The University of Texas at Austin
School of Undergraduate Studies
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Frequently Asked Questions about the Ethics and Leadership Flag

What can we hope to accomplish by teaching practical and professional ethics to college students?

We can prepare them to deal with difficult ethical situations they are likely to face in their adult and professional lives. If they understand the practical factors that bear on ethical decision making, they will be better able to apply their own values in real life. We can give them tools that will make it possible for them to be their own “best selves” if they choose to be.

What is the most effective way to teach practical ethics?

The case study method is widely accepted as an effective method, but it is not the only method we will recommend. Teaching practical and professional ethics through case studies that present real-life situations that students may encounter encourages them to recognize potential moral and ethical problems and potential resolutions. Students then have the opportunity to practice considering complex ethical questions in context, and applying ethical principles to difficult situations. Faculty should also consider the methods developed by Mary Gentile in “Giving Voice to Values,” including “prescripting,” the notion that students will better be able to act consistently with their values if they have thought about ethical dilemmas and how to cope with them before they actually encounter them in real life.

What is the role of ethical theory in practical ethics?

Any theory conjoined with moral incompetence can produce terrible results; and almost any theory, applied wisely, can support good decision-making. Shallow ventures into theory are bound to be inadequate. Because this flag’s focus is upon practical and professional ethics, philosophy courses do not necessarily satisfy this flag’s requirement. For example, courses in meta-ethics or the history of ethics will not automatically count for this requirement.

Does the ethics flag entail a liberal or conservative agenda?

Absolutely not. Practical ethics should be taught without forcing students to take positions about divisive social and political issues on which decent and reasonable people may disagree. The goal is (a) to encourage students to seriously consider their own values, not to induce them to accept someone else’s, and (b) to help them make decisions and take actions that are consistent with their own values by enabling them to recognize moral and ethical problems and potential resolutions.

What is the word “leadership” doing in the title of the flag?

Ethical leadership is not a matter of the managerial position that one holds within a firm. Regardless of his or her rank or power status, a person shows ethical leadership by setting a good example to others or taking initiative to encourage ethical action or discourage unethical action. Viewed this way, leadership is a concept that belongs to practical and professional ethics. Courses in managing people or in getting them to do what you want will not satisfy this flag.

Must a course take ethics as its subject, or set aside a month for ethics as a subject, in order to carry the flag?

No. Just as we teach writing across the disciplines—teaching those disciplines through writing—we hope to work out ways to teach a number of subjects that are suffused with practical and professional ethics.

Could a course that focuses on past or fictional events satisfy the ethics flag requirement?

Yes, if the course is taught in a way that engages students in the process of ethical reasoning. A course would count in which students learn to analyze ethical decisions from history or literature and then learn to apply ethical frameworks they identify from those decisions to choices they might make in their own lives. By contrast, a history or literature course would not be eligible for the flag if it did not go beyond covering figures whose decisions had ethical implications.