Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | The modern-day challenge of weaving ethics into education

Though ethical decisions are inherent in everything we do, most varsities do not focus on the issue

Every single day, we make decisions, often subconsciously, that define who we are and what we believe in. To illustrate, just think about five decisions that we all took just this morning. First, did you turn off the fan or air-conditioner after getting out of bed? We all know that every bit of energy we consume leaves our planet and environment at a marginally greater risk of damage that could harm future generations. You balance this concern against personal convenience, and arrive at a decision you believe is right for you.

Second, did you catch up on your social media updates even before getting out of bed? Your patronage of social media platforms is an endorsement of their views on privacy, freedom of expression and respect for others. On the other hand, who has time to actually read the terms of use before clicking on “accept". Again, you trade ideals for convenience.

Third, did you make your coffee with organic milk from free-range cows? This is arguably healthier, more sustainable and more humane. But can we produce enough organic milk from free-range cows to meet the entire world’s demand for dairy goods, or is this a market for a privileged few? What milk you buy is an indication of which view you endorse.

Fourth, did you drive to work, or take public transportation? Fifth, once you reached office, did you again catch up on your social media feed, or do you do that only on personal time?

The list could go on. The point of these examples is not to suggest which view is righteous, but to highlight that ethical decisions are inherent in everything we do, in almost every aspect of our lives. We must take these decisions thoughtfully and consciously based on our own beliefs, and not simply by default, or by following the herd.

Yet, most educational institutions today do not adequately focus on helping students develop thoughtful ethical frameworks that would inform their choices. The few of us who took today’s decisions consciously did so more likely out of our own interest, curiosity and effort, and not because we learnt to do so at school or college.

Ethics is not something which can be learnt by simply taking a course on it. We must learn to closely and critically examine the ethical dimension in everything we do. In universities, students must constantly be encouraged to apply ethical frameworks to every aspect of their academic and non-academic life. So much so that this must become second nature to them. Rather than pontificate a righteous way, universities must help students analyse ethical challenges from various schools of thoughts. For example, what would Plato, Immanuel Kant, Ramanuja and Confucius say about cloning and genetic engineering.

But in a fast-changing world, this alone will not do. While people often think of ethics as a sense of right and wrong, we define ethics as respect—respect for the rules of the game, and respect for others who play by these rules. Even when the rules are somewhat static, being ethical is a complex and difficult thing. We are in a world where different rules and systems are coming into conflict with one another, some systems are changing, and entirely new systems are evolving.

For example, in America, it is acceptable to lay off employees, if necessary, to meet a company’s financial goals. Much less so in, say, Japan. When an American company acquires a Japanese company, the two systems come into conflict. Similarly, in pre-1991 India, CEOs were not paid the kind of compensation they receive today; the rules of the game have changed. To prepare students to be ethical within a changing system, universities must focus on developing adaptability and agility in students’ mindsets and expectations.

Moreover, in areas like social media, Artificial Intelligence and blockchain technologies, the rules of the game are yet to be clearly written. For example, what are the rules and norms surrounding privacy of user data? To what extent can a company use private user data to further its mission? Must a company make exceptions to its privacy policy if a user is proven to be a security threat to society? These are areas where the rules of the game are still evolving.

Herein lies the greatest ethical responsibility for universities. Shaping the rules of the game requires a deep understanding of the evolving technology and discipline, an empathetic and inclusive analysis of what it means to every stakeholder, and finally, a sense of fairness that pushes the envelope of societal morality. More importantly, the framing of rules must not be influenced by vested interests; the neutrality of universities as independent institutions in society places a great responsibility on them to lead the charge in defining new rules and systems.

We have come together at Krea University to address these gaps and respond to all three challenges: encouraging students to critically analyse the ethical dimension in all aspects of their lives, helping them learn to be adaptable and agile in changing contexts, and most importantly, play a lead role in evolving new systems and rules.

For the sake of society, we must succeed.

Kapil Viswanathan and Tenzin Priyadarshi are vice-chairman, Krea University, and director of the Ethics Initiative at MIT Media Lab, respectively.

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