The main aim of courses in ethics is to teach students how to deal with concrete moral problems that they will encounter in their future profession. They need to develop both their ethical understanding and several practical skills in order to learn how to reflect independently on moral questions, how to argue for their position, and how to come to a conclusion.
SCEPTISM FROM STUDENTS TO ETHICS
We have observed that many students start their course with a somewhat sceptical attitude towards ethics. There are several possible explanations for this scepticism. First of all, many students seem to assume that morality cannot be a subject of rational discussion. They often talk as if they suspect that moral judgments only express the individual tastes or emotions of the speaker. Secondly, a large group of students also seems to have limitless trust in the ethical decency of professionals. They often remark that an ethics course is superfluous because professionals will act according to their best ethical conscience anyway.
During a course of ethics, teachers encounter these assumptions, challenge them and, eventually, change them. In order to achieve this, a teacher should use concrete cases in which morality plays an important part. These cases should help students to focus on moral choices that they may face in the future. Also, they become aware that there are different ways of dealing with a moral case, and that these different ways are debatable. In this way, students become aware of the moral dimensions of their own profession and acquire the argumentative capacities that are needed in moral debates.
Our presupposition is that a course in ethics has to focus primarily on concrete moral problems that students may face in their future professional work. This will raise the student’s moral awareness, and enable them to carry out their task in a responsible way. However, a course in ethics should also make students aware of the broader societal responsibility they have as professionals.
PROBLEMS OF STUDENTS
The acquisition of the competencies that are needed for dealing with moral problems has proved to be difficult. We have identified the following shortcomings in the competencies of the students: Firstly, when analysing moral cases, students often work in an unstructured way, and they tend to jump to conclusions. As a result, the treatment of moral cases by students is often superficial, relevant facts or moral considerations are overlooked, and the argumentation is lacking. Secondly, when making exercises or writing essays, students do not use the ethical theories offered in class. If they use them at all, they mostly do in an instrumental way: they apply them to the case at hand, in an unreflective way. Finally some students consider a judgement about a moral case as an opinion about which no (rational) discussion is possible.
DEVELOPMENT OF MORAL COMPETENCE
On the basis of such considerations, we formulate teaching goals for courses in ethics. Such courses should help to acquire the following moral competencies:
– Moral sensibility: the ability to recognize social and ethical issues in technology;
– Moral analysis skills: the ability to analyse moral problems in terms of facts, values, stakeholders and their interests;
– Moral creativity: the ability to think out different options for action in the light of (conflicting) moral values and the relevant facts;
– Moral judgement skills: the ability to give a moral judgement on the basis of different ethical theories or frameworks including professional ethics and common sense morality;
– Moral decision‐making skills: the ability to reflect on different ethical theories and frameworks and to make a decision based on that reflection;
– Moral argumentation skills: the ability to morally justify one’s actions and to discuss and evaluate them together with other engineers and non‐engineers.
In order for students to acquire these competencies, they need to do many case‐based exercises: the careful analysis and ethical evaluation of a case will demand all of these skills. In addition, students will have to engage in debates with their fellow students. This will give them the opportunity to express and argue for their own judgment, and to react on counter‐examples and criticism of others; or to judge the quality of the arguments that others use.
A GUIDING TEACHER
In order to teach students the desired competencies, teachers would ideally have to give students personal guidance. This guidance aims at teaching students to think for themselves about morality. The type of guidance is comparable to what Mike McNulty has written about guidance: a guiding teacher ‘(…) demonstrates how to solve moral problems systematically and rationally, but makes no ironclad presumptions about moral truth’ (1998, p. 362). Teachers, according to McNulty, have to show how a moral problem may be solved with the help of a theory, but they should not provide or suggest any easy answers. The primary goal of guidance is to make students think for themselves about ethical issues. This demands not only that teachers show how moral problems can be solved on the basis of a theory, but also that they try to make students think for themselves by engaging in conversation with them, asking them questions in order to activate their reflection, challenging their too simple solutions and helping them think about the adequacy of the various ethical theories. This last task can be fulfilled by comparing the theories to the student’s own initial (intuitive) solutions to the problem and help them to find out whether the theory helps them to express their intuitions or shows that their initial intuitions were flawed. Students should understand the line of thought that is followed in a method, and try to articulate why they think it is useful or good, or what is lacking in it.
THE ETHICAL CYCLE
Given this type of desired guidance, we do not aim at a methodology that solely provides a systematic and rational guide towards a solution of a moral problem. We have developed a methodology that is also able to engage students in personal reflection. To this end, the ethical cycle was developed with several goals in mind. Firstly, it offers the possibility to analyse cases with the help of a systematic and rational method that is based on a specific kind of theory. Secondly, it offers the possibility to distinguish different lines of thought that belong to different ethical theories. As a result, students will learn to reflect on the differences between these theories. And thirdly, students are expected to give their own view and think critically about the possible discrepancies with the offered theories.
The ethical cycle is a model for moral problem solving. It aims at improving ethical decision‐making or at least it tries to avoid certain shortcuts, such as neglecting certain relevant features of the problem, and stating an opinion without any argumentation.
The ethical cycle is not intended as a model of how people actually make moral decisions. Interestingly as that may be, our purpose is different. We wanted to develop a model that is a helpful tool in structuring and improving moral decisions, especially in the context of teaching practical ethics. By improving moral decision‐making we aim at a situation in which the decision‐maker makes at least a systematic and thorough analysis of the moral problem and is able to justify his final decisions in moral terms. Ultimately, moral problem solving is directed at finding the morally best, or at least a morally acceptable, action in a situation in which a moral problem arises. It is, however, hard to guarantee that the ethical cycle indeed delivers such a solution, albeit because people may reasonably disagree about what is the morally best, or a morally acceptable, solution.
The ethical cycle consists of a number of phases. Each phase corresponds with a moral competence (see Figure). The competence ‘moral argumentation skills’ is of use in all the phases of the ethical cycle, and is therefore not connected with a single phase, but with all phases. It is important to stress that by distinguishing these phases we do not want to suggest that moral problem‐solving is a linear process. Rather, it is an iterative process, as the feedback loops in Figure 1 already suggest. The cycle, for example, starts with formulating a moral problem. In many actual cases, the moral problem only becomes clear after further analysing the case, by distinguishing stakeholders, looking at ethical theories, et cetera. In other words, formulating a good problem statement is an iterative process that continues during the other phases. Nevertheless, it is important to start with formulating a moral problem to get the process going.