To the editors:
My hearty congratulations on the cover article of the February 9th issue, entitled: "Uncle J.R. Explains It All for You," by Harold Henderson. That the Reader decided to pick up a topic such as teaching ethics is worthy of commendation.
I have been teaching engineering thermodynamics (and a little bit of ethics) for a while, at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I am now cooperating with IIT's Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions in a new program aimed at teaching faculty how to add ethics to their regular courses. Almost from my start there, I have learned to appreciate the efforts of all the people quoted in the article: Vivian Weil and Michael Davis, of IIT, and John Regalbuto, of UIC. About a year ago, the four of us met for lunch to discuss John's plan to start the new course featured in the article. It was then, as it is now, a bold project. Yet, it seems more likely to succeed now than it did then.
Unfortunately, the Reader's article repeatedly confuses natural ethics with religion. It is also suggested that Prof. Regalbuto's approach to ethics must come from a definite (and narrow, it appears by the article) set of beliefs. Given this bias, it is understandable that examples abound that, rather than testing the power of the natural method of ethics analysis, get lost in marginal issues. And so, we are presented with digressions about rats and rabbits, and the literary and intellectual achievements of dolphins and chimpanzees. By getting so sidetracked the article loses the main point: here is a simple method useful to make fairly accurate ethics decisions with less pain than competing methods.
Natural ethics is independent of any religious creed; it depends on the common characteristics of people's understanding of right and wrong. For instance, most agree that killing is wrong; anyone who disagrees with this is considered a pathological case. The same can be said of lying or stealing. These, and other subtler points are engraved in our minds with a strength that goes beyond the barriers of creed, language, or culture. Natural ethics' only "belief" is that these rules are an integral part of human nature. The evidence of centuries overwhelmingly supports this assertion.
Ethics problems can get quite involved; one has the feeling of moving in a "gray area" where right and wrong are confused. For these, something more than the simple rules given in Regalbuto's class is required. These cases, however, often get to this confused state through neglect. If caught on time, they can be solved following simple guidelines. One can compare it with a disease that can be cured with tablets in its early stages, but that will require complex surgery if left to take hold. For everyday cases involving simple ethical judgment, natural ethics is superb.
I teach future engineers and know how they appreciate the simple "toolbox" approach. They just don't go for the complicated elucubrations that conventional ethics often involves. A routine, a formula, even if not a hundred percent accurate, has an immense practical value. It becomes the best way to make ethical judgment available to "the rest of us." If the often-denigrated "me" generation of professionals had had its ethical skill sharpened while in school, even if only by a formulary approach, perhaps many cases that have caused a lot of news and pain would never have happened.
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Illinois Institute of Technology