The ethical dimension

Just after I stepped down from my post as President of Dublin City University, I received an email from someone who described himself as ‘an interested and concerned member of the public’. The email in question was by no means short, but I can summarise the burden of it as follows. ┬áHis message to me was that I had failed to observe high ethical standards as a university head. Mind you, he added that this did not make me unique; he wrote:

‘Universities seem to be unable or unwilling these days to provide a clear moral as well as an intellectual compass. Morality matters not a bit to them, unless that is something you measure in money. You were just following the herd, but I really wish you had been better than that.’

So what had disappointed my correspondent? Two things, mainly. First, that I had not taken a personal stand in support of the ‘pro-life’ agenda, and that I had allowed the university to engage in some forms of research that did not value the human person sufficiently, from conception to the grave. Secondly, that I had not challenged the rampant materialism of society, and more particularly the growing materialism of the student body.

In fact universities are not as unconcerned with ethics as my correspondent suggested. Not only has ethics become a major academic area of study and research, but universities are also increasingly concerned with policies and structures that assess their conduct from an ethical point of view; research ethics committees being a particularly important example. I may also have been just a tad hurt that he did not apparently regard the establishment of DCU’s Institute for Ethics during my tenure as important.

But then again, we tend to regard ethics as very complex territory in which a difficult balance may have to be struck. My correspondent on the other hand appeared to regard it as the determined defence of a stronghold under attack from barbarians. But am I right to dismiss him so easily? Maybe I don’t altogether share his frame of reference, but should I not take seriously the contention that universities should in their actions uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour, and expect to see this reflected in the actions of their members?

These are difficult questions, and universities need to be seen to be engaging with them. I do not believe that we should see ourselves as having a role in preaching to students about complex private morality issues, but we should take seriously the expectation that we will behave with integrity and responsibility. That should be our moral compass. We’re probably not always good at following it.

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12 Comments on “The ethical dimension”

  1. no-name Says:

    Risk inheres in identifying oneself as an exemplar of superlatively ethical conduct. From that pinnacle it can become easy to dismiss one-off transgressions as exceptions that do not matter, relative to all else. (The nature of ethics is that it is also risky to identify oneself at the other extreme also, as if this is sufficient to excuse each questionable decision.) It is more risky still to ascribe such a high ethical standard to an institution, since its members are liable to consider themselves ethical by association, and therefore to act under the assumption that their actions are ethical by definition, rather than acting after engaging in individual reflection on each matter that requires a decision. Consider the case of the world’s largest advertising agency, and its motto, “Do no evil” — even this rather low standard for ethical behavior is difficult for that institution to meet, given its business. Yet, it is likely that each individual employee operates with a higher standard. Yes, it is reasonable to expect people to behave with integrity and responsibility. It is difficult to see how this separates people who are members of universities from members of other institutions.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    *…we tend to regard ethics as very complex territory in which a difficult balance may have to be struck…should I not take seriously the contention that universities should in their actions uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour, and expect to see this reflected in the actions of their members?*

    The intellect of man is forced to choose
    perfection of the life, or of the work,
    And if it take the second must refuse
    A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
    When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
    In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
    That old perplexity an empty purse,
    Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

    (W.B.Yeats, The Choice, 1931)

  3. owen Says:

    Why do you say ‘himself’ not ‘herself’ ?

  4. brian t Says:

    The correspondent talks about “moral” standards in that extract, not “ethical” – and I would be careful to distinguish between the two concepts. The differences (in my opinion) can be summarised as:
    – “moral”: thou shalt not, because we say so, and we don’t have to justify it e.g. religious morals;
    – “ethical”: we agree on what is good or bad, for clearly stated reasons e.g. medical ethics.

    You rarely hear about “morals” on the “front lines” – when doctors are making life or death decisions, or when relief workers are providing assistance after a disaster. Even if those people have “morals”, they don’t use them when there’s a job that needs doing. “Morals” are a luxury enjoyed by those who stand well back from the action, judging the “ethics” of those who get the job done. 8)

  5. Jeff W Says:

    Whatever the correct answer, Ferdinand, I think it is telling as well as admirable that you are able to discuss these matters transparently and honestly. For that you are to be commended.

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    I found these words telling:

    “Not only has ethics become a major academic area of study and research…”

    “Has become”?!? When was this? In the 4th century B.C.? It is, of course, typical of university presidents to be entirely focused on the [i]now[/i] and to think that everything worthwhile was invented since World War II (by Steve Jobs). This makes it that much easier when it comes time to start cutting loose whole disciplines (literature? philosophy? history? what innovations did they ever produce?).

  7. EduardDuCourseau Says:

    A good example to put under scrutiny is the responsibility that finance departments have in teaching ethics, and how they manifestly failed to inculcate their students in the lead-up to the current economic mess that we find ourselves in.

    Around three years ago I was listening to Le Sept/Dix on France Inter. Howard Davies, then Director of the LSE was being interviewed by Nicolas MDemorand who asked him a very a very pertinent question: Howard Davies, in view of the banking crisis, have you now started to teach courses in ethics at the LSE?” to which Davies patronisingly answered “yes, Ferdinand, we’ve been doing this for years”. As we now witness the end of the Ghadafi regime which Davies and LSE were entangled with, I sometimes wonder whether Davies should have attended some of those courses that his institution taught. Or perhaps it should be mandatory for all VCs to attend, n’est-ce pas Ferdo?

  8. Al Says:

    With all respect due to people who work hard in ethics centres, is there a bureaucratic element to this where the serious questions are hived off to a department so that everyone else can continue on.

    Also to have people attend ethics courses, to me, engages in the dramatics of attendance and so on. One can say we did this or that, but….


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