What is the value of university media ethics courses? We've posed this question before, and at least for me, there has been no satisfactory answer. Maybe there is none. But it is a question worth repeating and thinking about. Some of the common answers, vague in their non-empirical language, are these: Such courses raise the moral consciousness of the students, cause them to analyze ethical cases, force them to learn something about the great ethicists of history, and lead them to think in moral terms. There may also be other rationales for such courses.

Certainly I subscribe to all of the above, but still I am unsure of the actual value of the teaching of media ethics. I have found that at the end of an ethics course, the students may know more names and theories, but they are just as uncertain about what is and what is not the ethical thing to do as they were when they started the course. They may now know about Kant and about Mill and their differing ethical theories, but they leave the courses wondering which is the better, the most ethical. It does not satisfy them to say that in some cases one is better and in other cases the other is better.

And saying, as I have been prone to do, that a kind of dialectic-a kind of middle way-between the two is the way to go has little more appeal. They think I am simply rationalizing, trying to escape the question. And to a great degree they are right. Ethics is elusive, subjective, relative, often contradictory. That's why it is so hard-maybe even impossible-to teach.

Of course I have my own ethical philosophy, admittedly developed throughout a long life with many conflicting values, but I wonder if the students want or even would benefit from my ethics. I think they want certainty-they want to know, not what I think is ethical, but what is really ethical. They are not helped much by learning of the great philosophers and their conflicting ethical beliefs: Kant and Mill, Kierkegaard and Hegel, Aristotle and Plato, Hobbes and Camus, Marx and Nietzsche, Rawls and Nozick. In fact, the usual academic media ethics course may just be enough to confuse them into believing that there are no ethical answers, no body of reliable moral philosophy.

Students come to the university with little or no formal ethical education. They do have some vague ideas about ethics: don't lie, stand by your friends, treasure your freedom, don't have double standards, don't steal, help the poor and weak, follow the law, and on and on. But they have not thought about these very seriously. In their university ethics course they are forced to look at them more carefully-and this may be worse than not looking at them at all. Critical analysis of some of these ethical concepts may cause students to have doubts about their efficacy, at the very least.

For example, freedom is to be sought and prized. Milton, Mill, the existentialists and all of that. Then they learn that freedom may be the greatest foe of ethics. They read James Fitzjames Stephen and they begin to have doubts about J. S. Mill. Control, they hear, is more important than freedom. Voices like Hegel, Hobbes, Heideigger, Fichte, and Marx warn against the democratic use of freedom and urge the sacrifice of self to the good of the state. So what, the student asks, is the proper ethical stance-individualism or group solidarity? Both, the perhaps equally-puzzled teacher may respond. But students have trouble in seeing how one can follow the individualistic and passionate Nietzsche and at the same time be a rationalist like Locke or Hume.

The student of media ethics picks up ethical concepts from other courses-sociology, psychology, English, economics, biology, et al. And from parents, friends, teachers, television, radio, music lyrics, movies, the Internet, newspapers and magazines, the church and other organizations. The media ethics course gets one shot at him or her. Quite likely, it will be too little and too late. Students have already been solidly injected with the values of commercialism and materialism, and it is seldom that an ethics course can make a big difference. If it is so, where is the evidence? We think it does, we hope it does some good, but we never know. But, then, we really don't even know the value of a course in Shakespeare.

We must just go on teaching-confusing and enlightening at the same time-and hope a few sparks may light some fires.

John C. Merrill, indefatigable author and professor emeritus in the University of Missouri-Columbia, has frequently published his polemics in MEDIA ETHICS. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.