Ethical Reasoning

Many of the decisions our students will make in their personal and professional lives will have ethical implications: choosing a political candidate to support; assessing public policies; negotiating professional interactions; resolving family dilemmas; and, ultimately, choosing among different life projects. Courses in Ethical Reasoning teach students to reason in a principled way about moral and political beliefs and practices, and to deliberate and assess claims for themselves about ethical issues. These courses will examine competing conceptions and theories of liberty, justice, equality, democracy, rights, obligations, the good life, and the like, illustrating how they bear on the sorts of concrete ethical dilemmas students may encounter in their public, professional, and personal lives. Because they explicitly link theory and practice, some courses in this category might profitably engage professional school faculty.

In learning how to wrestle with ethical issues, it is often helpful for students to encounter a value system very different from their own, one that calls attention to the many ethical assumptions that they make without realizing it. This encounter may be with a value system from the past or from a different culture, and it may be within the context of a religious tradition.

By challenging students to evaluate, and possibly change, the assumptions and values they grew up with, these courses promote our students’ personal development and build the capacities for argument and deliberation essential for effective civic agency. Advances in science and technology will continue to raise difficult and unanticipated ethical questions into the future, and the impact of social and economic globalization is felt perhaps most keenly when ethical convictions of different cultures collide. Students must be equipped to engage with the challenges that these twenty-first-century realities will raise.

Courses in Ethical Reasoning should:

  • teach how to reason about moral and political beliefs and practices, and how to deliberate and assess claims about ethical issues;
  • examine competing conceptions and theories of ethical concepts such as the good life, obligation, rights, justice, and liberty;
  • teach how to assess and weigh the reasons for and against adopting these various conceptions and theories;
  • apply these conceptions and theories to concrete ethical dilemmas of the sort students will encounter in their lives, such as those that arise in medicine, law, business, politics, and daily life; and
  • where appropriate, acquaint students with value systems different from their own, such as those of different religions or different historical periods and those expressed in different languages, or with empirical studies of moral life.

See my.harvard for a list of courses that satisfy this category.  Using the Advanced Search function, select Ethical Reasoning from the drop-down menu found under FAS – Additional Attributes.

Learn about other General Education categories.