Have We Been Teaching Ethics From the Wrong Point of View?
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Can Ethics Be Taught and, if so, HOW?

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” (Aristotle)

There are many good expressions to use in teaching ethics to college students. I find students remember important points by using expressions; writing them on the board; and discussing them every day so it is etched in their mind that these are ways of being ethical.

Using Quotes to Teach Ethics to College Students

Here are a few of my favorites:

Ethics is about what we do when no one is watching (American author Aldo Leopold).

Goodness is about character – integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people (American writer, talk show host Dennis Prager).

There is a difference between what we have the right to do and what is right to do is (former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart).

What is wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. Right is still right, even if no one else is doing it (William Penn was the son of Sir William Penn, and was an English nobleman, writer, early Quaker, and founder of the English North American colony the Province of Pennsylvania). 

Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become (Greek philosopher Heraclitus).

Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn't the will to do what is right (Russian Novelist and Nobel Prize Winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn).

We make choices in everyday life that reflect our true character. Our choices say a lot about who we are and what we do. Since the goal in life is to achieve happiness and lead a purpose-driven life, our choices should be ones that guide us in that direction. Through practice making ethical decisions, students can sharpen their ethical sensibilities, strengthen their ethical reasoning skills, commit to acting ethically, and be an ethical person.

Can Ethics Be Taught?

One thing I've noticed during my 30+ years of teaching ethics is some faculty feel uncomfortable doing so. They don't want to seem preachy. They aren't sure ethics can be taught. Well my experience teaching ethics tells me you don't "preach" ethics. Instead you should sensitize students to some of the ethical dilemmas they may face in life; in the workplace; and in their online activities. Second, you can teach ethics. Whether students learn the lesson is less clear. It's just like teaching any subject matter. I can teach psychology but whether students learn it is a matter of working hard and opening their mind to new ideas -- the essence of learning.

Here are some overriding questions about ethics that I ask my students to consider.

  • How far are you willing to go to do the right thing?
  • How much are you willing to sacrifice to do what you believe is right?
  • We may say that we would do the right thing, but when pressures in life and in the workplace exist to do otherwise, how can you summon up the moral courage to follow through with right conduct? Ethics collage

These questions address our moral intentions which the foundation of ethical behavior are. Our moral intentions are the basis of our moral character and commitment to ethical action. If you don’t intend to be ethical, no amount of ethical reasoning will get you to that point.

Building Character

The following quote addresses these issues and is attributed to a variety of people, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 movie titled “The Iron Lady.” Meryl Streep speaking as Margaret Thatcher:

“Watch your thoughts for they become words.

Watch your words for they become actions.

Watch your actions for they become habits.

Watch your habits for they become your character.

And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.”

Ethics All the Time

Another misconception is there's a lower bar for ethics in business than in one's personal life. That shouldn't be the case. Ethics is not like a faucet you can turn on and off as you choose. It requires dedication, practice, and a commitment to do what is right all the time. None of us is perfect, missteps will occur. But, an ethical person tries to do the right thing in all circumstances. 

The Hippocratic Oath of physicians is: First, Do No Harm. I’ve heard ethics professors use it to teach ethics. That’s fine but I have a different viewpoint, which is: Do No Harm AND Make Things Better. We’re only on earth for a short time and are ethically obligated not only to improve our lives but the lives of others.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 15, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for the newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and Like his page. And, thanks for reading!!