Currently, students need only take one course to meet their ethics requirement for graduation. This page is dedicated to helping instructors effectively incorporate ethics into their courses. It is our hope that these experiences are educatively valuable and impactful, especially for those students who can only complete one course from the University of Nebraska’s rich repertoire of ethics courses.
Further, this page serves as a resource for instructors beyond the University of Nebraska and beyond higher education. More than that, this page is meant to serve as a resource for those designing extra-curricular activities wishing to provide students with a program that incorporates ethics and moral reasoning.
Toward those ends, we’d love to hear from you. If you have attended/designed/etc. a course or program that included an ethics component and think that your feedback can help us improve this page, please don’t hesitate to contact assistant director, Adam R. Thompson (art AT unl DOT edu). Likewise, please reach out if you'd like a face-to-face or online meeting to discuss anything on this page to help you incorporate ethics into your course, curriculum, or program.
Currently Under Construction
DIY OR OUTSOURCE
The first question you’ll want to ask yourself is whether you’re going to do everything yourself or outsource some or all of the work. Its unlikely that instructors will want to outsource all of the work and they shouldn’t. Course design is primarily the instructor’s responsibility. However, that doesn’t entail that instructors must design a course without insight from others. Furthermore, there are many things beyond course design that can and perhaps should be outsourced.
When it comes to course design, instructors should make realistic assessments of their expertise with respect to the subject matter they aim to teach. Often the assessment is quick. Molecular biologists are well-positioned to teach the fundamentals of biology as well as the more exciting, cutting edge developments in their field. Likewise, a professor of design should feel confident that they can teach students the nature and tools of design as well as expertly guide them through feedback on their projects. The assessments are more important when one aims to teach something from beyond their field of expertise.
Unfortunately, many overestimate their ability to teach subjects beyond their field of expertise. This is especially true in the case of ethics or moral reasoning. This makes some sense, given that it is highly likely that people generally consider themselves to have some basic set of moral principles that they live and reason by. Further, many instructors are involved in mentor-type relationships with members of their family, non-work institutional affiliations, and friend groups. If they can impart ethics-rich wisdom in those capacities, why not in their capacity as a college instructor?
It’s a fair question. However, there are significant disanalogies between the relationships that one shares with their family, church or bird-watching group, and friends and the relationship that one bears to the students enrolled in their course. For one, typically the former are not relying on them as their primary source for gaining an understanding of biology, psychology, economics, teaching, or physics. For another, commonly the motivations for taking or ignoring the advice is different for students than it is for ones friends, family, or club members. Finally, teaching ethics is not the same as giving some advice or setting out rules to live by no matter their sagaciousness.
That last point is key. Teaching ethics is not the same as giving advice or laying out rules. Ethics is not a set of rules any more than chemistry is simply a set of formulas. Moral reasoning is not a simple matter of applying rule-like propositions or concepts any more than mathematics is a simple matter of running functions on numbers. Legal scholars, Donald Nicolson and Julian Webb note that,
…one can argue that reducing ethics to formalized systems of rules, especially those of a detailed nature, increases the chances of lawyers being implicated in unjust and immoral conduct by undermining ethical evaluation. Such an approach is likely to replace individual ethical decision-making with mindless conformity to rules especially as detailed codes suggest that all possible ethical dilemmas have been considered by the experts. Rule-based ethics are likely to cocoon lawyers from constantly looking to their conscience and sense of right, and from questioning the notions of justice and morality contained within law and the legal system. Ethical codes may also lead to lawyers becoming cynical and unconcerned about questions of politics and morality […and] tend to force lawyers to reduce issues of ethical judgement down to a matter of risk analysis and risk management […and] prevent development of deeply felt ethical commitments […or] the sort of ethical character highlighted as so important by virtue ethics. Thus ethical discretion may well be preferable to the consciences of lawyers being constantly anaesthetized by their formalistic reliance on professional rules, especially if they are drafted largely as an exercise in professional self-protection.” (112).
There may of course exist a set of rules that actually detail precisely what one should do in each circumstance they find themselves in. But, it is highly unlikely that we have epistemic access to that list. Furthermore, and this is part of Nicolson and Webb’s broader point, even if there was, it would not do to simply teach that individuals to memorize the list. Rather, we’d have to spend time helping them cultivate an appreciation for following the list and help students understand why the list is accurate such that they would actually be motivated to follow the rules for the right reasons.
Moreover, to the extent that the analogy between the relationship instructors bear to their students and the relationships that they bear toward those they mentor outside of the context of a school holds, it holds primarily because one is actually doing more than simply giving advice or setting out a list of rules to be followed. Rather, they are providing reasons for abiding by their advice and facilitating mature ways of understanding the rules and how to apply them.
Thus, to a great extent incorporating ethics into one’s course may be something an instructor should do largely on their own when designing the course. Still, they would be wise to seek outside consultation from those who study ethics and moral reasoning in an academic capacity. Our page XXXX (linked) goes some way to offer that sort of consultation. But, contacting us directly to get input specifically designed to meet your needs is likely a better option.
Beyond course design or as a part of it, instructors should consider whether they want to take on every aspect of teaching the integrated material themselves or whether they’d like to outsource some of that work. For instance, instructors might invite an ethicist to guest lecturer to teach a portion of the integrated material or they might hire someone familiar with enough with the integrated material to grade key assessments of students’ understanding of that material. We can help you through the process of hiring individuals for these purposes. (link) Plus, as part of our service at the Kutak Ethics Center we offer to guest lecture portions of the course for free. (link)
HOW NOT TO INCORPORATE ETHICS EFFECTIVELY
There are a few practices that tend to occur when incorporating ethics or moral reasoning into a course that you should avoid. First, instructors focus on the descriptive as opposed to the normative. Second, grade inflation is particularly likely to occur for the integrated, ethics portion of the course. Third, outsourcing is done quickly with little regard for the credentials of those to whom work like grading is outsourced. I’ll deal with each in turn.
The error of focusing on descriptive content as opposed to normative content is easy to make for those used to teaching with a focus on the former rather than the latter. Likewise, for those who don’t primarily, academically study or teach ethics it can be difficult to do much more than the subject in a non-normative mood. So, the fact that this occurs commonly is not surprising. Still, it should be avoided.
The phenomenon manifests with the following:
- Students are just asked to state their values;
- Students are asked to state their values an draw a line from those values to something like sustainable resource management or universal healthcare;
- Identifying a type of person as having a specific value and asking students to apply the type to real persons relevant to the subject matter (e.g., current CEOs or politicians); or
- Identifying a type of person as having a specific set of values and beliefs and asking to students to write a relevant argument (e.g., for a policy on emissions, a policy on resource management, or a safety standard) that is likely to persuade that type of person.
Each of the tasks just listed can certainly be educationally valuable. But none of those tasks alone will help students develop an understand of ethics or moral reasoning per se.
Instead, guiding students through a prolonged critical evaluation of their values or whether the line they’ve drawn from their values to a particular practice or outcome is something that is more likely to effectively facilitate an understanding of ethics and moral reasoning. Likewise, directing students through an ongoing critical evaluation of a possible or real person’s moral outlook is more likely to successfully develop an appreciation of ethics and moral reasoning.
B: Grade Inflation
As instructors we sometimes relax our standards for degrees of excellence when assessing students. Often this can make sense. For instance, we may feel that we didn’t teach a particular bit of material well or we may realize that we pitched the material at too high a level. The hope is that we reflect on these issues and alter our approaches so that we don’t have to bend our standards downward to protect against widespread failures that can be attributed at least in large part to our own failures as instructors. For probably obvious reasons, then, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to assessing student work in an area outside our expertise we are likely to allow sub-par work to pass as average or better than average or even excellent.
But, perhaps just as obviously, we should work to avoid reducing rigor when it comes to ethics education. That requires working hard to provide students with learning activities and educative assessments that require serious thought and application of skills to master.
C: Who’s Grading
Thinking about grade inflation naturally brings up the concern about who should be grading or assessing student work that falls outside of the primary instructor’s area of expertise. If the instructor has done their due diligence in designing a course with an ethics component in terms of becoming expert enough to teach the material effectively, they may prefer to grade the extra ethics assessments themselves. However, they just as easily could prefer otherwise. Outsourcing grading is very common as evidenced by the fact that most, if not all, of our graduate programs outsource grading to a graduate teaching assistant (GTA). But, that outsourcing is unproblematic due in large part to the fact that the GTA assigned to the course may themselves lack the requisite understanding to give effective and adequate feedback regarding ethics and moral reasoning. As was stated in section 1 of this post, the Kutak Ethics Center is happy to help with this concern.
One way we can help is by training your GTAs for you. Roughly, first we would discuss what you have planned in terms of learning activities, assessments, and learning objectives with respect to ethics. Second we would plan a workshop for your GTA. As lead instructor, you’re welcome to attend the workshop or help in its design so you can ensure that we’re interpreting your needs correctly. Finally, we’ll assess how well your GTA understands the material.
Another way the center can assist is by helping you locate persons with the requisite background. Again, we’d discuss your course plan regarding ethics education. But, this time we’d follow up by conducting a hiring campaign. For this, we’d work with human resources to generate a hiring ad and pay-scale. Second, we’d collect the applications and review them. Third, we’d conduct brief interviews. Finally, we’d present our decisions to you. Ultimately, you’d make the call on who to hire and you’re welcome to be a part of the process from beginning to end.
The main thing that we strongly discourage is using undergraduates for this work unless they too underwent training at our center. Only exceptional undergraduates possess the understanding and maturity required to offer educative feedback to their peers. You may have recognized some and employed them to grade work in your field, and they may have done an excellent job. However, again, that they excel in one field does not entail nor make it likely that they will excel in another. Hence, we strongly recommend that you send undergraduates our way for training similar to the training we offer for GTAs or let us help you identify some that are already qualified through a hiring campaign similar to the one described above.
IT’S EASY TO MISS THE MARK
Typically, ethics integration is guided by an excellent vision about what that will look like insofar as individuals seeking to integrate state that students will be forced to grapple with difficult moral issues in classroom discussion, essay examinations, and other difficult assessments and learning activities. Still, just as typically, the implementation of that vision is a poor reflection of it. That’s to be expected when an individual trained to be an expert in one field attempts to incorporate the insights and skills of a disparate field. So, it’s okay if you’ve struggled in this same way.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see that the implementation is inadequate. Of course, it may be due to a focus on the descriptive as opposed to the normative dimensions of an issue. But, it may be more complicated, and, so more difficult to tell whether your attempt is effective. This is especially true for courses that focus on something purported to have ethical import or content while the focus on building skills no (directly) related to ethics or moral reasoning.
For instance, suppose a history course studies the rise of capitalism in the U.S. Surely the course will have to explore a wide range of factors including individuals morally charged and value-laden attitudes and perspectives. But the goal here is to develop students’ ability to develop a historically accurate narrative about an event. Unless students are critically examining the attitudes and perspectives from an ethics angle its unclear how this helps them develop an understanding of ethics or their moral reasoning skills.
The point is to notice that missing the mark is easy but noticing that you’ve missed the mark may be difficult. To determine whether your course is missing the mark study your course yourself. Examine whether it targets moral reasoning skills or ethics know-how. If it is tracking understanding or a set of skills central to your home and specialized discipline and your home or specialization is not philosophy or ethics, then it is unlikely that your course targets moral reasoning skills or building ethics understanding.
Broadly speaking the study of ethics comprises three primary areas—namely, meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Meta-ethics raises and attempts to answer questions about what, if anything, there is in our world that is moral, what the nature of those things are, and how we can know about those things. Normative ethics attempts to explain why an act or state of affairs is good, bad, right, wrong, permissible, impermissible, or obligatory. Applied ethics seeks to offer reasons for adopting a particular policy, taking a particular action, or developing a particular character trait. Since you may wish to incorporate ethics by looking into any of those areas, I’ll unpack them a little more.
Metaphysics is the study of what there is and what the nature of what there is is. Epistemology is the study of what it takes to know or understand and what the sources for knowledge and understanding are. Meta-ethics is metaphysics and epistemology applied to ethics. Hence, those who study meta-ethics attempt to determine (a) whether there are moral properties, and if so, what the nature of those things are—are they like physical properties or are they more abstract like numbers and (b) whether we can know or understand anything about those properties and if so how. Mixed in this area are questions about whether each person is subject to the same moral constraints as each other person or not, whether those constraints are mind-dependent or not, and whether we could know what the moral truths are whether each person is equally subject to their authority or not and whatever their objective status is.
Here are some resources for further exploration of Meta-Ethics:
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - MetaethicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Moral Reasoning
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Moral Epistemology
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy- Moral Skepticism
- PBS - Crash Course on Metaethics
- Philosophy Vibe on Metaethics
- Inspiring Philosophy
- Routlege Introduction to Metaethics
- Routlege Introduction to Moral Psychology
B: Normative Ethics
Strictly speaking normative ethics focuses on explanation and model building. The moral status that we take something to possess must be explained. Typically, those explanations involve concepts rich with moral content like autonomy, love, goodwill, courage, malice, contempt, and indignation. They also involve constructs like agency, action, omission, and character. As such, normative ethicists rely on their philosophical training in metaphysics and epistemology to develop models of those constructs and elaborate the morally thick concepts. So, there is some metaphysics and epistemology going on in this area of ethics as well.
Normative Ethics itself breaks down into a few compartments. Value Theory studies types of value and attempts to explain why something is valuable or why something isn’t valuable. Moral Psychology comprises the study of the mental life of creatures to determine which are morally responsible, which are morally considerable, and the range of things that can motivate moral (in)action. Ethical Theory takes some data points about good/bad states-of-affairs or right/wrong actions and attempts to organize a theory that best explains that data under general hypothesis or two about what makes those acts right/wrong or what the good/bad status of state-of-affairs may entail about what we ought to be up to or how we ought to develop ourselves. Finally, political philosophy is sub-discipline of ethical theory. It is there that we develop views about the nature of a just State, push for justification of the State. Doing so requires among other things exploring the moral status of certain state institutions, the value of democracy, or which distributions of valuable things is morally permissible/obligatory.
Here are some resources for further exploration of Normative Ethics:Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - ConsequentialismStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Rule ConsequentialismStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - DeontologyStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Virtue EthicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Value TheoryStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Feminist EthicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Ethics in Indian and Tibetan BuddhismStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - African EthicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Chinese EthicsWireless Philosophy - ConsequentialismThe Ethics Centre - ConsequentialismPhilosophy Tube - ConsequentialismWireless Philosophy - Utilitarianism, Part 1Wireless Philosophy - Utilitarianism, Part 2Wireless Philosophy - Utilitarianism, Part 3Philosophy Vibe - Kantian EthicsPhilosophy Tube - Kantian EthicsCrashcourse - Kantian EthicsThe Ethics Centre - Virtue EthicsPhilosophy Vibe - Aristotle's Virtue EthicsWireless Philosophy - Value Theory - Kant on the Good LifeWireless Philosophy - Value Theory - Aristotle on the Good LifeWireless Philosophy - Value Theory - Plato on the Good LifeWireless Philosophy - Value Theory - Moral StatusWireless Philosophy - Value Theory - Intrinsic vs Instrumental ValueWireless Philosophy - Value Theory - HedonismWireless Philosophy - Political Philosophy - What would a just state look like?Wireless Philosophy - Political Philosophy - Is there an obligation to obey the law?Wireless Philosophy - Political Philosophy - Should we have children?Wireless Philosophy - Political Philosophy - Government and Marriage?Wireless Philosophy - Political Philosophy - Why Vote?
C: Applied Ethics
Applied Ethics attempts to ascertain which course of action or set of actions is morally permissible or obligatory or impermissible or etc. given certain facts on the ground. As such, those studying issues in applied ethics must draw from Normative Ethics, and, so Meta-Ethics. But, they also have to intimately understand the realities that animate the issue in the world. Hence, those studying whether we should adopt a policy permitting voluntary euthanasia must acquaint themselves with theories and models about the good, bad, right, and wrong and facts about human psychology, medical procedures, laws, and resources.
Applied Ethics is a bit of a misnomer insofar as it implies that it involves a function from facts on the ground to one or more moral principles or maps the permissible, impermissible, and obligatory with respect to a context. For instance, suppose we take the Classic Utilitarian ethical theory according to which an action is right if and only if it is an action that will get the greatest ratio of pleasure to pain for the greatest number of persons. And, imagine we have a set of actions S whose members are A1, A2, and A3. To apply this theory, then, we would take all the facts about what the results will be of taking action A1 and analyze whether those results amount to the greatest ratio of pleasure to pain for the greatest number of persons. We do the same for each act in S. If one results in the greatest ratio of pleasure to pain for the greatest number of persons, then it’s morally right to do—and perhaps morally obligatory.
It should be obvious that making the crucial determination regarding the results of an act is likely impossible to make. At the theoretical level proponents of Classical Utilitarianism have some things to say to show that this fact doesn’t undermine the explanatory power of it, and, so, doesn’t serve as a reason to reject it as an accurate account of what makes right actions right and wrong actions wrong. But, we’re not at the theoretical level. Rather, we’re at the applied level. At the applied level, a procedure that doesn’t tell us what we can or ought to do morally is not to be pursued.
Applied Ethics is really about taking what we know about the ethical realm and morally reasoning about what to do given the facts on the ground. Hence, applied ethicists rely on understanding from Normative Ethics and Meta-Ethics to some extent as well as understanding about the world as it is. The latter may involve theoretical abstractions like germ theory or price theory or labeling theory from fields outside of ethics and it very typically involves data generated from psychological, sociological, ecological, etc. surveys and tests.
Here are some resources for further exploration of Applied Ethics:Stanford Encyclopedia - Moral ReasoningStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Theory and BioethicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Feminist BioethicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Pregnancy, Birth, and MedicineStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Parenthood and ProcreationStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Ethics of Stem Cell ResearchStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Decision-Making CapacityStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Informed ConsentStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - NeuroethicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Business EthicsStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Environmental EthicsWireless Philosophy - Consent, Part 1Wireless Philosophy - Consent, Part 2Wireless Philosophy - Is it okay to kill animals for food?Kennedy Institute of Ethics - Bioethics PlaylistWharton School of Business - Business EthicsMarkkula Center for Applied Ethics - Environmental Ethics Playlist
D: Other Ethics??
Some may wonder whether Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics cover the whole of the ethics universe. For instance, some might think that institutional rules and codes fall outside the scope of the three parts of ethics delineated here. The thought is might reasonably be backed by one or more ideas. First, there is the obvious point that professions have ethical codes. Second, relatedly there is the fact that institutions that grant vocational degrees like a business college that grants MBAs, a Law College that grants JDs, or a Medical College that grants MDs must teach the ethics of their profession. Finally, then, one might hold that these ethics are just a matter of developing and following a concise system of rules that govern the profession and doing so requires no philosophizing. Thinking along these lines sometimes leads individuals to distinguish between philosophical ethics and non-philosophical ethics. The former, the thought goes on, comprises Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics while the latter comprises professional ethics.
Though it is reasonable to struggle with where to place the fact that there are institutional rules to which those in a profession are held accountable, we need look no further than the three areas of ethics discussed above. If you’re a member of an institution with a code of ethics, then that code of ethics provides you with reasons for/against acting in particular ways. Further, if something provides you with reasons for/against acting in a particular way, then you should take that into consideration as you decide what to do. Hence, the fact that an institution has a code of ethics is descriptive fact about that institution and merely entails that as a member of the institution one must consider what that code dictates when deciding what to do. Therefore, when teaching applied ethics, one should note institutional codes of ethics as simply another source of practical reasons.
Further still, how important it is to follow an institutional code of ethics is largely determined by what punishment or consequence one incurs by not following that code of ethics. So, rules of etiquette provide reasons for placing forks on a particular side of dinner plates when one is setting the table, and the law provides reasons to refrain from stealing. However, since one is likely to incur no punishment for violating etiquette but likely to be jailed for stealing, one has more reason to refrain from stealing than they have reason to abide by rules of etiquette. Nevertheless, these facts don’t require us to invent a new category of ethics. Rather, this is all a commonly understood fact of moral reasoning and so is at home in meta-, normative, and applied ethics.
Courses like medical ethics, business ethics, or engineering ethics are used to highlight and encourage the exploration of the moral principles central to guiding action in contexts relevant to the profession whose normative contours are being examined. Examining these areas requires reflection on ethics at the meta level, the theory level, and the practical level. For instance, to do work in medical ethics requires adopting views about the nature of life, death, pain, and suffering as well as what obligations, permissibilities, and impermissibilities are grounded in or by the patient-doctor relationship. But, it also requires seriously considering what, if anything, makes abortion, euthanasia, or vaccination right when it is right or wrong when it’s wrong. And, if we’re wondering what a particular patient or physician or healthcare practitioner should do in a particular situation, then we’re wondering how to properly respond to the moral reasons alive in a healthcare context. Some of those reasons are reasons to which all must appropriately response—e.g., all are called to avoid unjustifiably forcing someone to do something against their will—, while other reasons are reasons to which one must respond due to the fact that they occupy a certain healthcare-related role—e.g., an OGYN should stay up-to-date on the latest information about curing or mitigated infections of the birth canal. The same can be said of business ethics, engineering ethics, or any other study of the ethics of a particular profession.
Of course, though philosophers typically teach professional ethics where such courses are offered by a philosophy department or humanities department, colleges of medicine, business colleges, and law colleges offer courses in ethics for their respective professional focus that may not be taught by philosophers. But, that doesn’t change the fact that professional ethics is primarily a sub-field of Applied Ethics and so a sub-field of a sub-field of a branch of philosophy. It just means that some courses in professional ethics are not taught by philosophers. Whether they should be taught by philosophers is another question. Still, given that professional ethics involves meta-level, normative-level, and applied-level philosophical reflection, those not formally trained as philosophers will have to make an extra effort to grasp and effectively teach these courses.
Finally, some might challenge that simply delineating either the general rules governing a profession or the specific ethical code of a particular law firm, business, or hospital and teach what it means to be compliant with those rules or with the code in question counts as teaching ethics but doesn’t require any philosophical or moral reasoning. Though rules and compliance in some important sense are ethically relevant and one may be able to teach individuals what the rules are and how to conform to them without philosophical reflection coming into the picture, it doesn’t follow that teaching rules and compliance in this way is to teach ethics or moral reasoning. Rather, it simply means that one is teaching individuals what the rules are and how to follow them blindly or how to avoid nuance in their application. To elaborate, rules are typically too general to apply directly to a particular situation. Hence, to apply a rule one must reflect philosophically—that is, they must reason about what is morally required of them in the situation. Furthermore, even if all the rules are detailed enough to dictate what should be done in each situation, it doesn’t follow that the rules or compliance with them falls outside of philosophical ethics. Rather, at best it simply means that someone has already done all of the philosophical reasoning required for adhering to a particular system of rules. Still, to know whether one should apply this rule or that rule one will have to recognize the situation as the situation detailed in the rule, and that requires critical, philosophical reflection.
Therefore, ethics is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature, epistemology, and application of morality and moral reasoning. As such, to teach ethics is to teach a branch of philosophy. Hence, integral to teaching ethics is wrapping one’s mind around philosophically rich content in addition to understanding physical/chemical/biological/historical/etc. facts about the world.Wharton School of Business - Business Ethics
E: What about Compliance?
Sometimes compliance is confused with doing what is right or ethical. However, compliance or being compliant is about rule following and what counts as successfully following a rule and what counts failing to follow a rule. Since a rule may not (correctly) express a moral imperative, rule following or being compliant with a rule does not (always or often) entail that one has done what is morally right. So, the two should never be confused.
Still, compliance or the study of the range of acts that count as adhering to a rule is important to moral reasoning. For one, understanding which acts will count as following a particular rule is integral to understanding what risks one takes when acting in contexts where there are formal rules of conduct in place. For instance, if ones place of employment has a set of rules that they expect their employees to follow on pain of sanction, it is important to know whether one will be open to sanction for doing what she has decided is the ethically correct thing to do. Knowing whether one will be open to sanction helps one assess the cost of doing what she thinks is right.
Thus, though compliance and studying what counts as compliance and what doesn't carries importance with respect to practical reasoning it cannot supplant the study of ethics or moral reasoning. Rather, it is simply a factor and important area of study within the broader study of how to behave ethically.
F: Impacts on Integration
It is unlikely that courses outside philosophical ethics will focus on issues in Meta-Ethics or Normative Ethics. Still, since some may want to, the final section in which I lay out models for integrating ethics shows you how. Given that most will be looking to integrate at an applied level, I have a few things to say about that sort of integration.
First, many introductory courses that claim to courses in applied ethics tend to be primarily courses that facilitate understanding of something in the realm of Normative Ethics. This occurs because they start by leading students away from the meta-ethical view that what is good, bad, right, or wrong is relative to a person or group of persons. From there students explore various theoretical orientations to ethics and prominent theories that animate them. Typical here is marching students through Classical Utilitarianism, Kantian Deontology, and some form of virtue ethic. Finally, near the end of the course, students may explore a pressing issue like the moral rightness of abortion or war. But since they’re not even asking whether we should adopt a policy in the U.S. against eliminating abortion as legally permitted or a legal prohibition on war, students never actually study Applied Ethics.
Second, then, as you attempt to incorporate ethics into your course, if you really want to facilitate understanding of how to reason morally about what to do, then you’ll want to avoid having students study theories that explain the moral rightness or wrongness of an act or situation. Instead focus on something like a practical dilemma the resolution of which involves making a practical decision about what to do. To offer a reasonable solution they’ll have to consider normative and non-normative reasons. This is a natural way to proceed. If you think of your course as providing students with facts that elaborate primarily non-normative considerations and the skill to respond to those considerations as a historian, sociologist, biologist, physicist, architect, computer programmer, teacher, social worker, artist, geographer, or botanist. Simply extend your course to include the elaboration of normative considerations and how to respond to those considerations.
For instance, suppose that in your engineering department students must complete a practical project. In this capstone course students bring their engineering-relevant understanding to bear on the project. To incorporate ethics, one could elaborate the morally thick concepts autonomy and beneficence. Students would be instructed to show that their project, for instance, produces more benefit than non-benefit, doesn’t (unduly) violate individuals’ autonomy, and promotes autonomy. Here, they’d need to define benefit and a measurement for it using a value theory of some sort. Further, they’ll be critically assessing the extent to which their product inhibits autonomy and determining whether that violation is ultimately justified.
Notice in the engineering example that we didn’t mention teaching one or more of the big three—Classic Utilitarianism, Kantian Deontology, or Virtue Ethics. Instead we focused on two thick moral concepts that play a central role animating those theories. As such, ideas at home in Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics will find their way into the classroom albeit by a different route. Furthermore, this route is a better reflection of what students will need to be doing in the real world—responding to the reasons that there are, some normative, some not. Hence, students will be better prepared for life after university.
The engineering example is an example of how this sort of integration would work in an upper-level course. But many seek to integrate ethics in introductory courses which tend less toward application of deep understanding and honed skills. Rather, these courses lay the foundation for higher-levels of thinking and application.
Fortunately, foundational courses can be developed along the same lines. Instructors will spend some time unpacking one or two thick moral concepts and giving students a sense of how those considerations may arise in their field. Part of the development may involve students critically assessing the extent to which an act or situation reflects a commitment to, say, building trust, care of others, fairness, or courage.
In sum, then, incorporating ethics into ones course as an extension to the elaboration of considerations that bear on decisions in the field either through application of the field-specific knowledge or more generally is preferable. For one, it avoids the pitfalls discussed in sections 2 and 3 insofar as it has a critical focus on the normative. For another, it fits naturally into the course structure no matter its curricular status as an upper-level or lower-level course. Finally, it better reflects what students will face as decision-makers in the real world—namely, situations where they have to consider normative and non-normative reasons to decide what to do or develop policies or protocols.
MODELS FOR INCORPORATING ETHICS
There are number of options to take when incorporating new content into a course. This section addresses many of the options that arise for incorporating ethics. The general idea is to work to make the new content a natural part of the course. By doing so instructors better maintain the alignment between learning objectives/outcomes, pedagogy, and assessments that is integral to effective teaching.
I: Practical Orientation Model
A practical orientation is one that situates learning disciplinary content with the context of making a practical decision. For instance, an engineering course could be (partially) built around a project that requires students to use principles of engineering that they are learning about in the course to determine what should be done in response to a common engineering challenge. Here the instructor could easily require that students not only bring relevant engineering-specific understanding to bear on the challenge but also ethical reflection by requiring students to show that their solution to the puzzle is morally permissible.
To execute a practical orientation you’ll need to develop at least one practical challenge the solution to which requires understanding from the home-discipline of the course and some grasp of ethics and moral reasoning. Along with the practical challenge you’ll need to develop learning activities that facilitate understanding of some aspect of ethics and moral reasoning. Finally, you’ll want to continually reinforce that understanding as you likely already do with the traditional content. I say more about each component below.
A: Developing a Practical Challenge
A practical challenge presents students with a question about what should be done. These challenges range from within the practice of the discipline to professional practice of those that essentially constitute the discipline. Challenges on the former end present students with a conundrum arising from within the context of attempting to use disciplinary understanding to solve a discipline-relevant question. For instance, a course in Anthropology might ask students to imagine that they are archeologists who’d like to excavate site in an Indian Reservation in the U.S. to test a hypothesis about migration patterns of Siouxan cultures. The challenge is for students to find the best way to go about the excavation the solution to which requires students to address the moral considerations that arise such that the ‘best way’ is not just the most scientifically astute way but also the most morally sound way.
Challenges that arise from the professional end of the spectrum focus on the conduct of practitioners. For instance, a challenge could describe a situation in which principle investigators are trying to decide which action to take where one tends to encourage mission creep but the other will reduce the security of participants’ sensitive information. Insofar as these challenges help students think about academic and professional integrity they are excellent. However, they may be more difficult to weave into the standing course content, since that content is not typically about the profession of some academic field but rather the repertoire of discipline-specific knowledge and skills.
To help you create challenges of either type check out our discipline-specific resources and our resources on academic and professional integrity. There you’ll find discipline-specific cases, codes-of-conduct from active firms, and other helpful information about ethics in that discipline.
B: Learning Activities
As you designed your course you likely used learning objectives together with educative assessments to help guide the design. And, you likely know that developing learning activities involves identifying learning outcomes relevant to meeting the learning objectives and relevant to performing well on the summative assessments. Of course, the difficulty of developing effective learning activities is relative to the extent to which you’re an expert regarding the content and skills that targeted. Since most who seek to incorporate ethics and moral reasoning into their curriculum, I’ll focus on showing non-experts about ethics how to get started developing learning activities.
For our purposes, assume a practical challenge orientation—that is, assume that the course has been designed so that a resolving a discipline-relevant practical challenge is a major component to their grade. Under this assumption students will be required to attend to some of the discipline-relevant considerations and the ethical considerations.
The primary difficulty here is constraining the ethical considerations in a manner that is as unforced as possible. My advice, then, is to focus on a central tension in ethics that most will recognize as challenging—namely, getting the best results without taking morally impermissible means. Though it has the structure of benefit versus cost, it goes beyond that thinking insofar as students are asked to focus on rules that constrain action rather than, say, things like monetary loss or resource use. Under this rubric one can help students unpack what is beneficial or valuable to most persons and get some idea about measuring that value so as to make reasonable trade-offs. But, they also get a chance to unpack an intuitively plausible moral ideas like the promotion/protection of autonomy, fair distributions of benefits and burdens, or acting without malice. So, resolving the challenge involves students arguing that their solution brings as much benefit as possible to the greatest number of persons involved while not unjustly violating their autonomy or being unfair or seeking some nefarious outcome. Hence, students are assessed on their ability to reason about these deeply moral issues while also being assessed on their ability to reason about the discipline-relevant considerations involved in the challenge.
We’re happy to help you think about developing learning activities that target learning outcomes focused on ethics and moral reasoning understandings for your course. Here are some resources for further exploration of this style of integration:
C: Reinforcing Understanding
It is important to continue to draw attention to the concepts and ideas in educative ways as the semester continues beyond the learning activity that focused on them. Of course, this is fairly easy to do with respect to discipline-relevant content as it is a natural way for a course to progress as you build understanding on previous understanding. Still, though it may not be as natural, you should take time to remind students about the moral considerations that they need to address in the practical challenge.
One way to continually revisit the ethics and moral reasoning concepts is to set up a series of low-stakes quizzes that students take periodically. Another way is to require students to keep journals with entries that show them tracking the concepts and ideas as they see them arising in the course. Or if journal keeping is too onerous, you might ask students to catalogue two big take-aways from a week of instruction where one pertains to the discipline-specific content while the other pertains to ethics-specific content. Importantly, each of these mechanisms serve as formative feedback that you should use to inform your instruction. If the course is itself largely oriented to the resolution of practical challenges, there should be multiple opportunities for you to pause instruction to draw attention to ethical considerations directly related to the discipline-specific content that you just covered or are going to cover.
As with the development of practical-challenge assessments and the development of ethics-specific learning activities, we are happy to help you think of creative ways to continually reinforce learning and understanding of ethics and moral reasoning concepts.
Here are some resources for further exploration of this style of integration:
II: Values Orientation Model
Orientations beyond the practical orientation are more arduous primarily due to the fact that they require a stronger departure from learning discipline-specific content. The stronger departure occurs simply because students will be expected to learn and reason about ethics/moral reasoning content in manner that follows more traditional ways of learning discipline-specific material—namely, a pattern like lecture-discuss-quiz-exam-repeat. Hence, the instructor ends up designing a course that visits another course for some time before returning to the original course. The course that fits within is one that targets learning about ethics. So, one key task is to avoid feeling designing a course that is two-in-one. I’ll address this concern as well as the concern that teaching ethics must go beyond students simply voicing their values or demonstrating that they can persuade individuals with a certain set of values.
Effective courses align learning objectives, pedagogy, and educative assessments. Thus, you’ll want to find a way that bring up values and critiquing them or their (purported) expression fits naturally insofar as it doesn’t knock the course out of alignment.
One way to maintain alignment while introducing ethics via a focus on values is to identify something that discipline-specific in the course content that you recognize as valuable and discuss what value it has with the class. There are many ways to approach this but it is key to frame it as a critical evaluation of value.
For instance, suppose the course is a course in environmental studies. At some point during the semester, you could ask students to critically examine their thoughts about the value of the environment. You might begin by asking students to state whether or not they value the environment and why or why not. You could follow up by introducing the following concepts—intrinsic value and instrumental value. Have the students try to categorize their answer as attributing intrinsic or instrumental value to the environment or as denying of the environment any intrinsic or instrumental value. Students should then be directed to continue to think about these different sorts of values by doing things like applying them to other things, trying to locate something that they all agree is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable, argue about which is worth more—something with intrinsic value or something with instrumental value, discussing different ways of measuring value, developing their own measure and explaining its merits/lack of merit in light of existing ways of measuring value, and trying to discern how they know that something has intrinsic value.
Another way to maintain alignment while introducing ethics via a focus on values is to identify an action or set of actions that is part of the discipline-specific course content. From there you can go at least one of two directions. You could ask students about the action’s/actions’ status as intrinsically/instrumentally valuable. Going this direction you follow the pattern just described in the example above. Alternatively you could ask students which values the action expresses/is meant to express/etc. Going this route opens the door to critical thinking about the difference between the outcome and the intended outcome. It also opens a path to discussing the difference between judging the rightness/wrongness of an action on the basis of its results and judging the rightness/wrongness of an action on the basis of something other than its results. Beyond that this route allows you to critically investigate whether that act or set of actions best expresses/promotes some important set of values. Of course, here you can and likely should introduce students to various ways of measuring values as well as how they might be motivated to do something merely because of the value likely to be gained as a result and where that can lead to being motivated to do something that is actually morally impermissible.
We’re happy to help you think about developing learning activities that target learning outcomes focused on ethics and moral reasoning understandings for your course. Here are some resources for further exploration of this style of integration:
III: Theory Orientation Model
As with the Values Orientation Model, when using this model one must work hard to keep the course aligned. Another difficulty is deciding whether you’ll be looking at a theory in Meta-Ethics or Normative Ethics or a particular view about best approaches to resolving/amplifying/etc. a particular, ethically charged issue. A further difficulty is knowing enough to understand the theory well enough to teach it. This latter difficulty should not be taken lightly. These theories are as complicated as any other theory that aims to organize and explain a disparate set of data points while remaining plausible and capturing as many extra-empirical virtue points as it can. Without training or prolonged, formal study it would be surprising if you were in a good position to effectively teach ethical theory to undergraduates.
At the Normative Ethics level, as with each approach you’ll want to identify something in the discipline-specific course content that bears an axiological or morally charged status like good/bad/right/wrong/ praiseworthy/blameworthy/etc. From there you’ll want to get students to explore (a) what they think that things axiological or moral status is and (b) what is the best explanation of that status. For instance, students might be exploring the axiological status of an oil spill—here they’ll be asked to determine whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. Then they’ll work to critically analyze (i) whether they’re correct, which will involve (ii) arguing for that position using a particular value theory as the best explanation of why something is correctly attribute a particular axiological status. Or, take as another example, an act like strip mining. Here students will be challenged to determine the moral status of (a particular manifestation of) strip mining. To make that determination they critically explore (i) whether their assessment is accurate, which will involve (ii) arguing for that position using a particular value theory as the best explanation of why something is correctly attribute a particular axiological status.
Things are similar at the Meta-Ethics level but only because you’ll have to locate something in the discipline-specific content amenable to questions about, for example, the source of the ethical status of events/actions/etc., the mind-dependent status of the ethical status of some set of things, how we can know the axiological or moral status of something, or what sources of knowledge are available for assessing the judgement that something is good/bad/right/wrong/etc. Everything else said about how to design for a Normative Ethics approach to the Theory Orientation Model applies to the Meta-Ethics approach. Again it is unlikely that one could effective teach this material without prolonged, formal study of it. Also, it is unlikely that this sort of understanding will have much of an impact on attitudinal and behavioral dispositions. Hence, I’d advise exploring discipline-specific content through an alternative lens.
Nevertheless, we’re happy to help you think about developing learning activities that target learning outcomes focused on ethics and moral reasoning understandings for your course. Here are some resources for further exploration of this style of integration: