Learning to point your moral compass

Saint Joseph's graduates take a healthy dose of ethics with them

Is it ethical to send home a patient "post-op" who doesn't have the money for the follow-up drugs? Is it okay to share a downloaded file? Is it right to advertise sugared cereal during kid shows? Should "the greatest good for the greatest number" always be your guiding ethical light?

In required philosophy classes for all students, and in nursing, business, education, and communication courses, faculty members at Saint Joseph's weave ethics into the curriculum again and again.

"We provide the fabric with which to consider ethics, whether personal or professional," says philosophy professor Sr. Patricia Flynn, RSM.

Unusual in that it requires two philosophy courses for on-campus students, the college gives strong exposure to ethical theory - an approach tied directly to the college's mission statement. Theology classes also weave ethics into their curriculum, mostly through electives.

Ethics is about making choices - selecting criteria to establish right and wrong - and that interests students, says Flynn. The choices can be as immediate as the temptation to cheat on an exam or as complicated as a decision to go to war. As social and religious structures that provided guidance in the past lose their impact, people get confused about what is right and wrong, she notes.

In its introductory course, the philosophy department teaches an objective approach to ethics based on universal norms rooted in what it means to be human. Although ethics often proves complex, Flynn believes the bottom line is concern for life and human dignity, most of which has to do with not treating other people as a means to an end.

Technology, especially as it relates to genetics and health care, raises a lot of ethical issues. Flynn's elective bioethics course engages students around issues ranging from research on human beings to use of surrogate mothers to human cloning. Paraphrasing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on the morality of nuclear weapons, Flynn asks her students: "In an age when we can do almost anything, what do we decide we will never do - and why?"


When it comes to the professions, nurses have a published moral code. Respect for human dignity is at the top. Dignity translates into respecting the patient's need for health care just because they "are," rather than because of who they are.

"Ethical issues come up all the time," says nursing professor Susan Henderson, who has taught at Saint Joseph's since the nursing program began in 1974. "Do no harm" plays a big part in medical ethics, she says, but how much and how well nurses advocate to prevent harm is at the heart of what they face ethically. What if a patient wants to go home, but could easily break a hip if released too soon? Should you fight to keep them in the hospital longer? The role patients should play in making their own decisions is a key issue in health care today, along with the right to privacy and confidentiality.

"I want them to see every side and every shade. Sometimes they walk out of here with their heads spinning."
- Beth Richardson, Business ethics professor

Nursing students are exposed over and over to ethical dilemmas in class and in clinicals, says Henderson. At all levels of the curriculum, they're expected to analyze ethical choices - and are influenced by the culture of nursing at Saint Joseph's based on the values and Mercy mission of its founder, Sister Consuela White. At the core of that nursing program is building a trusting relationship with patients based on deep respect and a caring presence.

In the Graduate & Professional Studies division, adult students face ethical situations at work every day. Dr. Linda Mast, who teaches a health care ethics class online through the adult learning division, assigns her students position papers on topics including physician-assisted suicide, pros and cons of a regulated market to increase access to transplant organs, genetic testing and privacy issues, and emerging technologies for surrogate births.

The online discussion board topics for her course offer students the opportunity to debate contemporary ethical dilemmas that often have a global component, such as "medical tourism," questionable practices in other countries for procuring transplant organs or making contraceptives available to middle school students.


In the field of education, each state establishes standards for professional conduct. But early on in the educational process, Saint Joseph's faculty members ask their students to consider their own moral identity.

"We have to integrate ethics into content on a continual basis," says education professor Dr. June Marshall. "We pull ethical issues out of the paper every day and have students reflect on the issues. It generates a lot of discussion."

In the Children's Literature class that Marshall teaches, future teachers have to create a unit on character education that addresses situational ethics. They also discover and use books that teach children how to approach ethical dilemmas.

Education students start in school settings as sophomores and are encouraged to discuss ethical issues they witness. "Students are willing to talk about tough issues, because we are willing to entertain them," says Dr. Kathleen Clements, Chair of the Elementary Education Department.


In the field of communications where codes of conduct are also established outright, department chair Dr. William Yates says a key issue is privacy - in a world where sharing information is almost totally unrestricted. A picture of someone taking out the garbage in torn pajamas can be captured by cell phone, posted to MySpace and essentially be sent all over the world. "The ethics haven't kept up with the technology," he notes.

Yet Yates is doing away with a media ethics course per se, instead choosing to weave ethical issues into courses within particular concentrations, such as journalism, public relations and multimedia. He believes the approach will be more effective because the ethical issues are tied to the specific sub-field a student is interested in. He is also introducing a new course on communications research that will include how to conduct research ethically and use statistics ethically.


In her business ethics class, business professor Beth Richardson promotes "ethical fitness training." She teaches students how to identify, analyze and resolve ethical issues using a set of four all-encompassing paradigms: justice vs. mercy, short-term needs vs. long-term goals, truth vs. loyalty or self vs. community. This model is drawn from the Institute for Global Ethics, where she was certified as an ethics trainer.

"We want to get them ready to face any dilemma," Richardson says. "It's almost easier if there is a right way and a wrong way. But they get into arguments and start thinking in new ways."

Early in the semester, Richardson walks her students over to Mercy Hall to look at the college's core values imprinted on the wall there and gets them to talk about specific examples of each. Throughout the semester, she not only presents ethical dilemmas on everything from corporate behavior to life on the basketball team, she also discusses her own ethical challenges.

She says students come out of the course with tools that help them evaluate a situation, not just a body of knowledge. "I want them to see every side and every shade," she says. "Sometimes they walk out of here with their heads spinning." Richardson believes the college's core values give her permission to teach ethics in a strong, hands-on way. "That's a great foundation that I take advantage of," she says.

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 by Charmaine Daniels