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Can Ethics Be Taught to College Students?

Expectations and Realities

I have blogged before about how to teach ethics to college students. There is no one best way to do so and a variety of methods have been tried. But first, we need to consider what the goals should be of teaching ethics to college students. Here are some of my thoughts.

Goals of Ethics Education

  1. Relate education to moral issues that college students may face in their personal and professional lives.
  2. Develop a moral sense of right and wrong.
  3. Use ethical reasoning methodology to provide an approach to ethical decision-making.
  4. Develop an ethical decision-making model by incorporating ethical reasoning into real-life ethical conflicts students may face later in life.
  5. Provide challenging assignments for students to apply their skills to real-world situations.
  6. Assess students’ ability to make the right decision.
  7. Consider whether additional steps are needed to enhance the model.

Teaching About Ethical Values

I always start my coverage of ethics by discussing ethical values which underlie ethical decision making. Ethical values may be thought of as fundamental beliefs that govern actions and represent the intention of the decision-maker to make the right choice. One set of values have been developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. These are referred to as the “Six Pillars of Character” and include:

Six Pillars of Character


  • Be honest. Don’t deceive, cheat, or steal.
  • Have integrity. Do what you say you’ll do.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Be loyal. Stand by your values.


  • Follow the Golden Rule.
  • Be accepting of differences.
  • Be courteous to others.
  • Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements.
  • Be considerate of others’ feelings.


  • Do what you are supposed to do. Try your best.
  • Keep on trying.
  • Be self-disciplined.
  • Think before you act. Consider the consequences.
  • Be accountable for your words, actions, and attitudes.


  • Play by the rules.
  • Take turns and share.
  • Be open-minded. Listen to others.
  • Don’t take advantage of others.


  • Be kind.
  • Be compassionate.
  • Express gratitude.
  • Forgive others.


  • Do your share to make your home, school, and community better.
  • Stay informed. Vote.
  • Be a good neighbor.
  • Make choices that protect the safety and rights of others.
  • Protect the environment.

The Six Pillars provide an excellent introduction for students about ethics in a relatable way. I always find students become engaged when I discuss them in the context of an ethical dilemma they may face. For example, here are two questions that I like to ask at the very first meeting. It tends to get students interested in the course right away. Ethics

Example One

You are a manager at a fast-food restaurant and monitor your employee’s social media posts on company equipment. You just read a Facebook post by an employee who commented that the working conditions were oppressive. Other employees commented; some agreeing and others disagreeing. Assume you work in an “at will” employment state. What would you do?

  1.  Fire the employee who posted the critical comments. 
  2.  Ignore the comments.
  3. Meet with the employee(s) to discuss the comments.

The correct answer is C. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that critical comments about an employer are protected conduct when it involves concerted activity. A “personal gripe,” is not protected. Given that other employees commented on the post agreeing or disagreeing, this constitutes concerted action. It’s best to meet with the employee(s) to address the issues and reach an understanding how to improve working conditions.

Example Two

Your best friend was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. You have seen him deteriorate and deal with excruciating pain since then. His doctor can’t prescribe marijuana, which might alleviate the pain, because it is illegal to do so in your state. You are thinking about crossing state lines and buying marijuana in a state that has medical and recreational-use marijuana laws. What would you do?         

  1. Cross state lines where buying and using marijuana is permitted and give it to your friend.
  2. Don’t cross state lines because it is illegal to do so.
  3. Tell your friend to move to a state that has medical marijuana laws.

The correct answer is C. According to the Federal Controlled Substances Act, an individual violates the law if they cross state lines and buy marijuana in a state that permits its sale and gives/sells it to another person who is in a state that prohibits its sale.


Should We Expect Our Teaching Methods to Make Students More Ethical?

There is no one answer to this question. However, research has shown that the teaching of ethics does have short-term beneficial effects but not long-term ones. This has been my experience as well. The reason is, in part, once students go to work, they tend to be influenced by the culture of the organization and if it is one of pressure to do what is expected of them rather than what is right, then the ethics lessons learned may be overwhelmed by the need to conform to the internal values of the organization even if it means they deviate from what is right to do. Oftentimes, an employee is told to be a team player and act on the expectations of their superior or the organization. The fear of being demoted or fired if they do not comply can lead to questionable, if not, unethical decisions.

I always tell educators in my presentations that we can, and should, teach ethics to college students. If we don’t even try, then we are sending the message that it is not important. However, we need to temper our expectations with a dose of reality.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on August 30, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website  (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.