Give Students the Gift of Ethics

Douglas Campbell

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.

The height that a structure can achieve is limited by the strength of its foundation. Therefore, I suggest that university students should be provided with a strong foundation concerning the true nature of ethics, where they come from, the role that one’s ethics play in virtually all of life’s decisions and the benefits of living according to a personal set of ethical principles or form of ethical reasoning. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Instead, students are often subjected to a sort of an informal academic and social regime that misinforms the students, and denigrates the value and the use of true ethical principles.  

Teach your students that our true ethics are reflected in our behavior and our behavioral boundaries. A person’s set of ethics or manner of ethical reasoning flows from his individual values, which are those ideas, beliefs, reasons and relationships that he holds most precious, that which will not be surrendered for the sake of expediency and if necessary will be defended with sacrifice. Fidelity to our own freely chosen set of ethics or manner of ethical reasoning is an affirmation of our individual values. Beware that students often have difficulty grasping the concept of values, because they have not been encouraged to think freely about what they truly value above all else. This self-questioning should be part of learning about ethics.

Teach your students that the choice of one’s set of ethics or manner of ethical reasoning is the free choice of one’s own standards of personal conduct and, as such, is the greatest act of individuality and freedom. Teach them that our individual ethical standards are those ties by which we freely bind ourselves to act within certain boundaries toward our fellow creatures and ourselves. Those freely chosen ties are the truest expression of our humanity, that which makes us different from baser creatures. Beware that students often have difficulty grasping the concept of freely chosen self-restraint, because they wrongly believe that freedom only exists in the absence of any restraint.

Teach your students that our freely chosen ethics are our source of strength to resist the tyranny of the supposed consensus, the emotional draw of the mob, the intimidation of the collective and the pull of ignoble emotions. Only by holding a set of ethical principles inviolate can an individual have the strength and fortitude to walk the path less traveled. Beware that students often have difficulty grasping this, because they have been taught that submission to the opinions of others is a virtue, and self-confidence in one’s own reasoning is a flaw.

Teach them that so-called situational ethics are the absence of true ethics. To separate your personal ethics from your “business ethics” is the antithesis of having ethics. Without having a defined set of ethics, there is nothing for one to stand by, to base one’s integrity on. Beware that students often have difficulty grasping this concept, because they have been told that social norms, individual values and ethics are merely one in the same, constantly changing, based on convenience, and relative—and therefore subject to compromise if not total abandonment. 

If you teach these things well to your students, you will have bestowed upon them a precious gift, for you will surely have kindled a fire in their minds and hearts. It is likely that your students will actually show interest in discussions of various ethical standards and ethical approaches, and will develop a mature understanding of ethics and perhaps a better understanding of themselves. Your students will be able to identify and intelligently discuss the values and ethical principles that fictional characters and real people displayed. Novels, biographies, autobiographies, histories and poetry can then be better understood as sources of ethical insight into the nature of human challenges and decisions, and the consequences of human behavior. Most important, you will have provided a means to resist those seeking to exploit ill-informed students with trite and attractive sounding phrases that easily can be used to justify any intrusion upon the rights of another.

Dr. Douglas G. Campbell is with Walden University’s School of Management, College of Management and Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

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