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Right, Wrong, and the Dartmouth Education

There's New Interest in Ethics Across the Curriculum

"In science, for example, you don't fake your data. And that's just an application of 'don't deceive.'"

-Bernard Gert, Stone professor Intellectual and Moral Philosophy

On a Wednesday morning in Thornton Hall, Bernard Gert, Stone Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, starts class with an announcement. For a special program on the implications of the Human Genome Project, the Dartmouth Ethics Institute requests student volunteers who will, Gert says, "be themselves and have a lively discussion about the ethics of cloning."

Across campus at the Thayer School, MacLean Professor of Engineering Dan Lynch wonders how to teach his students to confront the fact that millions of people don't have safe water to drink, even though the technology to bring it to them has existed for decades.

"I think engineers really need to take leadership on that," Lynch muses. "You can't say, 'It's not my fault.'"

Across the professions, and especially in business these days, Lynch notes, as do many others, how many accomplished people are in ethical and legal hot water.

"These guys marching off to jail in gray flannel suits-those are college graduates, right?" he asks.

So they are. And a question being asked more and more is, should the teaching of ethics be part of a liberal arts curriculum?

A growing number of people at Dartmouth and on some other leading campuses say it should. And under the leadership of the Dartmouth Ethics Institute, a 21-year-old campus organization, the teaching of ethics has begun to be reintroduced across the curriculum here.

"Obviously, we don't have some magical 'ethics ray' that makes everything clear."

-Andrew Verstein '04

"Ethics across the curriculum is an attempt to say, 'What is the function of a liberal arts education? What are we trying to do at Dartmouth?'" says Aine Donovan, executive director of the Ethics Institute. "We want to educate people who can say, 'I learned not only what chemical compounds are, but how to use them responsibly.'"

Gert, a leading scholar on this subject, says that in our culture we're often wary of promoted notions of morality. But teachers can invite students to think about the practical, realistic ethics issues that come up in almost everything they study. Those issues can connect with basic concepts of morality that to many academics, Gert says, are looking more and more universal.

"In science, for example, you don't fake your data. And that's just an application of 'don't deceive'," the professor observes.

"Obviously, we don't have some magical 'ethics ray' that makes everything clear," notes Andrew Verstein '04, "but when you apply some rules of thumb to confusing situations, they become a little more clear." Verstein is a recent past president of the Dartmouth Ethics Society, a student group that was formed two years ago to begin competing in the national Ethics Bowl for undergrads.

"This Is the Foundation"

To promote the teaching of ethics across the curriculum, Ethics Institute directors Donovan and Ronald M. Green, chair of religion and the Eunice & Julie Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values, offered a faculty seminar last spring. The event drew professors from engineering, government, religion, philosophy, and English. Among the participants was associate professor of government James Murphy, who argues that it's impossible to teach the mind effectively without also touching the conscience and the heart.

"We want to educate people who can say, 'I learned not only what chemical compounds are, but how to use them responsibly."

-Aine Donovan, Executive Director, the Ethics Institute

"Obviously, people just out to get ahead can acquire a certain set of skills, do well on standardized tests, and so forth," he says. "But good teachers want much more than that. They want students to care about the truth."

Verstein says among students there is less skepticism and more curiosity. "When I talk about the Ethics Society to students, their first reaction is, 'Wow, I didn't know we had something like this.' The second reaction is, 'What do you do?'"

Last spring, the student group worked with the Ethics Institute to stage a daylong program on moral courage that brought in speakers who had made tough choices during the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.

The institute's directors have also begun working with the Tuck School of Business and the Dartmouth Medical School.

Tuck and the institute cosponsored an expert panel discussion last fall titled "Making Your Numbers: When Does Managing Earnings Become Cooking the Books?"

Faculty members from the medical school are involved in a national effort by the institute, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, to teach college professors how to examine the thorny ethical questions entangled with the decoding of the human genome.

Sums up the Ethics Institute's Donovan, "We're working with faculty members to say, 'This isn't just ethics. This is really the undergirding of liberal arts education.'"

By Doug Wilhelm

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Last Updated: 5/30/08