them better able to offer ethical leadership and judgment in their professional lives. I don’t think I’m teaching ethics to transform sketchy actors into upright, just citizens, but to help resolve confusion and offer various tools to make sense of the difficult – and common! – problems people face throughout life. The benefits go far beyond this, of course, but I don’t think it’s a substantive objection to teaching college ethics that we don’t learn how to be good simply by studying theory.

Josh Mugg
Josh Mugg
6 months ago

I’ve been serving on a committee to redevelop the Liberal Education Program at my SLAC for the last 2.5 years. In the old curriculum, there was an ‘ethics’ requirement, but pretty much every major fulfilled that requirement by way of some professionalization course. There were a handful of majors that didn’t have that and so took ethics with a philosopher. In the new LE Program, students will have to take a philosophy course to fulfill their ethics requirements. I could say a lot about went into that process, but here I’d just like to share that the biggest step came in convincing some of the professional schools. We started with what we wanted students to be able to do–engage in the “why” behind codes of conduct. We thought that a student with a Liberal Education should be able to defend their ethical approach or beliefs using reasoning, and that it was not enough for a student with a Liberal Education to merely be able to articulate a code of ethics (e.g. “don’t cheat”). We changed the title of the competency from ‘Ethics’ to ‘Ethical Reasoning,’ and adjusted the outcomes accordingly. It turned out that change mattered a lot. Engaging in ethical reasoning requires moving to the level of theory, and it requires contrasting competing ethical theories, or so I successfully argued. This lead to a realization that the ‘professional ethics’ courses really were not doing this. So (most) of the professional schools agreed that ethical reasoning belongs to philosophy.