Can ethics be taught ?


Once a young colleague asked me if “Ethics” can be taught.  I reflected on this question and did not have a clear answer immediately.  The more I thought about it, the more elusive was the answer.  Let us try to understand what ethics is and whether it can be taught.  I would define ethics as the “Dos and Dont’s ” of life as we define it and society approves it.

Can ethics be taught in schools ?  Yes from a theoretical perspective. The criticality of ethics in life and how the presence or absence of ethics in life impacts us can be taught.  However, what may be difficult to teach is how to live it ?  It may be easier to define ethics and create awareness of its value in life but difficult to teach how to live it everyday ? But, in my experience the one sure way to learn to live  ethics is to follow people who live life that way.

Let us first start from home.  Can parents teach ethics to their children ?  Most parents do try their best to teach what is right and wrong in life to their children ?  .  Then, the next question is “Do children learn from these teachings at home ?”. Most children tend to follow what they see their parents doing.  So, ethics can be lived rather than taught.

If we move next to the school, the scene is not very different.  Teachers try their best to explain what ethics means and how it impacts us in life.  This way students do learn the right and wrong in life.  I remember my school days when we had a class on moral science specifically for this purpose.  Does this mean that students passing out of school have learnt ethics ?  I am not sure again.  Students ape their teachers in their ethical or unethical behaviours.  Hence, once again it is evident that role models can teach ethics better in real life than class room sessions on ethics.

Now the problem is the value of ethics in life.  First and foremost, ethics seems to be having a relative definition in life today as against an absolute definition in the past.  This is interesting.  Can “truth” be different for different people ?  It cannot be but today the way we define truth could be different from the way we understood it some decades back.  May be it has become like fashion and it could be cyclic in life.

Then, what is the way forward.  How can we ensure that ethics can be taught in life to the future generations.  My learning in life is that it pays to be ethical in life.  It is worthwhile for you to define your own ethics.  This definition is time tested and nobody can challenge your own conscience.  We can be our own conscience keepers. Now, the second learning is live life the way you like others to live and then it is easier to make others follow you.  I have always followed and believed what I saw rather than what I read about anything in life.

My last learning is that the best benefit of ethics in life is being happy, healthy and living life on your own terms.  What else you can ask for in life ?   After all, money cannot buy happiness or health in life but ethics can.

Try your luck ?

S Ramesh Shankar

4 thoughts on “Can ethics be taught ?

  1. Agreed, ethics is a very grey area. One sure way to test when in doubt is: Ask yourself a question – Will this act of mine affect some innocent person in some negative way? If the answer is yes, it is not ethical.
    This was taught by my professor. Example: Is it ethical for say an XYZ company to pay $2 per day to workers in Bangladesh when say an American doing the same job is paid $50?
    It might not be unethical as it is allowing some people to earn a livelihood who would otherwise have starved.
    Opinions on this also might vary..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Totally agreed …… Ethics has to be lived every day. What may also be important is to keep propping up the moral/ethical questions. Our educational institutions can play an imp. role by not limiting ethics to 5th grade but to take it to all levels of education.

    All of this can only support the whole idea. What will be more effective is rightly captured in the article ‘role models can teach ethics better in real life than classroom sessions on ethics’


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