Universities need to teach ethics

It’s the best way to ensure that elites start behaving better and to restore public trust

November 18, 2016
President-elect Donald Trump looks on in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.
President-elect Donald Trump looks on in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.

The election of Donald Trump is just one example of what we are witnessing in many democracies around the world, namely a new type of popular anger against political and economic elites. Populist and xenophobic political parties and movements have been quick to exploit this feeling. In his surprisingly successful campaign, Trump accused his opponent and her party of systemic corruption, a message that obviously had an appeal.

However accurate that particular charge may be, trust in government is at an all-time low in many countries. In the UK, the Chilcot inquiry and the parliamentary expenses scandal have eroded faith in politicians. Internationally, we have also seen ethically dubious behaviour in the business world, for example in the Panama Papers and the Volkswagen scandal, and in international bodies such as Fifa. All these events have left many people believing that elites lack an adequate ethical compass.

There is a perception that current society is deeply unjust because elites are not acting for the common good, but are instead arranging things to benefit themselves and their allies. The behaviour of economic and political elites is central to overall social cohesion. Unless those who lead and carry responsibility for society's key functions are perceived as honest and trustworthy, general trust in society will also fall. And a fairly high level of interpersonal trust is essential to a well-functioning and prosperous society.

These elites have one thing in common: they have almost without exception been trained at leading universities. In other words, there is not necessarily anything wrong with their knowledge, technical competences and intellectual abilities. Instead, the deficiencies are in their ability to understand and practice ethical behaviour. Some universities and colleges have recently come to realise the importance of this issue. However, the central questions of ethics are either missing or given a very modest role in most higher education institutions.

Transparency International estimates that 6bn people live in countries with a serious corruption problem. Internationally, the health sector is particularly hard hit by corruption, from medical personnel requiring bribes to companies who sell fake medicines. One can literally say that many people in the world are dying of corruption. In addition, one of the main reasons that people say they are dissatisfied with their lives is that they perceive themselves to be living under unjust and corrupt public institutions. The lack of ethics and the prevalence of corruption in the public sector is probably the biggest obstacle to social and economic development. Conversely, one can say that the most important asset of a society is the ethical quality of its public institutions.

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that it is a "natural instinct" for people with a public position of power to use it to benefit his or her self, family, friends, clan, tribe, allies, co-ethnics or economic interest. To not indulge in favoritism, but to act impartially, in the public interest and in accordance with laws and regulations is, says Fukuyama, something that must be learned.

With this in mind, a few years ago we took up the issue with the Compostela Group of Universities, an international network of 68 higher education institutions. We recommended that they adopt a declaration on issues of ethics be included in all subject areas—for example, for doctors, economists, lawyers, teachers, economists, biologists, and so on. Our declaration was unanimously adopted at the network's General Assembly in Poznan in 2014, and has therefore been named the Poznan Declaration. It has since been supported by many other key organisations, including the World Academy of Art and Science and the World University Consortium.

This initiative is now moving from vision to reality. We therefore urge all universities and colleges to make sure that ethics becomes an integrated part of all their educational programmes. When the next generation of leaders start meeting the challenges and dilemmas they will encounter, we must ensure that they have a working ethical compass.