Press "Enter" to skip to content

Universities, ethics and social justice


In 1976 Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote an article asking, “Can Ethics Be Taught?” Concluding that it could and should be, about a decade later (no point in hurrying these things) he asked a new hire to set up a system of “problem-oriented courses in ethics” covering a range of disciplines.

The ethics center at Harvard grew rapidly, as a history of it recounted: “The Center’s accomplishments have multiplied exponentially, but so have the complexities of modern life. As the need for leaders who can make sound moral judgments in public and professional life increases, the wisdom of establishing a Center with the mission of promoting ethics teaching and research is more apparent today than ever.” There is some logic to that – to at least developing thinking, not necessarily prescription – to the subject, because our knowledge so often outruns our moral wisdom.

Ethics instruction in American colleges, and even in public schools, goes back many years, but it has expanded into practical ways in recent years. One website noting some of the courses available listed, for example, Moralities of Everyday Life (Yale University), Ethics, Technology and Engineering (Eindhoven University of Technology), Data Science Ethics (University of Michigan), and Effective Altruism (Princeton University) among many others.

Might this become a subject of controversy? Easily, and has at Boise State University. There, a couple of weeks ago, the institution suspended its main set of courses in the area, under the grouping of University Foundations 200: Foundations of Ethics and Diversity, after “We have been made aware of a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.”

There was no further explanation. About the same time, the Idaho Legislature took the unusual step of budgeting for each individual higher education institution – instead of, as traditionally, leaving the higher education split to the state Board of Education – and cut $409,000 from the Boise State budget … with the intent of slicing into any nefarious “social justice” activity.

This week (with the legislature in recess?), the university reversed and said UF200 “will resume immediately online and asynchronously. Students will engage with faculty, receive and submit assignments, complete the course, and achieve their learning outcomes online …”

Why was any of this controversial and a reason for a slashed budget by the legislature? In the rhetoric of today’s culture wars few phrases evoke more visceral disgust than “social justice,” unless maybe “diversity.”

To get more specific, we can look at what’s under this University Foundations 200 umbrella. How radical is it? Look for yourself on the university’s UF200 webpage, which describes the course options (students can choose up to a few among several dozen).

The summary says, “Ethics guide how we ought to live, and we live in a diverse society with other individuals and groups. UF 200 courses help students investigate how we practice our ethics together as engaged citizens creating an inclusive community.” That sounds not far off from the kind of university ethics courses higher education students have encountered for hundreds of years.

The various courses cover such topics as hospitality, community, “refugee immigrant,” moral courage, technology, film/literature, social inequality, and moral issues that crop up in specific places (such as a course looking at morality in the Harry Potter books). The idea, in a well-taught course (and some may be better-taught than others), is to open students’ minds to a range of ideas and perspectives they might not otherwise have encountered. Could this be the legislator’s real problem with the whole enterprise – by which I mean higher education?

Some course elements – a few among the many options – do get into contentious terrain. The course on intersectionality, for example, is described this way: “we first delve into intersectionality, a lens coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. We then begin to explore how power and privilege impact the way we live our lives and what we have and don’t have access to (i.e. healthcare). Once we have a solid understanding of identity, power, and privilege, we explore different families of ethics: the ethics of the person, the ethics of happiness, the ethics of virtue, and the ethics of relationship.”

The key to something like this, as with many university courses, is in the specific approach: Offering exposure to new ideas and challenging minds to critical thinking, as opposed to insisting upon the rightness of those ideas.

The fact that there’s a public controversy about this proves the need for it.

Share on Facebook