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What s the Purpose of Ethics Education?

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[Expositions 7.1 (2013) 42 52] Expositions (online) ISSN: What s the Purpose of Ethics Education? RONALD DUSKA Business Ethics Zone Consulting The purpose or aim of ethics education seems simple.
[Expositions 7.1 (2013) 42 52] Expositions (online) ISSN: What s the Purpose of Ethics Education? RONALD DUSKA Business Ethics Zone Consulting The purpose or aim of ethics education seems simple. It should produce good behavior. People use ethics to evaluate actions and practices by determining whether and why they are right or wrong, good or bad, should or should not be done. The point is to lay out a road map to be followed in doing good and avoiding evil. Aristotle would agree, with his insistence that the end aimed at is not knowledge but action (Aristotle 1941, 1.3, 1095a7). This is somewhat puzzling, however, since, presumably, the goal of education is knowledge. But for Aristotle, in the case of ethical inquiry, knowledge is gained not for its own sake, but for the sake of bringing about ethical behavior. Ethical knowledge, then, is a practical wisdom a knowing of what one should do so that one will do it. However, we might ask whether ethics education can achieve this goal of improving behavior. There are two possible negative answers to that question. The first would claim that knowledge about ethical matters is not attainable. The second would claim that such knowledge, even if attainable, would have little effect on behavior. So one might argue that ethical education is pointless, since on this negative account it is either impossible or worthless. What should we make of such claims? Those who claim that knowledge of ethical matters is not possible, call them ethical skeptics, insist that any ethical judgment is either subjective or relative. Accordingly, there are only ethical opinions, not ethical knowledge. The second group, call them the ethical pessimists, claim that even if knowledge were possible, it would be a waste of time since people are governed by passion and not reason. Aristotle cites this fact as a reason why ethics cannot be taught to the young, where passion abounds, but he extends it to anyone old or young who is ruled by the passions. 1 As he says, To such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit (Aristotle 1941, 1.3, 1095a9 11). Coincidentally, John Henry Newman, in his Idea of a University, might be seen as such a pessimist when he claims: Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man. (Newman 1852, discourse 5, 177) 2 For these pessimists, learning and knowing what is good, even if possible, do not guarantee that education in ethics will lead to good behavior. 43 Duska In response to these two skepticisms, I will try to show that we do have knowledge of what ethical behavior is and that we can change behavior. After that, there is a third issue to contend with: What are some ways of teaching ethics so that it can be efficacious? I will argue briefly that knowledge of ethical matters is possible, and that it can be effective. After that I will detail two effective ways of teaching ethics. The first I will call didactic and the second educative. To begin, though, we need to discuss the nature of ethics and whether and how knowledge of ethical matters is possible. Ethical Knowledge Is Possible A primary function of ethics is to evaluate or judge actions and practices in terms of their goodmaking characteristics and justice. We do this by determining whether those actions and/or practices are right or wrong, good or bad, should or should not be done. It is important to note that ethics is a public affair, as indicated in the etymology of the word ethics, which is derived from the ancient Greek word, ethos. An ethos is a culture, and cultures exist in communities where certain behaviors (practices) are expected and followed. The existence of ethics arises because all humans are social and political animals raised in communities where they are inculcated into the shared values, principles, and rules of the community s culture. 3 Robert Merton described this public nature of ethos succinctly: There are two important elements of social and cultural structures: The first consists of culturally defined goals, purposes and interests, held out as legitimate objectives for all or for diversely located members of the society. The goals are more or less integrated [ ] and roughly ordered in some hierarchy of value. A second element of the social and cultural structures defines, regulates and controls the acceptable modes of reaching out for these goals. Every social group invariably couples its cultural objectives with regulations, rooted in the mores or institutions, of allowable procedures for moving toward these objectives. (Merton 1957, 132 and 158) So every culture has its ethics (ethos). But aren t these just culturally relative positions, held by one group or another, none of which have universal validity? Some educators might say this, but it is a position that is impossible to maintain. Let us demonstrate. It appears to be the case that those engaged in the business of ethics education, at least those in the areas of applied ethics, are engaged in trying to improve society. They are trying to effect a change. In short, they are promoting a product a better ethical way to handle a situation. I have yet to meet anyone in this field who is value neutral. As a matter of fact, no teacher is value neutral. Every applied ethics teacher believes the material that he or she teaches is important and should be passed on, or the person would not be teaching or studying it. Of course, for ethics teachers, this means they have to believe there are actions and institutional practices that are right and wrong and institutions that act ethically or unethically. Since these educators devote their lives to teaching applied ethics, they must have some beliefs they think are true. For example, What s the Purpose of Ethics Education? 44 those who argue against exploitation of child labor by multi-national corporations must believe those practices are wrong or immoral or unethical. And they must believe that cultures that approve of this exploitation are misguided. Otherwise, it would not make sense to argue against those practices and chastise companies or cultures that engage in them. There are, of course, those involved in ethics education who might assert that the primary goal of ethics education is to make the student aware of the many different narratives and conflicting beliefs and not be judgmental. But they can t possibly think all narratives are of equal value. If they did think that, it would be relativism, the theory that all beliefs are equally sound. That is untenable, because if all beliefs are ethically sound, ethical argument is pointless. Ethics education should help make us ethical, help us do what we should do. But ethics education should also help us know what to do. But what is knowledge? The epistemology is simple. The best definition of knowledge is justified true belief. If I think Companies should not exploit children, I think the statement, Exploiting child labor is wrong is a true statement. I must also think my belief is justified, since unjustified belief is mere opinion, and if all opinions are equal, then those who think exploiting children is okay are as justified as I am. There is a difference between the claim I believe x is true and the claim I think x is true. If I think x is true, I think I have evidence to justify my belief and that those who disagree with me are wrong. Since knowledge is justified true belief, I must hold that those who disagree simply do not know. They are without knowledge. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge. Those without knowledge are ignosis or, in English, ignorant. Our premise, then, is that anyone who teaches ethics with the goal of improving behavior must necessarily think ethical knowledge is possible, meaning that he or she is justified in believing (read = knows) some things are wrong. Two Ways of Teaching Ethics 1. The Didactic Approach to Ethics If, then, we know what to do, what is the best way to teach it? The first way to engage in ethics education is by simply telling the students what to do. In cultures, accepted behaviors (best practices) are developed in two ways. People are told what to do (taught the rules of the culture) and/or trained (conditioned) into what to do (what the culture expects). I will concentrate on the telling. 4 I call this approach, where the teacher presents a list of do s and don t s based on some authority, didactic or doctrinaire. (Didactic means to teach, and doctrines are things that are taught.) The didactic approach involves the educator presenting a set of rules that tell the students how they should behave, what they should do or should not do. It is what we do when we raise young people or inexperienced people facing a new environment where they need to learn the rules. It is a procedure often used in compliance training. The student is taught to be compliant by simply being told which activities are acceptable and which are unacceptable. In didactic moral education, the teacher simply lays out the rules and delivers demands or imperatives. Just as one can teach the Ten Commandments to a group of young people by simply 45 Duska laying out the list of shalt s and shalt not s, the didactic trainer can simply recite the rules, tell what scope they have, and if need be interpret them according to some canonical reading of them. The students simply need to know what the rules are and are expected to follow them. The need for this didactic approach is obvious. It provides the basic training needed for success at different times and in many areas of life where one is learning how to get along in a group or community. The fact is there are certain times when people need to be told what to do. This is obvious in the case of children. Early on in life, children are taught what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Children are told things such as: Don t play with matches, Don t take things that don t belong to you, Don t cheat, Share! This is simply a case of teaching the children the rules by which they are to engage in society, thereby socializing them. If children are not taught the rules for getting along with others, society would collapse and life would be nasty, brutish and short, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously put it. But such indoctrination is not only necessary for children. There are times and situations where it is necessary to instruct adults. Adults need to learn the best practices of a group which they join, be it a business or social group. People entering a new environment need to be taught how to behave in that environment. They need to be trained in standard acceptable practices. The purpose of much in-service training is for the trainees to learn what the rules of the game are, and how to play according to those rules. This type of training occurs when people are exposed to codes of conduct that should govern their businesses activities. In fact, companies, governments, and professional organizations all require such ethics training and continuing education in ethics. For example, the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards requires an ethics course where the code is simply delivered and, at most, interpreted in some fuzzy cases. Any revisions to the code go through the board. Similarly, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) requires that accountants be independent and objective and then spells out exactly the actions that would meet or violate these requirements, and requires ethics training each year. Many industries require continuing education courses in ethics so that their members know what they should or should not do. To reiterate, in such didactic training, little or no insight or rationale is given or required. The individual is simply informed about what are right and/or wrong practices. There is no question of the individual deciding what is right or wrong. These are the rules of the group or game in which one is engaging. The answer to the question, Why should we do this? can simply be, Because that s the way things are done. In short, in order to ensure order in a community, proper behavior is essential and rules need to be laid down and followed. There are many such ethics training sessions, and, clearly, they have a certain effectiveness in producing appropriate behavior. Further, if a person was trained, he or she cannot say, No one ever told me we can t do it that way. However, this didactic training, though necessary, is not sufficient for ethics education. The reason is that some issues do not lend themselves to resolution by a simple application of the rules, since there may be a conflict of rules or reasons for action. Situations may change or become too complex. Rules can conflict, or the rules may not always be clear about what should What s the Purpose of Ethics Education? 46 be done. Hence, there are times when circumstances demand more than simply following the rules. In those situations, knowing the ethical principles or reasons which lie beneath the rules is important. The trainees need to understand those principles and reasons so that they can make proper decisions on their own, and/or be able to justify modifying those rules and even, when appropriate, acting counter to those rules. 2. The Educative Approach to Ethics People ask, Why should we do this? Rules conflict or people question the reasons for the rules. People want to know why. This is where the second approach to ethics education comes in, an approach which involves the students in thinking about why the rules are in place, what ethical principles the rules are based upon, and why the rules should be followed. This second approach I call educative. In this type of education, the aim is to lead the student out of (education comes from the Latin word educere, meaning to lead out) mere obedience to the rules to a discovery of whether and why the rules are appropriate and how to decide in different cases what is right or wrong to do. To those familiar with Laurence Kohlberg s theories, this would be leading the student out of the mere acceptance of conventional rules to an understanding of the principles or reasons underlying those rules. The student would move from the conventional stage of cognitive moral development, where he or she accepts the rules as they are, to the post-conventional stage of cognitive moral development, where he or she thinks for him or herself and achieves deeper ethical reasoning. The educative approach is necessary in order to get the student to appreciate why specific rules exist and whether such rules are justifiable. Such an approach should lead students to a point where they arrive at a fuller realization and clarification of what justifications there are for their beliefs about which actions are appropriate, rather than an unreflective settling for the unexamined beliefs they happened to hold before a serious, critical examination. The goal of such education is to help students understand whether and/or why their beliefs are adequate and, if the education is done well, to help students apply their beliefs in difficult as well as novel circumstances. Thus, in the educative approach, the role of the ethics educator is to enable the student first to recognize those bedrock assumptions and unexamined beliefs, then to prod him or her to analyze and evaluate them, to see if they are fit for use as accepted personal and/or professional rules of behavior. Ethical Sensitivity But how is this to be done? One very important element in the educative approach is to create what moral psychologists call cognitive disequilibrium or cognitive dissonance. In that way, the educator helps the students become sensitive to ethical issues they may not even have been aware existed. I use the term ethical sensitivity to denote the ability to recognize the existence, extent, and seriousness of an ethical problem in a situation. This is not always an easy task because students, enamored of their own disciplinary perspectives, oftentimes do not even 47 Duska recognize the ethical dimension of a certain behavior. Some simply do not see that a particular situation raises moral questions. For example, an individual who looks at his job solely from the perspective of selling as much as he can to please his boss and meet company sale quotas, a goal he was taught, might not see that selling to people who can t afford a product is morally questionable. Or a purchasing agent might not see that accepting gifts from certain vendors might constitute a conflict of interest, since everyone does it, and that s how he was trained, namely, to do as others in his business do. A lawyer might not question his duty to defend his client no matter what the cost to society, or a doctor might invoke confidentiality at the expense of public health. So an initial task of the educative approach is to raise the sensitivity of students to the moral dimensions of an issue they might not have seen. For example, an approach in teaching business ethics might be to get the student to overcome a one-dimensional, tunnel-vision analysis that views only the bottom-line economic components of a situation. Of course, there are some situations where it is clear what the right thing to do is and there are good reasons for following certain courses of action. There are a large number of moral imperatives that are unproblematic for example, don t cheat, don t steal, etc. But there are also cases where it is not clear what should be done. In these cases, we need to learn how to make sound judgments. Thus, we need two things: a method for developing sensitivity to moral issues and a method for developing sound moral judgment. Thus, the task of the teacher of ethics, who thinks there is an ethical way to do things, would be to get the student to look at a situation in such a way that the value at stake manifests itself to the student and the student sees the situation in its ethical dimensions. The function of ethical teaching here is rhetorical. It is to enlighten, sensitize, and, perhaps, change attitudes. Further, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways to accomplish these goals is to get students to see the good or bad in a situation in much the same way that a person engaged in teaching art appreciation gets his or her students to see the work of art as he or she does. For example, I might think a Picasso is a worthwhile work of art, but, in order to say it is good and not just that I like it, I must tell why it is so (that is, I put myself on record as having reasons for my judgment). But my telling why is done not by telling what criteria it meets (in other words, what rule or rules for good art Picasso followed), but by showing how, as it is constructed, the work s particular lines and colors come together to give me satisfaction, with the assumption that, since my student and I are basically likeminded or have a certain unanimity (sensus communis, in the sense of common sensibilities), if the student sees the situation in the same way I do, the student will then share my appraisal of it. The effective art appreciation teacher finds out where the student is with respect to a Picasso, and takes him by the hand and shows him how the teacher looks at it, so that the student can view it as the teacher does. The ethics teacher should do something similar in order to get the student to see an issue as an ethical issue. For example, take the GM plant closing in Flint, Michigan as portrayed by Michael Moore in the film Roger and Me (1989). Moore, of course, is engaging our sensibilities to show us that plant closings are unacceptable. Moore tries to show u
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