Ethics classes can help prepare students for what their degree looks like in the real world. Not only does this help students, it also can have a positive effect on new hires questioning the effect that their workplace has on the world. And yet, few students at Binghamton University are obligated to take ethics classes.
Of the five schools at BU, the School of Management (SOM), the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Decker School of Nursing require few to no ethics classes. The Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences actually requires none. The SOM curriculum includes Management 311: Organizational Behavior, a class that teaches interpersonal skills and behavioral applications in the workplace. In the Watson school, computer science majors take Computer Science 301: Ethical, Social and Global Issues in Computing, which teaches the implications of computing in society, while biomedical engineering majors take Biomedical Engineering 432: Ethics in Engineering, which covers professional responsibilities in natural disasters. The overall lack of ethics lessons tells me that we are severely under-preparing the student body for the dilemmas they will face in their careers.
According to BU’s website, some of the most popular destinations for recent graduates are BAE Systems, Inc., Lockheed Martin and JPMorgan Chase. These are morally ambiguous companies at best. According to their own website, Lockheed Martin manufactures weapons for the U.S. military. BAE Systems, Inc. sells weapons to countries like the United States and United Kingdom, among others. Even after the 2008 crisis, JPMorgan Chase has been charged with having bribed officials in Alabama and rigging bidding practices across the United States to win them business.
Considering that these three companies probably draw from graduates from either the Watson school or SOM, it is problematic that they take so few ethics classes. These companies, ones that have major global influence, can easily be staffed by people who have little background in the ethical dilemmas of their actions. That’s not to say that people can’t learn as they work, but a rigorous background in the consequences of your career is necessary for complex issues like investment and war.
The effectiveness of incorporating ethics classes into degrees is a hard thing to quantify as substantial research hasn’t been done on it. Nevertheless, for now, we can look at the main ways it has been implemented in the past and what we can expect going forward. An article by Timothy Fort, a professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University, outlines different approaches. He writes that the four main options are a stand-alone class, infusing ethics into all classes, combining those two or placing emphasis on extracurricular programs that would provide some form of ethical lessons. He writes that “it takes time for students to develop those kinds of reasoning skills, and time is only available in a stand-alone course.” With this structure in mind, BU should add classes that deal with the social implications that come with your choice of major. For example, Philosophy 148: Medical Ethics is a class offered at BU. In it, students discuss different obligations that doctors have, how to deal with those obligations when conflicts come up and analyze arguments as to why. This concept should be applied to all majors by creating classes that discuss what your program looks like in the real world, as well as the ethical dilemmas it may present.
I understand that employment is necessary after college. A lot of people don’t have the safety net of family members to help them as they wait for a perfectly ethical job to fall in their lap. The point of arguing for more ethics classes is not the short-term solution of one student personally avoiding employment at a company like Lockheed Martin. The point is that, in the long run, we as a society can view these companies as morally objectionable and begin to dismantle their place in our economy, but we can’t do that until we identify the ethical problems they cause.
This is also not to say that the more liberal arts majors of Harpur College or the College of Community and Public Affairs are off the hook. But because the number of core classes differs by major and most social sciences can be argued as having roots in applied ethics, it is more difficult to analyze their requirements. That conversation deserves its own separate analysis.
The fact remains that we aren’t teaching engineering students where the bombs they design will go. We aren’t teaching business students that there is a greater responsibility to investing than just making money. We aren’t teaching nursing students why only some people have access to their lifesaving services. This should change.
Michael Levinstein is a senior double-majoring in political science and economics.