We should learn, live and lead with ethics, not Twitter

In an opinion, Prof. Rita Kirn notes, "If we truly hope that our communities will develop into progressively better societies, we must stop abrogating our duty to our youth and correct our own behaviors."

By Rita Kirk
SMU Professor

Our digitally saturated environment champions instantaneous reactions to complex questions over reflection or thought. To wit, our president governs by Twitter.

Rita Kirk
Rita Kirk
Yet the ethical dilemmas of the digital age are no less complex than the subject matter; cyber security, social networking, gene editing/diagnosis, digital labor rights, artificial wombs, drone warfare, enhanced pathogens or state-sponsored "hacktivism" are common table topics over lunch. Struggling through that complexity is central to understanding its implications for our culture.

We used to believe that ethics are learned at our mothers' knees, that the formation of our ethics is completed at an early age. But that is not true. Our ethics are developed and refined throughout our lives by both trivial and pivotal experiences. College is often, or should be, one of those pivotal experiences.

Philosophy, religious studies and theology professors steadfastly engage students on topics related to contemporary moral issues, but there is another movement on campuses, one that we should support: The teaching of applied ethics by professors of practice. When a bridge linking two buildings together collapses because someone chose to use cheaper bolts than are required, or an electric grid goes down because someone decided to hack the system "just for fun," we will wish that we had spent more time thinking about what is right, just and honorable — not only what is possible for us to do with our knowledge. 

If we truly hope that our communities will develop into progressively better societies, we must stop abrogating our duty to our youth and correct our own behaviors. We must stop giving more attention to the worst behaviors our society has produced and consciously hold up the everyday heroes among us.  Hero is a word we don't use much anymore.  It makes us feel like that person is no longer human or fallible. But it also leads our children to believe that there is no one worth emulating. 

When we honor those servant leaders who exemplify why the greater good is a goal worth pursuing, we develop a worthy community standard of achievement.

But that is not enough unless we also momentarily suspend our criticism in favor of celebrating of something good.  We have enough critics. It is unnecessary to point out the flaws of human character when, on balance, it is the human struggle that makes them most worthy of recognition. Practicing ethics often requires people to make decisions against their own self-interest, decisions that are unpopular, or that support a future others may not yet see. If we ever needed people of good will to step forward to help our nation out of a crisis of confidence, it is now.

On Tuesday, the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU honored retired Dallas Police Chief David Brown with the J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award, celebrating the 20th anniversary of that tribute. Ethics education helps us to encourage those with heart — people like Brown — to keep up the good fight. 

Our community is blessed with some excellent high school and university ethics programs, numerous ethics-based community groups, and shelves of books to enlighten our journey.  Yet as David Brooks, author of The Road to Character, notes: " We've accidentally left this moral tradition behind.  Over the last several decades, we've lost this language, this way of organizing life.  We're not bad.  But we are morally inarticulate." 

It's time we got that back. Our future depends on it.

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