Education Opinion

How Can We Teach About Ethics?

By Gary Marx — July 02, 2015 4 min read
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Expedient: What’s easiest? Pragmatic: Whatever works. Ethical: What’s the right thing to do?

We hear about a breach of ethical behavior. We’re appalled. Many of us follow the story for weeks—even years. We ask: “Who would ever do anything like that?” “Who do they think they are?” “Look at the people they’ve hurt with their selfishness.” Lives and organizations are damaged or destroyed. Trust, often meticulously earned over a lifetime, is lost in an instant.

Read more in Chapter 17 of Twenty-One Trends

What do we mean by “ethics?” Webster’s calls it “the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” It can involve “principles of conduct governing an individual or group, such as a profession.” In fact, the marks of any profession generally include: a body of knowledge, a language or lingo, and a code of ethics.

If ethical behavior is so important, why are we reluctant to talk and teach about it? Do we fear that we might have our own skeletons in the closet? Do we harbor a secret admiration for those who have reached their version of success by taking advantage of others? Are we concerned that someone might think we see ourselves as “holier than thou?”

Whatever the reason, we simply need to get over it. Let’s face it. We can turn out students who develop reputations as the best educators, politicians, business people, mathematicians, scientists, technologists, or physicians in the world. However, if they breach a code of ethics, all bets are off. Forget the positive news that’s been filling the air. A violation of ethics will suck all the air out of the room.

How can we teach about ethics? Generally, through precept and example. Build an understanding of ethical principles. Then, reinforce them with real-life stories, case studies, role-playing, and current events. The news is brimming with possibilities that can enliven class discussions.

Consider Precepts

I suggest we check our ethical behavior in comparison to four key markers--integrity (Are we who we say we are?), fairness (How do we treat other people?), trust (Are we honest and dependable?), and character (What motivates us?). Add them up and they help define our reputation, our good name.

I often ask people to consider an Empathy ↔ Arrogance Continuum. If we are empathetic, we care very much about how our decisions, pronouncements, or actions affect others. If we are arrogant, we really don’t care. As a test, we should constantly ask where we are on that continuum.

Michael Josephson, who founded Character Counts, focuses on the “Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.”

Philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

Charles Kearns, associate professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University warns, “Leaders who are motivated by self-interest and the exercise of personal power have restricted effectiveness and authenticity.”

Discussion Starters

Get the ethics discussion going with a few case studies, such as:

• An elected official signs a private pledge to support a certain type of legislation in return for a promise of campaign contributions. Should this be considered a conflict of interest, a violation of trust, an ethical issue, or all three?

• A person cleared for access to classified information and sworn to uphold confidentiality releases that information to the media. Is it whistle blowing or espionage?

• A classmate tells you confidentially that he is bringing a gun to school tomorrow. He tells you, “Don’t be a snitch.” What will you do? When?

Why do people and organizations use bad judgment? Often, it’s because they build a culture on something less than a firm ethical foundation. Examples: a belief that power equates to personal privilege, deliberate misinterpretation of information, attempts to hide information from the media and the public, blaming others for problems we’ve caused, overconfidence, stereotyping, and a superiority complex. Add to the list, keeping in mind that some things may be legal but still not be appropriate, even ethical.

Mahatma Ghandi put it all into perspective: “Power is given to you by others. It is not yours; it is in trust with you and it is a great responsibility. Power is to be used for the benefit of those whose trustee you are.”

In education, ethical problems raise their heads in hiring and other personnel decisions, teacher and student placement, financial concerns, discipline, fairness, class, multicultural sensitivity, handling of disasters and accusations, management of personal information, attempts to discredit others, privacy vs. access, hacking, testing and assessment, and student or staff cheating.

Today’s students will face hundreds of far-reaching issues that will demand a firm grasp of ethics. Among them: stewardship of the environment; access to fresh, clean water for everyone; the use of intellectual and physical enhancements, such as pharmaceuticals; government gridlock and unwillingness to compromise; crime and corruption at many levels; and even the introduction of life forms on other planets.

Rushworth Kidder, founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics, reminded us that, “Without moral courage, our brightest virtues rust from lack of use. With it, we build piece by piece a more ethical world.”

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