What Is Ethical Reasoning?

The word “ethics” might immediately conjure something like following rules or obeying laws. We might imagine a set of principles designed to guide professionals, such as business ethics or medical ethics. But, when we hear the word “ethics,” we rarely begin with ourselves. We often think of ethics as being told what to do rather than deciding what to do. We rely on tradition or group-think to guide our actions without reflecting on why we value what we value.

At Dickinson, though, we are focused on developing the skill of ethical reasoning, which includes asking questions like these:

  • What is right and wrong?
  • Where does morality come from?
  • Is morality relative, based on individual and cultural preferences? Or do we have moral obligations to ourselves and others?
  • Why should I do the right thing?

When we encourage ethical reasoning, we don’t tell students what to do. We teach students how to think critically and engage respectfully when disagreeing with others. Like learning to play baseball or learning to write code, students must learn and practice ethical reasoning to develop this skill.

Dickinson has launched a new initiative, Ethics Across Campus & the Curriculum, part of the broader civic learning and community engagement initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This initiative brings together disciplines from across campus, as well as faculty, staff and students from around the country and around the world, to find common ground and promote mutual respect. Inside and outside of the classroom, students are learning how to interact respectfully, actively listen to each other and engage in intellectual exercises meant to develop empathy and understanding. We do not shy away from disagreements. We encourage students to engage with views that are different from their own with an open mind.

Ethics Across Campus & the Curriculum

Our focus on civic engagement challenges members of our community to take seriously their obligations in local and global contexts. Ethics can guide this work, making it clear why we have obligations and how we should make decisions on the basis of these obligations. Without ethics, the reasons why we should engage civically, whether professionally or as community members, are not explicit. Our unique approach argues that ethics and civic engagement go hand in hand in promoting active citizenship.  

Ethics Across Campus

Here Dickinson focuses on incorporating the skill of ethical reasoning into student life. For example, we facilitate sessions on ethics and compassion at new student Orientation. All incoming students discuss ethical thought experiments and discuss ethical dilemmas that they anticipate facing in college. In addition, they participate in exercises and debates designed to promote empathy and compassion.

Developing the skill of ethical reasoning involves critical thinking, active listening and the enhancing the ability to anticipate and respond to counterarguments with an open mind. In addition to Orientation, we work with student leadership initiatives on campus.

Ethics Across the Curriculum

The second focus of the Ethics Across Campus & the Curriculum initiative focuses on incorporating the skill of ethical reasoning into the curriculum at Dickinson. This includes a faculty study group designed to bring 10-12 faculty members from different departments together each May to discuss ethics and pedagogy.

Members of the group ultimately incorporate ethical reasoning into their course syllabi by assigning readings on ethics, designing assignments on ethics or facilitating classroom activities on ethics. The group also offers faculty members the opportunity to learn from each other, as they plan to incorporate ethical reasoning in ways that support their own disciplines.

As a result of faculty participation in our Ethics Across the Curriculum summer study groups in 2018 and 2019, select courses in the following departments and programs now include a focus on ethical reasoning: Chemistry, Computer Science, Educational Studies, English, Environmental Studies & Environmental Science, Film Studies, French and Francophone Studies, History, International Business and Management, International Studies, Italian, Law and Policy, Math, Middle East Studies, Music, Philosophy, Physics and Astronomy, Political Science, Psychology, Russian, Sociology, Spanish and Portuguese, History, Religion, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Recent Events

In November 2019, we hosted our 5th Annual Ethics Symposium focused on ethics and perfection. Students presented 5-7 minute talks on themes including civility and the "ideal citizen," genocide and eugenics, steroid use in athletics, perfection as a goal in academics and athletics, and the underreporting of sexual assault by colleges and universities attempting to maintain a perfect image. As an audience of approximately 100 students, faculty, and staff, we had small group discussions related to the following questions: Does the desire for perfection inspire or inhibit moral growth? Can striving for perfection distract us from taking good care of ourselves and others? Why or why not? How might the desire for perfection encourage habits that get in the way of living a good life? Does attempting perfection successfully motivate or does attempting perfection produce excessive anxiety? Is the perfect sometimes the enemy of the good?

In the spring 2020 volume of Essays in Philosophy devoted to the topic of "Activism and Philosophy," Professor Amy McKiernan published an article focused on Dickinson's Ethics Across Campus and the Curriculum initiatives. The article is available for download here

Please check the calendar of events for upcoming Ethics Across Campus & the Curriculum events.

Contact Info


Amy McKiernanAssistant Professor of Philosophy






East College 204 Mailing Address