05 September 2023

From the Classroom: Considering the Ethical Environment of our Times

How do empathy and accountability contribute to collective intelligence or to ideas of an ethical environment? How do they appear in the classroom or in society as a whole? In this think piece, Dr. Claudia Seymour addresses ethics and how different principles allow us to interact with and interpret the events of our contemporary world.

Recently, when one of my students asked: How do you expect us to know this if you haven’t taught us?, I was surprised. Our conversation had been about how we collaborate in groups, within the framework of their Applied Research Projects (ARPs), a required part of the Interdisciplinary Master curriculum at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Core learning aims for the ARPs include strengthening students’ interpersonal skills and their capacities to work in teams. The longer view is that these capacities will one day help them to tap into the collective intelligence needed to generate solutions for the great social, economic, political and environmental problems of our times. What I had thought to be self-evident basics of effective group work — empathy and accountability — were in fact not so obvious to this extremely bright and talented 23-year-old graduate student. The lesson was mine to learn. 

After all, why would I have expected her to know that qualities of empathy and a sense of accountability to a larger whole are so important? Why would considerations about interdependence be obvious at all? If we were to conduct a basic empirical assessment of our world today, starting with what we witness in the media, in our classroom lectures, or in our own everyday actions, what conclusions would we — the teachers responsible for educating the new generation of global leaders — draw? If we were to question the expectations we have of our leaders, of our colleagues, and — dare we ask? — of ourselves, what compelling evidence would we find on how much the principles of care and honest reckoning actually matter?

It would not seem illogical to assert that these principles are fundamental, urgent even. Yet the evidence does not seem to hold up.  If in the halls of power, in our classrooms and — dare I think it? — in our own lives, we are not upholding empathy and accountability in each of our own actions, how could we expect it of our students? 

Philosopher Simon Blackburn speaks of an “ethical environment”, a concept that helps us to comprehend how the ideas, norms and attitudes of any given period can allow us to find certain things acceptable, to make certain events possible. Such an approach supports us in critically analysing, historically contextualising, economically theorising and politically contemporising the most horrific — or the most illuminated — manifestations of the human intellectual endeavour.

This brings us back to the question of accountability, for in 2023, despite the tremendous mobilisation of structures, resources and — dare we admit? — scholarship, we remain very far away from eliminating “the scourge of war”, or realising “the fundamental human rights” and “the dignity and worth” of all, or from enacting the urgent “integrated climate action” required of a balanced, regenerative ecosystem.

Sometimes, we need to consider things more simply. If we have not yet achieved these most fundamental of achievable goals, why, then, would we expect this of the new generation?


Blackburn, Simon. 2003. Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
United Nations Charter. 1945.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2023.
Climate Change 2023 : Synthesis Report.