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Student Well-Being Commentary

Ethics Education: A National Imperative

By James Wagner — July 14, 2016 3 min read

How can each generation do better than the one that came before? What does “doing better” even mean?

These questions are at the heart of all parents’ decisions about their children, at the core of teachers’ dedication to their profession, and central to adolescents’ generational identity as they come of age. Yet, while these moral and value-laden questions concern all of those engaged in education, formal ethics education rarely happens in traditional K-12 classrooms.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues—an advisory panel dedicated to promoting socially and ethically responsible scientific research, technological innovation, and health care on which I have served as the vice chair since 2009 —has encouraged and supported ethics education throughout its tenure. In our most recent report, “Bioethics for Every Generation: Deliberation and Education in Health, Science, and Technology,” we call for integrating ethics education from an early age and outline steps for establishing a strong foundation in ethics education.

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Preschool and primary school educators have long understood the importance of moral development and its ties to success in learning; consider early discussions of why lying is wrong, the importance of sharing, and the value of friendship.

Ethical questions engage students early on and can put them on a path to success. In early stages of learning, ethical questions directly related to students’ experiences can spark curiosity and foster the inquisitive nature of young children, setting the stage for honing critical-thinking skills that will be useful throughout life.

Bioethics education, in particular, can prepare students for the road ahead. Each of us will face crucial bioethical decisions in our lives—how to make difficult treatment choices when diagnosed with illness, how best to care for a sick or elderly loved one, or whether to adopt cutting-edge technologies to detect a genetic disorder or treat a neurological disease. Bioethics education prepares young people to tackle these tough questions.

Bioethics education also offers a way to make connections across subjects, countering tendencies to compartmentalize learning. For students who are initially daunted by science, technology, engineering, and math, the ethical and social dimensions of bioethical topics can be an appealing inroad, piquing their interest in the subjects more broadly. For students who already excel in STEM, bioethics can expand their horizons, underscoring how social sciences and humanities inform these topics.

Ethical questions engage students early on and can put them on a path to success."

Bioethics education also complements civic education. Such learning can prepare young adults to deliberate and decide together how our national health and science policies should be made and what values these policies should reflect.

But any ethics education is not without challenges. The concern that conversations about deeply held values always devolve into destructive and divisive disagreements often results in evading such questions entirely. Teaching ethics requires a learning environment that fosters disagreement without disrespect.

A second obstacle is the worry that ethics education will inevitably result in indoctrination, imposing particular values that might not match students’ own. On the contrary, ethics education teaches students how to think, not what to think. Ethics education teaches students the skills to articulate and communicate their own perspectives, comprehend other schools of thought, and practice critical thinking. As we deliberate ethical questions that confront our society, ethics education teaches us methods for understanding and evaluating how we present good—and bad—justifications to each other.

With tailored training, teachers can establish a classroom as a place for voicing diverse points of view, learning from different perspectives and offering reasons that support a path forward. We cannot avoid value-laden decisions. But we owe each other the best reasons available for pursuing a certain course of action.

To assist primary and secondary school administrators and teachers with ethics education, the bioethics commission has developed a series of free educational materials, including deliberative classroom exercises teachers can employ to explore collective decisionmaking.

When we strengthen ethics education not only for future scientists and clinicians but also for every member of the public, we will be better equipped to move forward as individuals and as a nation. Our hope is that every generation can “do better” as we face the dynamic future that awaits us.

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