Can Ethics Be Taught?

topic posted Mon, July 24, 2006 - 6:45 AM by  Krampus
A fellow adjunct professor sent me an article from the Chicago Tribune about “Can ethics be taught?” The article raised the question in response to the Enron sentencing, the U.S. soldiers charged with murdering Iraqi civilians including raping and killing a 14-year-old-girl. In response, the Pentagon and many corporations have begun ethical training seminars.

The question I would like to discuss here is: Can ethics be taught?
We should divide the question into two parts:
1. Can positive ethics be taught; i.e., can positive criteria of moral and immoral actions be taught.
2. Can only negative criteria be taught; i.e., can only what does NOT constitute ethical reasoning be taught—e.g. emotivism, subjectivism, cultural relativism?

This is not a discussion of which ethical theory is superior. I am assuming ethics is generally objective.
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  • Unsu...

    Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

    Mon, July 24, 2006 - 6:55 AM
    Aristotle talked about this. He thought his lectures in ethics were for adults who knew how to behave---if they didn't already know, it was probably too late to try and teach them. I think there's wisdom in that. In this light, one might reformulate the question: "Can ethics be taught to children?" I think not. They can be taught the difference between right and wrong, but they're not equipped to appreciate the reasoning that underlies the teaching. One could use the analogy of nutrition and say that children should be taught to eat right when young even though they don't understand why vegetables are good for you in a way that ice cream is not.
    • Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

      Mon, July 24, 2006 - 7:05 AM
      The analogy breaks down. Adults can be taught to eat healthy based upon why they should eat healthy which are objective reasons.

      Aristotle also believed ethics was more than just learning a set of rules. Ethics was a way of living. "One becomes a lute player by playing the lute, one becomes a builder by building; likewise, one become courageous by doing courageous acts (a virtue for Aristotle)..."

      I agree with Aristotle on this. But one can only do courageous acts if and only if one knows the difference between fool-hearty acts and cowardly acts. For Aristotle, the virtues are the median of two extremes.

      Socrates was very clear that one must understand the definitions of the virtues.
  • Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

    Mon, July 24, 2006 - 6:59 AM
    My answer: I am not sure regarding #1. I hope so with #2.

    Each semester when I teach Plato's Dilemma regarding Divine Command Theory (remember Socrates and Plato predates Christianity by almost 500 years), approximately 10-15% of students who regularly attend class drop the course. This act tells me that students do not want their preconceived ethical (and religious) beliefs challenged; therefore, refuse any sort of ethical teaching.

    I start the course with how not to argue ethics: emotivism, subjectivism, cultural relativism. The vast majority agree these are invalid grounds for arguing ethics. (Except they hate it when we discuss the Golden Rule which is a purely subjective rule. They dislike this discussion because they believe the Golden Rule is derived from Jesus.)

    The students, overall, agree ethics is objective (by some definition). It would seem the answer to #2 is yes. Given the fact that students believe ethics is objective then we should expect the answer to #1 to be “Yes” as well. Given the fact they drop the course when “objective” reasons conflict with currently instilled (or installed) beliefs, the answer looks like “No”.

    A note: I have been teaching in the deep south for 5 years.
    • Unsu...

      Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

      Mon, July 24, 2006 - 10:06 AM
      I'm somewhat skeptical about the teachability of ethics (at least in a classroom environment), but then I'm also skeptical about the objectivity of ethics, so those probably go hand in hand. What really piqued my interest is your mention of your assumption that emotivism is false. I understand emotivism as the idea that moral judgments express feelings and therefore have no truth value. I think there is at least a kernel of truth in here that can be demonstrated empirically.

      In her essay "Feeling Reasons" Patricia Churchland draws on some research from neurologist Antonio Damasio, who works with brain-lesion patients. Damasio has found that in patients who have a neurological disconnect between reason and emotion tend to make poor moral decisions--decisions that are not in thier own best interest, let alone anyone else's. These patients can reason normally in the abstract, but when it comes to making moral decisions, they make bad ones. Phineas Gage is the classic example. After getting a railroad spike through his brain, his reasoning abilities remained intact, but in his personal life, he could no longer make good decisions. This creates a serious empirical challenge to those (like Kant, and probably the majority of philosophers) who think that ethics is the province of pure reason. The "pure rationality" of ethics might have seemed like a good idea from an a priori standpoint, but now that we are getting feedback from the brain sciences, it looks as though our ability to form and act on our morals arises out of a union of reason and emotion. While emotion may not be the whole story, it seems to be an indespensible part.

      From what you say here Krampus, I can't help but wonder if you're unconsciously trying too hard to railroad the students into your own views on ethics. IMO emotivism, subjectivism, and cultural relativism present serious challenges to the dominant ethical paradigms in western philosophy and should not be dismissed lightly. Also the principle of reciprocity (the golden rule) plays a central role in the ethics of many religions. Wikipedia has an excellent entry on it: An argument could be made that this is one of the central tenents of "folk ethics" and therefore should be examined seriously as a rough and ready alternative to complicated philosophical systems. Even if it is subjective, perhaps it could be justified by utilitarian means.
      • Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

        Mon, July 24, 2006 - 11:12 AM
        Phineas Gage is a classic example of the neurological basis of "socially appropriate behavior". Neurologist have known since Gage that the prefrontal cortex is respsonsible for "socially appropriate behavior". I will not endeavor to define that as the term was never defined in any rigorous way in my neurology and cognitive psych courses.

        What I meant by emotivism is not Churchland's view but rather determining the basis of right and wrong actions solely based upon one's emotional reaction to a person's actions. I stress, in the class, that emotional reactions are often a reliable guide for ethics but it cannot be a the sole ground for it. Basically the opposite spectrum of what you say about Kant. I agree that normative values contain an emotive element, but the act is still right or wrong absent of that emotive element. Kant, I believe, is correct in pointing out that if X is wrong (lying e.g.) then there is some reason for it to be wrong and that reason applies to everyone. Ethics then is both objective--applies to everyone--and based upon reasons (also governed by the Law of Noncontradiction making it rational).

        I do discuss the notion of reciprocity, or just desserts, inherit in the Gold Rule but point out that the Golden Rule's notion is inherently subjective. Any viable normative theory must include the concept of reciprocity. But reciprocity does not define right and wrong actions; rather, it tells us how we should reciprocate actions.

        I believe James Rachels has sufficiently refuted cultural relativism. I see why people believe he confuses ethical relativism with cultural relativism but I think they miss the point. Compare two cultures, one that practices the cannibalism of the dead and the second cremation. Each would view the other as unethical. We can objectively state that cannibalism is immoral as it produces harm: cannibalism causes severe neurological disorders that can be inherited. We are not talking about cultural practices like, e.g., Indonesia's mating rituals where the man who makes the prettiest woman is selected; compared to female circumcisions in asia and the middle east. What constitutes an act's inclusion in the ethical realm verses the cultural realm? Rachels point is that the ethical realm demands objective standards. Harm seems to be one necessary property (hence utilitarianism). I believe there are other properties supplied by virtue ethics, social contract theory, and Kantian ethics. Can any of these positive properties be taught?

        I believe I present a balanced view overall. The only personal bias that comes through in an obvious manner is an abhorrence of pure DCT and natural law theory. However, I try to steer students more towards Christian Virtue ethics if they insist upon a religious based system. I am constantly surprised by the number of students who adhere to DCT that have no idea what the 7 Christian virtues are.

        I hope they leave the class with at least the following: causing or willfully allowing harm is wrong, the reasons for right and wrong actions apply to everyone in like circumstances, and ethics is a way of daily life. I hope these principles are teachable. The latter principle is the one that seems missing in the military and Enron cases cited in the original question.
        • Unsu...

          Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

          Mon, July 24, 2006 - 12:06 PM
          <"I agree that normative values contain an emotive element, but the act is still right or wrong absent of that emotive element.">

          I'm glad you agree that normative values have an emotive element, a lot of philosophers really sell emotion short, insisting that philosophy is a discipline of reason. Though when we say an act "is" right or wrong, I wonder what that means other than that we judge that act as right or wrong. Unpacking the metaphysical notion of "is-ness" gets tricky, especially when it comes to abstract notions like right and wrong.

          <"Kant, I believe, is correct in pointing out that if X is wrong (lying e.g.) then there is some reason for it to be wrong and that reason applies to everyone.">

          I'm not sure I agree with Kant here. This seems to de-contextualize ethics, and I see that as a flaw of Kant's system in general. He gives no consideration to human judgment in applying ethical principles. I can imagine cases where telling a little lie can have great benefits or save innocent people from harm, and in my view in such a case, one should seriously consider telling the lie. In my moral heirarchy, saving innocent life takes priority over honesty, and such decisions have to take into account the context of the situation, not apply absolute rules come what may. An ethicist can claim that lying "is" wrong, or that lying allows a contradiction into ones principles, but I will praise a man who considers context and lies to the Gestapo to save lives.
          • Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

            Mon, July 24, 2006 - 12:26 PM
            Kant does claim that lying is unconditionally wrong. I disagree with him on this point as he ignores context completely and too casually dismisses the Problem of dirty hands--the problem of when two ethical principles contradict one another within a single context. We are at this stage discussing metaethics. The course I taught/teach is an applied ethics course. For the most part, we set these issues aside-but not completely. The examples given in the topic of this thread relate to applied ethics and metaethics to a lesser degree. Questions of metaethics always arise. We have strayed into territory where I did not want this thread to go.

            I have been trying for a year now to convince local charter schools to offer a quotidian ethics course for high school juniors and seniors. I assume in doing this that ethics can be taught. The Chicago Tribune article I mention in the thred opener calls the Enron and Iraq war crimes cases "lapses in ethics". I disagree with this characterization as most people receive no "professional"--such medical or business--ethical training or academic training--classroom instruction in college. Only those who enroll in and complete an undergrad ethics course or complete a graduate ethics course--typically med students and MBA students--receive any sort of professional or academic ethical "training". All of this presupposes ethics can be taught.

            FYI: Unlike the AMA code of ethics, the American Dental Association's Code of Ethics carries normative force. If the ADA determines a dentist violates the ADA Code of Ethics, the dentist could loose his/her license permenately, suspended from practice, pay compensation, community service, etc. The AMA does not do this; they leave it to specific institutions like hospitals or universities or even state regulations. The ADA applies to eevery dentist in the country. Therefore, the dentists better learn and adhere to the ADA Code whether or not they incorporate the basic principles in their personal lives.
            • Unsu...

              Re: Can Ethics Be Taught?

              Mon, July 24, 2006 - 12:34 PM
              <"We have strayed into territory where I did not want this thread to go.">

              Sorry, couldn't resist the juicy orange dangling carrot. I'll shut up now.
  • College athletes are ethically impaired

    Mon, July 31, 2006 - 1:18 PM

    Morality Play
    A U. of Idaho professor says college athletes are ethically impaired, but can be taught to think differently


    Athens, Ga.

    If sports are supposed to build character, recent evidence suggests that college athletics is falling down on the job. Consider this summer, during which at least 25 college athletes have made headlines for various off-field violations.

    In June alone, Thomas Clayton, a Kansas State University running back, was convicted of misdemeanor battery after ramming his sports-utility vehicle into a university employee who was trying to place a wheel lock on the illegally parked car. The University of California quarterback Steve Levy reportedly threw a pint glass at a bouncer's face during a bar fight. Avery Atkins, a University of Florida cornerback, was arrested after police said he punched the mother of his child more than a dozen times. And Matthew Thomas, captain of Harvard University's football team, was arrested for allegedly breaking into his former girlfriend's dormitory room and assaulting her.

    (I am not a subscriber to post the full article.)

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