The value of ethics
December 7, 2006
Many of us were familiar with the name Hans Tiefel even before we arrived in Williamsburg. Touted as the College’s toughest professor and instructor of five religious ethics courses, Tiefel was a symbol of academic rigor. He taught ethics in the Religious Studies department for 30 years; he was a hallmark of the discipline’s dedication to cultivating scholars endowed with a deep sense of social responsibility. He once remarked to his students, “I think one of the great things about teaching at a place like this is that you run into some really good human beings. We’re not all exceptionally smart, but we can be good. There is a difference between being smart and being good. Sometimes at William and Mary they occur together, and that is really splendid.”
p. When Professor Tiefel retired two years ago, the College lost not only one of its finest professors, but an entire discipline. It has recently come to our attention that the College does not plan to renew a permanent ethics position in our department of Religious Studies.
p. This could not come at a worse time. In our world today, decisions are often made globally. Throughout history and in the present world, humans have sought ways in which to live peacefully, harmoniously and richly. Developing an ethos of social responsibility is integral to a just and flourishing community. It demands that we constantly assess not only our current role in the world, but also our future course.
p. To that end, it is a mistake for the current administration to conceive of holistic liberal education without ethics. Removing ethics denies the social motivations imparted in its own mission statement: “The university recognizes its special responsibility to the citizens of Virginia through public and community service to the Commonwealth as well as to national and international communities.” Seeking to fulfill its social responsibilities, the College instituted General Education Requirement 7. This last and arguably most important GER requires every undergraduate student to take a course in Philosophical, Religious and Social Thought. “Not only must the course deal with matters of enduring concern to human life, such as meaning, value, justice, freedom and truth, but it must also aim at cultivating reasoned analysis and judgment in students who take it.” To remove the religious component of this requirement is to discredit the value of religious discourse to a fully realized liberal arts education. Moreover, denying the study of ethics in a religious studies context is to discount a profound facet of our human endeavor. Doing so limits our conception of what it is to live a good human life.
p. As graduating Religious Studies majors, we have experienced the challenges and the rewards of studying ethics in this context. Religious ethics brings the living religious traditions to the forefront of the political and social struggles that face us today. It challenges us to view the world from outside ourselves, to question what it is to be good, to know good and to achieve good. We are not solely concerned with how this loss may affect the Religious Studies department as a complete body of scholarship. Rather, we are doubly concerned that the College stands to lose this essential discipline forever. If the College loses the study of religious ethics, it denies its responsibility to cultivate well-rounded and ethical members of society.
p. This choice also has practical implications for our futures as students. Many professional and graduate schools have already noted the importance of ethics in education. At a time when these schools are increasingly demanding ethics courses as standard curriculum, the College places its undergraduates at a grave disadvantage. For example, each of Harvard’s prestigious graduate and professional schools officially incorporates ethics as a part of its educational philosophy.
p. With all of this in mind, it is our sincere hope that Provost Geoffrey Feiss and Dean Carl Strikwerda of Arts and Sciences will reconsider their choices regarding the role of ethics in Religious Studies by hiring a permanent professor of ethics in the department of Religious Studies.
p. __Ethan Forrest and Joanna Greer are seniors at the College. Their views do not necessarily represent those of The Flat Hat.__