The gray areas of ethics underline the complexity of applying it to real life.

By Robyn Rime

The first thing David Levy ’94, associate professor and chair of Geneseo’s philosophy department, wants you to know is that people face ethical issues every day.

“I can’t think of a domain in the real world in which there’s no space for ethical concern whatsoever,” he says.

Not sure? Consider the internet and the privacy issues it raises. As online data collection soars, our personal information becomes more valuable — and more open to exploitation by identity thieves and others. What about accounting? Existing laws didn’t prevent the corporate scandals of the early 2000s when “Enron” became synonymous with “fraud.” From a medical practitioner treating a terminally ill patient to a solo commuter choosing the carpool lane, ethics matters in our everyday lives.

And that’s where things begin to get complicated. Where does a sense of ethics even come from? How does a person develop a moral code?

Being aware of the ethical dimension to everyday things isn’t always easy, says Levy. For example, a few years ago, the makers of Toblerone chocolate reduced the size of its bar but sold it in the original-size package. “Did no one within the company consider how the package itself conveys information to consumers?” he asks. “If it does convey information, there’s a duty to be ethical about it and tell the truth.”

When that basic ethical awareness matures into ethical thinking, the issues get trickier but no less critical. “Identifying the complexities of issues, recognizing the room for reasonable disagreement and reaching a resolution — those are important skills that people should want to have,” says Levy.

Ethical thinking isn’t fast, and it isn’t easy: It’s careful, collaborative and attentive to a plurality of views. “Ethical reasoning isn’t the kind of skill to realize midstream that you don’t have, leaving you ill-prepared when so much of value is at stake.”

High stakes are exactly why Geneseo teaches courses addressing ethics in business, computer science, medicine and the environment. “These are fields in which ethical issues can easily be overlooked,” says Levy. “We hope that students graduate with some familiarity of the ethical concerns important for their responsible participation in civic life.”

What’s Levy’s most important lesson in the complicated field of ethics? “My objective is not unanimous agreement about the right way to resolve a messy issue,” he says. “Instead, I want students to develop the skills for managing the process of reaching a resolution that’s satisfactory to multiple stakeholders. The difficulty in reaching agreement isn’t evidence that there’s no right answer. It’s evidence that there is complexity, and so the process needs to match that.”

Whether you’re talking about a society managing natural resources, inventing new technologies or advancing scientific research — every important sphere has some moral dimension, Levy says. “And each of us has some responsibility to at least be aware of, if not actively engage in, how those complicated ethical issues affect us.”

Ethical Entries:

These recommendations from Associate Professor David Levy offer insight into ethics in theory and real life.

  • “Gorgias:” by Plato

One of the first Western philosophical texts to raise questions about how to handle ethical disagreement. It discusses the nature of the ethical life and its place in the good life.

  • “Copenhagen:” by Michael Frayn

Based on a conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941, this play captures the complexity of working as a nuclear physicist during the Third Reich. Should a scientist focus only on research, or actively undermine research when the results would benefit a corrupt regime?

  • “The Good Place”

This popular sitcom does a great job of capturing the complexity of moral discourse and recognizing how difficult it can be to put theory into practice.