Feature Article

Junior Ethics Experience: Challenging Students to Tackle Moral Dilemmas

By Dr. Thomas P. Sullivan, Associate Professor of of Ethics

On the large screen in de Witt Hall, an emergency room doctor who looks a lot like Hugh Grant faces a decision: two men have shot each other, and only one operating room is available. One is a uniformed police officer, while the other is a somewhat scruffy-looking, youngish man, who has a crack pipe in his pocket. The apparent drug user is worse off, medically, although both men have been shot (Extreme Measures, opening scene).

"You have to choose now."

The roomful of Lasell juniors votes, splitting more or less evenly between the choices. When asked why they voted they way they did, the students offer a wide range of reasons, from the likelihood of future societal contribution by the police officer to the best chance to save two (rather than just one) for the apparent drug user. Other reasons include who might have insurance coverage, the presence of a large number of police officers in the hall outside the emergency room, the doctor's promise to the officer's wife that "he will be OK" and an unwillingness to have doctors judging who is most valuable to society.

Those reasons, and how to evaluate them comparatively, are the focus of the Junior Ethics Experience course. Designed to be taken by the entire Lasell junior class, the course challenges students to combine traditional critical thinking skills with ethical theories and principles in order to address current moral choices and dilemmas that cover a lifetime of experience. Students consider competing points of view, standards of reasoning and evidence, and methods of civil disagreement as they grapple with an array of complex personal, professional and societal choices facing them and all of us in the 21st century.

Our goal in this course is to give juniors a common experience of the process of moral engagement, civil debate and decision-making. This is a course about "how to think more clearly," rather than a course about "what to think." Students grapple with a common set of problems and dilemmas that cover a lifetime, ranging from high school challenges through young adult and career choices, family and social issues, resource distribution concerns, worldwide problems and multicultural questions, to dilemmas about aging and the end of life. We also take time, as needed, to address ethical concerns that arise in the course of a particular academic year or semester. Last Fall, we discussed smoking at Lasell, and several issues related to the US Presidential election.

Besides practicing the tools of critical thinking and ethical inquiry, the course includes a citizenship component, where students are required to participate in both a community project, which might include community service or some other activity (and to reflect on the ethical issues that arise in that context), and a programmatic component, where students participate in a wide range of programs at the College that raise questions about society, justice and community both at Lasell and in the world around us. In order to get a passing grade, every student must demonstrate the basic critical thinking skills of valid argumentation, supporting one's ideas with reasoning and evidence, considering objections and rebuttals and evaluating competing points of view. We place particular emphasis on civil discourse, competing ideas, identifying issues and offering reasoned, thoughtful and well-supported arguments that take a variety of ideas into account.

We talk about abortion, pushing ourselves to levels beyond the standard arguments for and against. Last semester we had class discussions about torture, terrorism and animal rights. To tackle the Standing Rock Sioux pipeline standoff controversy, we divided into pairs, each pair representing a different viewpoint about whether Lasell students should travel to North Dakota to protest. The pairs represented included the US Chamber of Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency, the governor of North Dakota, the Sierra Club, even students' parents! In our final class, we discussed difficult, heartrending cases that involved euthanasia.

By the end of the semester, we'd accomplished something rare: a course that everyone talks about. One student, whose political views were obvious, reported that he "learned to be a better opponent" in the course. Others emphasized "how hard the work is," by which they meant that the course made them think-hard. Some simply did not like having a required course in Ethics, while others reported that it was the most challenging course they've had in college. Some even said it was their favorite course so far.

For the Spring semester, six students who did well during the first full-blown offering of the course are serving as teaching assistants, helping with grading, facilitating small group discussions in the large class and coaching students on their major papers. Seven faculty members are leading nine sections of the course this semester, and several more faculty are participating in the faculty development program to prepare them to lead sections in future years; faculty from the Fashion, Business, Math, Writing, Humanities and Sport Management departments already lead sections.

The denouement of the feature film Extreme Measures? The Hugh Grant character sends the police officer to the operating room, leaving nurses and other medical staff appalled. But that is fodder for our next discussion.

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