Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Online ethics center guides users through deliberation

Some people make lists of pros and cons, others ask a friend for guidance and some send anonymous letters to advice columns. DU has another way to help people solve their ethical predicaments.

Last January, the University launched the Center for Ethical Deliberation (CED), a Web site that guides the user through probing questions based on different ethical philosophies that allow the user to arrive at a thoughtful resolution.

Nancy Matchett, an arts and humanities Marsico lecturer, developed the concept and much of the site’s content.

“What I tried to do was give students something that helped them do their own thinking better, rather than do their thinking for them,” Matchett says.

She saw the Web as a useful medium because it offers the user confidentiality and allows a large amount of information to be organized concisely in a small space, she says.

The site is available to anyone with a DU ID number but was designed with first- and second-year students in mind, Matchett says. Students have used the site to analyze questions regarding substance abuse, student leadership, academic integrity and friendship.

The Center’s four student ethics coaches offer additional questions and suggestions to users about their deliberations. They also respond to questions posted on the site’s discussion forums.

Daniel Easton, BA ’06, was one of the Center’s original ethics coaches. While some of the dilemmas analyzed are common to most students, he says, each contains individual concerns that make it a more difficult ethical problem.

Once logged on to, there are options for creating guided deliberations, examining past deliberations or asking questions.

When creating a guided deliberation, users first describe their ethical dilemma in detail. They then choose from three frameworks—Consequences, Duty or Virtue. Matchett says the three frameworks, which correspond with the ethical questions humans are inclined to ask, are substantiated by research from social science and the history of ideas.

Following different frameworks yields slightly different results because the focus of the deliberation changes. To deepen their analysis, users may consult a variety of perspectives within each framework.

The Consequences framework is results oriented, helping users focus on an appropriate standard for evaluating possible actions. The perspectives of ethical egoism and classical utilitarianism can be consulted for further advice.

Users who select the Duty framework answer questions designed to help them discover their obligations in the situation. Kantian, Judeo-Christian, Rawlsian and rights-based ethics fall within this general approach.

The Virtue framework poses questions that help users discover the most virtuous traits exhibited by a particular behavior. It draws on perspectives of the ancient Greeks, Buddhists, Confucius and feminist-care ethics.

Easton wrote the site’s 12 perspectives, which give brief synopses and link to detailed essays about each philosophy. Matchett says the list of perspectives is not exhaustive, and the Center welcomes new submissions.

Matchett wanted a student to write the perspectives so they would be more straightforward and not overly academic. When writing the perspectives, Easton says he didn’t make assumptions about what readers already knew.

In its first year, Matchett presented CED to several classes and it was used in a first-year English course and a Pioneer Leadership Program seminar. Matchett and Easton agree CED provides a useful format for putting philosophy in a real-world, useful context.

“I think [philosophy is] the most practical discipline in the world, so the site is designed very self-consciously to take abstract ideas and make them tangible,” Matchett says.

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