You Cannot Teach Ethics

The impact of relativism on moral education

Can  we really teach ethics ?   

We can ask it a different way, “can we make bad people good by teaching them about moral conduct or moral theories?” There are many such organizations that try to do just that.  Many focus on building character with virtues like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. – See more at:  Character Counts. But for professors like myself who teach ethics, its –complicated! In short the answer is a resounding no, with qualifications (what did you expect from a philosopher).

If we mean, can we teach moral theories, yes. If we mean cultivating good habits and character in the people in our classes who have life long negative vices,  for the long term, then, of course, no.

I’ve been teaching ethics now for over a decade and it does not appear to me, or those I have learned from, that ethics, in the sense of passing down good principles for living that will make people who are inclined toward negative behaviors, better, can be taught.  So in that sense, ethics cannot be taught.

Professor Clifford Orwin gives these remarkable insights in his article “Can we teach ethics? When Pigs Fly!”

Now I’m a pretty good teacher, or so people say. Yet, give me Mr. Madoff for one, two or three courses of ethics instruction and he would still be Bernie Madoff. Would he have learned anything from the experience? Yes, he’d talk a much better game of ethics. Thanks to my teaching, he’d be an even greater menace to society. This year, I’m teaching 500 students about justice, and I’m not making a single one of them a better person. Those who already aspire to justice may refine their understanding of what it is. … I believe strongly in what I do – I just don’t think that what I do is to improve the moral character of my students.

A university course is not a revival meeting.

Students indifferent to justice just aren’t going to be won over to it by anything that I could say. …A university course is not a revival meeting. I don’t cure palsies and I don’t plead with students to come forward to declare themselves for ethics. And if I did – and if they did – it wouldn’t mean a thing. … Whether virtue can ever be taught was already a thorny question for Plato. Whether it can be taught to adults, in a classroom, shouldn’t be a thorny question for anyone.

Stanley Fish  makes a similar point:

Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.  It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.

Someone may object, saying we can teach it in an objective and neutral position. Right?

No. No. No!

Trying to teach ethics from a neutral position is nearly impossible if not very naive.

Some educators call this neutral position, “values clarification.” “This is the position that does not teach a particular set of values.  There is no sermonizing or moralizing.  The goal is to involve the students in practical experiences, making them aware of their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs, so that the choices and decisions they make are conscious and deliberate, based on their own value systems.” Simon, Howe, and Kirschenbaum, Values Clarification, rev. ed. (New York:  Hart, 1978). A summary of it is here

Now consider Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers example of how this does not work, from Greg Koukl : “One of my favorite anecdotes concerns a teacher in Newton, Massachusetts, who had attended numerous values clarification and was assiduously applying its techniques in her class.  The day came when her class of sixth graders announced that they valued cheating and wanted to be free to do it on their tests.  The teacher was very uncomfortable.  Her solution?  She told the children that since it was her class and since she was opposed to cheating, they were not free to cheat.  “In my class you must be honest, for I value honesty.  In other areas of your life you may be free to cheat.” [Sommers, Christina Hoff (Asso. Prof. of Philosophy, Clark University), “Teaching the Virtues,” reprinted in AFA Journal, January 1992, p. 15.]

Ethical relativism has taken too strong of a grip in our academic world. Ratzinger called it the “Dictatorship of Relativism”.  The teacher in the above example, to avoid the dictatorship in ethics, becomes a dictator herself.

The extremes are relativism and ethical dogmatism –both need to be avoided.

I think wisdom requires us to know the difference.

Now the last thing I want, as a professor of ethics, is for my students to think that 1) they have the final say on what is right and wrong (which I call the fallacy of choice–where a person devolves into thinking that because he has a choice, any choice he makes is right or above critique merely because it is his choice) or 2) that I  (or any human in authority) has a monopoly or final say, is what is right or wrong.  It is much deeper and more profound than that. Asking the question, “who says this is right?” is not the right question, unless the answer is of course God. You cannot get higher than that author for He is the absolute absolute.

A better question is “what criteria are you using to evaluate whether this action is right?”

Now any fair professor will admit that we should not be imposing our own ethical or religious (or atheistic) points of views on our students. But neither should we be under the delusion that we can teach ethics objectively, because our students are not just listening to what we say (I doubt that sometimes) they are watching our lives, how we interact with others, with them, the drinks we drink in class, the little life stories we tell, whether we come late, etc.  Like it or not, we are role models for them.   Our very position dictates that we are–like it or not.

So why teach ethics?  Its not just so students can learn about moral theories, its about reaching the few, whose hearts are inclined toward the right, but just need the extra nudge to do it.  Its about teaching them to consider deeply the “why” questions.  Is what they think is right, right?  

It’s to critically evaluate what the implications are of ethical decisions they and their leaders make not only for their own lives, but for the world around them.

 Aristotle wrote that a good man is not one who does the good, but one who habitually does it.  And that does not happen in one class. For a full change in the heart, people need a new heart, and the university is not the place for that. Professor Clifford Orwin is right, they need a revival not a class.