Spotlight on ethics Focus: 'There is a great longing to try to find or get back to moral foundations.' University of Baltimore educator declares.

July 21, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

LET US NOW PAY HOMAGE to the fathers of modern American ethics: Socrates, St. Augustine, Richard Nixon, Ivan Boesky, Dr. Jack Kevorkian. In ways ranging from philosophy to felony, these men have all raised sticky ethical issues over the years. And in response the discipline of ethics, long a source of academic endeavor, has taken on a new, more practical face at the nation's colleges and universities.

Specific courses on ethics in the professions have been triggered by separate crises, including revelations about government actions in the Vietnam war and Watergate, the Wall Street insider-trading scandals and the medical dilemmas born of rapid-fire advances in technology.

Now, as some cultural critics contend that Americans are losing a common core of values, many colleges have pushed the new discipline of applied ethics even farther: ethical considerations are being infused into courses throughout their undergraduate programs.

"To separate ethics as an area of expertise, there's no excuse for that," said Fred Guy, director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore. "There is a great longing to try to find or get back to moral foundations. I think we're getting impatient with the idea that everything wrong can be explained away."

Ethics is no longer the exclusive franchise of religious institutions or service academies, many of which have always had firm ethical underpinnings. The revival has occurred with a practical emphasis in public universities and private colleges, secular schools and religious institutions, from ivy-encrusted halls of the Northeast to party havens of the Southwest. And academics say they are filling a palpable need.

"It's absolutely stunning that many of these students have never had any exposure to the idea of honesty, to the idea of integrity, to the idea that ethics means anything to your life," said Marianne Jennings, the director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University's business school in Tempe.

Asked if they would return a wallet they found on a street, students say they might not, Jennings said. "Honestly, some of the responses I get, are that if you're dumb enough to lose your wallet, then you don't deserve to get your wallet back. There's a lot of rationalization that has gone on in their lives."

In accounting, computing, engineering - you name it, there's probably a professor on campus weaving morality into an area many think of as morals-neutral.

In a classroom discussion during a recent summer's day at the University of Baltimore, students were weighing Albert Camus' The Stranger, a post-World War Two novel of a man so alienated from humanity that he shoots another man on an Algerian beach for little more than drawing breath. Is the narrator evil? Guy asked his class, which he had split into prosecution, defense and jury.

"That he was indifferent, that does not make him an evil person," one woman ventured. "It was happenstance that he was walking on the beach. Nowhere do we see evidence that he was a heartless person."

The "jury" agreed, ruling unanimously that he did not set out to kill. And Guy sounded a little perplexed. "Here's a guy who shot an Arab lying on the beach," Guy said. "Are we explaining away evil today? We're timid."

At the least, Guy said later, the class is forced to think critically. "They're not in the habit of considering carefully a point of view that differs significantly from your own," he said.

Professors interviewed said that students often arrive at college with unquestioned moral assumptions, then abandon the surety of those beliefs after encountering people with equally strong views that conflict with their own. That often leads to a relativism that can hold all views as having equal value, scholars said.

"It's possible to go beyond that second stage of uncritical relativism," said William Craft, dean of undergraduate studies at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg. "It's possible to figure out that some things are indeed more good than others." At the Mount, college officials created a new core curriculum with a mandatory seven-course sequence that covers philosophical and religious ground from Western and non-Western traditions.

Even among faculty members, there is a split in the reaction ethics gurus encounter.

Some professors, particularly those in the hard sciences, say that ethics has no place in their courses, and that moral instruction is so intangible, so squishy, that it serves little purpose.

Yet some professors hunger for ways to include social dimensions to their courses. At a recent day-long seminar at UB's Hoffberger Center, community college instructors clamored for a way to involve case studies to present moral quandaries, while saying they wanted to avoid preaching to students.

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