What does it mean to live an ethical life?

I am teaching PPS 302D again this semester (Value Choice as Policy Conflict)–our so-called core course in ‘practical ethics’ for the undergraduate Public Policy major at Duke University. The course begins with some overview of different approaches to ethics and systems of thought. We are then asking two questions across the rest of the semester: What is good? What is right? and apply this to a variety of issues.

I am trying a new assignment to stimulate consideration and discussion of the question that is the title of this post–what does it mean to live an ethical life? Each student will investigate this question by learning as much as they can about a ancestor who was alive during the influenza pandemic of a Century ago. Students are using all sorts of sources, from oral history, online genealogical resources, newspapers and in at least one case, having a diary written by a loved one during World War I. This is a semester long project, and all assignments build to this final project.

A sub-theme of the course, or perhaps more of a a methodological frame is the use of counterfactual thinking (always asking, as compared to what?) to look back at history in attempt to say something about today, or the future that we wish to construct via public policy. Simple questions, such as ‘should we remove a monument?’ have complex answers. Addressing the ethics of monument removal is certainly a legitimate and worthy endeavor, but not before you consider the ethics of taking one down, you must discuss the ethics of putting one up in the first place. You need to push a bit harder to better understand what it meant when it was erected, to have a better sense of what it means now.

The class is seeking to emphasize humility in this enterprise of looking back to learn about going forward. Before we begin these historical discussions, I remind students that in 100 years, an ancestor of ours that we will never know may be deeply appalled by some aspect of our lives. Looking back to inform today and tomorrow is a potentially rich experience, and a key sweet spot is to both realize people are “a product of their times” AND “everyone has choices and decisions” and what we choose to do has consequences for us today, and after we are gone.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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