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Everyday Ethics

Incorporating ethics lessons into courses across majors helps students practice making tough decisions before they’re tested in the working world.

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Vanessa Chorush sometimes finds herself in a hurry, running a few minutes late to class.

But she doesn’t always just step on the gas, breeze through yellow lights and weave past traffic. Instead, she tries to follow the law.

“I am not the exception to the rule there’s a law for a reason,” says Chorush, a 21-year-old public relations senior from Sugar Land, Texas. “I imagine what would happen if everyone decided to speed?”

Chorush is among the many UT students who have taken a course where participants discussed how to make ethical decisions every day. They’re important lessons for a generation of students that has seen myriad ethical scandals in the media from Enron’s collapse and steroid use in pro sports to an impeachable presidential lie and questionable police actions their whole lives.

Causing Harm - Ethics Unwrapped

In a video about “Causing Harm,” Ethics Unwrapped an online ethics teaching program developed at the McCombs School of Business explains how emotional harm is a short-term feeling, like being offended, embarrassed or humiliated. But instances of emotional harm can evolve into more longer lasting physiological harm, which makes us feel unsure of our worth and lose confidence in ourselves. 


Wheel of Misfortune - Ethics Unwrapped

The “Causing Harm” video uses a “wheel of misfortune” to illustrate that ethical people won’t cause harm unless 1) there is legitimate justification that can be explained to the public and 2) everyone else is equally justified in causing the same kind of harm even to yourself. 

In more than 100 degree programs at UT, students in different majors not only examine specific instances they may face in their respective fields but also build a foundation of broad approaches to ethical behavior that apply in any profession or stage of life.

Those courses fall under the Ethics and Leadership Flag, which ties ethics education into existing courses across the undergraduate curriculum.

In Megan Seaholm‘s U.S. history course, for example, students don’t just learn when certain events happened, they discuss the factors that caused leaders and followers to make certain decisions and study conflicting influences shaping the nation’s past.

“Students are seeing the relevance of moral issues that recur throughout history,” says Jess Miner, coordinator for the Ethics and Leadership Flag in the School of Undergraduate Studies. “They are stopping to ponder why these issues were important in the past and why they are still important today.”

The Ethics and Leadership Flag courses are setting the pace for the future of higher education. In the coming years, all undergraduate students will be required to complete this flag through courses where at least one-third of the final grade comes from work in practical ethics, or the study of “what is involved in making real-life ethical choices.”

[How ethical are you? Click here for our ethics quiz and put your decision-making skills to the test.]

“UT is trying to graduate students who will go out into the world and be leaders in their fields, regardless of where they go and what they do,” Miner says. “It’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t leave a hole in their education as far as ethics is concerned.”

Many courses with the Ethics and Leadership Flag focus on practical ethics, which can vary by discipline. Some courses also explore a more traditional approach to ethical reasoning based on principles of philosophy. Still others tie in behavioral ethics education by using materials developed right here at UT as part of an initiative called Ethics Unwrapped.

“The big picture is that everybody and I mean everybody: teacher, engineer or Wall Street banker tends to think of themselves as good people with the confidence they’ll make ethical decisions. But we aren’t realistic about the pressures we face,” says professor Robert Prentice, the faculty director of Ethics Unwrapped.

“The best way for us to prepare students is to explain how hard it will be to live up to their own standards and show them the pressures they’ll face from their bosses, peers and goals not to live up to their own standards,” he explains.

The Ethics Unwrapped initiative, housed in McCombs School of Business since it launched in 2012, started with a focuses on behavioral ethics, or “how and why people make the ethical decisions they do,” says Prentice, who also serves as chair of the Department of Business, Government and Society. The program centers around nearly 50 videos on ethics education that anyone, anywhere can use for free.

“We try to get people to practice how they go about making arguments that support their ethical decision making,” says Minette Drumwright, an associate professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations and chair of the Ethics and Leadership Flag committee. “The first step is seeing and recognizing the problem.”

The videos aren’t boring, talking heads rambling about conceptual ethics they’re lively, colorful and entertaining pieces that include creative animations.

In one video, the businesspeople standing under a “MegaCorp” sign begin to grow pointed devil ears and red tails until the entire group no longer looks like one made of typical professionals. The metaphor illustrates the problem of conformity bias, or the tendency to mimic the behavior of those who surround us rather than following internally held beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong.

The videos also feature frank feedback from university students who share their experiences with ethical dilemmas.

“I thought it was important for students to relate to themselves and see some of their own experiences reflected back at them,” says Cara Biasucci, the Ethics Unwrapped Program director who uses her filmmaking background to create the pieces. “Ethics doesn’t have to be a standalone course. It can be a component of any course.”

Mixing specific career-oriented ethics education with broader approaches to handling ethical dilemmas through these teaching tools is also helping professors who may not specialize in ethics education to strengthen the ideals of students from dancers and musicians, future doctors and lawyers, to businesspeople, architects, engineers and everything in between.

“Teachers, architects and engineers all face different ethical issues, but they tend to make the same mistakes,” Prentice said.

Ellen Lobb, a public relations alumna who graduated this past summer, finds herself thinking about the lessons she learned in a course on ethics in the field of advertising and PR.

Lobb says materials from that course are helping her in the post-college workforce and sparking conversations as she analyzes commercials she sees on TV.

“Ethics are involved no matter what you do,” Lobb says. “After taking the course and seeing how much speaking up about ethics can be for the better, I see the importance. It’s important for UT students to figure out their ethics and morals before they leave the college environment because you can very easily be swayed.”

“If we can reach every undergrad and make them aware of ethics,” Miner says, “the hope is that it will be impossible for them not to think about it when they come to a tough decision.”

Preparing Leaders series graphic


This story is part of our “Preparing Leaders” series, which explores how students are learning valuable leadership lessons.

You might also like:

Behind the Scenes with Ethics Unwrapped Director Cara Biasucci (McCombs Today)

Answering an Ethical SOS (McCombs Today)


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