Op-Ed: Ethics in the major

Nov. 9, 2011, 12:26 a.m.

The national Occupy Wall Street movement is a reactive movement. Stemming from the financial crisis, Occupy has started conversations about economic inequality only after the economic downturn. There is little conversation about what changes need to be made in our society’s culture in order for us to prevent a future crisis — that is why I propose the addition of an Ethics in the Major requirement.

An Ethics in the Major requirement would challenge students to think about the nuanced ethical issues in pursuing their fields and desired careers. For example, for technical majors who are interested in startups — what are the ethics behind startups?  Is entrepreneurship always a good option, or is it better to simply join an established company? Or, for those who will be in management positions in business — is it always better to increase profit? Should you outsource labor for cheaper workers in order to drive profit margins? Or, for those interested in pursuing public service — what is ethical and effective service? Thinking through these issues will equip students to handle the questions that will inevitably come up in their careers.

Currently, we have the “Education for Citizenship — Ethical Reasoning” requirement to address the question of ethics.  However, we are only required to choose two out of four areas of “Education for Citizenship.” When faced with the decision of taking courses in American Culture, Ethical Reasoning, Gender or Global Communication, most students often opt for the most convenient option rather than considering the lessons that they need to learn to become productive citizens. The Ethical Reasoning requirement exists already, so why can’t we make this actually relevant for the sectors we are interested in going into?

Ethics in the Major would also require individual departments to look into the complex ethical issues of their disciplines. How do we maintain social responsibility as future innovators, engineers, journalists, public servants, etc.? The Ethics in Society program already addresses these concerns, but this needs to become a more widespread conversation tailored to individual disciplines. I respect departments that already infuse the conversation of ethics into their curriculum, but these efforts need to be institutionalized.

For majors that don’t necessarily lead students on a linear path to a certain career, students should be able to pick which classes to take to fulfill their Ethics in the Major requirement. Instead of forcing students to take an in-department Ethics in the Major course, students can also take an interdisciplinary class — for example, students interested in finance but are majoring in History can then take an MS&E financial engineering track ethics class and vice versa. The point is to mandate students to take at least one ethics class related to their interests and proposed fields so they can consider real world ethical questions. We need to stop simply getting angry at Wall Street and propose preventative reforms at the education level. 

What do all the people indicted for causing the economic downturn have in common? They all, at one point, went to college. Stanford, as do other educational institutions, needs to educate the next generation of movers and shakers to be socially responsible in their fields. Through the education of our future leaders, we can be proactive in preventing another crisis as a result of a series of unethical decisions. We should not be deterring students from pursuing investment banking or careers in the financial industry — since some students are genuinely interested in financial markets — but instead, we should be making sure that they do not make the same mistakes. The Ethics in the Major requirement is only one of many reforms that we should consider in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

We need to look at how we had educated students to think that it was OK to make decisions that would lead to an economic collapse. We need to look at how society’s culture promoted the creation of Wall Street. Most importantly, we need to find ways to educate the next generation to become socially responsible citizens.

It is time for us to let go of dividing ourselves into percentages — it doesn’t matter who is in the 1 percent, the 99 percent or 53 percent. We need to engage the 100 percent.


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