Questions of Roborats, Cybertheft and Fatal Bugs: Jesuit Leads Students to Consider Moral Issues of the Computer Age. (Catholic Colleges and Universities)

Article excerpt

On the pull-down computer projection screen at the front of their classroom, a group of Fordham University seniors learn that scientists at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn have turned rats into intelligent robots by implanting electrodes in their brains and strapping power packs onto their backs.

Thus equipped the rodents can be used in search and destroy, reconnaissance or rescue missions. But just because the ,roborats" might save a life--even a firefighter, soldier or a child's life--is it ethical to use rats to do a controller's bidding?

The question, posed in an online article assigned to the students, is one of many that Jesuit Fr. Nicholas Lombardi puts to the 20 students in his senior values seminar, titled "Cyberspace, Ethics and Issues." It meets for 75 minutes twice weekly. This is the fourth year Lombardi is teaching the course. Feedback from students indicates, "It's cutting edge--the most relevant class they do," he told NCR.

At first students saw nothing wrong in using rats as robots. "We kill chickens and eat them for our benefit," one offered. "I find it difficult to argue don't use rats," commented another who wants mosquitoes--"the greatest killers on earth"--eliminated before rats.

Before the animal rights defenders could take on those upholding the food chain hierarchy, Lombardi interjected: "The point is not whether it's right or wrong, but rather how `unobvious' it is that it's right or wrong."

Probing notions of right and wrong

Lombardi said he wants students to probe where their notions of right and wrong originate. How do they make moral determinations? Why do they feel the way they do? What sources inform their opinions? How do they form absolute judgments?

He said he sees his job as trying to make up for a "pseudo-liberal attitude" that says students should be free to pick and choose their own value systems, decide what's right or wrong on their own. The result of such nurturing in middle schools and high schools is that most college students today are fairly good at critical thinking, but many are "deprived of strong opinions. They don't want to force strong opinions on anyone," Lombardi said during an interview in the Faculty Resource Center, a state-of-the-art technology center he directs.

"Stealing is bad," Lombardi told the class as he moved from student to student, pulling an unoccupied desk upright and using it as a lectern or sitting sidesaddle on another one directly in front of a row of students. The effort to engage them in the discourse occurred on many fronts.

"An out-of-work mom can steal bread;" he said. "Or can she?" The priest, dressed in a white lab coat over his clerical collar and shirt, pivoted toward the students, tossing the question into their laps. "I'm open to interpretation."

"It's illegal," one student offered. "You can get arrested for stealing."

Lombardi countered that not everything that's legal is moral or obviously good. He probes their understanding of the role of emotions, intuition, law, religion, majority opinion and common sense in an effort to get them to investigate the origins of their own values system.

A classicist by training, Lombardi offered insights on the meaning of "vendetta" from the story of Oedipus. He talked of Roman law and of "conscience"--from its Latin roots. Conscience is what you come to know "deep down and earnestly agree with," he said.

No student should leave Fordham or any other college or university without values grounded in an informed conscience, he said. The goal of the senior seminar is to deliver the tools students need to face future moral issues arising in the workplace, in health care, politics, in the media as well as in the area of relationships and parenting.

Personal issues and social concerns grounded in Christian personal and social ethics are the starting points for his class discussions. …