What is the value of ethics courses?

New students in my ethics classes are often either pleasantly surprised or disappointed to learn that I will not be teaching them which behaviors are ethical and which are unethical. Some of my colleagues in other disciplines also seem to think I should tell people how to behave; when they see someone behaving badly, they will say, “That person needs to take your class.” I hate to disappoint, but my classes probably won’t make your unethical students and colleagues do what you want. My only hope is that it will help the ethical ones (and most people strive to be ethical) analyze their own behavior and ethical dilemmas more deeply and constructively.

Several people have told me it is impossible to teach ethics (they’ve said the same of logic and even philosophy in general). I was generally baffled by their statement until I had a slightly more in-depth discussion with a European while I was teaching in China. Rather than simply saying it is impossible to teach ethics, he specified that it is impossible to teach Chinese students ethics. When I asked him why, he said it was because they have no framework to understand ethical concepts. With a little more discussion, it became clear to me that he thought only Christians could understand ethics and morality. I’m happy to report that Chinese students (some are Christian and some are not) are quite competent to explore ethical theory and application. I am confident that students in every part of the world have the same ability.

I don’t teach ethical codes of conduct; my focus is on meta-ethics, ethical theory. I can think of nothing more horrifying than to have my students go out into the world and declare some action unethical with no more evidence than the fact that I said it was unethical. In fact, I would not want them to arbitrarily follow any code of ethics without any idea of why something might be either good or bad. Would you want to find out that someone didn’t steal from you or kill you only because it is in some code of ethics? (Blog that is soon to come: What is the purpose of an institutional ethics committee?)

What I hope I can teach my students, instead, is how others have analyzed what it means to be a good person or what it means for an action to be good. By doing so I hope my students can better understand their own methods for analyzing whether an action or a person is good or bad. As it happens, I don’t teach any courses in a field where it is important for students to remember a particular code of ethics (psychotherapy, for example), but even in such courses, I would hope instructors would help students understand the process of ethical analysis, rather than merely memorizing normative pronouncements. A useful education in ethics will demand that students examine their own ethical beliefs and the customs of their society with both openness and critical scrutiny. It is the only way moral progress is possible.

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