This quarter, I enrolled in two ethics classes: one on effective altruism and the other about ethical questions “on the edge,” particularly those pertaining to technological advances and modern social problems. I had decided during winter quarter that I wanted to minor in ethics in society, simply because the classes sounded interesting. While I got a “practical” education through my economics major, I would enjoy debating 25 units worth of puzzling ethical questions.
In the first four weeks of classes, though, my ethics classes have offered much more than entertaining debate. In effective altruism, we have interrogated our charitable giving, career choices and the morality of having a child. I have revised my outlook on my own career and completely reformed the way I understand my own value in a global context. As effective altruism shows us, we can put a monetary value on the price of saving a person’s life, and we can determine the most cost-efficient ways of doing it. The class has exposed me to my own life-saving potential as a highly educated American, and has given me a sometimes uncomfortable but ultimately meaningful sense of responsibility towards the global poor.
In my Ethics on the Edge class, we have dug deeper into the fabric of corporate ethics and data management, the fundamental problems plaguing Title IX investigations and the philosophical concerns we will face when (not if) humans begin marrying robots. From AI to global labor ethics to gene editing, such ethical questions will pervade the background — and hopefully the foreground — of our workplace experiences. As the world’s emerging leaders, they are questions we will likely have to tackle ourselves, without precedent to rely on for guidance.
In these classes, I have learned that ethics is not merely an interesting field of philosophy, but a ubiquitous presence in our lives, public and personal. We not only make ethically charged choices when we tell a lie or sacrifice our time to help someone in need, but also in our day-to-day decisions about the places we learn and work, the way we spend our money and the way we interact with technology. The more power we have in companies and organizations, the more high stakes our choices will become.
Regardless of your major and career aspirations, I believe it is imperative that you take an ethics class in your subject during your time at Stanford. You don’t need to complete a philosophy double major or an ethics in society minor to understand ethical questions. Of course, the more the better, but even a single class on the ethics of computing, assistive technology, biological experimentation, journalism or political campaigning could inform the decisions you make for the rest of your life.
An ethics class will not give you all the answers to moral questions–many answers don’t exist–but should give you frameworks by which to make ethical decisions on a case-by-case basis in the future. When should a company be transparent with its consumers, and when can they ethically hide internal information? How much should technology imitate human behavior? Should neuroimaging be used in courts of law? Such questions are not black and white, but determining boundaries and grey areas will help us all to address these issues consciously and systemically.
Chances are, our campus is now home to the founders of the next Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the next head of Volkswagen, the next Stanley Milgram. We, of all people, must go into the world with ethics at the front of our minds. Most unethical behavior is not deliberate, but simply careless, and the only way to protect us from careless ignorance is ethical knowledge. So please, take an ethics class, whether it is required by your major or not. I’m convinced you’ll find it interesting, and it just might change your decisions twenty years down the line in a way that benefits us all.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.