There is a runaway trolley speeding down the railway tracks. Ahead on the tracks lay five people, tied up and unable to move. Next to you is a lever that can divert the trolley onto a side track with one person. You must decide: Do nothing or pull the lever?
Cue the philosophy majors’ eye rolls.
Many of us have heard the trolley problem before, whether it was mentioned in a late night conversation or during one of Shelly Kagan’s lectures. It’s often viewed as silly or incomparable to life, but at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the world faced their own version of the problem. This time, with real life-and-death stakes.
Facing a shortage of supplies, healthcare workers had to make the impossible decisions about which patients should receive ventilators. They also had to balance a duty to care for patients against concerns of spreading COVID-19 to their families. Abstruse thought experiments in academic circles were no longer confined to the classroom.
In the past several months, debates on ethics have grown far beyond the realm of health care. The United States has immersed itself in ethical debates that affect the most basic courses of action. Should we reopen businesses if that may lead to more infections and deaths? What levels of risk should we accept when meeting up with others, and even deciding to go back to school? And lastly, the never-ending debates on freedom have continued, but in a new form: Do we have a moral responsibility to wear a mask? (Hint: We do.)
In this distressing and transformative moment, it is imperative for Yale and other schools across the nation to institutionalize ethics into their curricula.
Moral questions are fundamental to our responsibilities and the lives we live as students, family members and citizens. They are also unavoidable in our professional lives, as our fields of study will encompass issues like climate change, technological advancement, and political instability and progress. At the very least, we will need to apply the difference between right and wrong, and at the highest level, we will need to make serious normative decisions.
Ethics requirements are not a foreign concept in higher education, as some universities already incorporate ethics into their curricula. Princeton has a general education requirement called “Ethical Thought and Moral Values.” Graduate schools across the board are gradually requiring their students to take ethics classes, too. Unfortunately, these are exceptions, as most undergraduate institutions are sorely lacking in any mandatory ethics education.
The benefits of ethics classes are well known. They challenge our values, improve argumentative and reasoning skills and spark dialogue on important issues. But aside from these points, ethics is uniquely essential in our current political environment. With political beliefs becoming increasingly entrenched in our identities and emotions, it is crucial to facilitate an environment where students can express their confusions and hesitations about their values — without the social stakes and pressures that may come from standard daily discourse.
It is true that different moral theories stress different values, and that the decision to teach one intellectual tradition over another is itself a judgment call. Within Western philosophy, utilitarianism emphasizes maximizing social welfare, whereas deontology focuses on natural rights and respect for other people. Each view has its redeeming qualities and its own weaknesses. Reasonable people can arrive at very different conclusions. In a time where discourse may seem hopelessly circular, seeing these different theories in action is invaluable. Not only does it allow us to gain more perspective, but it prepares us to more effectively approach conversations. We can frame debates more clearly, and in doing so, perhaps arrive at resolutions.
Earlier in the spring, I had a long conversation with my friend about effective altruism. It spilled over from our ethics class, and we had many back-and-forth exchanges, trading arguments with one another. While I ultimately walked away from the conversation with reservations, I saw the value in his perspective. Even if I was not completely on board, I saw that it could help to be more utilitarian in a few areas of my life, especially charity.
Conversations like these are invaluable. They allow us to push ideas to their logical conclusions, however radical, and we can decide for ourselves where our moral limits stand. Even if ethics classes don’t ever formalize into a requirement, as students, we should take initiative to promote these classes and expand the conversation to include more ways of understanding the world.
As we continue to deal with COVID-19 in the coming months, we will face ethical dilemmas of our own, however big or small. We may encounter people who are careless about health protocols or refuse to wear masks. As we watch out for the safety of all those around us, ethical reasoning can make decisions less difficult. It can keep us from acting irresponsibly and motivate us to speak up. It can reinforce the values that should be at the forefront of our minds when making decisions that impact entire communities and the places we call home.
EDWARD SEOL is a sophomore in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate weeks. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .