Can we teach ethics?

Not so long ago – and shortly after the introduction of the named subject of ‘ethics’ to the practice of police management and leadership development at the centre for higher police training – I began to create an ‘ethics for police leaders and managers’. However, my attempt to make the subject appeal to senior police officers in the UK was not entirely successful. All along, I knew that the subject of ‘ethics’ was really unlike any other subject and that ‘teaching’ ethics was fraught with difficulties. On top of this ‘Police ethics’ is itself a deeply challenging subject – and my sense was (and is) that an acute sensitivity to the realities of policing is necessary to grasp fully the nature of the challenges. Over the years I have often thought about how anyone might approach the teaching of ethics (successfully) and recently I found myself ‘beginning at the beginning’ with the question, ‘Can we teach ethics?‘ I did this because I was studying the philosophy of education and I encountered James Conroy’s chapter which asks exactly this question. In this short note I shall provide a brief summary of Conroy’s consideration of the basic and profound question, ‘Can we teach ethics?‘ As he addresses the question he makes four fundamental points.

First, and perhaps most importantly, he emphasises the way in which teaching ethics is not equivalent to the teaching of virtually any other subjects (and, most plainly, the teaching of mathematics and calculus). He illustrates how ethics is concerned with our ‘being’ – our manifest being of a certain sort of person – whereas the teaching of other subjects is more concerned with different types of knowledge; in the case of calculus, for example, it is concerned with teaching a learner how to do that which is necessary in certain specific situations. (One way of thinking about the challenge of teaching ethics is to consider how the ‘word’ may be made ‘flesh’.)

Second, he makes the obvious point that in order to teach ethics the teacher needs some clear idea of what ‘the good’ is and, similarly, what ‘goodness’ is. However, the history of ethics reveals that there have been significant shifts in identifying and defining ‘the good’ and Conroy’s chapter outlines some of the complex major developments in ethical thinking. He begins with the ancient Hebraic stipulations that the ‘good’ is that which is laid down by God and then explores how, through the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, the word of ‘God’ was displaced by the primacy of human reason; in short, we (as humans) had the power ourselves to think through the problem of identifying the good and the bad as well as ‘right’ conduct – and this was exemplified in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. (He focuses on Kant’s famous categorial imperative as an exemplar of the use of human reasoning in determining justified ethical thinking and the rules for conduct.)

Third, Conroy then focuses on the contemporary world – which is now characterised by far less certainly about the possibility of any moral absolutes. Here it is worth quoting him directly. Of our situation he writes: ‘… we are the inheritors of a legacy which questions the very existence of any binding objective law which determines how we are to conduct ourselves …’ and he follows this up with a comment about what I take to be the reality facing teachers generally and teachers of ethics particularly:

There is [now] disagreement about the basic claim that there is such a thing as absolute right and wrong and this disagreement is mediated to children in myriad ways every day. Indeed the moral culture of the school and the home may be entirely at odds …’ (Conroy 2012: 66)

He thinks that the contemporary mood of moral uncertainty was largely instigated by both Freud and Durkheim who thought that our morality was a projection. In the case of Freud, God was theorised as the disguised manifestation (the projection) of father-son relationships whilst in the case of the more sociological Durkheim, morality was the crystallisation of a collective conscience – that is, with ‘the social glue’ that held society together and assured communal survival and security. But if Freud and Durkheim were central to the emergence of our present situation it was Nietzsche’s damning ‘Twilight of the idols’ that had a far more destabilising effect. This is mainly because Nietzsche had the temerity to regard all ethical schemes as suspect – and riddled with hypocrisy. (He thought that what deeply characterised human being was a ‘will to power’ – and that the various ‘moralists’ were more concerned about hanging on to their positions of power rather than acting in accordance with any of their moral prescriptions.)

Fourth, given the backdrop of such moral ambiguity and notably the work of Arendt who recognised the ‘banality of evil’ (the evil that was brought about by people just doing what was expected of them and following rules) Conroy considers, in some detail Kohlberg’s theory of moral development with its emphasis on levels of moral reasoning – and then, without returning to answer, explicitly, whether or not ethics can be taught, he concludes his chapter by referring to the emerging post-Aristotelian focus on ‘virtue’ and virtue ethics; he ends with the observation that, for Aristotle, the best way to cultivate virtue was to practice virtue.

In the light of Conroy’s consideration of the question, ‘Can we teach ethics?’ it seems fair to argue that since ethics is about being – and being a certain type of person – the patient and painstaking emphasis on self-development that characterised certain approaches to what may still be called the education of the ‘whole person’ might actually hold out the promise of helping people to be consistently decent, honest, sympathetic, respectful, as well as happy in (and with) themselves. Some anthropological frameworks – such as that outlined by Bourdieu and his concept of the habitus – might be deployed to help ‘install’ the frames of mind and dispositions that are ‘ethical’. But the teaching of ethics has ultimately to be concerned with making a deep and lasting intervention in the very fabric of a person’s being. And this is something very difficult to achieve. Moreover, the problem is that the world – and especially the world of achievement, acquisition, status and self-interest – ‘takes over’ and often counters the narratives of ethics.

2 thoughts on “Can we teach ethics?”

  1. Dear Rob We can and did attempt to teach ethics. But not with success. Bramshill was founded at least in part to teach ethics. I am not sure that Kant helped, with his categorical imperative. Confucius might have been more useful. The key word and problem was loyalty – as our Australian colleague pointed out. With best wishes Peter Please see the film Cross of Iron, by Peckinpah.


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