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Ethically speaking ...

By Eric Claus - posted Wednesday, 5 April 2006

Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University says the number one priority for universities should be the teaching of free thought and ethics (Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 2006) and the Business Council of Australia (BCA) says university students need to be prepared to take part in the workforce, so we can have a strong economy.

I agree with both, and I think there is a solution that will work for both: make a university subject in ethics both mandatory and rigorous. Make the students who are taking an ethics subject read the works of the great thinkers in the field and then do exams, do assignments and write papers that require a lot of thought and effort to get a passing grade. Let all employers know, and all Australia know, that by getting a university degree the student has taken at least one tough course in ethics.

Universities have no trouble making engineering or accounting subjects difficult. Lecturers in “Steel Structures” or “Reinforced Concrete Design” rightly say, “If my students don’t understand all aspects of this subject, bridges will fall down, people may die”. The students know that if they don’t pass those subjects, they won’t be able to get a job because they won’t be able to do the job. Lecturers make sure that students know everything they need to know, by making the courses tough. At the end of “Basic Accounting”, every student who passes knows how to balance the credits and debits. If they don’t know, they don’t pass. If they don’t pass they have to take the subject again or they won’t graduate.


Unfortunately, there is no employer who carefully scrutinises the ethics courses to make sure they are rigorous enough. University students know that if they fail ethics, or don’t even take ethics, they can still graduate from university and go on to a good job.

And ethics lecturers know that if they make the subject too difficult, nobody will take it. If nobody takes your subject, the university starts asking why they need you. What student wants to waste their time doing a subject that no employer cares about and then fail because it is too difficult and there is too much work involved?

Over time the ethics and philosophy courses become easier and require less work. Not as many books need to be read. The exams are graded less rigorously. Less is required from the assignments.

When a subject is mandatory, the university can make it more rigorous because they don’t have to worry about people not taking it. Everybody will have to take it and everybody will have to do all the work required, or they won’t graduate.

Steven Schwartz, in his article, recognises that the key ethics learning areas are not in the classroom. He says that universities can learn ethics through discussions with academics and other students, by joining clubs, playing sports, participating in student politics, meeting students from other cultures and being exposed to art and music. All these things are good, but none of them are mandatory or rigorous. It is a bit like bumping into the most important part of your education while you walk around campus.

The BCA sees the value to their members and society gained by graduates who clearly understand engineering, law, medicine and accounting. They say they want more of that and less of the “airy-fairy” ethics and philosophy “stuff” which is just a waste of time. “It’s better to use that time teaching the kids how to run a business and make more money for Australia.”


There is an underlying implication from Steven Schwartz that business just wants well trained drones to carry out the orders of their upper management masters. There may be an element of that in the BCA, but I believe most top business people in Australia want to work with the brightest and most well-rounded people they can get. Business also wants graduates who appreciate that most businesses are built on hard work. If ethics classes are too easy then recruiters assume them to be a waste of time. Analysis of controversial issues - such as stem cell research, nanotechnology, euthanasia and gay marriage - is also important to many businesses. A rigorous ethics subject could be a business subject.

One top American CEO was asked what university course he preferred for new recruits to his business. His answer was English literature. The interviewer was surprised that it wasn’t business administration. The CEO’s response was something like: “I can teach them the details of how the business runs. I need them to be able to communicate. I need them to be able to understand and think deeply about complex issues. You get all that in a good English literature course.”

If an ethics subject were mandatory, university students would achieve “a basic sense of ethics”, and therefore the university education would meeting Steven Schwartz’s “priority one”. If an ethics subject were rigorous, the BCA and Australia would be getting graduates who knew how to think deeply and critically about complex issues. Everybody wins.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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