You are on page 1of 6

Can Ethics Be Taught?

Author(s): Derek C. Bok

Source: Change, Vol. 8, No. 9 (Oct., 1976), pp. 26-30
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL:
Accessed: 03-09-2016 15:47 UTC

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Change

This content downloaded from on Sat, 03 Sep 2016 15:47:11 UTC
All use subject to
Can Ethics
Be Taught?
by Derek C. Bok THIS ISA
Change Report
See inside
back cover

have few rivals in their willingness to that transmit moral standards have declined in im-
portance. Churches, families, and local communi-
talk openly about ethical standards. They are
preached in our churches, proclaimed by public of- ties no longer seem to have the influence they once
ficials, debated in the press, and discussed by pro- in a simpler, more rural society. While no
fessional societies to a degree that arouses wonderone can be certain that ethical standards have de-
clined as a result, most people seem to think that
abroad. Yet there has rarely been a time when we
have been so dissatisfied with our moral behavior or
they have, and this belief in itself can erode trust
and spread suspicion in ways that sap the willing-
so beset by ethical dilemmas of every kind. Some of
these problems have arisen in the backwash of the ness to behave morally toward others.
scandals that have recently occurred in govern- In struggling to overcome these problems, we
ment, business, and other areas of national life. will surely need help from many quarters. Business
Others are the product of an age when many new organizations and professional associations will
groups are pressing claims of a distinctly moral na- have to take more initiative in establishing stricter
ture-racial minorities, women, patients, consum- codes of ethics and providing for their enforcement.
ers, environmentalists, and many more. Public officials will need to use imagination in seek-
It will be difficult to make headway against these ing ways of altering incentives in our legal and reg-
problems without a determined effort by the leaders ulatory structure to encourage moral behavior.
of our national institutions. But the public is scarce- But it is also important to look to our colleges
ly optimistic over the prospects, for society's faith and universities and consider what role they can
in its leaders has declined precipitously in recent play. Professors are often reluctant even to talk
years. From 1966 to 1975, the proportion of the about this subject because it is so easy to seem cen-
public professing confidence in Congress dropped sorious or banal. Nevertheless, the issue should not
from 42 to 13 percent; in major corporate presidents be ignored if only because higher education occu-
from 55 to 19 percent; in doctors from 72 to 43 per- pies such strategic ground from which to make a
cent; and in leaders of the bar from 46 to 16 percent. contribution. Every businessman and lawyer, every
Worse yet, 69 percent of the public agreed in 1975 public servant and doctor will pass through our col-
that "over the past 10 years, this country's leaders leges, and most will attend our professional schools
have consistently lied to the people. " as well. If other sources of ethical values have de-
It is also widely believed that most of the sources clined in influence, educators have a responsibility
to contribute in any way they can to the moral
DEREK C. BOK is president of Harvard University.
development of their students.


This content downloaded from on Sat, 03 Sep 2016 15:47:11 UTC
All use subject to

Unfortunately, most colleges I

and universities are doing very lit-
tle to meet this challenge. In sev-
eral respects, they have done even V

less in recent decades than they 8

did a hundred years ago. In the o

nineteenth century, it was com-

monplace for college presidents to
present a series of lectures to the
senior class expounding the ac-
cepted moral principles of the
time. This practice may seem
quaint today, but in its time it
served reasonably well as a
method of moral education. In Job Stuart Magruder at the Watergate hearings.

"According to one instructor, 'Students seem to see

1850, it was easier to discern a
common moral code that could be
things in cost/benefit terms. Will the lie serve a good
passed along from one generation
policy? What are the chances of getting caught? If you
to the next. Partly because of
get caught how much will it hurt you?'"
their positions of authority, and
partly because of the force of their personalities, ignored moral education altogether. But others
many presidents seem to have left a deep impres- have tried to approach the subject in another way
sion on the minds and characters of their students. by attempting to weave moral issues throughout a
In the intervening years, society changed in waysvariety of courses and problems in the regular cur-
that eventually discredited these lectures. Studentsriculum. This method has the advantage of sug-
gesting to students that ethical questions are not
became less inclined to fear authority or to be great-
ly impressed by those who held it. More serious isolated problems but an integral part of the daily
still, the sense of a prevailing moral code broke life and experience of the profession. As such, the
down. As early as the 1850s, the president of Ober- efforts are valuable and should be encouraged. But
it is doubtful whether this approach by itself can
lin College could declare with certitude that slavery
was immoral, even as his counterpart at Mercer have more than limited success in bringing stu-
College was vigorously upholding the practicedents on to reason more carefully about moral issues.
biblical and pragmatic grounds. As social change Most professors have so much ground to cover that
led to new sources of conflict, college presidents they will rarely take the time to acquaint their stu-
seemed increasingly arbitrary and doctrinaire when dents with the writings of moral philosophers on
the ethical
they attempted to convey a set of proper ethical issues under discussion.
precepts. And since their lectures were didactic in Still more important, if a professional school di-
vides the responsibility for moral education among
style, they failed to prepare students to think for
a large number of faculty members, most instruc-
themselves in applying their moral principles to the
tors will not have a knowledge of ethics that is
new controversies and new ethical issues that an in-
equal to the task. Many of them will give short
dustrializing society seemed constantly to create.
By World War I, the tradition had all but ended. shrift to the moral problems and concentrate on
In its place, many colleges introduced survey other aspects of the course materials that they feel
courses on moral philosophy. These offerings have more equipped to teach. The difficulties are clearly
acquainted students with a great intellectual tradi- illustrated by the findings of a recent report from a
tion in a manner that could scarcely be called doc- prominent business school. After listing a wide va-
trinaire. But they have rarely attempted to make riety of moral issues distributed throughout the
more than a limited contribution to moral educa- curriculum, the report described the reactions of a
tion. Since the classes usually consist of lectures, sample of students and faculty: "Almost without
they do not develop the power of moral reasoning.exception, the faculty members indicated that they
touch on one or more of these issues frequently...
To the extent that these courses are simply surveys
but while they were certain they covered the issues,
of ethical theory, they likewise do little to help the
student cope with the practical moral dilemmas hethey often had second thoughts about how explicit
may encounter in his own life. they had been. Almost equally without exception,
Professional schools have never shown much in- students felt the issues are seldom touched on, and
terest in providing lectures on moral conduct or when
sur- they are, are treated as afterthoughts or di-
veys of ethical theory. Many of them have simply gressions."

Change/October 1976 27

This content downloaded from on Sat, 03 Sep 2016 15:47:11 UTC
All use subject to

In view of the disadvantages of the traditional

approaches, more attention is being given today to I
developing problem-oriented courses in ethics. J
These classes are built around a series of contem- 'c

porary moral dilemmas. In colleges, the courses

tend to emphasize issues of deception, breach of
promise, and other moral dilemmas that commonly
arise in everyday life. In schools of law, public af-
fairs, business, and medicine, the emphasis is on
professional ethics. Medical students will grapple
with abortion, euthanasia, and human experimen-
tation, while students of public administration will
discuss whether government officials are ever justi-
fied in lying to the public, or leaking confidential
information, or refusing to carry out the orders of
their superiors. In schools of business, such courses
may take up any number of problems- corporate
The moral aspirations of Harvard stu-
bribes abroad, deceptive advertising, use of poten-
tially hazardous products and methods of produc-
dents undoubtedly profited more from
tion, or employment practices in South Africa.
the example of Archibald Cox than from
Whatever the problem may be, the classesany
gen-course in ethics."
erally proceed by discussion rather than lecturing.
Instructors may present their own views, if only totheir capacity for moral reasoning by learning
to sort out all of the arguments that bear upon
demonstrate that it is possible to make carefully
reasoned choices about ethical dilemmas. Butmoral
theyproblems and apply them to concrete situa-
will be less concerned with presenting solutions
than with carrying on an active discussion in an Aef-
final objective of these courses is to help stu-
fort to encourage students to perceive ethical is- clarify their moral aspirations. Whether in
sues, wrestle with the competing arguments, college
dis- or professional school, many students will
cover the weaknesses in their own position, and be ul-
trying to define their identity and to establish
timately reach thoughtfully reasoned conclusions. the level of integrity at which they will lead their
What can these courses accomplish? One objec- professional lives. By considering a series of ethical
tive is to help students become more alert in discov-problems, they can be encouraged to consider these
ering the moral issues that arise in their own questions
lives. more fully. In making this effort, stu-
Formal education will rarely improve the character dents will benefit from the opportunity to grapple
of a scoundrel. But many individuals who are dis-moral issues in a setting where no serious per-
posed to act morally will often fail to do so becausesonal consequences are at stake. Prospective law-
they are simply unaware of the ethical problems yers, doctors, or businessmen may set higher ethi-
that lie hidden in the situations they confront. cal standards for themselves if they first encounter
Others will not discover a moral problem untilthe moral problems of their calling in the classroom
have gotten too deeply enmeshed to extricate them- instead of waiting to confront them at a point in
selves. By repeatedly asking students to identify their careers when they are short of time and feel
moral problems and define the issues at stake, great pressure to act in morally questionable ways.
courses in applied ethics can sharpen and refine the Despite these apparent virtues, the problem-ori-
moral perception of students so that they can avoid ented courses in ethics have hardly taken the cur-
these pitfalls. riculum by storm. A few experimental offerings
Another major objective is to teach students to have been introduced, but they are still regarded
reason carefully about ethical issues. Many people with indifference or outright skepticism by many
feel that moral problems are matters of personal members of the faculty. What accounts for these at-
opinion and that it is pointless even to argue about titudes? To begin with, many skeptics question the
them since each person's views will turn on values value of trying to teach students to reason about
that cannot be established or refuted on logical moral issues. According to these critics, such
grounds. A well-taught course can demonstrate courses may bring students to perceive more of the
that this is simply not true, and that moral issues arguments and complexities that arise in moral is-
can be discussed as rigorously as many other prob- sues, but this newfound sophistication will simply
lems considered in the classroom. With the help of leave them more confused than ever and quite un-
carefully selected readings, students can then de- able to reach any satisfactory moral conclusions.

28 Ethics

This content downloaded from on Sat, 03 Sep 2016 15:47:11 UTC
All use subject to
This attitude is puzzling. It may be impossible to achieving the strength of character to put these
arrive at answers to certain ethical questions values into practice. Since such matters are not
through analysis alone. Even so, it is surely better easily taught in a classroom, they question whether
for students to be aware of the nuance and complex- a course on ethics can accomplish anything of real
ity of important human problems than to act on importance. It is this point of view that accounts
simplistic generalizations or unexamined premises. for the statement of one business school spokesman
Moreover, many ethical problems are not all that in explaining why there were no courses on ethics in
complicated if students can only be taught to rec- the curriculum: "On the subject of ethics, we feel
ognize them and reason about them carefully. How- that either you have them or you don't."
ever complex the issue, analysis does have impor- There is clearly some force to this argument. Pro-
tant uses, as the following illustrations make clear: fessors who teach the problem-oriented courses do
In one Harvard class, a majority of the stu- not seek to persuade students to accept some pre-
dents thought it proper for a government official to ferred set of moral values. In fact, we would be un-
lie to a congressman in order to forestall a regres- easy if they did, since such an effort would have
sive piece of legislation. According to the instruc- overtones of indoctrination that conflict with our
tor, "The students seem to see things essentially in notions of intellectual freedom. As for building
cost-benefit terms. Will the lie serve a good policy? character, universities can only make a limited con-
What are the chances of getting caught? If you get tribution, and what they accomplish will probably
caught, how much will it hurt you?" This is a very depend more on what goes on outside the classroom
narrow view of deception. Surely these students than on the curriculum itself. For example, the
might revise their position if they were asked to moral aspirations of Harvard students undoubtedly
consider seriously what would happen in a society profited more from the example of Archibald Cox
that invited everyone to lie whenever they believed than from any regular course in ethics. Moreover, if
that it would help to avoid a result which they be- a university expects to overcome the sense of moral
lieved to be wrong. cynicism among its students, it must not merely of-
The New York Times reports that many young fer courses; it will have to demonstrate its own
people consider it permissible to steal merchandise commitment to principled behavior by making a
because they feel that they are merely reducing the serious effort to deal with the ethical aspects of its
profits of large corporations. At the very least, investment policies, its employment practices, and
analysis will be useful in pointing out that theft is the other moral dilemmas that inevitably confront
not so likely to diminish profits as to increase the every educational institution.
price to other consumers. But it is one thing to acknowledge the limitations
Courses in moral reasoning can also help stu- of formal learning and quite another to deny that
dents to avoid moral difficulties by devising alter- reading and discussion can have any effect in de-
nate methods of achieving their ends. This is a veloping ethical principles and moral character. As
simple point, but it is often overlooked. For exam- I have already pointed out, problem-oriented
ple, many researchers commonly mislead their hu- courses encourage students to define their moral
man subjects in order to conduct an important ex- values more carefully and to understand more fully
periment. Careful study can often bring these in- the reasons that underlie and justify these precepts.
vestigators to understand the dangers of deception Unless one is prepared to argue that ethical values
more fully and exert more imagination in devising have no intellectual basis whatsoever, it seems like-
ways of conducting their experiments which do not ly that this process of thought will play a useful role
require such questionable methods. in helping students develop a clearer, more consis-
Even in the most difficult cases- such as de- tent set of ethical principles that takes more careful
ciding who will have access to some scarce, life-sus- account of the needs and interests of others. And it
taining medical technique- progress can be made is also probable that students who fully understand
by learning to pay attention not only to the ulti- the reasons that support their ethical principles will
mate problem of who shall live, but to devising pro- be more inclined to put their principles into practice
cedures for making such decisions in a manner that and more uncomfortable at the thought of sacri-
seems reasonable and fair to all concerned. ficing principle to serve their own private ends.
To be sure, no one would deny that ethical values
and moral character are profoundly dependent on
many forces beyond the university- on family in-
There are
courses can other skeptics
help students whomore
reason concede that
fluences, religious experience, and the personal ex-
ly about ethical problems. But these criticsample argue of friends and public figures. But this is true
that moral development has less to do with reason- of all of education. Everyone knows that outstand-
ing than with acquiring proper moral valuesing and
lawyers, businessmen, and public servants suc-

Change/October 1976 29

This content downloaded from on Sat, 03 Sep 2016 15:47:11 UTC
All use subject to
ceed not only because of the instruction they re- equipped to train a fully qualified instructor. Pro
ceived as students but because of qualities of lead- fessors of law or business may understand judicia
ership, integrity, judgment, and imagination that procedures and corporate finance- they may ev
formal education cannot hope to supply. Neverthe- be masters of the Socratic method- but they w
less, we still have faith in the value of professional rarely have much background in moral philosoph
schools because we believe that most students pos- Philosophers in turn will usually know virtual
sess these personal qualities in sufficient measure nothing about any of the professions and may ev
to benefit from professional training and thereby lack experience in teaching problem-oriente
become more effective practitioners. In the same classes. If moral education is ever to prosper, we
way, we should be willing to assume that most stu- will have to find ways of overcoming these deficien-
dents have sufficient desire to live a moral life that cies by creating serious interdisciplinary programs
they will profit from instruction that helps themfor to students seeking careers of teaching and schol-
become more alert to ethical issues, and to apply arship in this field. Fortunately, the time is ripe for
their moral values more carefully and rigorouslydeveloping
to such programs, since professional
the ethical dilemmas they encounter in their profes- schools are beginning to recognize the moral de-
sional lives. mands being made on their professions while phi-
Even if we are prepared to agree that these prob- losophy departments are finding it more and more
lem-oriented courses on ethics have a valuable con- difficult to place their PhDs in traditional teaching
tribution to make, there is a final, practical objec- posts.
tion to consider. To put it bluntly, much of the But is the effort worth making? I firmly believe
skepticism about these courses probably arisesthat notit is. Even if courses in applied ethics turned
from doubts about their potential value but from out to have no effect whatsoever on the moral de-
deeper reservations as to whether those who teach velopment of our students, they would still make a
the courses are really qualified to do so. Unfortu- contribution. There is value to be gained from any
nately, it is simply a fact that many courses incourse ap- that forces students to think carefully and
plied ethics have been taught by persons with little rigorously about complex human problems. The
qualification beyond a strongly developed social growth of such courses will also encourage profes-
conscience. Of all the problems that have been con- sors to give more systematic study and thought to
sidered, this is the most substantial. Poor instruc- a wide range of contemporary moral issues. Now
tion can harm any class. But it is devastating to a that society is expressing greater concern about
course on ethics, for it confirms the prejudices of ethics in the professions and in public life, work of
those students and faculty who suspect that moral this kind is badly needed, for it is surprising how
reasoning is inherently inconclusive and that
little serious, informed writing has been devoted
courses on moral issues will soon become vehicles
even to such pervasive moral issues as lying and
for transmitting the private prejudices of the in-
deception. But beyond these advantages, one must
structor. certainly hope that courses on ethical problems will
What does a competent professor need to knowaffect
to the lives and thought of students. We cannot
offer a course of this type? To begin with, instruc-
be certain of the impact these courses will have. But
tors must have an adequate knowledge of moral
certainty has never been the criterion for educa-
philosophy so that they can select the most useful tional decisions. Every professor knows that much
readings for their students and bring forth the mostof the information conveyed in the classroom will
illuminating theories and arguments that have been soon be forgotten. The willingness to continue
devised to deal with recurrent ethical dilemmas. In teaching rests on an act of faith that students will
addition, teachers must have an adequate knowl- retain a useful conceptual framework, a helpful ap-
edge of the field of human affairs to which their proach to the subject, a valuable method of analy-
course is addressed. Otherwise, they will neither sis,
beor some other intangible residue of intellectual
credible to students nor succeed in bringing value.
stu- Much the same is true of courses on ethical
dents to understand all of the practical implications problems. Although the point is still unproved, it
and consequences of choosing one course of action does seem plausible to suppose that the students in
over another. Finally, instructors must know how these courses will become more alert in perceiving
to conduct a rigorous class discussion that will ethical issues, more aware of the reasons underlying
elicit a full consideration of the issues without de- moral principles, and more equipped to reason care-
generating into a windy exchange of student fully in applying these principles to concrete cases.
opinion. Will they behave more ethically? We may never
These requirements are not insuperable, but they know. But surely the experiment is worth trying,
present real difficulties because in most universities for the goal has never been more important to the
there is no single department or program that is quality of the society in which we live.

30 Ethics

This content downloaded from on Sat, 03 Sep 2016 15:47:11 UTC
All use subject to