Headmaster’s Thoughts – April 2005

Teaching the Senior Ethics Class

[This article first appeared in the 2005 issue of The Parents League Review. © 2005 Parents League of New York, (212) 737-7385, https://www.parentsleague.org.]

Some time ago, a senior came to see me about a problem he was facing. His father’s new girlfriend had suggested that they meet secretly for a date. Should he tell his father? Not an easy question, with conflicting issues of loyalty and confidentiality. On the other hand, it certainly was not the first time I have been asked a similarly delicate type of question. After all, I teach ethics to the senior class, and delicate matters sometimes come up in class discussion.

For me, one of the many great facets of the job of being headmaster of York Prep is that I get to teach ethics to the senior class. We meet all together, about forty students. The program starts off as a basic college ethical philosophy course and, like most such courses, is primarily based on lectures on different ethical systems, with articles to read and papers to write. And then, inevitably, someone asks a question and we happily go off-topic. In the truest sense, there is no curriculum, no pre-set ground that we must cover, and no limits on the time that we can spend together on any problem that we find of particular interest. We do not allow gossip and avoid personal details (although sometimes they come out). Relevant speakers and personalities come to talk to the class; this year we welcomed Randy Cohen, who writes The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine. In the past we have had interfaith ministers and critical care doctors.

Ethics, as a subject, differs from most high school courses because, although we need information to make good decisions, information as such is not the goal of ethics. The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, and two and two make four. In ethics, right does not mean correct. Correct is something that is factually true, while the concept of right or wrong is a moral position over which ethical people may have disagreements. You come to ethical positions rather than learn them. For instance, I believe that prejudice is wrong, but I suspect this is a position that is arrived at after internal debate. What our study of ethics attempts to assist is the way a student approaches these ethical dilemmas. And there are very real world outcomes for our lives in working out ethical issues. Millions of Wall Street investors are affected by the ethics of company leaders. How a doctor treats a dying patient, or a pregnant fourteen-year-old, may be impacted by his moral viewpoint. Should the dying patient have a life of suffering stretched out by extra days of a morphined existence? Should the parents of the fourteen-year-old be told? In a time when churches and temples seem less and less a part of our students’ lives, the school picks up the slack to encourage ethical introspection.

The prime task of the York Prep ethics course is to examine and evaluate different ethical systems in the hope that their study will provide a groundwork of ethical concepts when a student is faced with a genuine ethical problem. One question posed to students is: “What would you do if you found a hundred dollar bill in the gym locker room?” How different students resolve this may well depend on different ethical point of view. The religious student has an easier task than most, quoting the Bible: “Thou shalt not steal.” End of problem. Another student may fear punishment if caught with the money. Deterrence is a powerful force and may be the deciding factor. A third student may have genuine feelings of empathy with the person who lost the money. He or she hands in the money to the school office because the student puts him or herself in the position of the person who dropped the bill. Three different ethical systems, all with the same result. Of course, all three factors may play a part; indeed, it is rare that just one theoretical foundation shapes the final decision. But in analyzing different systems and in reviewing the philosophies of the great ethicists, I believe we give our brain a better arsenal to come to conclusions at moments of ethical conflict.

Traditionally, ethics courses start with cultural relativism. Can we judge other cultures and times? Ancient Greeks and Romans, whose philosophy we study, and who considered themselves ethical people believing in standards of virtue, were comfortable with having slavery in their society. Until less than a hundred years ago, in this country, men who thought of themselves as decent and moral also believed women should not have the right to vote. Cultural relativism asks if it is arrogant of us, in the 21st century, to make judgments about another era and culture. We carry enough ethical baggage from our own individual histories.

In similar vein we study Utilitarianism, virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, ethical egotism, situation ethics, religious ethics, and Natural Law ethics. For many students, not only is this the first time they have read such writers as Aristotle or B. F. Skinner, it is also the first time they have been able to discuss a posed ethical quandary with the other members of their class. The key question is not so much the particular problem but how one goes about solving it. In the process, students analyze the clash between their desires and their conscience, their desire to be selfish and their desire to appear noble, their religious beliefs and their greed.

My interest in ethics began when I was a criminal trial lawyer in England, a barrister. A trial is a place where a defendant cannot avoid personal responsibility for his actions. If he is found guilty, or if he pleads guilty, he has to explain his actions in the best possible light. Why did he do it? In the end, after defending a man who had killed a number of people, I asked myself the same question and decided that if I had doubts about the ethical position I was in, defending criminals I knew were clearly guilty from evidence the jury never saw, then I needed to do something that was not in conflict with my conscience. In 1969, I left the English criminal bar and with my wife, and American teacher, opened York Prep.

Finally, you may ask, what advice did I give to the senior whose father’s girlfriend had attempted to seduce him? I am afraid my advice was not based on Socrates or Aquinas but just mature, common sense. I told him that he should take his own girlfriend (of his own age) rather conspicuously home or with him if his father invited him to join him for dinner, and that he should avoid any individual contact with the father’s girlfriend (being “busy” at critical times). But I also advised him not to tell his father about the attempted seduction because fathers’ girlfriends sometimes come and go, or the student may have misunderstood her intention. Why painfully open that can of worms if it would soon be history or might be a miscommunication? However, if the father announced to his son that he was going to marry his girlfriend, then other factors would kick in, not the least of which is the loyalty to his father to put him on notice about his potential bride. He would owe it to his father to have some discussion about what happened.

Therefore, the study of ethics and the history of alternative philosophical approaches to the subject can carry a person only so far. Our culture is ever-changing and so are the moral dilemmas that confront us. Some issues are far more serious than the one facing our senior. Giving students advice is always a challenge, but it is a challenge that I cherish and from which I grow. Engaging young people to critically think about such issues ultimately teaches me far more than I teach my students.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

Ronald P. Stewart, an Oxford-educated barrister, founded York Preparatory School in 1969. Next year, he will be the longest serving, active head of a school in New York City.