Ethics in Education

Human beings have an innate ethical sense that urges them to make predictable choices.  Although most people believe that their actions are guided by logic and reason, reason often acts only as a mechanism to justify these choices. Language allows people to construct sophisticated rationales which support what are often genetically driven decisions. Ethics education is about recognizing the real power of one’s innate ethical sense and how it influences our behavior. In this way we can free reason to become a tool to truly guide our actions.  Without the wisdom that results from understanding one’s innate ethical self, reason remains a powerful propaganda prop for unchallenged intrinsic human ethical imperatives … (What is Ethics 1/2).

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What is Ethics 2/2: … How do educators attack this problem? It is best to build on the beliefs, which students already bring with them, that ethics must be about individuals, and that the extent of individual freedom is a measure of what is right. 

This ethical relativity can be transformed into a powerful positive starting point for students; they intuitively understand that ethics must be measured on a case by case basis. Students also expect all others to pursue and to defend their own ethical conclusions just as they do. They see the study of ethics as a kind of game in which everyone’s opinion is of roughly equal value, and the process of defending one’s own, and defeating another’s is the major objective. In other words, there is no real search for truth, which students largely understand only in the context of their own opinions and interests. Students see artful argument, and the ability to “spin” the truth, as automatic parts of the “ethics game.” Doing, in the end, only what one judges to be in one’s interest is a given, as is denying personal responsibility for any failures. In fact, denying personal responsibility is an inherent part of this mindset since if one acts only in ways deemed best for one’s self, any untoward results can only be someone else’s fault.

Students must commit to broadening their own understanding of ethical issues by seeking to better understand the ideas of others. This is not easy since in most instances students believe that they already have the right answers, and are therefore likely to merely make pronouncements rather than thoughtful remarks. A successful strategy, however, can be built on the willingness of most students to be tolerant of different opinions. They trap themselves through their own avowed belief in the sanctity of the individual into accepting the legitimacy of varied viewpoints. It is necessary to build this into a sense of community within the class, and to encourage each student to participate energetically and cooperatively. It takes time, and patience, but it is critical to avoid encouraging simple debate, which in the end leads nowhere.

hat’s Wrong with Virtue Ethics?

Few would argue that rule based ethical systems are complex and confusing. Ordinary people don’t understand philosophers like Immanuel Kant when he calls for a categorical imperative to govern ethical decision making, or John Stuart Mill when he trumpets the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. These arcane philosophies with incomprehensible names like deontology and teleology almost always lead to disagreement and debate, thus promoting the idea that ethics is an intellectual contest where right and wrong are determined by the best argument or the most skilled debater. Even contemporary contributions to the “ethics game” as students call it, such as the justice model of John Rawls for instance and his advice to act behind a veil of ignorance, are equally as abstruse. Hence there is a very valid and seductive attraction for simpler answers. Normative ethical systems nearly always seem to end in impasses, are correctly viewed to be impractical and have historically had almost no impact on the moral behavior of average people who pay absolutely no attention to them.

Virtue ethicists, on the other hand, argue that if one starts with good intentions and is guided by habitually ingrained, and good, virtues, the actions that follow will also be good. Martin Luther once said, in a classic statement of virtue ethics: “A good man does good works, but good works do not make a good man.” According to this idea there is no need for complicated and often conflicting rules. To determine what is right or wrong, one need not apply some complex standard of conduct to the action, its outcome, or to the motive of the doer. A good man simply does good works. But, virtue ethics begs the question, how do we identify this good man in order to know which works are good?

Virtue ethicists like to call character traits, such as patience, virtues, and assume that they are good. But, to simply declare that a character trait such as patience is good or is a virtue won’t pass even the most elemental test. There is no difference, after all, between the character trait of patience present in a parent raising a difficult child, with the same trait in a rapist lying in wait for his victim. Obviously the character trait of patience, or any other character trait for that matter, has nothing to do with virtue and has no ethical value whatsoever. It only becomes what we might call good insofar as it is associated with an action that can be judged to be good. The problem is to know what good is, and this remains unresolved. The actions themselves, that is caring for a child, or raping a woman, still need to be evaluated, and for this we need a rule … (full long text).

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