What can ethics courses achieve?

In a Houston Chronicle commentary titled “Where’s Right and Wrong in Ethics?,” Donald Bates explores why required university courses in ethics fail to produce ethical business practices. Bates lists many familiar examples of unethical behavior in public life (Enron and WorldCom, for examples) and blames them conveniently on the separation of church and state.

Bates claims that ethics is taught from a position of Utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number), egoism (what most benefits the long-term interest of the individual), rights (deontological forms of duty to others or entitlements for oneself), or abstract principles of justice. This is his first mistake. University ethics courses teach the theories listed by Bates, although his list is far from exhaustive, but ethics instructors are not wont to teach “from a perspective.” To understand the study of ethics, students must be familiar with competing theories, but universities provide education, not indoctrination.

Bates goes on to say, “Trying to teach ethics without a religious underpinning means absolutes do not exist, everything is situational.” This is his second mistake. The fact that many competing ethical theories (and religions, for that matter) have emerged over the centuries is not evidence that absolutes do not exist. It is evidence only that absolutes are extremely difficult to discover and agree upon. Teaching ethics from the standpoint of a “religious underpinning” is to teach from a standpoint of absolute knowledge of right and wrong and good and bad, which would require professors to claim to know the mind of God, a claim that would be met with suspicion for good reason.

Expecting ethics courses to make the world more ethical is a little like expecting professional athletes and pop stars to be good role models. Ethical solutions and agreement are not easy to come by. Claiming that the state should enforce morality founded in religion begs the question of which religious perspective is correct and who will decide on the proper perspective. Rational people of good will disagree on ethical practices each day, and this is a good foundation of a pluralistic society.

If we are lucky, we might be able to teach a few students a little humility and respect for the efforts of others to discover right from wrong. Many students will claim that ethics is just a matter of common sense. Oddly enough, Bates seems to agree. In each case he presents, he believes there is a universally accepted opinion of what is right and wrong. If he is correct, students do not need to be taught what is right, they need to be prevented from being evil. It is unlikely that the leaders of Enron and WorldCom made a mistake in ethical thinking. More likely, they decided to do something that showed no concern for the harm it caused others.

An ethical society requires skeptical humility from its leaders and educators, recognition of the humanity of others, and a desire to limit harm to all. This lesson is not easily taught but it is easily shared by the way we live.

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