Finding Better Choices

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics celebrates 30 years helping individuals and corporations make better choices.

When Tara Martin-Milius moved from the high-tech business world to become a Sunnyvale, Calif. city council member, she found herself in a totally different world. “All my mental models were from the private sector,” she remembers. “So many things you would do in the private sector are not possible in government.”

Martin-Milius set out to connect with ethics experts for counsel and discovered what she was looking for at SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the largest university-based ethics center in the world.

The Markkula Center was founded 30 years ago on two governing ideas: It had to be applied ethics, addressing the concerns of real people in the real world like Martin-Milius, and it had to be university-wide, bringing together faculty, staff, and students from across SCU’s schools and departments. The University and seed funders Linda and A.C. “Mike” Markkula Jr. wanted to make sure every SCU student had the knowledge and tools to effectively handle the ethical issues that would inevitably confront them at school, at work, and in the larger world.

“Those ideas still inform our mission,” says Executive Director Kirk Hanson. “But in 1986, the Center’s sole focus was on integrating ethics into classrooms at SCU. From those roots, we’ve branched into a host of programs that serve individuals and organizations in Silicon Valley and a set of online resources that make our approach to ethics available around the globe.”

Although the center specializes in ten topics—bioethics, business ethics, campus ethics, internet ethics, government ethics, journalism ethics, leadership ethics, technology ethics, social sector ethics, and character education—its work extends into many other areas. And it has become a far-reaching resource, with a website full of articles and case studies, a mobile app for ethical decision-making, and even a series of MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses.

Here are just a few of its current activities.

Ethics on Campus

The Center’s original program was a series of workshops for faculty on how to integrate ethics 
into the curriculum. Today, its programs offer a wide range of events, online dialogue opportunities, and projects from “Compassion Through Dance” to an honor code for athletes.

It also sponsors student and faculty research.

At the heart of its on-campus work are internships and fellowships. Fellowships support SCU students as they create ethics programming for their peers. Internships bring students into the working world, where they observe how professionals such as doctors, nurses, and businesspeople handle ethical dilemmas.

An alumna of the Center’s health care ethics internship, Joyce Viloria ’09, credits the program for the path her own career has taken. “My early experience in the hospital taught me the mantras I still hold to in my work,” she says, “do no harm, and my personal three C’s: Conscience, Caring, and Compassion.”

Ethics in Silicon Valley

The Center’s location in Silicon Valley has allowed it to quickly understand the range of new ethical dilemmas emerging from technological innovation. In 2005, it partnered with the University’s High Tech Law Institute to launch the lecture series “IT, Ethics, and Law,” which is still bringing top speakers to the Mission Campus to discuss topics from big data to video games.

Its Business Ethics programs convene leaders of major local companies and business ethics scholars from SCU and other regional universities. In addition, it works with local government officials through a Public Sector Roundtable. That group addresses key issues facing the Valley, such as affordable housing.

Bioethics is another Valley focus. The Center consults with hospitals on medical ethics and provides thought leadership on emerging dilemmas in biotechnology. Through these efforts, the Center provides expertise on how ethics is done in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Professionals in Silicon Valley have seen the value in the Center’s approach. In her role as senior director of global privacy for Palo Alto Networks, Paola Zeni LLM ’09 quickly realized that the toolbox managers were using during product development mostly came from compliance and was inadequate to deal with the complexity of problems posed by the evolution of technology, particularly when it came to privacy. What was missing? “Ethics,” she says. “If you’re not able to talk in terms of values, you won’t be able to appeal to people’s judgment.”

The Center’s approach of looking at the impact on stakeholders and thinking through the consequences interested Zeni and encouraged her ongoing participation in its programs. “A lot of products are put out into the world without sufficient thought,” she says. “The Center can raise the level of awareness.”

Ethics Across the Globe

Are ethical standards universal or do they depend upon culture? Developing a way to talk about ethics that crosses borders and boundaries has been a longtime effort of
the Center.

On its website, for example, it hosts a curriculum on world peacemakers developed around portraits by photographer Michael Collopy. In the early 2000s, it partnered with the Interaction Council, a group of former heads of state devoted to developing practical solutions for the political, economic, and social problems confronting humanity.

Through its newly launched Global Jesuit Outreach Initiative, the Center connects with Jesuit institutions around the world. The project brings ethics center directors from other Jesuit universities to the Mission Campus and sends Center staff to sister institutions abroad, fostering cross-cultural learning based in the Catholic tradition. So far, the exchange has included the Philippines, South Korea, Switzerland, and Japan.

Ethics Online

When the Center launched its first website in 1998, most people, if they had even heard of the World Wide Web, were wondering what the new technology could possibly have to offer. But the Center saw the internet’s promise as a powerful vehicle to communicate its message of ethical decision-making to a broad audience. Since then, the Center’s site has touched people in every corner of the world, with 1.6 million visitors annually. The online world continues to be a Center priority, and its social presence has grown to include six Twitter profiles, four Facebook pages, a LinkedIn company page, several blogs, and a YouTube channel.

It focuses not only on using the internet, but also on the ethics of the internet. Since 2012, its had a program in that area, with a full menu of events, research, and online discussion.

In 2015, it developed a new online effort, the Trust Project, to identify and encourage the practices that make readers trust digital journalism. Trust Project initiatives also help search engines and news aggregators surface the highest quality reporting.

Ben Trott ’99 was a junior math major when he was asked to create the Center’s first website. He had to learn how as he went along. “There
 wasn’t a platform or system available to build a site like we wanted, so everything was hand-built: the markup was custom; the backend was custom. I even built a search engine. It was no Google, but it was serviceable,” he remembers.

Through his work at the Center, Trott realized that people who didn’t know how to program needed tools to use
the web. He went on to co-found the company Six Apart, which made some of the most important early digital publishing and blogging tools.

A Tool for Doing Ethics

The Center’s core approach is encapsulated in its “Framework for Ethical Decision Making.” A step-by-step guide, the framework allows users to analyze a dilemma using five different ethical lenses: utility, justice, rights, virtue, and the common good. Online, the framework has been viewed more than 1 million times in the past 10 years. The app version, Making an Ethical Decision, has had 3,000 downloads.

The framework provides a common language for people from different perspectives to focus on the ethical dimensions of important questions. It forms the basis for Center ethics training in fields from business to medicine to government. It has been incorporated into online corporate training and integrated into classes at hundreds of schools such as Dartmouth, MIT, University of Utah, and the Army Management Staff College.

Many of the Center’s staff use the framework both in teaching and in walking groups through difficult ethical dilemmas.

This year, Leadership Ethics Director Ann Skeet worked with the College Board as they were preparing to make changes in scholarship eligibility guidelines. The framework became part of the materials the board sent to participating institutions to support their decision making on how to implement the changes.

Bioethics Director Margaret McLean also finds the framework’s approach helpful to her undergraduate students, and she has used it as a foundation for class discussions for 20 years. “Any bioethics dilemma, from organ transplantation to offshore clinical trials to a psychiatrist’s obligations around confidentiality, can be looked at through the framework,”
she says.