Can We Teach Someone to Be Ethical?

Nicholas Capaldi

Editor’s note: Recently an NAS member inquired whether the National Association of Scholars recommends any “ethics curriculum resources” for teaching ethics in college courses. NAS doesn’t have any off-the-shelf recommendations for this, but we invited a few of our members to answer the question, “How should ethics be taught in the college classroom today?” according to their own understanding.

There are two questions that need to be distinguished:

(1)   Can ethics be taught?

(2)   Can we teach someone to be ethical?

The answer to question (1) is “yes.” By this we mean that it is possible to explicate the norms of any practice and to articulate them in a discursive manner. That is, we can explicate a given practice, e.g., the norms of academic life. This is sometimes unnecessarily obfuscated and politicized by those who are in an adversarial stance with regard to a given practice (e.g., business conducted in a free market or the rule of law in Anglo-American jurisprudence) and who under the guise of teaching are actually advocating an alternative set of norms – usually described as ‘aspirational.’ 

However, what cannot be reduced to discursive format is the application of those norms in a specific context (e.g., which norm is relevant? What if more than one norm applies?). There are, ultimately, no rules for the application of rules. This is what Plato meant when he denied, in the Meno, that virtue could be taught. This is also why Aristotle stressed, in the Ethics, that habitual practice needed to be added to the simple identification of norms. Most especially what needs to be avoided are applied ethics approaches that promise to deliver an algorithm (e.g., ‘utilitarianism’ or ‘Kantian deontology,’ etc.) but merely supply pretentious terminology.

The answer to question (2) is “no.” And the reason for this is connected with what was said in the previous paragraph. A la Kohlberg, there are four ways of persuading someone to do the right thing. In order of ascending merit: (a) threaten punishment for non-compliance, (b) promise a reward for compliance, (c) appeal to peer pressure, and (d) appeal to personal integrity or to the internalization of norms. Obviously (d) is what we are after when we talk about being ethical. As teachers (or parents, or supervisors, or clergy, etc.) we try to convey this by osmosis. We begin by using our imagination in reconstructing the thought of another person. Through this process we subsequently learn to find our own voice. 

As Michael Oakeshott put it, teaching is the initiation of a learner into an inheritance; it involves information (instructing, “know that”) but also judgment (imparting, “know how”) [Polanyi]; it is the performance of explaining a performance, but there are no principles from which this second performance can be deduced. Rationalization (which is always bad) is the attempt to use theory as the representation of a practice; education has been corrupted by theory. This is why Plato appealed to the Socratic notion of reminiscence, Ignatius Loyola to spiritual exercises, Hume to custom, Kant to the synthetic a priori, Wittgenstein to showing, and Heidegger to ‘retrieval,’ and then there are the various practices of Zen masters!

I suggest reading the great classics of religion, philosophy, literature, and history – ignore social science and do not permit the social-scientization of this literature.

Nicholas Capaldi is the director of the Center for Spiritual Capital and the Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University-New Orleans.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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