The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Notes & Comments

Insensitivity Training

Module-ating morality.

Carl Elliott

Shutterstock, Inc.

Another year, another day, another afternoon lost to a compulsory online ethics “module.” This time the subject was sexual misconduct, but it could also have been diversity and equity training, the responsible conduct of research, or any number of other topics aimed at improving my moral behavior. Even worse than the online modules are the in-person lectures and workshops, which I can’t fast-click my way through or watch at double speed. Why do I resent these sessions so much? It’s not as if I am in favor of sexism, racism, or homophobia. I am on the record as opposing financial corruption and the abuse of human research subjects. Yet these exercises in moral instruction always leave me feeling like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, my eyes clamped open as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasts into my ears.

What makes it worse is that I have delivered this kind of torture myself. For thirty years, it was part of my job to lecture medical school students, residents, and faculty on matters of ethics. There is a linear relationship between ethics and scandal: The worse the academic medical institution behaves, the more bioethics professors its leaders hire. Whether you believe their interest in ethics is genuine depends on your degree of cynicism about academic medicine. I have never been a true believer, but my recent experience as a victim of ethics training has made me wonder again how my own lectures have been received. The philosopher Moritz Schlick, you may recall, was assassinated by one of his former students.

Some degree of resistance is probably natural. To be told that you need to improve your moral behavior is like being told you need to improve your table manners or your personal hygiene. Most of us think we are doing just fine, and will chalk up any criticism to fussiness or oversensitivity on the part of the critic. Related to this is the suspicion of hypocrisy. When a university starts requiring every staff member to take sexual misconduct training, it is a good bet that its leaders are trying to control the public relations fallout of a rape scandal, a gender discrimination lawsuit, or a sexual harassment case. To see such training as a good-faith effort to prevent misconduct is difficult if those very same leaders are negotiating generous financial settlements for the perpetrators in exchange for a quiet, litigation-free exit.

But I suspect that the problem goes deeper. When ethics is taught in philosophy departments, it is offered as a formal academic subject like chemistry or history. It includes theories, cases, arguments, and thought experiments, along with essays and exams to assess each student’s knowledge. The purpose of the course is to teach students how to think about ethics. It’s different for ethics training at the institutional level, the purpose of which is to control a moral problem. If it doesn’t improve anyone’s behavior, it has failed.

Whether university leaders sincerely believe that greater knowledge can fix the moral shortcomings of their institutions is debatable. You can count me as a skeptic, but even if these efforts are sincere, they are misguided. Gilbert Ryle identified the problem in his 1958 essay “On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong.” As Ryle points out, there would be something absurd in saying that you used to know the difference between right and wrong, but forgot. That absurdity points to an important difference between learning how to be a good person and, say, learning how to speak German. Knowing the difference between right and wrong also means caring about it. Caring about it means feeling emotions such as guilt, shame, pride, sympathy, and outrage. This is why we don’t simply say that we know something is wrong, but that we feel it in our hearts.

The challenge of institutional ethics training is not just that of teaching employees the rules, regulations, and norms. The challenge is persuading them to care. For this reason, it matters critically not just what is taught, but who teaches it. No matter what the content of a sexual misconduct course might be, that course should not be taught by Bill Cosby. And if the instructor in an institutional ethics training course is just another administrative functionary, it is a safe bet that the instruction will be met with plenty of eye-rolling. Of course, it is not lost on most of us that our instructors are often not even human beings at all but the educational equivalent of a customer service robot, communicating with us through a laptop.

Sometimes there are reasons to be grateful for a robot. A number of years ago, when my university was dealing with several corruption scandals in the medical school, the dean announced the formation of an ethics task force. Its purpose was to improve the way the university handled financial conflicts of interest. That plan was derailed when local reporters discovered that the cochair of the task force had been secretly disciplined after he funneled more than half a million dollars of grant money into his own biotechnology startup, which he later sold, pocketing some $9 million in personal profit. When challenged to explain why such a person was qualified to lead an ethics task force, university leaders pointed to his extensive personal experience with conflicts of interest.

In the past I was sometimes tasked with delivering moral instruction in “the responsible conduct of research.” The purpose of those courses is to prevent the abuse of research subjects. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience. I sometimes think the course would have been more effective if I had taught it like a high school health class, which typically combines explicit direction on how to behave with dire warnings about the consequences of failure. If you do not use a condom, you risk acquiring a sexually transmitted disease; if you use illicit drugs, you can look forward to a future in prison, rehab, or the morgue. The problem with translating that approach to a university setting is the absence of any real punishment for researchers who break the rules. The fact is that academic medical centers will generally protect wayward researchers as long as they keep generating revenue. If the researchers are sanctioned, the punishment will probably not be dismissal, suspension or a financial penalty, but attending a course on the responsible conduct of research—unless their crime is really bad, in which case they may be sentenced to teach it.