Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Brian Burton
Janice Lapsansky
Jeff Newcomer
Theme Contents
Robert P. Lawry
Director of the Center for Professional Ethics
Case Western Reserve University

Everybody knows society is in trouble. Ivan Boesky preaches "greed is good," and the people applaud. He goes to jail for fraud and theft, and newspapers carry far too many stories about how he was railroaded for technical lapses. More students admit to cheating on exams than ever before, because they are systems breakers, dishonesty having no particular meaning to them. The T.V. is full of talk shows that trumpet one perverse and odd behavior after another. Yet more ethics is being taught on college campuses than ever before. The problem is that the teaching of ethics cannot substitute for sound moral communities. Ethics, by itself, will rarely make a bad person good, nor does it have the resources to motivate someone to willingly struggle to find coherence hidden within disorder. No. Ethics, by itself, is not enough.

So the teaching of ethics itself is not without its difficulties. The indoctrination point, however, leads me to the issue I want to concentrate on.... What most people want in the new dispensation of ethics teaching is for ethics to do the job of moral communities. They want ethics teachers to make students better people.

I believe ethics can help in that task. The study of the great thinkers about ethics in the history of the world may expose moral blind spots and rank prejudices. With effort, ethics can still be the integrative force it once was designed to be, although the burden falls more on the student than it did in the 19th century. This is so because there is no established ethical position on most important moral issues, so students must puzzle out answers for themselves. As we lawyers say, however, there is one caveat: whatever we do with the teaching of ethics in our colleges and universities, we must also give some deep thought and serious attention to our moral communities. What are we doing to build them up? Are we not just "doing ethics" (thinking about and getting clear about moral behaviors), when we should also be involved in good moral practices?

There are many moral communities, family, church, neighborhood, ethnic, political, national, intellectual, professional, and on and on. Each of us participates in many more than one of these communities. The challenge of every life is to reconcile those communities, some of which are at war with others. Even though one of the communities to which we belong often assumes a dominant role in one's moral life, we must learn to integrate the self into a meaningful whole, using almost exclusively the materials given or thrust upon us by various moral communities. A good way to do this is through the discipline of ethics. It is not the only way, but in the community of higher education it is, perhaps, the best way.