Sept. 21-27, 2001
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Ethics & society talks
Institute makes a practice of ethics

Institute makes a practice of ethics

Faculty Advisory Board
Tom Cogill
The Faculty Advisory Board of the Institute for Practical Ethics, pictured here, are teaching ethical issues in courses this fall, and some had the chance to discuss recent events with their students.

By Charlotte Crystal

Violent tragedies, such as last week’s terrorist attacks, show that the emphasis on ethics is more critical than ever. Established barely a year ago, the University’s Institute for Practical Ethics this fall is well-stocked with new programs and ideas to help students learn critical thinking and moral judgment demanded by today’s world.

“We have been thrilled with the energy, excitement and interest in ethics from faculty around Grounds,” said Ruth Gaare Bernheim, the institute’s executive director.

“Recent tragic events underscore the vital need for a future generation of leaders to understand the broad cultural contexts of conflict and cooperation and the power of ethics and human rights in calming civil unrest,” said Michael J. Smith, professor of government and foreign affairs and director of the Program in Political and Social Thought. “The Institute for Practical Ethics is working with faculty around Grounds to keep U.Va.’s founding principles relevant to today’s students while preparing tomorrow’s leaders.”

New offerings this fall include courses built around contemporary issues, a capstone seminar in a new environmental studies major, international student internships, a locally produced PBS television program and a speakers series that will feature Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health.

New major in “Environmental Thought and Practice” designed with ethics in mind

This spring, undergraduate students interested in environmental issues will have a new option with the launch of a new interdisciplinary major, Environmental Thought and Practice.

Approved last spring by the Faculty Senate, the new major is designed to take an integrated interdisciplinary approach to the subject, said Thomas M. Smith, associate professor of environmental sciences, who is co-director of the new program with Vivian Thomson, who holds a joint appointment in the environmental sciences and government and foreign affairs departments.

“Even as environmental problems grow more complex and more global, institutions of higher education have become more focused along disciplinary lines,” Smith said. “We don’t always enable students to see the complex social, ethical, historical, cultural and public policy issues that surround particular scientific questions. In scientific disciplines, students are often discouraged from expressing opinions about their findings, for fear of compromising their role as objective observers and violating a basic tenet of scientific inquiry.”

“What this program does,” he said, “is to round out the picture for students who are not interested in teaching specific disciplines at the university level, but want to pursue careers outside the academy and need a broader understanding of the complexity of environmental issues.”
The capstone course, Environmental Decisions, a required seminar for majors, will be built around regional case studies and will examine issues from various points of view, including literary, historical, scientific, economic and public policy, Smith said.

Organizers hope to bring together students with different strengths – not only those who have focused on environmental sciences, but those with a strong interest in government, economics, urban and environmental planning, and engineering, among others. Several third-year students who have concentrated on environmental sciences already have expressed interest in the new program as a double major, Smith said.

Developing the new major has been an eye-opener for the diverse faculty members involved, Smith said.
“It was like going back to school,” he said. “However much you thought you understood the issues, you found out how limited your vision has been.”

“Along with nurturing the development of new programs, the institute is working to integrate ethics into the existing curricula for undergraduate, graduate and professional studies,” said James F. Childress, the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Medical Education, who also serves as director of the Institute. “With a strong tradition of ethical thinking at Mr. Jefferson’s University, the institute encourages reflection on the complex ethical issues that pervade contemporary life and provides opportunities for faculty and students from diverse disciplines and perspectives to address critical problems.”

A selection from the many new initiatives includes:

• An interdisciplinary course, “Genetics, Ethics and Society,” developed by the Institute and the Faculty Senate, that should serve as a model for other such courses by bringing together diverse faculty members from around Grounds. This spring, “Global Health and Ethics,” cosponsored by the Institute and the Center for Global Health, will be offered. Topics under consideration for future courses include human rights, international business and environmental health.

• New courses that focus on ethics and genetics; on religion, law and morality; and on business ethics. And in the spring, “Germs, Guns and Bikes,” a new course on public health ethics will explore the tension between personal liberty and the role of government in protecting the population at large.

• A new international course, “Issues in Emerging Global Civil Society,” that will be offered to U.Va. undergraduates in the summer of 2002. Developed in collaboration with William B. Quandt, the vice provost for international affairs, and Smith, this course will take students to London and Prague to explore the emergence and establishment of human rights norms in a European context. They will meet with officials at the United Nations and the European Union, along with representatives of other governmental and non-governmental organizations, to investigate issues such as civil and political freedom, health and human rights, labor rights, immigration and humanitarian intervention.

• Incorporating the exploration of ethical questions into existing courses as well as building new courses on a strong foundation of ethical inquiry.

• The capstone seminar, “Environmental Decisions”, that will highlight the ethical dimensions of environmental policy, part of a new interdisciplinary major, Environmental Thought and Practice.

• A monthly, brown-bag-lunch speakers series for graduate students that starts this fall. The first program, on Oct. 5, will feature a panel discussion of U.Va. students and faculty who have conducted hands-on work relating to human rights issues in Africa.

• A summer internship program focusing on ethics that has been broadened to offer international opportunities, such as working for the World Health Organization in Geneva. This program is designed to appeal to undergraduates as well as to graduate students in law and medicine.

• The Institute for Practical Ethics, in collaboration with the Faculty Senate, is sponsoring a speakers series that will focus on the theme of “Science & Society” in the fall and global health in the spring. Collins is among the nationally recognized speakers on the program.

• The Institute will collaborate with a local PBS television producer on a series that will explore a broad range of contemporary ethical issues. John C. Jeffries Jr., Emerson Spies Professor of Law and dean of the U.Va. School of Law, will be the host. One of the first programs will feature Collins on the “Ethics of the New Genetics.” Other programs will investigate ethical issues related to sports and higher education, rap music and freedom of speech, and media and politics.


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