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Do You Have to Be an Expert to Teach Ethics?


Note: Subtitles are available by clicking on closed-captioning tab.

Socrates famously asked whether ethics can be taught. They can, but they should not be taught by rote memorization or indoctrination. Ethics seeks more than unreflective beliefs given by an outside authority figure without being tested for their truth or validity. Learning ethics is a matter of challenging opinions, wrestling intellectually with humanistic issues, and then maturing. Done well, it is active, interactive, and enjoyable, and it ends with personal development.

Perhaps the best way to teach ethics is to provide students with discussion opportunities that represent situations they will face themselves. This gives them a chance to express their opinion, and to hear the opinions of other students, as well as respected experts. In such disciplined discussions they each must find justifications for their views (or sometimes realize there are no ethical justifications for them). Such discussion helps students grow by developing, testing, and refining their ability to think more clearly about ethical problems. This is important, as they are already immersed in both formal and informal codes of ethics in their daily lives.

Formal codes of ethics take various forms, including laws, rules, policies, professional standards, agreements/contracts, and code of ethics statements. Examples might include Human Resources training that establishes standards relating to sexual harassment, student handbooks that define and outline consequences for academic dishonesty, or an employee contract that requires full disclosure of expenditures using company funds. In each case, the purpose of these formalized codes of ethics is to remove any ambiguity regarding what is considered ethical and unethical behavior in that specific environment.

More difficult to interpret are informal codes of ethics. By their nature, informal codes of ethics are unwritten, even unspoken at times; however, this does not negate their impact and significance (though it does create more room for ambiguity). Informal codes of ethics may involve community expectations, customs, or habits. They may involve conceptions about principles such as promises, trust, friendship, empathy and fairness. Informal codes of ethics may also derive from intuitive responses to situations. To reflect on informal codes of ethics, students can be asked to consider: Does it feel wrong? Would you be proud to tell a loved one about the decision you made? Would you be comfortable having a full report on your decision detailed on primetime TV news?

Expertise is beneficial, but we can also draw from our everyday experiences, and make them relatable to students. The starting point is to be aware of our own values and beliefs, and whether we view a situation as an ethical dilemma. Learning ethics will not happen through rote memorization of theories and principles, but rather through active learning, including debate, intellectual consideration, and reflection.

There are 5 simple guidelines faculty can use to facilitate discussions about ethics:

1. Be flexible. Allow yourself to explore areas outside your own area of expertise.

2. Keep the discussion going, and do not provide answers. Let students discover what knowledge gaps they must close.

3. Remain non-oppositional. Regardless of what students say, ask questions, and let them figure out a better answer for themselves. Do not impose your value system on them.

4. Engage students. Facilitate discussions about the ethical norms at stake, the rationale, and the evidence they can provide on behalf of a given action or opinion.

5. Establish a “safe” environment. Provide a space that is intellectually dynamic, but not confrontational. A space where it is acceptable to say “I don’t know” (for both the faculty member and the student), and where it is acceptable to challenge belief systems. Modeling and moderating class discussions is a must!  

Teaching Strategy: Spark the Conversation! 

Good discussions on ethics are often driven by situations that challenge our abilities to determine the right thing to do, carry out effective ethical action, or lay out an effective strategy for avoiding ethical obstacles in the future.

Given that possibilities for ethical conflict exist in most fields, here are some sample scenarios you can use in your classrooms to spark discussion:

Study Aids?

Family Obligations?

Support for the Arts?

Tell It Like it is?

And Justice for All?

Who is Liable?