Is teaching ethics a waste of time?

From the President

By James W. Wagner

President James Wagner

Is it really possible for a university to be “­ethically engaged,” as Emory, in its vision statement, calls itself to be? Maybe more to the point, can a university even hope to teach people to be ethical as well as to merely cogitate and talk about ethics? Can an institution as big and diverse as a research university really back up reflection with doing when it comes to striving for goodness?

A lot of people would say no—that the level of ethical engagement students leave with is not much different than what they arrive with, and that, with few exceptions, staff and faculty members work month after month without much change in their general sense of the good and their ability to follow the rules. Some people say yes—that students and employees do in fact strive toward institutional and community ideals, and that they also develop good ethical habits to the degree that rules, processes, and ethical culture are in place to guide their behavior.

For my part, I respond to these questions by going out on a limb and saying—maybe. Maybe a university can teach ethical engagement. For those that consciously attempt it, I think success depends on their ability to nurture good judgment in people.

What do I mean by “judgment”? The great American ethicist and Christian philosopher H. Richard Niebuhr—the younger and less-renowned brother of Reinhold Niebuhr—offers helpful insight in his posthumous masterpiece The Responsible Self. There he outlines three ways of thinking about ethics: we can seek to live by what is right, trying to follow the most-just laws we can devise; we can strive to aim for what is good, working to build a way of life that most effectively promotes our vision of human happiness; or we can aim to live responsibly, putting less emphasis on rules and definitions of the good, and more on our response to what is needed. For Niebuhr, response-ability is the capacity to size up what is going on, determine what the appropriate response should be, and then hold oneself accountable for the outcomes of one’s actions.

In large measure this is what I take to be the mission of an ethically engaged university. It is true that universities, like some nations and other collective enterprises, often spell out “the good” in their founding documents. Where the aim of “the people of the United States” is “to form a more perfect Union,” and so on, the aim of the founders of Emory University was “to encourage freedom of thought as liberal as the limitations of truth.” Behind both of these statements lies an understanding that such endeavors are worthy and good—that men, women, and society in general will be the better for having undertaken them.

It is also true that universities establish what is “right”—policies, procedures, regulations about everything from proper laboratory work to behavior in residence halls and the keeping of work hours and so on.

Reading Emory’s charter and bylaws tells us something about the founders’ understanding of what the “good” university should be, and reading our policy website tells us much about how to live “right” on our campus. But these things still do not get at whether Emory is ethically engaged. To understand that, we need to know whether Emory can live responsibly.

Take an instance from Emory’s history.In the 1980s, as South Africa’s apartheid regime held tightly to power, students and faculty at many American universities advocated divesting institutional endowment in companies that did business in South Africa. At Emory, which then held a heavy concentration in Coca-Cola stock, the concern was whether The Coca-Cola Company’s presence in South Africa—and therefore Emory’s investment—somehow supported the apartheid regime or, on the other hand, made it possible for black South Africans to rise above their economic circumstances. President Jim Laney appointed a task force, chaired by ethicist Jon Gunnemann, to study the matter. The task force’s deeply probing and thoughtful 1986 report—articulating clear principles, presenting guidelines, and recommending transformative engagement—still offers a superb instance of the kind of ethical responsibility of which institutions are capable.

In a world that seems to want to abdicate the exercise of judgment in favor of rote behavior, teaching to the test, and formulaic answers to complex questions, it becomes ever more incumbent on a university to instill judgment in young men and women.

For my part, I believe that judgment is the gold standard by which Emory measures all other skills and talents. The technically best surgeon needs good judgment about where and when not to cut. The most talented writer must exercise judgment both in choosing the right word for the right place and in leaving out some good but extraneous words. The most knowledgeable MBA holder needs judgment to determine when maximizing profits might not maximize happiness or goodness.

Good judgment is the sine qua non of human maturity, and it should be (if it’s not already) the distinctive quality of an Emory education.

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