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Identifying Issues in What You Teach

Ethics as a Context of Professional Work (and identifying issues in what you teach)

Along with case study discussions, there are a number of ways to begin integrating ethics into different aspects of your curriculum. The following handout gives a brief explanation of how ethics is part of the normal context of professional practice, and uses this to help instructors begin to identify ethical issues that are already imbedded in what you teach. The final section offers some strategies for making room for these issues in your course.

I. Ethics and other professional standards: some similarities

A. Same purpose as other standards, namely

1. Standardize profession's work

2. Protect public, serve client, support other standards, etc.

B. Similar development

1. Begins with common sense

2. Modified based on experience of profession

3. Never final (since experience continues)

C. Needs practical context to make sense

1. Each profession is defined by a certain sort of judgment, not merely by the knowledge such judgment presupposes:

e.g. you are not an engineer because you know what engineers know but because you can—and generally do—show the good judgment characteristic of engineers.

2. Judgment can only be exercised in a context.

large part of what makes a professional's judgment useful is its ability to appreciate certain features of certain contexts

e.g. engineer sees hoisting of a large beam as an engineering problem (what forces are at work, etc.), while lawyer sees it as a legal problem (what liability might arise).

II. Once you begin thinking about the ethical issues professionals in your field encounter on a day-to-day basis, it becomes relatively easy to identify ethical issues in what you teach. What follows are a few suggestions of how to begin to do this, and how to focus students’ attention on these issues without greatly changing your class syllabus.


A. Read your profession's code of ethics—what issues?

If it's in the code, it probably comes up.

B. Draw on your practical experience—what bothered you?

C. Ask practitioners what comes up in their work?

D. Collect newspaper stories, novels, short stories, web sites, and the like that deal with your profession—what comes up there?

E. Look through texts on your profession's ethics. (For example, see the Codes of Ethics Collection, divided by professional category link)

F. Ask your students to write up problems (based on their work experience or on the work experience of someone they interview) (For engineering instructions, you can see examples of cases developed by graduate students in the Ethics-in-Basket link)

G. Think about writing a report on research, design work, or evaluation of the material covered in course: what problems arise in reporting technical results?

H. Ask: how the activity in which such technical judgment is relevant could harm someone or embarrass members of your profession?

II. Ethics in the classroom: Strategy—make room for judgment by adding context. E.g.

A. Rewrite problems to include more information;

e.g. instead of “liquid” emptying into a “basin”, why not a specific highly toxic chemical emptying into a specific river? Did students notice how much was going in? Why didn't they flag the problem? How many people might die as result? Responsibility beyond particular technical questions?

Not just safety, also utility (e.g. specs not suitable to locale), cost (e.g. unnecessarily expensive materials), and so on.


B. Create mini-design problems: group similar problems, ask students to do the usual calculations, then give enough context so that what has been calculated are various solutions to same practical problem and ask for a recommendation. Which approach should we take and why? One approach could be cheaper in the short run, another cheaper in long run, another safer, and so on. What is professional responsibility here?

C. Forensics: Assign students to study report of some disaster (or scandal) relevant to material of course: How do “we” avoid such a disaster “next time”?

Disasters are effective in teaching ethics because they are both real and dramatic.

Students develop a sense for how easy it is to mess up (that is, add to their “moral imagination”), how important professional standards really are.

Tip: Don't use too many disasters. If you only use cases studies in your class that show failures to exercise ethical judgment, students may become cynical about the very possibility of professionals behaving ethically. (1)

D. Investigate technical standard (relevant to course)

e.g. How was this table developed? Why do we record lab observations in ink, at time, in books that cannot leave lab? (What disasters led “us” to draw line here?) Stories.

E. Assign responsibilities now.

e.g. treat lab rules as professional standards, explaining rationale for these standards (safety, preserving immediacy to catch small clues, making it possible for others to pick up where you left off, protecting against suspicion, and so on)—or (as in D) make students figure out their rationale.

e.g. do work with “real world” effects (sampling river for EPA)

(1) Davis, Michael. “Developing and Using Cases to Teach Practical Ethics.” Teaching Philosophy 20:4 (December 1997) p.364.