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January 27, 2010

You can teach ethics

Reuel S. Amdur

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In a sharply worded opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, University of Toronto Professor Clifford Orwin argues that ethical behavior cannot be taught.

He then modifies his position by saying that it can’t be taught to adults in a classroom.  While teaching ethics to adults is more problematic than teaching them to children, the case is not totally hopeless. 

Orwin’s outburst on the subject was triggered by the announcement that the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Business graduates would take a professional oath. 

On October 25, they participated in the oath-taking as part of their graduation exercises.  The impetus to create the oath came from the students themselves, a positive sign in terms of its potential impact.  While one may quibble with the particulars of the oath, the fact of active participation in its formulation increases the likelihood of its influencing future behavior.

Orwin teaches political science, and in the field of politics there are especially great difficulties in inculcating ethics in practitioners, particularly at the international level. 

As well, participants in the field are not members of a specific profession.  Machiavelli is one of the great political thinkers, and ethics for him meant that the Prince should do anything at all that might advance his interests. 

His countryman Cavour remarked, on one occasion, “What cads we be, were we to do for ourselves what we do for Italy.”  Then, in our own time we have Henry Kissinger. 

Leaving politics aside for the moment, let us consider values generally.  Internalized and shared values are the most effective deterrent to unethical behavior.  These values are best learned beginning in childhood, but the door is not totally closed for adults. 

And, as Cavour suggested, ethical or unethical behavior depends on situations in which one has learned to be honest or dishonest.  A key strategy in teaching ethics is to link the situation currently under consideration to an earlier situation in which the person has already made an ethical commitment. 

Professor Orwin scoffs in particular at MBA students being able to be influenced by values education.  Yet, MBA students, like other adults, are not immune from moral development. 

Teachers who want to promote ethical behavior need to model it themselves.  They need to make rational demands on their students, and their students need to be given the opportunity to take roles in which they exercise authority and have the opportunity to behave ethically.

The teacher wanting to promote ethical behavior needs to act rationally and provide opportunities for democratic participation.  It would be especially useful if a teacher demonstrated courage in standing up for values, even at personal risk.  Empathy is also a key element in learning ethical behavior. 

Orwin may be right when he says that he could not teach Bernard Madoff to be ethical.  Madoff may be unteachable.  But let’s try to develop a curriculum for him, to see what it might look like.

To begin, the instructor takes a strong stand in support of a colleague who is unfairly under attack for his opinions, even though the colleague faces formidable opposition from influential persons and even though the teacher does not agree with that colleague on most matters. 

The instructor illustrates integrity.  In the course work, students are given the opportunity to develop their own perspectives on issues, even in disagreement with those of the professor.  Students are encouraged to interact to challenge one another and the professor, without rancor and with respect.  When respect is lacking, that lack is challenged.

Students are given positions of authority, perhaps over other students, and their functioning in this way-–as authorities and subjects of authority—is analyzed and discussed.  Case studies of ethical behavior and unethical behavior are examined. 

Then comes the matter of empathy.  How did students feel when they were cheated, even in a game?  How does Bernie Madoff see that experience applying to what he might do once he gets out the door? 

Then Madoff meets people who have been victims of cheating.  Joe Smith has lost his retirement savings.  Harry Jones’ family is left destitute and Jones himself committed suicide. 

Cal O’Neal has had to file for bankruptcy and can no longer see his way to paying for his son’s university education.  Will these experiences change Madoff?

Such an educational process may or may not make Madoff honest, but it just might give us a better chance with his classmates. 

The general format suggested here can, of course, be applied to a variety of other fields, such as the helping professions, law, and public administration. 

Can adults change?  Some can and some can’t.  The ethical religions all suggest that it’s possible, and a real education should aid in the process. 

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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