Changing Course

Philosophy class adjusts curriculum to consider real-time ethical challenges related to global pandemic.
By Derek Smith, MA ’05

COVID-19 and the global response to the pandemic forced practitioners in fields from healthcare to government to rapidly weigh ethical responses to an array of challenging issues. From finite resources like medical supplies to life-and-death questions related to where and to whom to allocate these resources, leaders grapple in real time with consequential decisions.

For students aspiring to service and leadership, the current crisis amplifies the necessity to evaluate ethical responses wisely. As Baylor transitioned to online classes mid-semester, Dr. Anne Jeffrey, BA ’10, assistant professor of philosophy, shifted her Contemporary Moral Problems: Bioethics class to engage students in emerging challenges prompted by the response to the virus.

“Philosophy has a lot to offer in the current moment, especially applied ethics, because of the way we operate. Our class generally utilizes fictionalized cases as a way of testing out theories and thinking through ethical principles,” Jeffrey said. “Since moving online, we have started thinking about public health crises in a more realistic way. Instead of using fictionalized cases, we’re analyzing real-world issues.”

Jeffrey originally planned for students to study a hypothetical organ transplant case but instead opted for topics related to COVID-19.

Students in the class ranged from freshman to seniors with majors including philosophy, biology, medical humanities, film and digital media, and great texts. 

Participants were immersed in the perspectives of medical practitioners, healthcare administrators, policymakers, journalists, government officials and private citizens. 

Riley Randall, a sophomore from Tyler, Texas, is a humanities major on a pre-med track. She was appreciative of the opportunity to study real-life topics.

“As a future physician, it has been beneficial for me to see the ethical issues in healthcare today and how we approach them,” Randall said. “We are seeing how  COVID-19 is taking a toll on many people, including healthcare workers, and a big part of that is the decision-making when it comes to treating patients. This project opened my eyes to how important ethics is in medicine. While this can be a frightening time for many, I am fortunate we have been able to dive deeper into what the world is facing.” 

For the students, watching professionals in the field respond in real time drove home the need to be prepared when their time in leadership comes as philosophy provides a “framework for cognitive empathy and seeing other perspectives.” 

Jeffrey’s aim was for students to engage with the issues in a foundational way that will benefit them when inevitable challenges arise. By all accounts, her goal was reached.