Can Ethics be Taught?

Tim Leet (May 2019)

In a certain sense, the answer to this question is obviously yes. We can take students on a curated tour of the major landmarks in the history of moral philosophy. They can learn the names of Bentham, Kant, and Aristotle and even puzzle their way through a utilitarian analysis. All these things and more can be taught, learned, and assessed.  So sure, we can teach ethics.

But when the question is raised in the deeper sense, the answer is not so obvious. This deeper sense wonders whether an ethics education is capable of producing ethical people. Asked this way, the question looks toward our students’ conduct, not their knowledge. Will they act differently? The answer to this version of the question depends entirely on how the course is taught.  If approached as the aforementioned curated tour of moral philosophy, then no, they will not behave differently.  To expect otherwise would be like expecting a course on the history and physics of golf to make me a better golfer.  I am a bad golfer, but I’m not a bad golfer because I don’t understand how the sport is supposed to work.  I’m bad because I possess neither the skill nor the will necessary to become a better golfer.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt expresses profound doubt about an ethics class’s potential to impact behavior in his influential book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  He writes, “Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom” (Haidt 106).  If he’s right, this is pretty bad news for those of us who teach ethics.  After all, I didn’t get into this work because I care that kids know the history and language of ethical theory.  I got into it because I hope they care about becoming ethical people.  Haidt’s grim indictment of my chosen line of work, however, is based on some traditional assumptions about how ethics classes are taught.  Why should we be confined to tradition?

If the goal of ethics education is to shape behavior, then the proper focus of classroom work must be the deep chambers of motivation and personal identity.  The traditional approach to teaching ethics targets understanding and knowledge, like a course in geometry or chemistry, but an ethical failing is rarely a failure of knowledge.  It is usually a failure of skill, as in, “I didn’t know how to take a stand,” or a failure of will, as in, “I didn’t care enough to take a stand.”  Ethics classes that convey ethical knowledge only will leave the heart of ethics and character untouched.

The future of ethics education will help students move beyond preoccupation with self through perspective taking exercises and intentionally cultivating empathy.  It will foster humility by helping them appreciate the many ways our own minds infect rational thought with biases and a catalogue of irrational impulses.  It will promote the thoughtful cultivation of moral identity, and it will teach practical strategies for doing the right thing when doing the right thing is hard or risky.  Importantly, too, all this will happen within a classroom culture that fiercely models the courage, honesty, and compassion that the course itself hopes to impart.

Being an ethics teacher is a humbling line of work, but it is not a hopeless one.  It’s a slow climb of three steps forward, two steps back.   When I started teaching ethics eight years ago, I approached it in the traditional manner.  The students and I had fun knocking around the celebrated trolley problem and trying to make sense of Kant’s categorical imperative.  Sadly, I don’t for a minute think those high-minded conversations touched the heart of a single student.  I’ve learned since that the heart work capable of impacting behavior is deeply psychological and messy, not clever and analytical.  An ethics curriculum that targets those deep chambers of motivation and personal identity will be emotional and sometimes uncomfortable, but it is the only path with any real promise.

p.s.  During a book signing after a talk by Jonathan Haidt a few years ago, I asked him to sign my copy of The Righteous Mind right on top of the sentence that says no ethics class will ever change people’s behavior.  I owe him a debt of gratitude for this sentence.  It shocked me out of my comfortable assumptions.  Someday, I’d like to show him that he was wrong.