Our University: Moral, Ethical and Legal Decision Making

In the study of architecture at any university there are always a few courses on professional practice.  They are required by accrediting agencies, but that burden is of little consequence.   Practitioners want the discipline to flourish; therefore standards of behavior that meet a generally accepted level of propriety are essential.

Moral, ethical, and legal considerations form the basis of guided professional judgment.  This is a means of self-preservation.  People are smart and will not go to professionals who do not hold high standards of behavior.

In the season of graduation, reflecting on the primary purposes of study is always useful.  The educational process is incomplete if moral, ethical and legal forces are left to chance.  Professionals who are licensed, regulated, or selected by the state or its constituents to ply their craft, are obligated to this tripartite constellation of decision making.  Neglect leaves us short of our aspirations.

We see the impact of such neglect daily in public and private life, in service, in commerce, and within families.

Moral behavior is defined by a code of acceptable conduct.  That code is derived from social standards as well as laws that bear witness to the belief systems held by the people who make up a society.  Traditionally, belief systems evolve from private to public life and have as their genetic code religious or faith practices and values.

Find an adage that most people accept and you can, almost without exception, trace it back to a biblical principle.  In other non-western societies different foundational tenets will guide.   Many treatises show strong similarity of acceptable day-to-day behaviors in all societies.

Ninety-nine percent of the time the Golden Rule rules, no matter where you live.

Ethical behavior is similar to moral behavior but defined more strongly by the interactions of various personal belief systems, and codified into appropriate behavior by the larger social group.

Legal behavior, the lowest form of guidance for our actions, is defined by men and women arguing various manifestations of moral and ethical action, and codifying them into laws which then guide the community, not from deeply held personal convictions, but publicly agreed upon canon and rule.

The challenge in this thinking for architecture students is that, while a particular action might be legal, it could also be morally or ethically unacceptable.  Even judges and attorneys retreat into a safe place by suggesting that a decision that does not feel “right” is guided by the simple premise of stare decisis, which hods that what has been previously decided is the law, is the law so long as it consistent with other laws or subsequent legislation.

This is not to suggest that the legal barometer is unimportant; it is foundational and binds a society together, but it is a least common denominator as a standard of decision-making.  Conscience is high, harder to come to grips with, and absolutely worthy of daily consideration and reflection.

The law is simple and direct.  It is the head not the heart.  Morality is the highest form of guidance for decisions.  Ethics is the bridge between the two.

Our students should become professionals who know the law and accept it as a yardstick for professional decision making.  More importantly, they should live by moral and ethical standards that are the foundation upon which the law rests.

The three lenses of moral, ethical, and legal behavior are powerful in every aspect of society, and should hold a preeminent place in our heads, our hearts and our curriculum at our university.

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