!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Teaching Ethics

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Teaching Ethics

Despite the widespread belief that you can't teach ethics, there are many classes being taught. Indeed, in the wake of recent business scandals, there has probably been a marked rise in the number of ethics courses included in school curricula at all levels.

My own experience as the product of K-12 Catholic education fits the proposition that teaching right and wrong has to start when a person is young. After a person's character is formed — perhaps the threshold is somewhere in the twenties — trying to get them to behave more ethically by exposing them to ethics training is a dubious endeavor.

But ... like most generalizations, this one bears examination to see where there may be exceptions. I believe I came upon a counterexample in an article in the August 7 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Alan F. White, senior associate dean of the international MBA program run by MIT in partnership with a pair of Chinese universities, speaks in an interview about his experiences in the ten years the program has been in existence. Toward the end of the interview, he gets onto the subject of academic fraud and plagiarism in China. White reports that the China MBA program has
been asked by our sponsors to assist the Chinese in teaching ethics. So we have two faculty members, one who draws on classical Chinese sources and offers sessions in ethics, and a second is an attorney who works on it from the standpoint of business practices. He shows where laws break off and where ethical considerations should begin. Knowing where that line exists is very important. But we don't suggest the ethics the Chinese should have. We talk about approaches to developing curricula and let them figure that out for themselves.
What is encouraging about such an initiative is that it directs effort toward filling gaps in knowledge, as opposed to sermonizing, and it does this in a way that provides practice in moral reasoning, as opposed to simply imparting rules in the deluded hope that learning a set of rules will equip a person to make ethical decisions.1

Since the ethics curriculum is not yet in place, its effectiveness remains to be seen. I'll be watching for follow-up reports on the training's actual impact.

1 Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at Saint Olaf College, made a similar point in the February 20, 2004 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Unless our ethics students learn to examine themselves and what they really value, their command of ethical theories and their ability to think about ethics from diverse perspectives are not likely to bring them any closer to being willing and able to do the right thing."