Teaching ethics to sensitise our youth

Teaching ethics to sensitise our youth

Is there a way to teach or motivate people to behave in a manner that is morally right?

This topic has been the subject of intense speculation and study and has thrown up some rivetting points of view. The question is whether ethical behaviour is ‘ingrained’ or ‘taught.’

A few weeks ago, there was a front page article on a pilot project aimed at teaching ethical behaviour in every Kendriya Vidyalaya School across India. ‘Integrity Clubs’ will conduct activities that explore ethical values like integrity, compassion, honesty, tolerance, love, responsibility and respect. Student members, called ‘Young Champions of Ethics’ (YCEs), will spread, through skits, games and debates, the evil effects of corruption, terrorism and unethical practices.

If ethical behaviour can be taught, the question is whether one  can ensure that people will begin to behave ethically. Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy at Saint Olaf College, says that people in general already know how to be ethical, but just as well know how to avoid being ethical and later rationalise their decisions.

The issue is not new. Socrates debated the question 2,500 years ago with his fellow philosophers and came to the conclusion that ethics consists of knowing what we ought to do, and that such knowledge can be taught.

The Harvard psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg looked at how a person developed his ability to deal with ethical issues and whether education could impact this. The earliest level of moral development is in the child which Kohlberg called the ‘pre-conventional’ level. At this level the child determines what is right or wrong based on what his parents say or in terms of rewards and punishments.

The second level of moral development is called the ‘conventional’ level reached around the time of adolescence. The teenager bases his morality on the groups among which he lives. His idea of right and wrong is decided by his loyalty to his family group or his friends’ circle. Their sense of belonging causes them to justify their beliefs in terms of what the group thinks or has taught them.

A further stage of development is what Kohlberg calls the ‘postconventional’ level. At this level, the adult develops moral principles that define right and wrong from a ‘universal’ point of view. These are principles that would appeal to any reasonable person because they take everyone’s interest into account.

One of the most crucial factors that stimulate growth through the three levels of moral development is education. Kohlberg found that when his subjects had classes in ethics and were challenged to look at issues from a universal point of view, they tended to move up through the levels. This finding has been supported by other researchers.

Education in areas like ethics cannot guarantee success as humans are complex in their perception of morality. However, the basic principles of accepted morality in any civilised society should be taught. Stress may be laid on the consequences of injustice. Students can be helped to internalise that there is such a thing as the ‘decent’ thing to do in every situation and that it is important to care about what is right.

Professional ethics

Not just at the secondary education level, classes on ethics require to be included at undergraduate level too. All professional and non-professional degree courses must have applied ethics discussions specific to the field of study.

Business ethics, medical ethics, legal ethics and research ethics are critical to the complete development of the professional. In 1999, the 51st World Medical Assembly decided “to strongly recommend to medical schools worldwide that the teaching of medical ethics and human rights be included as an obligatory course in their curricula”.

Teaching ethics can lead to sensitising of our youth so that we can look forward to thousands of such graduates willing and able to make the much required difference in our society. There will always be indifferent people, but their effect can be minimised by disincentives and the law. The promotion and affirmation of ethical behaviour is not only vital but urgent if we wish to build a credible society.

Finally, the need to speak up and facing the truth. Unethical practices should be strongly condemned and the government today makes this possible through RTI Act and other such other recourse. Can we accept that individually we are ethical but the ‘system’ is corrupt? Placing the blame firmly where it belongs, with our selves, is the first step to setting the system right. The time for impotent hand wringing is over, and each of us must take steps, however tiny, to bring back the ethics into our work and lives.

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