Is there still value in teaching ethics?

By Michael Bugeja -February 20, 2021
Benjamin Franklin, an abused runaway, used his own study of philosophy to form his character and the nation’s. (Detail of “Benjamin Franklin” by David Rent Etter, after Charles Willson Peale after David Martin, 1835/ Independence National Historical Park via National Park Service.)

Each day we hear about fake news, far-out conspiracies and Facebook claims  — a media menu based on affirmation rather than information.

Small wonder some people believe ethics classes are useless.

Every era thinks its moral failures are epic. We might revisit this argument as we navigate the new year with resolutions and reservations.

The late 1980s were scandalous. News focused on the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, which illegally sold weapons to fund rebels fighting Nicaragua’s socialist government.

James Wright, 48th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, resigned in 1989 amid allegations that he misapplied purchases of his book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” to generate exorbitant speaking fees.

And then there was the Savings and Loan crisis, which at the time was “arguably the most catastrophic collapse of the banking industry since the Great Depression,” with some 1,000 S&Ls going under in 1989.

That year, Michael Levin, professor emeritus of philosophy at City University of New York, published a column in the New York Times, titled: “Ethics Courses: Useless.” In the wake of scandal, he argued, there always is a cry for ethics courses.

“Moral behavior is the product of training, not reflection,” Levin wrote. “As Aristotle stressed thousands of years ago, you get a good adult by habituating a good child to doing the right thing.”

In sum, Levin believed that you learn ethics at home, not in the classroom (or these days, in a webinar) because by then it might be too late.

Each semester I read the above Levin citation to my ethics classes and ask if they agree with it. Many students do. Then I press the issue. “What are some things that can happen to you, not related to your parents or how you were raised, that can undermine your well-being, trust, confidence or self-worth?”

Typically, students do not have an immediate response, believing their family values would endure any challenge. But after some prodding, they begin to cite some examples: a victim of crime, domestic violence, sexual assault.

The nature of these offenses often results in long-lasting trauma, including depression, panic attacks, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress and other adverse after-effects.

Now for some critical questions:

  • If heinous incidents cause people to lose trust, confidence or self-worth, can those values ever be restored?
  • If trust, confidence or self-worth cannot be restored, then do we discount those persons ever regaining well-being?
  • If we can restore trust, confidence and self-worth, does it not follow that there are methods to help regain well-being?

Of course, there are. There are counselors, therapists, clergy, mentors and loving friends and family members to help in that recovery. And ethics — lessons about truth, falsehood, manipulation, deception, justice, fairness and empowerment — can be part of that protocol.

Many of America’s moral values trace back to Benjamin Franklin. He was the 15th of 17 children, suffered physical and mental abuse by his older brother James, and was a teenage runaway, leaving Boston for Philadelphia.

He survived as best he could, in part by learning moral values.

At age 20, he wrote his famous “13 virtues” — a homage to the 13 colonies — to keep him on the straight and narrow. They included temperance, reticence, order, resolve, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, purity and humility.

We all can use a refresher course on some of these values.

To practice sincerity, Franklin wrote, “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.” If we value justice, he advised that we should monitor our own words and deeds and do no harm to others. “Avoid extremes,” he wrote about moderation, and do not rejoice in the shortcomings of others, “so much as you think they deserve.”

Tranquility means not being “disturbed at trifles.”

His definitions are succinct. “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Christianity.com states, “Of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, 60 times he was called Teacher.”

Socrates (469–399 B.C.) spent his life teaching ethics. His lessons have been memorialized as the Socratic method, “asking question after clarifying question until his students arrived at their own understanding.”

Franklin loved the Socratic method. In his autobiography, he delighted in using it, “and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves.”

Can ethics be taught? Franklin’s life stands as testament to that as an abused child runaway whose study of philosophy established his own character as well as that of our country. Throughout his life, Franklin practiced and taught ethics in his almanacs, maxims and autobiography.

What about media ethics? For that, we look to Socrates. The best journalism should be based on his method, with reporters asking question after clarifying question until the audience arrives at fact-based understanding.

The media have work to do on that score.

Franklin and Socrates believed we not only should learn ethics; we should live them. If we heed that advice, as we emerge from the confines of pandemic, we might treat our neighbors as we wish to be treated, the Golden Rule.

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