In Our Underachieving Colleges (2006), Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, challenged higher education institutions to do more in providing an education more supportive of building character in undergraduates. While the number of ethics courses offered has increased, both in professional schools and in undergraduate institutions, many of these courses are electives not requirements. These changes will not get the job done for higher education if it is serious about building character before awarding undergraduate degrees or making professionals see more clearly the wider range of ethical issues they will inevitably have to address as leaders in the larger society beyond their profession.

Faculty commitment to teaching applied ethics courses remains inconsistent and often lukewarm. Society lacks graduates who are prepared with the necessary skills and experiences to articulate and apply well-reasoned and thoughtful judgments to the moral dilemmas and challenges facing society. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience (Hall, 2010) surveys many disciplines that touch on the development of human wisdom (effective, practical moral judgment in uncertain times and ambiguous situations).

The author notes that character development is an issue of will and practice as well as effective personal example and mentoring. The normal or expected state of human decision-making from how the human brain works is to prefer early gratification rather than delayed gratification. This being the case, it is unlikely that Bok’s observation that students prefer their own standards and behavior developed from their individual experiences is likely to lead to any improved future moral judgments after graduation due to the ever-increasing isolating factors of social media, meritocracy-based marriages, and social isolationism in housing and schooling choices nationally.

Given the current culture and decline of societal institutions, including religion, neighborhoods, and families, leaving the formation and development of moral judgment to individuals is not likely to serve society and communities well. The rise of antisocial behavior and amoral feelings deeply rooted in situational ethics and relativism are accelerating in western democracies, and populist movements globally both on the right and the left are gaining ground. Rights are asserted for all kinds of individual desires and aspirations with little or no discussion of responsibilities and duties to others, democratic practices, or civil society. If one wants to build societies and communities that practice respect, tolerance, compassion, and justice supportive of human dignity and the common good, it seems necessary that the educated classes of societies must give more attention to character building and applied ethical judgment formation than they currently do. Higher education globally must step up to assert a leadership role in helping future leaders pursue wisdom.

Higher education and college teaching faculties pride themselves in advancing knowledge in a value neutral environment as well as promoting critical thinking in all college graduates. These aspirations and visions of higher education do not go far enough. We need to go beyond these goals.

Knowledge and critical thinking do not assure reasonable judgments or adequate reflection on the choices we make as individuals or societies. Teaching practical wisdom enables all of us to better discern and explore more fully and thoroughly the grounds upon which we make our judgments.

What kind of a course could provide an improvement in student learning outcomes regarding making better informed moral judgments?

First, such courses would have to be required in the curriculum for graduation and not elective. Embedding them in majors as opposed to general education would undermine the importance of such courses by excluding debate and dialogue across the full range of student experiences. In a more diverse society with fewer shared experiences, this would be a formula for disaster. Moral judgments are about decisions affecting all in a society at a particular period in human history. Excluding any voices from the conversation will inevitably lead to biases and less inclusive moral judgment formation.

A second feature of the course should be a true applicability, not a rehearsing of ethical theories and their historical origins. This means that case studies of real ethical issues in the current world students are living in should be the focus—not artificial issues.

Third, the course should be interdisciplinary in character drawing on the insights of not only philosophy, religion, literature, and history, but also on insights from brain research, behavioral economics, applied psychology, and neurosciences. To be an effective course without being an evangelizing or indoctrination experience, it must expose students to the multiple dimensions of any ethical challenges and relate those dimensions to how human judgments are developed and changed over time.

Fourth, the course would have to be reflective of the visual nature of modern society. This means that films, film clips, and structured simulations should be employed in depicting real people suffering real consequences from ill-informed or mistaken moral judgments about other human beings, societies, and religions.

Fifth, as a dialogue and debate format course, it would have to be structured to maximize small group and whole class discussions. These discussions would have to be structured to maximize student participation and opinion expression across the whole spectrum of experiences including gender, race, upbringing, and urban and rural community origin. That kind of diversity in discussion will alone permit the more effective development of human empathy, which is central to most positive judgment formation and expression.

Sixth, curriculum materials need to be drawn from institutions committed to ethical thinking to bear on real moral problems. Campuses should not construct their course materials from their own efforts primarily but instead draw extensively on sources of outside expertise and curriculum materials. While there exist many such resources to draw upon, one good example is the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University whose mission statement is “to engage individuals and organizations in making choices that respect and care for others.” Judgments made about robotics, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, genetic engineering, climate change, and other issues defining humanity and its future are too complex to not have improved moral judgment affect the choices we make.

A well-developed required course for undergraduates can improve the moral decision-making abilities of future leaders in an increasingly complex and conflicted world. Moral issues related to life enhancing decisions about artificial intelligence, robotics in employment, global climate change, genetic engineering, DNA gene therapies, and brain implants will not be addressed successfully without better moral judgments and decisions.


Bok, D. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hall, S. S. (2010). Wisdom: From philosophy to neuroscience. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Henry W. Smorynski, PhD, is a Midland University leadership fellow.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on September 15, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.