John R. Regalbuto had a good Catholic upbringing, but it wasn’t until he was 23 years old and a graduate student in chemical engineering at Notre Dame that he came across the notion of an absolute ethical system based on “immutable and universal natural law.” In a world of messy moral dilemmas, crumbling standards, gray areas, exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions, here was something to hang on to. “My jaw dropped and I said, ‘That’s just what I’ve been looking for. Absolute truth.’

“Intellectually, it’s the only plausible philosophy”–founded on unchanging essentials of human nature and a divinely ordained hierarchy of being. “You can’t have ethics without a standard. And this is the only system with a universal standard.”

Other ethical systems were too changeable to suit him: cultural relativism holds that right and wrong vary according to the culture you live in; utilitarianism says that good is whatever creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people; Kantianism says that it is wrong to do anything that you would not approve of everyone else doing in the same circumstances. But natural law, in its most general form, simply states that good is what fits into the absolute, God-created moral order and that one’s acts should be good (or at least indifferent) in themselves, in their intentions, and in their effects.

Today, seven years after his discovery, and four years after coming to the University of Illinois at Chicago to teach chemical engineering, Regalbuto passes his system of ethical absolutes on to the handful of students in his engineering-ethics course, now in its second quarter. The course does not count toward engineering students’ humanities requirement, and many of them have little room in their schedules for a free elective, so early in January he was still recruiting students to enroll.

“Uncle JR wants you!!!” read the homemade sign sticking out from his office in the chemical engineering building, “for possibly the most stimulating course you will ever take:

” a provocative no-nonsense format

” an eye-opening presentation of technology and American society

” a very attractive elective to have on your transcript.”

To date, Regalbuto’s course (the theory is his, although his mechanical-engineering colleague Floyd Miller provides some examples) has reached only 18 of the U. of I.’s 2,300 engineering students. But it has the potential to stimulate thought beyond the gray walls of UIC. It’s the first, and apparently the only, engineering-ethics course based on natural law. (Most people who teach professional ethics have different and at least slightly more tentative opinions. An adjunct associate professor of electrical engineering at UIC, S. Michael Saad, has informally proposed a “professional issues” course along more usual lines.) And there doesn’t seem to be any precedent for an engineering course in which the professor attempts to demonstrate–on “nontheological” grounds–the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

Beyond that Regalbuto is absolutely certain–and will undertake to prove logically if you ask–that animals have no moral rights, that abortion is always wrong, and that engineers faced with ambiguous choices (when to blow the whistle on sloppy quality control, how much to spend for one extra safety feature) can come to firm, definite conclusions. And his amiable self-assurance, combined with a certain philosophical naivete, makes you want to agree with his reasoning even when you can’t.

“It used to be that universities tried to instill character in their students,” says Regalbuto, reflecting on an article by Derek Bok of Harvard. “It was very popular [in the 19th century] for senior university presidents to give a seminar to graduating seniors on ethics.

“But since the knowledge base has expanded and students are more specialized, the wisdom that used to be imparted isn’t anymore.”

And yet, professional ethics has been “booming” in academia and in the professions themselves since 1969, when the world’s first ethics think tank, the Hastings Center, was founded north of New York City. Centers and departments dealing with professional ethics have proliferated (the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, founded in 1972, was one of the earliest). At last count IIT knew of 308 such centers in the U.S. In 1980, the center compiled an exhaustive 536-item bibliography on engineering ethics alone; recently, they found they could not even update it without adding extra staff for that job alone. Separate journals dealing with professional ethics in law, medicine, agriculture, criminal justice, ecology, journalism, and international affairs are now published–all of them founded in the last 21 years.

“Engineers like order,” says Regalbuto, and when he first surveyed the field of engineering ethics, he didn’t find much order. The National Institute for Engineering Ethics has produced a video dramatization of a case study titled “Gilbane Gold,” in which a computer factory is polluting the environment. Its authors want to “stimulate discussions about engineering ethics in order to promote ethical conduct in the profession.” But they add–much to Regalbuto’s astonishment and dismay–that “there may be several ‘correct answers’ (or perhaps there are none) for the situations depicted in Gilbane Gold.”

“You can’t promote ethical conduct,” he says, shaking his head, “if you don’t indicate a direction.” In that case, all you’re promoting is moral relativism. It’s not enough just to hold a discussion and then say, “Follow your conscience, there are many answers or maybe none.” People’s consciences have a way of pointing in the most bizarre directions.

Regalbuto asks his UIC students to suppose that they are young German engineers during World War II, with families to support, who have been asked to join the research staff at a concentration camp where people are being systematically frozen to death in order to gather medical information. Should they take the job?

It’s an extreme case, but a good one. For one thing, it eliminates relativism right away. Even sophisticated people of the 90s–the sort who are inclined to say that it’s “OK for you” to sleep around but “OK for me” to be faithful to one person–are not likely to think that this question has “several correct answers, or perhaps none.” So moral relativism is out; let’s try another moral theory. If you believe that one should always seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number (utilitarianism), then, says Regalbuto, you would weigh the misery of a few hundred frozen research subjects against the future benefits to millions and millions of people–not to mention the happiness of your family, which will suffer if you turn the job down. So you could take the job.

Suppose instead that you believe that you should act in such a way that your act can be universalized (Kantianism, or, in grade-school terms, “Would it be all right if everybody did it?”). Yes, says Regalbuto; it looked like Nazism was becoming universalized, so why not go along with it? (Utilitarians and Kantians take exception to this line of reasoning.)

So what’s the alternative? Why would the right thing to do be to turn down the job? What ethical theory can support the decision to do so? Evidently we need a theory under which human beings have some inherent rights–the right not to be killed, for example. And we need a theory that doesn’t rely only on consequences or intentions, because accepting the job would be wrong even if there were no consequences (e.g., if the camp closed down the next day), and allowing people to be frozen would be wrong even if one did it with a “clear conscience.”

Regalbuto finds just such a theory in natural law, according to which an action is morally permissible only if the intention, the circumstances, and the act itself are all good or are at least indifferent.

You don’t have to be Catholic to believe in natural law, but it helps. Regalbuto picked these ideas up not from the philosophy department at Notre Dame (most of whose members he dismisses as “relativists”) but from a group there called Opus Dei (“work of God”). Depending on whom you ask, Opus Dei (national membership about 3,000) is either an ultraconservative Catholic fringe group or a group devoted to helping laypeople live out their faith in daily life–to achieve “sainthood” without entering a cloister. The group claims no doctrine other than that of the church, and one of the things this means in practice is that its adherents agree strongly, for instance, with the papal prohibition on all forms of “artificial” birth control.

From Opus Dei’s standpoint, the modern world is running wildly out of control. One of Regalbuto’s class handouts is an article by the late religious sociologist Will Herberg–“What Is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?”–in which he says that immorality, even rampant immorality, is nothing new. But Herberg believes this is the first time in world history that people act badly and say it’s OK. Not only do we lie, fornicate, and take bribes, but when challenged we often don’t even feel guilty or acknowledge that we’ve violated any real standard. For Regalbuto, then, the quest for natural law isn’t just intellectual–it’s an urgent daily challenge to stem the tide of creeping relativism. In that quest, he follows this pocket-size summary of natural-law morality from the Jesuit philosopher Austin Fagothey:

“That conduct is morally good which right reason shows befitting a rational animal, composed of soul and body, created by God, living with his fellow man, and supporting himself on the products of the earth.”

A bit florid for contemporary taste, perhaps, but if it can keep us from becoming Nazis . . .

God is fundamental in Regalbuto’s system, and he uses the Second Law of Thermodynamics to prove God’s existence. Since the Big Bang, the total useful energy in the universe has been decreasing, leading ultimately to “thermal death,” in which energy is evenly distributed and entropy is maximized. (This is the same process by which your living room naturally becomes messier rather than more orderly.) “The second law [of thermodynamics] states that we’re on a hill progressing downward in time, and there’s no natural way to return to the top,” Regalbuto writes in a 40-page course summary. “How then was the initial state produced? Since there is no natural explanation . . . the answer must be supernatural. And unless the Creator wants himself to be degraded to nothing in time, he would be a spiritual being apart from the material world.” People have immortal souls, because they can think of abstract ideas (like solidarity, or prime numbers) which do not decay or change. Animals cannot conceive of abstract ideas apart from sense-experience, so they don’t have souls. And thus, in the space of about three and a half double-spaced pages, Regalbuto has–to his evident relief–structured a foundation on which to build true morality.

You don’t need a degree in philosophy, though, to suspect that the foundation is built with some crumbly bricks. Regalbuto assumes (1) that the cause of the Big Bang, if it existed, could not have been natural; (2) that the cause, if supernatural, was a “him” and a “self” and could “want” things; (3) that the cause, if it wanted things, would indeed want to avoid sharing in the thermal death of the universe; (4) that the cause, if separate from the universe, has an interest, moral or otherwise, in human beings; (5) that abstract ideas are real things that do not decay or change, as opposed to constructs of our imaginations; (6) that the soul must be immortal because it apprehends ideas that are; and (7) that those entities that have immortal souls get to be totally in charge of those that do not. If any of these assumptions fails, look out.

Regalbuto wants his case to be purely philosophical–not theological–but it’s hard to imagine that anyone who was not already a Christian (or something close) would find it convincing. I asked Regalbuto if there wasn’t some way to approach natural law without having to invoke such controversial metaphysics. Nope, he said. “It can’t be done without God. You have to have the totem pole”–God, people, animals, in that order.

Besides, he added, “It’s not being religiously fanatical to admit there is a God. It’s natural. It’s just stating reality. The Founding Fathers stated ‘In God we trust.’ It didn’t used to be so unpopular to speak the G word. Anybody who doesn’t recognize it is more unnatural than one who does.”

Of course, you can argue for natural law without invoking God. Aristotle did it; Cicero did it; even C.S. Lewis (himself a Christian) did it in his eloquent little book The Abolition of Man. Regalbuto tells his students that they can take as much of his theory as they choose–he insists not that they agree with him but that they understand how its logical system works. UIC philosophy professor Gerald Dworkin says more directly that natural law offers some “tools” that can be useful even if you don’t buy into the overall theory.

Clearly what appeals most to Regalbuto is the neatness of the tool kit. His kit has three compartments: one is judging the act itself, one is the intention, and one is the circumstances (or consequences). The third compartment is by far the largest, but the tools in the first two are plenty sharp. Basically they involve applying the God-people-animals totem pole: “Man’s inventiveness should never come in conflict with God’s creativeness,” Regalbuto says. In practical terms this somewhat ambiguous statement means, for example, that except in rare circumstances, it is always wrong to kill a person (who has an immortal soul). Creatures without souls (animals, who supposedly have none because they cannot form abstract ideas) are there to be used by creatures with souls, provided they do so without exterminating whole species or with bad (e.g. sadistic) intentions.

Therefore, Regalbuto says, the concentration-camp experiments are always wrong, because their subjects have souls. But the same experiments performed on dogs and cats would be OK, since dogs and cats do not have souls–provided that the experimenter was not motivated by cruelty and provided that the experiments didn’t eliminate an entire species, thus making part of God’s creation unavailable to human posterity.

Animal-rights issues have more to do with engineering than you might expect–Regalbuto notes that one of his engineering colleagues does experiments that involve inducing asthma in dogs–and in any case it’s a fight he seems happy to pick. Using a Time magazine article and a recent Mike Royko column (in which Royko skewers sentimentalists who feel sorry for minks but not for alley rats), he concludes that “animal activists don’t have an argument when it comes to raising livestock for food and clothing.”

Of course, that depends on your acceptance of the “totem pole of creation.” But even granted that, common sense, which helped Regalbuto in the Nazi case, does not help him much here. Compare Joe, who stops in at McDonald’s for a burger, with Jane, who systematically blinds laboratory rabbits in testing a new brand of cosmetics. If you’re not already committed to vegetarianism, the first case seems much easier to, er, swallow than the second. You might finally decide that neither Joe nor Jane is doing anything wrong, but I’ll bet it takes you longer to decide the second case than the first. However, according to Regalbuto, these two acts (using animals for the good of humanity) are morally exactly the same. He goes even further, and justifies bullfighting. The bull may be tortured to death in the ring, he says, but the (human) crowd’s need to be entertained has all the moral weight. (For the record, not all believers in natural law are comfortable going this far, though they would still deny that animals can have moral rights.)

This position may be logical, but it seems a bit cold. “What would you say,” I asked Regalbuto one day, “if research were finally to show that chimpanzees or dolphins, with proper training, could grasp abstract ideas–”

He stopped me. “That will never happen.” Why not? I wondered. It seemed odd to hear someone in a scientific profession so certain of what an incomplete series of experiments might one day find out. “The more we know about animals, the more this notion of their not having abstract ideas is confirmed.”

Well, maybe–although according to anthropologist Marvin Harris’s 1988 text a chimpanzee has invented phrases like “candy fruit” for “watermelon,” which may not be purely abstract thought but it’s getting close. But why sweat it? I asked again. How would the overall structure of natural law suffer if we discovered that we’d have to let one or two more advanced species into the domain of those with souls? Regalbuto didn’t want to consider it. “It just doesn’t strike me as being logical.”

But back to engineering. Engineers don’t often have to deal with acts or intentions that are bad in themselves. Most of the time, the act in question and the intentions are good or indifferent–the hard questions revolve around the consequences. (Regalbuto has this whole sequence reduced to a one-page flow chart.) If all the consequences of the act are good, fine. If they’re all bad, forget it. But usually they’ll be either (1) unknown or (2) a mixture.

Suppose that you are preparing a new chemical reaction and the company safety committee can’t be sure exactly how far the reaction will proceed and thus how powerful the explosion might be. Since you are definitely obligated to protect the safety of the persons directly affected, says Regalbuto, you must “follow the safe course”–“you would be obligated to build a containment cell strong enough to withstand the most powerful explosion possible,” and hang the expense.

The case is easier when other people are less directly involved. If, say, you’re unsure (after diligent inquiry) whether the explosion will exceed air-pollution regulations, then following the safe course can become too burdensome, and we switch to the maxim “A doubtful law does not bind.” Then you can go ahead with the process, while still trying to reach certainty on the actual effects.

If you do know the good and bad consequences of an act (and what act doesn’t have both?), then we reach into a different portion of the toolbox. As Regalbuto presents it (according to Dworkin, not all authorities use it in exactly the same way), the “principle of double effect” lays down the conditions under which you can go ahead and do something that has some bad effects, without having to admit to the crude and dangerous maxim that the end justifies the means. (We’re still assuming that the act itself and the intentions are good or indifferent.) The act will then be OK if (1) the good effect is not obtained by means of the bad effect, and if (2) the bad effect is not intended in itself but is only permitted, and if (3) there is a “proportionately grave reason for permitting the bad effect.”

Regalbuto’s example here is the building of a downtown skyscraper, which is statistically likely to lead to the deaths of a certain number of construction workers. Does this mean that it’s morally wrong to build it? Or must we conclude, Aztec-like, that the end (office space in the Loop) justifies the means (which may involve killing people)? No, says Regalbuto: No one has to be killed in order for the skyscraper to be built. “If a statistical anomaly occurs and no worker gets killed, the skyscraper is built all the same.” (The Nazis, by contrast, had to freeze people to death to get their results.) Finally, the reason seems to be “proportionately grave,” although Regalbuto says, “proportionate cause would not be established if lives were risked to build an extravagant doghouse at the whim of a millionaire.”

This is the heart of engineering ethics. “Proportionate cause” is just another name for “risk assessment.” We started all the way back before the Big Bang, and–for purposes of argument, at least–agreed that God created people with souls and a moral order to which they should conform in act, intention, and circumstances. The payoff for assuming all this stuff is the promise that we can have definite answers–no gray areas, no place where reasonable people of goodwill can arrive at different answers. But the payoff is hard to find.

Take a company that produces computer chips and also pollutes the environment. Is the good that results from the product worth the risk to the environment? Cost-benefit analysis (one popular form of risk assessment) by itself isn’t good enough to answer this question in natural law, says Regalbuto, because (for one thing) it tends to assume there’s a dollar value of human life. But it can help. Suppose that you, the engineer, have drawn up a table of possible pollution-controlling measures, and also suppose that we know the full effect of each. The table runs from the least expensive, least effective controls, all the way up to the most expensive, virtually zero-discharge controls.

Regalbuto: “They could say–this is the usual way–‘All we need is x amount of safety, and that will give us a lot of profitability.’ But the natural-law way would be to look at the table and ask ‘How far up the safety axis can the company go and still make a healthy profit?’ Instead of being a follower in terms of safety, they would be an innovator.”

Me: “Then the sticky question is, what is a ‘healthy’ profit?”

Regalbuto: “I’m focusing on the intention, not just to get by but to put the maximum possible value on human life. . . . The correct profit margin is open to debate.”

Me: “So equally smart and dedicated believers in natural law might reach opposite conclusions?”

Regalbuto: “People might call it differently. That’s what we might call a gray area.”

This may be the most shocking fact about applied ethics in general, and professional ethics in particular: as long as you’re not an “anything-goes” relativist of the crudest type, it often does not matter which ethical theory you believe in. There is no moral meat grinder that will produce universally palatable ethical sausage: everyone, even the cultural relativists, agrees on the easy cases (unprovoked murder of an innocent passerby) and everyone has the same kind of problem with the hard ones (just when is murder in self-defense justifiable and when is it not?).

“The trouble with applied ethics,” says IIT philosopher Michael Davis, “is that the problems are all far from the general terms of the theory. A lot of us who teach business ethics”–Davis is senior research associate at IIT’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions–“don’t spend much time on theories. Instead, we’ll pick out certain basic principles and use them to bring out issues in particular problems.

“For the last year,” says Davis, “I’ve been interviewing engineers on the job. And they understand that often the solutions to actual problems don’t derive from theory–more from “engineering judgment’ or systematic tinkering. Say, the problem of how to make a fluid spray out in a better pattern. The textbooks you studied don’t really help much; a lot depends on the quality of materials you have to work with. You just try changing one thing and then another until you get something that works.

“I also think that’s real-life ethics. Very seldom, even in big disputes in applied ethics, do the people line up according to theory. There are Kantians on both sides, there are utilitarians on both sides, there are natural-law people on both sides.” (For his part, Regalbuto insists that this proves utilitarianism and Kantianism are really relativist theories, while any differences within the natural-law camp simply mean that some of its adherents don’t understand the situation, or the system, properly.)

Take the case–from an 1842 Pennsylvania court decision–of an overloaded lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean in midwinter. You, a crew member, choose to throw some passengers overboard, because it seems better that some people get out of the boat rather than that everyone die. You don’t intend that they die, but it certainly seems likely that they will. Are you doing the right thing?

For utilitarians–greatest happiness of the greatest number–there’s a good argument on both sides. On one hand, a smaller number will die so that a larger number can live; on the other hand, the precedent might (for instance) cause future passengers to avoid ocean travel at all costs, for fear of finding themselves in the same fix.

A natural-law believer might well employ the principle of double effect, emphasizing that you are not actually achieving the good effect (keeping the boat afloat) by means of killing the extra passengers–their freezing to death is an unfortunate by-product of their being thrown overboard, just as the deaths of construction workers on a skyscraper are “accidental.” (This was Regalbuto’s first impression when we disussed the case, but he objects to the use of a semihypothetical borderline case.) But at least one eminent philosopher who is also a Catholic, G.E.M. Anscombe, has argued the other side–that their deaths by hypothermia are “too close” to killing, since you know that they are extremely likely to die.

Kantians would divide along similar lines: it might be OK to universalize the action of putting passengers over the side, but certainly not OK to universalize the action of actually killing them.

Is the connection between their being thrown overboard and their dying “too close”? The overarching ethical system doesn’t help decide these arguments. You have to be able to contrast and compare cases, and find a way to keep on talking even when there seems to be hopeless disagreement.

That is why, says Davis, most professional-ethics courses–and the introduction to “Gilbane Gold”–emphasize dialogue, and the possibility that not everyone will agree on the final answer. It’s not because one answer is as good as another, but because as a matter of fact, after hours of argument, well-informed people of goodwill–even those who adhere to the same ethical theory–may still disagree about what to do. (This is one reason Davis emphasizes professional codes, because they can provide a familiar framework for continuing discussion.)

“One of our jobs in professional ethics is to provide people with a vocabulary to keep on disagreeing without either writing off the opponent, or just ceasing to talk, or deciding that anything goes. To me that dialogue is crucial to the preservation of a moral community.”

Vivian Weil, a philosopher and director of IIT’s center, puts the point more sharply, and firmly maintains that there can be a position between moral absolutism and complete moral relativism. Yes, she says, there is a rational basis for moral rules against cheating, lying, or killing period. Any reasonable person from any culture could agree, for instance, that we can’t communicate at all if lying is considered acceptable. Most people would consider this presumption against lying as strong but not absolute, she points out, as in the case when you send a terrorist in the wrong direction after his victims. In such a case you are neither an absolutist nor a relativist–you are just acknowledging the common-sense idea that even important rules can have justifiable exceptions.

Back in the 19th century, the college president (often himself a minister) would expound to seniors on how a “Christian gentleman” should conduct himself in a sinful world. In some ways, Regalbuto would like to hark back to that tradition. “If [professional ethics] is a trend, if it’s going to stick,” he says, “it’s got to be done right. And there’s only one way to do it right.”

But according to IIT’s Davis, in a paper to be published this spring in Centennial Review, we can’t go back to the certainties of the 1800s. In earlier ethics booms, everyone “supposed that very little about ethics was controversial. Ethics was largely a domain of settled standards. The chief problem was not to resolve controversies but to inculcate traditional standards in the rising generation.” Davis quotes G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist and long-ago president of Clark University: “I have begun a course of ethics for lower college classes, and for two of three months have given nothing but hygiene; and I believe [that with this way of teaching] . . . not only college but high school boys could be infected with real love of virtue and a deep aversion to every sin against the body.”

Regalbuto certainly believes in many “traditional standards,” but he doesn’t go in for this kind of indoctrination. He says of natural law that his students “can accept it down to whatever level they choose,” and his students confirm this. For purposes of passing his course, they don’t have to believe it as long as they understand its logic and can apply it to cases. Simply by discussing arguments for and against abortion, he is tackling ethics in a way that no 19th-century college president could have imagined.

The old-time religious consensus on which Hall depended does not exist anymore. Davis points out that in 1850 the U.S. might have been called a “Protestant nation,” in 1900 a “Christian nation,” in 1950 a “Judeo-Christian nation”–but now “it is hard to find a term inclusive enough for the religious diversity of our society.” His point is not that one religion is as good as another–or as good as none–but that we can’t depend on religious consensus or terminology to settle our arguments.

“The major religions of the world do, of course, agree on some general standards. All, for example, condemn murder, perjury, and theft. This agreement is, however, too general to decide most disputes. . . . Particular cases will have to be discussed in terms more or less independent of religion (though, in general at least, in a way consistent with what the various religions teach).”

Ironically, although Regalbuto believes that most philosophers these days are covert relativists, Davis’s description of today’s ethics boom as something involving controversy fits Regalbuto’s classroom rather well. Regalbuto does not conceal his own firm convictions, but he does not require that students be “infected” with them. Writes Davis, “Ethics [nowadays] is treated as a subject in which controversy is normal, argument is appropriate, and answers are to be worked out in a shared search for the best reasons. Even in a course in professional ethics, sermons are rare.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.