Ethics Teaching Across the Curriculum: Some Principles and Methods for Higher Education

By Major Bill Rhodes, Department of Philosophy and Fine Arts, U. S. Air Force Academy


Moral concerns pervade our profession. Day to day operational decisions almost invariably embody an ethical dimension. Yet ethics education in the military has often been a distinct brand of education. Often it is taught as a “block” of content, perhaps conveying the impression that ethics is a specialized realm of discourse, inaccessible to many and inapplicable to much of our professional living. I propose to discuss one approach to moral education which treats ethics as a dimension of a curriculum as opposed to a block within it. This approach is intended to harmonize with the pervasive nature of ethical concerns in our profession rather than to reduce them to fit within the confines of any one academic specialty or curriculum content area. Ethics Across the Curriculum (EATC, for short) takes ethics education beyond the ethics classroom. In this way it mimics real life. It explicitly acknowledges that ethical concerns attend almost all areas of professional endeavor, and seeks to take advantage of that fact for the benefit of students and the profession in general. I will argue that since practical ethical concerns do not respect disciplinary boundaries, ethics education should pervade professional education. Moreover, I will argue that specialists in each discipline are the most appropriate facilitators of ethics education. While EATC certainly respects the role of professional ethicists, it does not maintain that only professional ethicists can be good moral educators. Indeed, I will attempt to establish that such an assumption is inimical to healthy moral education in the professions because it may convey the unintended message that professional pursuits are immune from ethical concerns. The ethical dimensions of our lives do not evolve in accordance to ethical theory. While ethical models and theories can certainly help us sort out problems and resolve them, I will suggest that understanding theories and models is at best only one facet of good moral education in for the professions. It is in the actual making of decisions and resolving of problems that theoretical understanding bears fruit, and good moral education should, therefore, respect much more than theory. I will argue, therefore, that moral education should take as its starting point real world problems which may often be very untidy. While I admit that such an approach may well raise more questions than it answers, I want to suggest that this is a strength of EATC rather than a weakness, for practical moral problems do not conform to neatly delineated ethical theory. Professional moral education, if it is to be credible and effective, must take this fact into account. I will conclude, time permitting, by describing some steps we have taken at the Air Force Academy to put some of these thoughts into practice in our EATC initiative. While our program is only beginning, we have taken some steps that may be of practical interest to anyone contemplating a like initiative.