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Stanford panel debates: Does teaching ethics do any good?

In an event sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, faculty from Stanford’s business school, law school and Philosophy Department say such courses equip students with the tools to engage with ethical problems.

Charlie Russo Monin and Schapiro

Stanford professors Benoit Monin, left, and Tamar Schapiro discuss the value of ethics classes at a program sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society.

Stanford University requires every undergraduate to take a class that deals with ethics. But can something as personal as ethics be taught in a classroom? Can classes in ethics make students more virtuous individuals? Or is that the wrong question to focus on?

These are the issues that a panel of Stanford scholars addressed in an event titled Does Teaching Ethics do any Good? It was sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society as part of a series of talks marking its 25th anniversary.

Approaching the topic from diverse academic backgrounds, the Stanford professors who participated in the discussion agreed that ethics classes cannot be expected to make students more ethical. However, they articulated several other benefits, such as teaching students to fruitfully and confidently engage in ethical dialogue.

They also argued that studying ethics can make students less dogmatic and more tolerant, and yet at the same time more clear about their own value commitments.

Professor Benoît Monin of the Graduate School of Business, philosophy Professor Tamar Schapiro and law Professor Barbara Fried spoke at the event, which was held at the Law School on May 1. A video of the talk is available online.

The panelists who specifically teach ethics courses – Monin and Schapiro – were skeptical that teaching students the particulars of various ethical viewpoints encourages them to behave more morally.  

As the social scientist in the room, Monin noted that, empirically, ethicists do not seem to behave any better than others on metrics such as returning books to the library or donating to charity. The jury’s still out on whether academic ethics is going to change actual behavior, he said.

However, Monin, who teaches psychology and organizational behavior, said he sees other benefits to his GSB ethics class. He said teaching students social psychology, rather than moral philosophy, is one of the most effective ways to make them more responsible social actors.

“Often, when individuals do the wrong thing, it is not just because they are wicked people, but because they fall prey to a number of social phenomena,” Monin said. He added that teaching students about phenomena like the bystander effect (when someone fails to help a person in distress if other nearby witnesses are doing nothing) is itself an important way of empowering them to guard against irresponsible actions.

Similarly, Schapiro, who teaches an introductory course on ethical theory, said her job is not to show students why they should adopt certain ethical commitments over others.

Moral relativists

Instead, she wants to teach them how to constructively engage with the ethical commitments that they already hold when they walk in the door of her classroom. Schapiro connected this need for engagement to the fact that college students typically enter ethics courses as moral relativists uncomfortable with advocating for the truth of one moral position over another.

“I believe many students are tempted to shut down ethical discussion because they have no confidence in their ability to engage in it. …They don’t feel empowered to engage in ethical discussion [in a way that doesn’t lead to] taking sides and digging their heels,” Schapiro said.

A scholar of law and political theory, Fried expressed concern that undergraduate ethics classes do not do enough to teach students how they can improve society under the “messy” conditions of the real world.

Fried said she views effective ethics education as more than teaching students to think about abstract moral principles. “We are inducing a certain kind of passivity in students by focusing on moral thinking rather than moral action,” she said.

“Teaching a course in San Quentin prison, as some of our graduate students do, or working on a project to design a better system for matching bone marrow transplant donors to recipients” would teach students how to engage with ethical problems in a very different way than thinking about an ethical issue in class, Fried noted.

She said she would like to see undergraduates gain a “sense of efficacy” and a “taste for effective moral behavior” through projects and fieldwork, similar to what law students have the opportunity to do through legal clinics.

A place for self-discovery

Monin said classes like his are valuable because they give students a safe place to talk about moral disagreements. They provide students with the language and social license to discuss topics they would not have otherwise felt comfortable bringing up, such as their moral concerns with business practices they have observed.

“You see people encountering a diversity of opinion they didn’t realize existed because of this gag on morality” in everyday conversation, he said.

“Students value constructive discourse about ethical matters,” Schapiro said. Like Monin, Schapiro thinks that her class is not valuable to students primarily because it exposes them to theorists like David Hume and Immanuel Kant, but rather because it allows them to approach such discourse and teaches them how to do so more productively.

However, the scholars expressed discomfort with the idea that they have any moral authority over their students. This discomfort seemed to underlie their conviction that the function of their courses is not to teach students to behave in a certain way.

“If I thought my aim were to make my students more virtuous, what would I have to assume about myself?" Schapiro asked. "When I teach them how to write a philosophy paper, I definitely assume I know better than they do how to write a philosophy paper … [but] I’m 100 percent certain I am not more virtuous than many of my students. Some of them live much more conscientiously than I do.”

Still, the panelists were not able to cleanly detach themselves from any claim to ethical authority. For example, Fried and Monin said that, though they were initially uncomfortable with giving their graduate students a last-day-of-class talk about what is important in life, they now deliver that speech year in, year out. And that seems to be the lecture their students remember most after they graduate.

Salil Dudani is a philosophy major at Stanford.