Teaching Philosophy


published on May 18, 2018

Daniel F. Hartner

What Is the Proper Content of a Course in Professional Ethics?

What is the proper content of a course in professional ethics, such as business ethics, engineering ethics, or medical ethics? Though courses in professional ethics have been present in colleges and universities for decades, the question remains largely unsettled, even among philosophers. This state of affairs helps to sustain and even exacerbate public misconceptions about ethics and professional ethical training in higher education. I argue that the proper content of such courses remains a potential source of confusion because the term ‘ethics’ is ambiguous between philosophical and nonphilosophical forms of normative inquiry into behavior, where the former involves broad, context-sensitive reflection on moral obligation, and the latter involves the narrower analysis and codification of behavioral norms with less sensitivity to context. Failure to distinguish between these two senses of ethics can result in conflicting conceptions of and expectations for training and courses in professional ethics. I sketch some of the specific problems generated by the ambiguity. I conclude by proposing an initial step toward a solution, one which focuses on making more explicit the distinction between courses that aim to teach professional policy and “best practices” and those that encourage genuine philosophical inquiry into morality and the good life.