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An Ethical Education

“That's all we've done. That's all Phillip and l have done. He and I have lived what you and I have talked.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film, “Rope,” is the tale of the “perfect murder” committed by two young Harvard University graduates and serves as a dramatic parable for academia. The two protagonists strangle an old University classmate as an intellectual exhibition, then assemble a dinner party with the guests chosen for dramatic effect. Among the guests is their prep-school housemaster and inspiration, Rupert Cadell, portrayed by the legendary James M. “Jimmy” Stewart.

The perpetrators’ defense of course is that they were simply applying Nietzschean theory taught to them and endorsed by Rupert. Their mentor, angry and disgusted with his old students, gives an impassioned speech against their immorality. However, he fails to accept virtually any responsibility for advocating for the ideas that inspired them. Although this is the most extreme example, this story possesses a moral for the stewards of higher education.

Ideas are incredibly powerful and their practical consequences must be contemplated thoroughly in the classroom. Professors and other academics must consider the effects of their theoretical work and educators from all fields and departments must ensure that that the ethical considerations are taught in conjunction with the standard material.

I recently witnessed my own professor dismiss concerns that his methods were unethical by stating “That’s an ethics question; that’s for a different class.” Harvard cannot educate its students this way.

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The University wants its students to make a difference in the world, but ivory tower thinking — theory devoid of practical ethics — renders this mission impossible. And even worse, the lack of an ethical education may leave serious blindspots for graduates that can have serious consequences for the world at large.

Obviously the vast majority of ethical responsibility lies with students. This call for ethical education does not place the blame for wrong-doing on educators. To do this would be to remove the agency of students. However, as they attempt to mold young minds, educators have their own responsibility as well.

The University needs to forward programs similar to Embedded EthiCS, the collaboration between the Philosophy and Computer Science departments. The incorporation of ethical considerations should not be limited to computer science concentrators. All concentrations should seriously consider incorporating ethics into their core curriculum.

The Ethical Reasoning requirement exists ostensibly for this purpose, but there is bound to be a disconnect between those General Education classes and a student’s concentration. An ethical reasoning education should be far more effective when it’s applied to one’s specific area of expertise.

If the University wishes to produce more innovators at the level of success and impact of Mark E. Zuckerberg, then it needs to ensure that they have a greater understanding of the ethics behind their work. For years now, Facebook has been embroiled in multiple scandals with heavy consequences. The company’s original motto was “Move Fast, Break Things,” and although this has been amended, it indicates a goal of innovation without deliberation, which is a recipe for disaster. For the future, Harvard should be trying to cultivate leaders who permanently retain ethical considerations in their mental foreground.

“Rope” is based on a true story of the murder of a teenager by two men named Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb in the twenties. The Chicago-based murderers were recent graduates of the University of Chicago. However, the film version changed their alma mater to Harvard and situated them in a swanky Manhattan penthouse that looks down on the rest of the city. While we cannot confidently know the writers’ intent, this appears to ratchet up the viewer’s perception that these two men have a strong sense of superiority and feel that they exist on a plane above the rest of society. Harvard’s stellar reputation seems to go back a few years.

If Harvard wants its global reputation to be a place that cultivates future leaders that leave a positive impact on the world than it needs to place a higher value on applied ethics.

Daniel L. Aklog ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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