January 26, 2005: Features

Update March 28, 2005:
PAW received 36 responses to its online survey of 14 hypothetical situations that were used in research on “cognitive conflict and control in moral judgment” by Princeton researchers Joshua D. Greene *02, Leigh E. Nystrom, Andrew D. Engell, John M. Darley, and Jonathan D. Cohen. You may recognize some of these examples as dilemmas posed by contemporary moral philosophers at Princeton and elsewhere. The survey accompanied the online contents of our special Jan. 26 issue on “Exploring Ethics. ”

Click here to read the ethical scenarios and compare your responses to other PAW readers.

How Princeton students learn to think about right and wrong

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83

Photo Illustration by Ricardo Barros

Most people are born with two kidneys, but it is possible to survive with only one. If a person with two healthy kidneys donates one of them to someone suffering from kidney disease, he or she is usually lauded as a hero. But if that same potential donor tries to sell the organ instead, he could go to prison. Why?

Another question: What are the rights of American citizenship? Some are spelled out in the Constitution, but many others are not, among them the rights to travel, enter into contracts, get married, use birth control, have an abortion, join the military, represent one’s self in court, and make all sorts of legally binding decisions. But there are only a few legal responsibilities of citizenship: the obligations to obey the law, pay taxes, and serve on juries. Should some form of public service, whether military or civilian, be compulsory, one of the duties every citizen owes to society?

Should a person be allowed to sell his or her spare kidney?

From Thomas Leonard’s course Law and Economics, in which students discuss goods and markets — such as the market for human organs — and then consider ethical issues that exist in those markets.


Is the absence of a national service requirement free riding?

From Robert Reich’s freshman seminar, Ethics and Politics in Public Service. Reich sharpens students’ analytical skills by getting them to think about the ethics of a draft and community service.


Should research using embryonic stem cells be permitted if the cells could be used to cure or treat disease?

From Leon Rosenberg’s molecular biology course Genes, Health, and Society, which addresses the hype, fears, and possibilities surrounding controversial issues in medicine and biotechnology.

Consider next any of the hot-button issues in the emerging field of molecular biology. Should the cloning of stem cells be permitted if they could be used to cure disease? Should human reproductive cloning be allowed? Is genetic tinkering permissible to prevent cancer? Alcoholism? Baldness?

The hypotheticals above are all policy issues, but they are all ethical issues as well, and all are questions currently posed to Princeton undergraduates in various courses and seminars. In one sense, the teaching of ethics has always been an integral part of a Princeton education. Many of Princeton’s early presidents were clergymen, well-versed in moral and ethical reasoning. Later presidents, including political scientist Woodrow Wilson 1879, were also stern moralists. In the past, ethical training at Princeton almost always had an important ecclesiastical component. Though much scorned by students, attendance at chapel was compulsory for freshmen until 1964.

There has been a marked increase in the study of ethical issues at Princeton over the last decade, according to Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel, who also chairs the Committee on the Course of Study, which oversees the curriculum. During a review of general education requirements in the mid-1990s, it was decided to add a requirement, beginning with the arrival of the Class of 2000, that all students seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree take at least one course in “ethical thought and moral values.” (Students seeking a B.S.E. must take courses in four of six areas, of which ethical thought and moral values is one). Malkiel explains that the faculty thought such a requirement was needed in a time not only of great technological change, but of well-publicized ethical lapses by business and political leaders. “The faculty thought about what students needed to know as Princeton students, and moral and ethical values are something they absolutely needed to be exposed to as undergraduates,” she says.

The place where the curriculum is changing most is not in the departments of religion and philosophy, bastions of what might be called the study of pure ethics, but in the field of applied ethics; that is, ethics applied to real-world situations. So today, while ethical dilemmas are addressed in courses such as The Just Society (POL 307) and a freshman seminar called Understanding Poverty and Inequality in America (FRS 145), they are also found in less-expected places. Professor Ailsa Roell raises ethical issues throughout her course on Trading and Securities Markets (ECO 461), examining matters of securities fraud and the efficient working of markets. Students in Hillary Brown’s architecture course, Energy and Form (ARC 406), consider the ecological implications of building design. In the chemistry department, Thomas Spiro’s Chemistry and the Environment (CHM 333) considers the balancing of risks and perceptions in ecological matters such as pollution clean-up strategies and competing energy sources. Budding reporters address several aspects of journalistic ethics in Investigative Reporting (HUM 445).

The first ethical dilemma at the beginning of this article, about the entrepreneur who wants to sell his spare kidney, comes from Thomas Leonard’s course, Law and Economics (ECO 324), which employs the tools of economic analysis to help students understand the consequences, some of them ethical, of using the law to enact ethical commitments. (Leonard, a lecturer in economics, also teaches a course in the spring called Ethics and Economics, which addresses some of the same issues.)

First employing the antiseptic language of economists, Leonard tells his students that body parts, such as kidneys, can be seen as a kind of “inalienable good,” a good that may be donated but cannot be sold. U.S. law prohibits the compensation of kidney donors, Leonard explains, on ethical grounds — kidney sales morally corrupt and might also crowd out the altruism that ought to motivate the gift of an organ.

But the law that bans organ sales itself comes at an ethical cost. By prohibiting sales, the law effectively sets the price at zero, which means that the supply will be insufficient to meet the demand. As a result, as many as 4,000 people in the United States die every year of kidney disease while waiting for a transplant — patients who might be saved if the law permitted compensation of kidney donors. Does a legal attempt to enact our ethical objections to sales of bodily organs justify an annual toll of 4,000 lives?

Tweaking the moral dilemmas further, Leonard next points out that markets do not cease to exist simply because the law forbids them. They go underground, and indeed a black market in human organs does exist, with additional human costs not unlike those that attended back-alley abortions in the era when abortions were illegal.

Leonard does not steer his students to a particular ethical viewpoint. “In the Western tradition alone,” he notes, “there are 2,500 years of disagreement on what morality requires.” His approach to these difficult questions insists only that students identify all of the economic and ethical costs, those that arise when the law bans sales as well as those that arise when the law permits sales. “Law and economics concepts resonate deeply with students,” Leonard says of his course. “It gives them an economic perspective on the law, a unified way to think about apparently disparate topics.”

Robert Reich, a visiting professor from Stanford University, tries to unsettle different moral assumptions in his freshman seminar, Ethics and Politics in Public Service (FRS 165). His hypotheticals about the ethical imperative of requiring some form of public service as a condition of citizenship challenged more than a dozen freshmen in Wilcox Hall one afternoon in mid-October. After writing many of the rights of citizenship on the blackboard, Reich asked students to list the responsibilities of citizenship, and wrote them down as well. “A paltry list — but an accurate list,” he observed.

When Reich asked if anyone in the class favored a military draft, no one raised a hand. “Isn’t the absence of a national service requirement free riding?” Reich challenged them. “Don’t you all free ride on the sacrifices of others? Neither you nor anyone you know well is at risk in a war.”

Confounded, the freshmen tried to rebut the free riding charge. One student suggested that drafting Princeton students would take spots in the military away from those who come from less-privileged backgrounds and need the educational and financial rewards the military offers. This was hooted down as self-serving. Another student posited the slippery slope: If the government can coerce citizens into military service, what other demands can it make on their lives? People free ride in many spheres of life, another argued. Why single out the military? No resolutions were reached, but the class is more about the rigor of reasoning than the conclusions.

One of the points of the seminar, Reich says, is to force students to sharpen their analytical skills. He notes that he devotes another class period to challenging whether acts of community service, such as tutoring or volunteering at a soup kitchen, are always an unalloyed benefit to society — if done poorly or indifferently, he suggests, they can sometimes do more harm than good by raising the expectations of those being served or obscuring the need for a more comprehensive government response. Reich explains that, like an ethics drill instructor, after tearing down his students’ ethical preconceptions he tries to build them back up on a more deeply considered foundation. “I want them to be much more critically reflective of the idea of public service,” Reich says. “I don’t want to send them off with a nice, gift-wrapped package [of ethical norms].”

Students seem receptive to the challenge of defending their ethical positions in front of their peers. “Most of us don’t come to college with a way to articulate what’s ethical,” says freshman Aaron Spolin, one of the students in Reich’s seminar, who is also active in the Princeton Justice Project, a student group that has worked on issues relating to poverty and equal rights. “This course teaches you how to develop non-individualized forms of ethical communication.”

Professor Leon Rosenberg of the molecular biology department tries to do something similar in his popular course, Genes, Health, and Society (MOL 205). Addressing such morally explosive subjects as stem-cell research and cloning, Rosenberg endeavors to analyze each issue in three lights: hype, hope, and fear. What is the hype about therapeutic cloning (the creation of human embryos whose cells can be used for medical treatments), for example? What are the hopes for it? What are the fears? Are they realistic? Are they true? Most important, which possibilities actually exist, given the current state of scientific knowledge?

“The field of bioethics has followed the technical advances” in science, says Rosenberg. “It’s good that when new doors open in science, people are there to examine it.”

“It was my favorite course,” says Eva Vertes ’07, “and the only course I took last year where you had people from many different majors.”

The number of such courses in molecular biology has grown from one only a decade ago to four today, according to Professor Lynn Enquist, the department chairman. In addition to its undergraduate offerings, the department offers a graduate course, Scientific Integrity in the Practice of Molecular Biology, to fulfill a requirement of the National Institutes of Health, the agency that provides much of the department’s research and training budget. Working with the University Center for Human Values, the department also hopes to develop a certificate in bioethics. “More than ever we recognize the importance of the general public (as well as the concentrators) being well-informed, with a clear understanding of the science and the associated ethical issues,” Enquist says. He estimates that the department now devotes as much as 10 percent of its efforts to ethical issues.

Why spend so much time and effort on ethical issues? “It’s an incredibly important part of our intellectual inheritance,” says Stephen Macedo *87, director of the University Center for Human Values. He notes that students arrive at Princeton with a system of ethical beliefs and assumptions molded primarily by their parents and friends but still largely inchoate. Most will face the first (and perhaps the last) rigorous challenges to those assumptions during their undergraduate years. “We certainly hope that careful and serious engagement with serious forms of inquiry can have a formative role,” Macedo says. He suggests that the renewed appreciation of ethics is a response to a trend of greater specialization in teaching in the social sciences in recent years. A heightened emphasis on quantitative analysis had drained some of the ethical implications from studies in some subjects, making a pointed return to an ethical treatment especially timely, he says.

The center Macedo directs, founded in 1990, is perhaps the largest single example of Princeton’s growing emphasis on ethical thinking. Led for many years by former provost Amy Gutmann, who is now president of the University of Pennsylvania, the center works with departments throughout the university to co-sponsor courses on ethical study. Among its projects, the center has dramatically expanded the number of freshman seminars it co-sponsors, from one in 1990 to 14 this year, on topics ranging from Crafting Constitutions, to A Multidisciplinary Approach to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. At the other end of the undergraduate experience, the center also awards a prize each year to the best senior thesis in the area of ethics and human rights.

Former Princeton president Harold Shapiro *64, who chaired the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and now teaches Bioethics and Public Policy (WWS 483), an upper-level seminar in the Woodrow Wilson School, agrees that ethical issues are an important part of a student’s Princeton education. “Students can find their way to these materials in a lot of different ways — through literature, the history of science, politics,” he says. “What I think is disappointing is that students might graduate from Princeton without thinking why we should act in certain ways.”

The critical thing, Shapiro adds, is that students be trained to think, not told what to think. Although certain ethical ideals at the University are explicit — the honor code is the best example — they are few. “If we’ve learned anything about moral philosophy, it is that nobody occupies the moral high ground,” Shapiro continues. Ethical ideals “just exist, side by side, competing for attention. In science, a good theory beats out a bad theory.” Shapiro refuses to deal in moral absolutes. “Do I wish all Princeton graduates would be dedicated to living an ethical life as they saw it? That would be great. You can’t legislate it, but you can discuss it.”

To some, the question of whether ethics should be a greater part of the curriculum presupposes that it was not there already, implicit in a thousand places throughout the catalog. How, it might be asked, could one ever teach a course in labor economics, or the causes of the Civil War, or urban architecture, or international relations, without considering the ethical dimension of those subjects at least tangentially?

“What’s new [in the curriculum] is not that there are ethics involved,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, “it’s new policy issues that have ethical dimensions to them.” When she was an undergraduate, Slaughter says, students debated the ethical implications of the Vietnam War and the Cold War nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Today, students study ethical implications of the war in Iraq, among other topics. In 2003, the School hosted a major foreign-policy colloquium called “A World of ‘Good and Evil’: The Return to Morality in International Affairs,” at which participants, including well-known diplomats and journalists, discussed such questions as: Does viewing global affairs through the dichotomy of good and evil serve to clarify or to constrain foreign policy decision-making? And: Should weapons of mass destruction be viewed through the lens of good and evil? Topics of discussion change over time, Slaughter says, but the need to apply an ethical consideration is constant.

“Properly taught,” writes Professor Uwe Reinhardt, an economist, “economics always involves a strong dose of ethics,” noting that Adam Smith, the father of economics, held a chair in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Reinhardt imbues the courses he teaches, beginning with the basic course in microeconomics, with questions concerning the ethical implications of economic problems, ranging from trade to the allocation of health care. Yet he concedes that economics is not always taught through an ethical lens, and neither are history, politics, and many other subjects.

“I have been puzzled by the proliferation of ethics courses here and elsewhere,” he says, giving the Harvard Business School as another example. “One can interpret it in several ways. One may be that we are striving to educate students with a better appreciation of the ethical constraints that should limit their decisions in their future careers. It may come in response to a visible deterioration of moral standards in government and business. Another interpretation may be that we are segregating ethics more and more from our routine teaching, which I would consider a dangerous development.”

Thirty-five years ago, former president Robert Goheen ’40 *48, a classicist by training, wrote in his book, The Human Nature of a University, “To be sure, no one would argue that calculus, or linguistics, or the laws of thermodynamics teach right conduct. Yet on reflection we know that even the most depersonalized of such studies teaches a respect for truth and, when rightly taught, carries along other virtues that can enlighten our powers of judgment and decision — for example, accuracy, perseverance, honesty, imaginativeness, dispassionate reasoning, curiosity, and humility before the unknown.”

Shapiro — successor not only to Goheen, but to James McCosh, Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, and those other moral philosophers who have held Princeton’s presidency — makes a similar argument. In a 2003 lecture at the University of California, Shapiro stated, “Clearly, complex moral reasoning is not a substitute for moral behavior, yet it is a necessary beginning, and if we unite this capacity with an understanding of the deep moral ambiguity of many situations and an ongoing commitment to democracy and concern for others, a great deal has been accomplished.” end of article

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.



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