Pondering the Meaning of It All

Students Flock to New Courses on Professional Ethics

The ethical questions raised by developments in science, politics, and social issues in the past few years emphasize the rapidly increasing importance of responsible professionals. Was Karen Quinlan's doctor right to prolong her life? Should administrators employ affirmative action? How should scientists decide where to limit cloning? In response to questions like these, Harvard, and many other colleges are developing "applied ethics" courses. Enrollment in such courses has increased dramatically in recent years.

The reasons for this upsurge are not entirely clear, but some teachers of ethics might agree with Arthur J. Dyck, Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics, who says, "People are starved for ethics."

"No one reads the great classical discussions anymore, and they're all tired of being put off by a neutral world," he says.

Of the six courses dealing with professional ethics that are offered to Harvard undergraduates, Quincy 107, "Business in American Life," has been around the longest. Instituted in 1973 by Thomas J.C. Raymond, professor of Business Administration at the Business School, the course has more than doubled its original enrollment of 25 students since then, and this year is being taught in two sections.

While Raymond says that his seminar is not a course "specifically in ethics," he adds there are "ethical overtones to every case we study." By evaluating such topics as whether a new business will serve a social need, what to do when original employees in a small firm are no longer needed, and how to maintain legitimate arrangements with financial backers, students are forced to consider the ethical ramifications of business in daily life, he says.


Field work in Cambridge gives students actual experience in applying class material. Last year, each student in the course had to do a project on a restaurant or clothing store in Harvard Square. Each compiled an overall assessment of the business practices of the examined organization and then presented it to the store owner at the end of the course.

This year, after analyzing the businesses in Harvard Square, students will have to decide what kind of business would be best for them to start, taking into account what would be the most beneficial for the community, Raymond says.

When it comes to encouraging a social conscience in business, Raymond says professors can try, but they really "can't pump ethics. We raise the considerations, but I leave the decisions to the students."

While Quincy 107 attracts a predominance of economics majors and pre-business students, Dudley 108 appeals to many students considering law.

William Bruce, vice dean of the Law School, says that in his Dudley seminar, "Thinking Like a Lawyer," he tries to point out that "individual rights are the rights of all of us." Currently in its fourth year, the course has grown in enrollment from 15 students to 100.

Focusing on ethics in the legal context, Bruce says topics of discussion in his course have included whether one should use improperly obtained evidence, as well as the importance of protecting individual rights in controversial cases.

Also in its fourth year and growing in popularity, Leverett 101, "The Government and the Press in America" raises many questions related to journalistic ethics. James C. Thomson Jr., curator of the Nieman Fellowships, estimates that about two-thirds of the students in his course go on to journalism, with the remaining one-third entering government or public policy work. As to whether they will emerge from Leverett 101 more ethically-minded, Thomson says, "I certainly hope so."

"You can't talk about journalism without talking about ethics," Thomson says. "The type of questions that journalists face all the time--privacy of sources, how much one can investigate the government without running counter to patriotism--demand a consideration of ethics,"

Thomson says he teaches Leverett 101 on "grounds of conscience." He adds, "The future of the press in our country and in other countries may depend on many of these students. They should be exposed to discussion of the issues involved."

Although Leverett 101 is limited to 20 places, this year 120 students applied, double the number that applied in 1974. Thomson says that the increase in enrollment is probably due more to the scarcity of journalism courses at Harvard than to any ethical considerations.