Message from the Dean: Where is Ethics in the RCAH Curriculum?

August 18, 2011

Ethics is one of the four cornerstones of the RCAH curriculum. However, ethics does not seem to have as well defined a place in the curriculum as the other three cornerstones (world history, arts and culture, and engaged learning). We don't have courses explicitly devoted to alternative ethical traditions. We don't claim to teach a particular ethical doctrine. In what sense, then, is ethics a solid cornerstone on a par with these other cornerstones that are found across the curriculum?

At the most general level, ethics is about how we should live our lives. There are several ways to approach this very daunting question within a college curriculum.

In some majors, ethics is taught historically. That is, students read classic texts in philosophy and religion to learn what famous thinkers and public figures have argued is the best way to live. This includes all the usual suspects: ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; religious thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas; and more modern thinkers from Spinoza and Kant to Wollstonecraft, Marx, Mill, Dewey, Addams, Foucault, and their followers. It also includes ethical writings in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Native American traditions. By critically studying how they thought people should live their lives, students are in a better position to answer the question for themselves.

Another approach to ethics is what has come to be known as applied ethics. Here one finds medical ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics, journalism ethics, and more. Applied ethics may draw on the history of ethics to develop its moral principles, but its goal is to fine-tune these more general and universal moral principles so that they apply to the particular demands of the problems and roles that we find, say, in medicine, business, the environment, and journalism. Instead of considering the question of how should we live our lives, students debate questions such as “What are the responsibilities of physicians when faced with difficult end-of-life decisions?” or “What are the responsibilities of journalists to protect their sources even when the identity of the source may be of use in a serious criminal investigation?”

While RCAH students read their fair share of Great Books and debate the strengths and weaknesses of famous historical thinkers, ethics in the RCAH is not historical in this sense. Similarly, even though RCAH courses raise questions about the particular responsibilities of artists, musicians, writers, and poets during times of struggle and cultural conflict, ethics in the RCAH is not of the applied sort. Ethics in the RCAH refers to how we approach world history, arts, and culture. Ethics, like engaged learning, refers to the ways we attend to the world we live in. There are three modes of learning in the RCAH, each with its own implicit ethics or set of virtues and moral principles.

Learning through study and analysis. Students learn how to follow transcultural patterns of conflict and cooperation across national boundaries, how to see the influence of visual culture on other bodies of knowledge, how to identify the needs and interests of an audience so that they can more effectively communicate with them, and how to appreciate the native and immigrant as well as the settler communities that make up diverse societies. The ethics implicit in this mode of learning is familiar to our ears but hardly easy to practice. Learning this way means being willing to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, not hide them. It means giving credit where credit is due, not taking it when it doesn't belong to you. And it means being thorough, not jumping to conclusions. In Max Weber's famous words, it means treating our scholarship as if it were our life's vocation, not just a means to some other end. The ethics of learning through study and analysis is honesty to ourselves and others.

Learning through making. Just as one does not learn tennis or mathematics by reading a book – one must swing the racket and crunch the numbers – one must take some time to write a poem, knit a quilt, paint a mural, or strum a tune before one fully understands what it means as a whole. There is nothing mysterious about experiential learning; there is also no substitute for it. The ethics of experiential learning contain a slightly different set of virtues and regulative principles. They include, in Richard Sennett's words, the "rhythm of concentration" and the effectiveness of "minimum force." In making our objects of study we develop a particular kind of concentration – in the case of making certain kinds of music we must learn how to move gracefully back and forth from eye to hand until we find the right rhythm. In creating a piece of pottery or jewelry, we have to acquire a feel for the material, holding it in a certain way so that we minimize the force we apply to it. In writing a poem we move back and forth between one word choice and another until the juxtaposition of opposites is just right. The ethics of making is a moral respect for the material at hand. It is the ethics of conservation and the ethics of care that can be learned in the workshop and then extended to our relations with other people. 

Learning through collaborative doing. Whether it is a jam session, a poetry slam, a theatrical improvisation, or a neighborhood garden project, there is an element of knowing that only comes when we work collaboratively with others. We hear new sounds and see new patterns when we take the perspectives of others into consideration. We know more than we knew before when we were limited by our own competencies and loyal only to our own interests. The more diverse the ensemble of interests, the greater the possibilities for making new knowledge and communicating it effectively to others. The ethics of collaborative doing is an ethics of mutual respect. It adheres to principles of equality and solidarity.  

Ethics in the RCAH is built on familiar values – honesty, care and conservation, equality and mutual respect. But rather than memorizing these values as things handed down to us or as instrumental means to achieve other ends, in the RCAH they are intrinsic elements in what we do. Just as we live our learning in our creative work and through civic engagement, we also live our ethics through the various modes of learning that define the RCAH curriculum. When we live our lives this way, ethics doesn't stand apart, chastening us for not measuring up to an abstract ideal standard. Instead, ethics is woven into the very fabric of our lives.