Teaching college ethics can be murky. There are no shortcuts, nor formulas for evaluating how well students are grasping the material. It’s all sensitive to the context. And when there is an ethical aspect to almost every decision, an ethics course can quickly seem overwhelming to even the most conscientious students.
Naomi Reshotko, a University of Denver professor of philosophy, teaches a course on feminist ethics. She contends that every aspect of our lives has an ethical dimension.
“You can’t live a life in which you never make an ethical decision,” she says. “Even if it’s by omission—which a lot of us do all the time. We don’t pay enough attention to who’s cleaning our house, or how our clothes were made, or all of the various things that people like to bring up in our privileged setting, where we probably oppress a lot of people—even if we have the best intentions in the world.”
With that perspective comes a whole new understanding of the world, one that can change how students approach their work and even their lives.
Reshotko says she does her best to guide students through the complicated paths presented in her courses.
“They’re just really good at saying, ‘Gee, there’s nothing neutral here, is there?’ And so I think it’s scary for them,” she says. “I also think it’s a very, very difficult time to be a young person. It’s a hard time to be anybody in this world. But I hope classes like mine are getting them to think more clearly about things.”
When it comes to evaluating students’ grasp of the coursework, Reshotko says it’s not about whether students make the “right” ethical decision.
Perhaps a given scenario involves organ donation and the complex set of questions that face donor, recipient and all of their loved ones.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Should Pat donate his kidney to Mary?’ And somebody says, ‘Yes.’ And you say, ‘Oh, that was the right answer. I’ll check it off,’” Reshotko says, outlining the process for evaluating the dilemmas at hand.
“Students might say yes. And students might say no—I don’t care which one they say. And they might say, ‘I’m not sure, because when I think about it this way, it seems like he should; when I think about it that way, it seems like he shouldn’t.’
“But yeah—‘When I think about it this way,’ that’s the important part.”
Ethics isn’t like math, she reminds her students. There’s often no perfect answer that leaves you feeling good about everything that happened. The process is important and there is no universal formula for thinking through a concrete ethical dilemma. One of the most important parts of the process, Reshotko says, is intersectionality—the consideration of marginalized groups, cultures and perspectives when making decisions.
This generation of college students is particularly adept at making room for intersectionality, in large part because more faculty are introducing the concept into their courses, she adds. Students have learned to spot how the context for, say, a woman of color might differ dramatically from another person with a different constellation of identities when she’s hospitalized or in a situation involving law enforcement.
Bruce Klaw, chair of the business ethics and legal studies department at the Daniels College of Business, says he hopes students are deeply affected by ethics courses. After all, he says, today’s college students face daunting ethical issues—among them, climate change and digital privacy.
“It’s kind of a great time to reconnect with them and remind them that there is hope to be had, but that hope is not enough,” he says. “It needs to also be the motivation to engage in change and not cynicism, and [to recognize] that they will have a unique opportunity to make a difference.”
Klaw says DU’s business ethics courses are driven by a holistic strategy that allows for a traditional focus on case studies and the opportunity to speak to DU community members about ethical decision-making.
One sophomore-level class has students gather on a weekend for a co-curricular ethics bootcamp, where faculty, community members and alumni come to speak about their experiences in business ethics.
“These are challenging personal ethics conversations about what it means to be a person of character and integrity,” Klaw says. “We’ve tried to get them engaged with the community, because often, community members are really attuned to this. They’ve realized over the course of their professional lives that ethics is one of the things that matters. It defines who you are, how people remember you, what your legacy is, and in which direction your business and industry are going to go.”
Ethics, Klaw says, is all about walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
“Business ethics is critical, particularly because business has a unique power to affect change on a very large scale,” he says. “And so, particularly at the Daniels College of Business, where we think business should be and can be a force for public good, it’s important that we show our students how to harness that power of business and direct it toward the shared problems we’re all facing. A lot of that comes down to adopting ethical business practices in reality and not just talking about it.”