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On Ethical Grounds

By Charlotte Crystal

Ethics are as ancient as the Bible and as modern as the 6 o’clock news. Life seemed simpler when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with two stone tablets in his arms: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. The concepts were clear.

But the world has grown more complex since then, and it’s harder now to tell right from wrong. Today’s society grapples with issues such as reconciling individual liberty with national security, threats to individual privacy created by the proliferation of information technology, and tensions between economic development and environmental concerns. Ethical dilemmas also abound in the medical field: Is euthanasia acceptable? Should parents be able to select their child’s gender? Should they be allowed to clone a dying child?

See also: Envisioning Integrity
Integrating ethics into U.Va. life

See also: Ethically speaking ...

Advances in technology have extended our lives and improved their quality in many ways, making things possible that weren’t possible a century — or even a decade — ago. But technology has not been an unalloyed blessing; it has brought with it breathtaking new challenges in a broad array of human endeavors. And these challenges force us to confront our values as individuals, as members of a politically, socially, economically and religiously diverse society, and as stewards holding the world in trust for our children’s children.

So, what do we do?

U.Va.’s recently created Institute for Practical Ethics is tackling this question by promoting interdisciplinary collaboration in research and seeking new ways to address issues of ethics and integrity in the classroom. Founded two years ago with $700,000 in gifts from the Richard D. Donchian Foundation of Greenwich, Conn., the institute builds on a long tradition of ethics at the University.

“Ethical behavior, discourse and reflection, grounded in a commitment to honor and the Honor Code, have been at the very core of the University’s mission throughout its history,” said U.Va. President John T. Casteen III at the institute’s founding.

The origins of ethics at U.Va.

Thomas Jefferson founded the University with a strong commitment to ethics, hoping to foster a sense of civic responsibility, professional duty and personal honor. He believed that a solid grounding in ethics was vital for individuals and for institutions: “I consider ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man.”

This commitment was strengthened with the implementation of U.Va.’s honor code in 1842. Students initially came from schools with established codes of honor, but the University’s enrollment gradually expanded and its student body grew more heterogeneous. Expectations needed to be spelled out.

Over the years, according to Virginius Dabney’s Mr. Jefferson’s University, violations of the honor code have included such offenses as the failure to return library books, faking an illness to skip class, signing the roll for an absent friend, writing bad checks, cheating on tests, stealing, and lying about one’s age in ABC stores.

In the 21st century, cheating and plagiarism remain among the biggest honor issues, as illustrated by the 2001 scandal surrounding physics professor Lou Bloomfield’s filing of charges of Honor Code violations against 158 students.

Although universities with honor codes may fall short of perfection, they strive to nurture cultures of honor and tend to have fewer problems than schools without them. With this in mind, thoughtful donors over the years have strengthened U.Va.’s commitment to honor and integrity while enriching its intellectual life and raising its international visibility in the field of ethics.

Beginning in 1966, Elis and Signe Olsson established the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics at the Darden School. The family has made a number of other contributions to the field of ethics over the years, through endowments of chairs and other initiatives.

Other centers at U.Va., supported in part by private funding, include the School of Medicine’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, which was founded in 1988 and expanded the school’s Program in Biology and Society that was launched in 1970.

The Institute for Environmental Negotiation was established in 1980 in affiliation with the School of Architecture’s Department of Urban and Environmental Planning.

The School of Law’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, which is also affiliated with the School of Medicine, was created in 1977; and the Law School’s Center for Environmental Studies was established in 1999.

Professor of biomedical ethics John D. Arras has recently introduced a new undergraduate minor in bioethics for the Department of Philosophy.

Other significant initiatives include a $1 million grant from the Elis Olsson Memorial Foundation in 1996 that was divided among Darden’s Olsson Center, the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science to fund endowed chairs in ethics and support related programs.

Such strong financial support has fostered innovative research and thought at the University, helping make it the home of more than a dozen scholars and ethicists with distinguished international reputations working in disciplines as varied as religious studies, philosophy, law, medicine, business, engineering and international relations. U.Va. now stands in the forefront of American institutions of higher learning for the breadth and depth of its faculty expertise in ethics.

A united effort

About three years ago, James F. Childress — director of the Institute for Practical Ethics and now the John Allen Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics — gathered a University-wide group of faculty members who worked in the field of ethics to explore ways in which they could collaborate. Their efforts led to the establishment of a student internship program in practical ethics in the winter of 1999, which was funded by a $500,000 gift from the Donchian Foundation. Not long afterward, in the fall of 2000, the Institute for Practical Ethics was founded, again with significant support from the Donchian Foundation.

Under the guidance of Childress and executive director Ruth Gaare Bernheim, this new institute is building on U.Va.’s wide-ranging expertise as it pursues two main goals: infusing ethics into the undergraduate curriculum and promoting interdisciplinary research by fostering collaboration among faculty members. To accomplish these goals, the institute has developed a multifaceted program and is rolling out several new initiatives this fall.

A number of new undergraduate courses will be offered this fall and spring, examining the role ethics plays in areas such as public and global health, genetics, war, justice, human rights and the environment. (See related story on new common course, p. 5.)

On the graduate level, professional-values seminars, co-taught by two professors from different schools, will be conducted off-Grounds in the professors’ homes. These interdisciplinary, literature-based seminars will encourage graduate students to recognize and explore ethical conflicts and engage in critical reflection about their roles and responsibilities. Faculty members involved in this project include law professors Walter Wadlington and George Cohen, and Darden’s R. Edward Freeman, co-director of the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics.

The institute is sponsoring a dozen summer internships, in the U.S. and around the world, for undergraduates interested in pursuing a question of practical ethics — theory vs. reality — in depth. The internships provide about $2,000 in research support. For example, Sarah McKim, a rising third-year student majoring in foreign affairs with an interest in religious studies, won a grant to travel to Berlin this summer to investigate the effectiveness of the Nuremberg trials in restoring order and morality to Germany after World War II. Other students have worked at federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, and on projects in India and Africa. The institute hopes to secure new funds to create an endowment to continue and expand the number of internships in ethics to a total of 50 each summer.

Just as the institute has fostered interdisciplinary cooperation within the University, it has reached out to include other institutions. An executive education program in ethics for the biotech industry is in the works with the Johns Hopkins University Bioethics Institute and the Georgetown University Kennedy Institute of Ethics. Faculty have worked with senior executives and employees at two top biotech companies to identify the ethical issues they face on a daily basis and to create case studies for the in-service training of biotech managers. A national biotech association, BIO, plans to make these ethics education modules and case studies available to biotech companies throughout the country. “This project really captures the spirit of our institute,” says Childress. “It’s a great example of how practical ethics can bridge academic reflection and real-world experiences. Using these cases in our classes will help prepare students for the challenges they face after graduation.”

As society grows ever more complex, U.Va. has an important role to play in helping to solve the problems of the future by drawing on the wisdom of the past. The University’s talented scholars are forging ahead with new research in the field of practical ethics, and at the same time ensuring that students are along for the ride. Together, they sift through the complex details of contemporary life for the enduring principles that should guide decisions large and small — truth and justice, honor and integrity, compassion and dignity, sustainability and respect for the environment.


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