Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Restore ethics as partner to intellect

WHEN Socrates declared that knowledge is virtue and virtue, knowledge, he postulated a link between intellectual and ethical growth that has guided higher education for more than a millennium. From ancient Greece to the halls of Oxford and Cambridge to the colleges of the New World, the dual responsibility for mental and moral training was accepted and zealously exercised by those whose task it was to teach. Today, the link between knowledge and virtue has been weakened, and the consequences are of intense public interest. Knowledge may enable inside traders to make millions in the stock market, but its effect on their virtue is quite the opposite of what Socrates had in mind. With disturbing frequency we read of scientists, both prominent and promising, who attempt to enhance their reputations by tampering with experimental results and falsifying data. And the current Iran-contra affair points to a far-reaching confusion of ends and means at the highest levels of government.

Virtue, it seems, can easily be sacrificed to the pressures of the moment; and those we may consider most knowledgeable often seem most at risk. As Will Rogers said, a simple man may steal from a freight car; but give him a college degree and he'll steal the whole railroad.

About these ads

Without renewed commitment to both the intellectual and ethical aspects of education, our problems will intensify. A higher education in the professions or the sciences, no matter how intellectually demanding, is incomplete unless it explores both ethical and social dimensions. We cannot responsibly teach the mechanics of gene splicing without exploring the ethical questions raised by application of that technology; or reactor safety without addressing the public's concerns, both intellectual and emotional; or the chemistry of ozone-layer depletion without considering its implication for human health; or corporate finance without raising the questions of corporate responsibility.

The ethics courses that have become standard fare in law, business, and medical education, and the team-taught interdisciplinary courses favored by colleges of arts and sciences, provide useful models for addressing these issues. But we also need faculty members who are willing to explore the ethical and social implications of their disciplines. Just as we now teach students to write ``across the curriculum,'' we must encourage students to consider the ethical and social implications of all that they know and are able to do. Our students need to learn when and how to query their own actions, to explore their options, and to be skeptical of easy solutions. They should be guided not by a set of rigid moral imperatives that we have taught them, but by those principles and values that should be weighed in considering their actions.

Consideration of ethical issues in the classroom presents problems. We cannot, and should not, try to impose a single set of social values or ethical standards on everyone. We should not reward students who hold the ``correct'' point of view or penalize those who think otherwise. But it is true also that we should not encourage students to master the factual dimensions of their course work while ignoring the more difficult questions of meaning and significance. The role of the faculty member should be to raise and examine issues and, perhaps, to state a personal view; but responsibility for developing an ethical framework and a coherent philosophy of life must always be left to the student. Our responsibility is to educate students who understand and accept this personal responsibility.

The challenge is clear and an approach is open. More of our faculty members should be encouraged to explore the ethical and social as well as the factual dimensions of what they teach. If they provided not only content but also context, they would send a powerful message to students about what is worth knowing and why and how to know it. Departments, colleges, and universities can help bring this about by providing opportunities and resources to faculty members who wish to develop their ethical muscle. So can the academic societies by providing forums for debate. But the strongest lever may be for selection, promotion, and tenure committees to require candidates to display both virtue and knowledge and how they relate in science, scholarship, and instruction. For knowledge and virtue are indeed linked, not simply by the rhetoric of an ancient philosopher, but because they are the substance of a life well lived. Robert Barker is provost of Cornell University.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.