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Can We Teach Someone to Be Ethical?

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” (Aristotle)

Can we teach students to be ethical? This is something I’ve thought about a lot during my 30+ years teaching ethics at the university level. On the one hand, I know that I can teach it. I do it all the time. I've blogged about how to do it before. Still, I find myself going back to the question frequently these days as I observe widespread unethical behavior in society--i.e., government, politicians, business, entertainment, sports, senseless acts of violence.

On the other hand, as Nicholas Capaldi writes in a blog for the National Association of Scholars, it’s important to know how to convince someone to do the right thing. In this regard, he points to Lawrence Kohlberg who identifies four ways of persuading someone to do the right thing: (1) threaten punishment for non-compliance; (2) promise a reward for compliance; (3) appeal to peer pressure; and (4) appeal to personal integrity or to the internalization of norms. As ethics educators, we should strive to engage students in ethics discussions the fourth way, which is what we are after when we talk about inculcating ethical values.

Philosophical Thought

We cannot rely solely on the discursive format whereby we apply philosophical norms in a specific context. Yes, we can apply different norms to ethical decision making. (e.g., ‘utilitarianism,’ ‘Kantian deontology,’ ‘justice’). However, the key is to know which one will achieve the desired outcome.

Ethics are moral principles that govern behavior. The philosophy of ethics started in Ancient Greece with Socrates as well as other philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hume, Kant and Mill. It evolved because they kept questioning it until they came up with a common definition of ethics.

These philosophers all agree that morality can be objective and derive from rational principles that enable an impartial basis for moral judgment. I believe that such discussions with students do not go far enough. Knowing why a certain action should be taken is a necessary but insufficient basis for ethical decision making to occur. We also need to know the steps to take to convert ethical behavior into ethical action.

Plato's Cardinal Virtues

What about teaching virtue? This is a method I use in accounting ethics courses because accounting students need to internalize certain traits of character (i.e., ethical values) that enable accounting professionals to act in ways that protect the public interest and provide the moral courage to ward off pressures to do otherwise. It is the ethical value of integrity that underlies ethical behavior for accounting professionals.

In teaching ethics, I often start with Plato’s Cardinal Virtues:

  • Prudence: The first cardinal virtue. Virtue can be equated with wisdom. It’s the virtue that allows us to judge correctly what is right and what is wrong in any given situation.
  • Justice: The second cardinal virtue. Justice is connected to the idea of rights. We have obligations to others and should never deprive someone of that which is owed.
  • Fortitude: The third cardinal virtue. This is where courage comes into play. Fortitude allows us to overcome fear and remain steady in our actions by being reasoned and reasonable.
  • Temperance: The fourth cardinal virtue. We can also think of it as moderation in our actions and exercising self-control. Got ethics

Most of my colleagues teach students the particulars of the various philosophical reasoning methods and stop there. This may not be sufficient to get students to behave morally. One reason is they may enter the course with a relativistic view of right and wrong. This means what’s right for one person may not be right for another. The problem is we sacrifice consistent (ethical) behavior for one’s own feelings at a given time, and for one’s own unique reasons. The result is the teaching of ethics becomes muddled.

Choosing the "Right Method" of Ethical Reasoning 

It's not that one method of ethical reasoning is better than any other. I ask my students to support their action with solid reasoning of why the method they chose is better than the methods they dismissed. I find this kind of learning enhances critical thinking skills.

Ethics education often ends with developing moral thinking. We need to go beyond teaching students the “why” of ethical decision making and focus on how to get it done. We need to give them the tools to act ethically, especially when pressures exist to do otherwise. In other words, there is a difference between knowing what the right thing to do is and having the moral courage to do it.

Giving Voice to Values

I also use the “Giving Voice to Values” methodology of decision-making, which can provide the confidence in students to act ethically. GVV was developed by Mary Gentile and its curriculum is now housed at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. GVV is a values-driven leadership methodology built around preparing for and practicing values-based action, and answers the following questions:

  • How do I learn to act on my values?
  • What would I say and do?
  • How can I be the most effective in acting on my values?

We make choices in everyday life that reflect our true character. Our choices say a lot about who we are and why we do what we do. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 3, 2023. You can learn more about Steve’s activities by checking out his website at: and signing up for his newsletter.