In August of 2011, when Dean Daniel Larsen asked for volunteers to attend a workshop on integrating ethics into technical courses from each of the departments in the Eberly College of Science, I was a bit nervous about signing up. I am a geneticist by training. I had always raised potential ethical issues when genetic information was discussed, but I was really a novice with respect to using the language of ethical arguments. I decided to volunteer to be a participate in the workshop to see if I could learn about how to more effectively integrate the language of ethical thinking into my Advanced Genetics course.
In October, when it came time to introduce ethics into my Advanced Genetics course, I decided to use a case study where a father wanted to use prenatal testing to determine if his baby carried the dominant allele that leads to Huntington’s disease, a devastating late adult onset neurological disorder. The ethical problem raised by the case was that preliminary testing revealed an issue of non-paternity so the question was whether to reveal this information. I felt that my students were really engaged in the discussion of the case using the seven steps that I had been taught. They did a good job of spotting ethical issues, but found it more challenging to handle the later steps. As a follow up, I had the students write an analysis of a different case that required them to apply the seven steps on their own. To my novice eye, I thought the students did a good job of analyzing the case study that I assigned. They were able to spot ethical problems and come up with reasonable solutions to the ethical dilemmas. I did not realize it at the time, but one thing was missing from discussions about ethical issues was the raw emotion that emerges when ethics cases are reviewed. It is one thing to analyze ethics cases when it is an intellectual exercise, but it is quite another thing when one does it in real time 24/7.
Do I think that we need to integrate ethics training in our classes? Hell yes. It seems that ethical thinking is not part of the national lexicon. One should look no further than the current Penn State scandal or the 2008 banking scandal. In the August ethics workshop, my colleagues and I debated about whether ethical behavior comes from trying to avoid later punishment or whether there is some positive reason for ethical behavior. I think the current Penn State scandal offers some insight about why one should do the right thing, trust. Trust is something that builds over time, but can be damaged in an instant and the time to reestablish trust is likely to be enormous. I now look at my charge to teach ethics as an important job as the Penn State community works to rebuild trust.