In the world of professional continuing education, whether it be education for doctors, lawyers, nurses, or accountants, courses in ethics are almost always required. For millenniums philosophers, professors, and professionals have grappled with the fundamental question “Can ethics be taught?” The short answer is yes but with qualifications. Socrates said that ethics consists of knowing what we ought to do, and such knowledge can be taught.
Education in ethics cannot transform a bad person into a good person. However, for our learners that are good, meaning they understand the basic values associated with right and wrong, education in ethics can improve their ability to make sound, ethical decisions. Fortunately for us, most of our learners fall into the latter category.
In the late 1980s, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial suggesting that ethics could not be taught. Those that teach ethics or research ethics strongly disagreed with the premise, with most of them citing the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg identified three stages of moral development, with the last stage called the “post-conventional” stage. The first stage, pre-conventional, emphasizes fear of punishment. The second stage, conventional, is based on personal relationship. The moral progression tracks the physical development and age of an individual. In that last stage, the individual defines right and wrong from a universal point of view and take everyone’s interests into account.
Kohlberg went on to conclude, and this has been repeatedly supported by research, that education can affect a person’s ability to deal with ethical issues. Individuals that took courses in ethics, especially if the course challenged them to look at issues from a universal point of view, were more aware of the moral problems and likely effects of the problems.
Therefore, presenting the basic rules and regulations on ethics for a profession is the starting point, the ethical minimum. Discussing the subtle questions and complex ethics issues that can be created in real-life practice are the educational objectives that must be identified and striven for to provide education that challenges your learner to take on a universal point of view. Thus, learning how to be more ethical.
Note: Professor Kohlberg created controversy when he suggested that women were often at a lower stage of moral development when compared to men. You can find one example of criticism of that premise here.