Ethical questions are about right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. They matter because what people do affects them individually, affects their community, and can even affect those they do not know or see. Unfortunately, students often do not know how to reason about an ethical decision. This is due to the fact that they, like many adults, do not recognize when ethical reasoning is the best option for making a decision or dealing with conflict. This entry briefly describes ethics, looks at the current forms of character education, and contrasts them with ethics-based approaches.
What Is Ethics?
More often than not, ethics is erroneously constructed in and by all areas of American culture as a prescriptive set of rules that answer whether an action in a given situation is universally perceived as correct or incorrect. Such a universal dichotomy rarely exists. Rather, making ethical decisions is a complex and nuanced process requiring critical examination, reflection, and explanation.
One should not rely on ethics to argue that one’s behavior is beyond reproach or scrutiny. There is rarely a single correct answer that will be appropriate for all individuals. Rather, ethics must be constructed broadly, as centuries of philosophers have done, as a branch of moral philosophy that is concerned with the study of how individuals and groups go through the process and analysis of deciding what they believe in dealing with issues of determining what is right or wrong, just or unjust. Though ethics does involve answering complicated and often nuanced questions about issues including good and evil, and the limitations of personal responsibilities and behaviors, these answers are not universal.
There are many factors that are involved in making a decision about right or wrong when it comes to ethics. These include, but are not limited to, culture, values, norms, and theology—themselves all concepts that reasonable people do not always agree on. Though these concepts may be complicated and difficult to navigate, particularly in the current political and social climate, they are of vital importance. Students need to be able to identify situations that require ethical reasoning and then be able to act accordingly. What they currently get as an alternative is not acceptable.
American educators across the country are currently engaged, often through governmental regulatory mandates, in the delivery of character education. Though there are several different approaches and curricula, all touted by companies seeking to profit from the need to instill character in our students, there are basic tenets that bind them together. Among these is the belief that students can be told, through edicts and dictums, how to be persons of character.
The prescriptive approach embedded in these various curricula and lessons explicitly sends students the message that if they simply follow the appropriate instructions, they will possess the qualities of character. These qualities include such admirable traits as fairness, honesty, respect, citizenship, and trustworthiness. The problem is not the promotion of these traits, but the manner in which they are promoted.
Students are simply told to be fair, honest, respectful, trustworthy, and good citizens. But they are rarely given the space to question what it means to be a person who reflects these traits. Students are told what these traits mean and how they manifest, without any examination of the ambiguous nature these words often take when in the context of real situations that individuals are forced to navigate. Students are presented with a binary of a person either “being” or “not being” the human embodiment of these characteristics as a litmus test of whether or not they are persons of character.
An Ethics Approach
Ethics differs significantly from character education in that it seeks to develop critical thinking skills that result in habits of reason, rather than of compliance. Ethical reasoning presupposes no set of rules or principles; rather, it seeks to have students consider conflicting points of view.
Engaging students in activities that include ethical reasoning promotes the idea that critically analyzed and constructed arguments and rationales for making a decision are much more valuable than a simple regurgitation of established norms. Ethical reasoning results in shared insights about the agreements people need to have to live well together. Reasonable people disagree all the time, and that is not to be discouraged. Students need to learn that when they encounter situations in which people disagree, they need to be able to sort out what they believe and why. They must focus on the different processes that lead to these varying conclusions, not demonize each other for their disagreements.
Though this is an age that often seems to determine who is right by who can scream the loudest and for the longest, ethics differentiates itself from such outbursts by promoting civil discourse. Through a mutually respectful process that embraces the value inherent in multiple points of view, students come to understand that a deviation from the values espoused by a set of rules, as in the example of character education, does not make one a deviant. Instead of promoting the answers to the question of what is simply right or wrong in a given situation, schools could work to improve the critical thinking skills necessary for engaging in rigorous intellectual endeavors such as ethical reasoning. Students need to be able to articulate what they believe, but more importantly, they need to have the skills to articulate why they believe it.
Though there is not a great deal of this type of pedagogy currently practiced, a brief overview of one of the major methods used in the practice of engaging students in ethical reasoning and critical thinking will illuminate the differences between this method and the currently more utilized character education. By examining the differences it will be clear why inclusion of activities rooted in the encouragement of the development of critical thinking skills is more appropriate for participating in activities that may legitimately be placed in the category of education concerned with ethics. As noted previously, ethics is about the exchange of ideas and does not assume that there is one right answer that will eventually be reached by all who seek the truth. It is not simply a statement of right and wrong.
Tools For Teaching Ethics
One of the primary means of including ethics in the curriculum is by using vignettes, or case studies, as examples of situations where ethical reasoning must take place. The case studies are accompanied by a generic protocol that asks students to answer some basic questions about the situation they have been presented. These questions are:
- What do you know about this situation? What do you believe to be true? Why do you believe it and not something else?
- What don’t you know? What hasn’t been asked? Is this the whole truth? What questions have not been answered?
- Who is responsible? For what? What could be done? What are the possible (not necessarily desirable) alternatives?
- What should be done? By whom? Why is this the best ethical decision?
Before beginning this activity, teachers should participate in training that prepares them to look at situations through the lenses of veracity, transparency, responsibility, and justice. In learning how to guide students through answering the questions posed above, teachers should be able to tease apart these questions and see how they promote civil discourse and critical thinking, resulting in students gaining confidence in their abilities to participate in ethical decision making. This process of using critical thinking skills to engage in discourse about ethical issues with the goal of improving decision making is applied ethics.
Ethical reasoning tools like those allow students to openly and honestly discuss complex issues where it is perceived as acceptable for reasonable people to disagree. But this is not without its own predictable problems. There are two general problems that students experience when attempting to investigate such issues. First, like adults, students are quick to jump to opinions and hold to them dearly even when presented with evidence to the contrary. Second, after choosing sides on an issue, students often attack their peers who hold different views, rather than spending their energy on enhancing and strengthening the rationale for their positions.
Therefore, this protocol incorporates civil discourse with a required tone of decency that expects students to use critical thinking skills to arrive at the answer to the question, “Why do you believe what you believe and not something else?” Once students can successfully articulate an answer to this question by providing a rationale that is comprised of well-developed ideas, and not merely attacks on others who disagree, this is when they demonstrate that they possess the ability to call themselves ethical members of society.
The ability to participate in such activities is paramount to becoming a civically engaged member of a democratic system. By being able to comprehend the concepts of ethical reasoning through critical thinking, students feel empowered and demonstrate personal responsibility, integrity, and other values that are impossible to instill through just the more limiting didactic methods of character education.
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- Kohn, A. (1997, February). How not to teach values: A critical look at character education. Phi Delta Kappan, 429–439.
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- Zubay, B., & Soltis, J. (2005). Creating the ethical school: Abook of case studies. New York: Teachers College Press.
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