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Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?: Wisdom From the Classroom

How and Why to Discuss Ethics in the Classroom

How should we think and talk about moral issues with our youngsters: pre-teens, teenagers, and young adults? The first way to discuss these issues is from the perspective of The Golden Rule, a long-standing moral compass for societies. This ancient Greek philosophy in western civilization dates back to 440 BC when Plato said to Socrates: "I'd have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it without consent on my part; if I'm a man of reason, I must treat the property of others the same way".

How can anyone argue with the basic premise that we should treat others the way we wish to be treated? What’s so hard about living up to that ethical standard? Perhaps one reason is all too many people act out of self-interest (egoism) and fail to see that their actions affect others. We see this all the time. Politicians use government funds for personal purposes thereby misusing government resources. Financial “wizards” engage in fraudulent practices that harm consumers, such as the Wells Fargo scandal. Some in the media (on both sides) make up stories that are, at best, marginally truthful and harmful to others because they lack a rational base for the story.

Discussing ethical issues in the moral domain means to focus on things that are inherently right or wrong based on their effects on others. Moral issues usually have to do with justice and fairness or (avoiding) harm. Hitting, stealing, and malicious teasing, for instance, are prototypical moral issues.

Students need to learn how to think aloud so sensitive moral issues can be discussed intelligently inside the classroom, not at a 'safe space' where many are left out of the discussion. This is one way to promote ethical sensitivity. Thinking allowed

We should discuss issues of equity, diversity and inclusion if for no other reason than it’s a concern for many of us in society. We hear a lot about it these days; it’s being taught so we need to understand what it means. It loosely means to give each person the same opportunity, accept and respect people from different races, genders, sexual preferences, religions, and nationalities, and inviting those who have been historically locked-out of society to come in. I certainly support these basic issues of morality and the need to discuss them so that students become sensitized to the socio-economic issues facing society.

Are college kids being taught ethics? My 30+ years as a college professor tell me no – at least not the way I’d like to see it. What is taught is ethical relativism, meaning each of us is free to decide what’s right or wrong for each of us in each and every situation we encounter in life. Just think about this for a minute. If this is the best we can do with respect to teaching ethics, then Harry may decide to bring a gun to school for “protection”. Charlie may eschew any form of violence. The point is unless we teach a common set of ethical standards we will, eventually, wind up with a society run amok. It scares me.

Here are just five of the most pressing issues that need to be discussed because they threaten a civil society: combating a violent culture (Should guns be brought to school?); protecting free speech rights (How to protest peacefully); opening our hearts to people different than ourselves (Be kind to others; learn how to practice random acts of kindness; and paying it forward); ethics when using social media (Cyber ethics should be taught along with the three R’s and computing); and  how to engage in civil discourse (Promoting freedom of speech; respecting others with a different point of view).

The moral development of the younger generation is critical in today’s hyper-sensitive society fueled by political correctness, if we are to survive with the same moral values in America that have lasted since 1776. If people with different points of views can’t learn to communicate with each other, then how can we expect to sustain a civil society? When students learn to understand and balance different considerations that play into moral issues, they can make better decisions and work with others on resolving problems in more fair and caring ways.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 18, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his Newsletter.