Since taking on the position of LSU Ethics Institute Director, my main goal has been to build institutional bridges to and from the LSU Ethics Institute, housed in the venerable College of Humanities and Social Sciences. One way to build such bridges is to expand the scope of ethics education beyond HSS, to other contexts where ethics is less “at home.”
Ethics is an ancient field of study that poses some of the weightiest human questions: What does it mean to lead a good life? How do we become good? What values and ends should orient our actions? Students are introduced to such questions and the historically notable attempts to respond to these questions in a standard ethics course. Indeed, hundreds of LSU students take such courses every year. But such courses are not enough for most students to fully develop their ethical reasoning capacities, and what philosopher Mark Johnson refers to as “moral imagination.” Despite the central role that ethics is supposed to play in human life, there is a marked lack of attention to ethics education in higher education in the United States outside of the Humanities. According to philosopher Nancy Tuana, this is due, at least in part, to the belief that ethics is somehow not like other forms of literacy, patterns of reasoning that are learned over time. Or, if ethics is something teachable, it is best taught at home or in religious contexts like Sunday school. Formal ethics education, then, would at best be a supplement to higher education; something that might round out the skills that we do expect higher education to impart.
There are many reasons to doubt these standard views about ethics education. First, take the distinction between micro- and macro-ethics. The first refers to actions an individual might take or attitudes they might have (e.g. telling the truth, dealing fairly with co-workers). The second refers to the larger social and cultural contexts in which our working lives are embedded. If students do get any formal ethical instruction growing up (and not all do), it is likely to be micro-ethics. This, however, will tend to leave out questions that are central to our understanding of the greater social good and the role of moral values in constraining the sorts of cultural projects we pursue. For example, when and how should CRISPR, the gene-editing technology, be used? Who has the responsibility of deciding and enforcing such norms? These are macro-ethical questions, and they ought to be raised when the students are learning about cutting-edge biotechnology. Such questions are not supplemental but central to a scientific education.
If students are not introduced to the big questions and given some guidance on how to answer these questions while at LSU, when will they be introduced? What sorts of leaders could we train without a rigorous training in how to deal rigorously with normative questions? Research indicates that students enter college (and this is as true for STEM fields as well as the Humanities) fascinated by the “big questions” (including the macro-ethical questions). However, disciplinary specialization can lead these sorts of interest to atrophy outside of the Humanities. Even worse from the point of view of intellectual diversity, students who care most about these questions might leave STEM fields if they see no recognition or concern for values and moral inquiry.
The result of decades of reinforcing the division between scientific and humanistic inquiry is otherwise extremely educated people uncomfortable using normative concepts in everyday contexts. I feel “out of my depth” a computer scientist recently told me. But how can a computer scientist answer questions about the fairness of an algorithm if they don’t know how to talk about fairness? Is using people’s data without their consent bad? Is it ever permissible? These are central questions in contemporary computer science that involve standard normative concepts. To gain facility using these concepts is to gain ethical literacy. Ethics—and other “big questions” central to human flourishing—should, like writing and communication, be taught ‘across the curriculum’.
A recent grant from the LA Board of Regents will allow us to take a small but impactful step in that direction here at LSU—and in this we are following models that are being increasingly deployed around the country. With our new project, “Embedding Ethics in STEM @ LSU” we will begin to expand the scope of the ethics education at LSU. Please consider applying if you teach a course that would benefit from ethics-related content.
As always, we appreciate your support of the Ethics Institute and wish you a very enjoyable summer. See you in the Fall.
Dr. Deborah Goldgaber
Director of the LSU Ethics Institute