In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal announced that ethics
courses are useless because ethics can't be taught. Although few people
would turn to the Wall Street Journal as a learned expert on the teaching
of ethics, the issue raised by the newspaper is a serious one: Can ethics
The issue is an old one. Almost 2500 years ago, the philosopher Socrates
debated the question with his fellow Athenians. Socrates' position was
clear: Ethics consists of knowing what we ought to do, and such knowledge
can be taught.
Most psychologists today would agree with Socrates. In an overview of
contemporary research in the field of moral development, psychologist
James Rest summarized the major findings as follows:
Dramatic changes occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s in terms
of the basic problem-solving strategies they use to deal with ethical
These changes are linked to fundamental changes in how a person perceives
society and his or her role in society.
The extent to which change occurs is associated with the number of
years of formal educaton (college or professional school).
Deliberate educational attempts (formal curriculum) to influence
awareness of moral problems and to influence the reasoning or judgement
process have been demonstrated to be effective.
Studies indicate that a person's behavior is influenced by his or
her moral perception and moral judgements.
Much of the research that Rest alludes to was carried on by the late
Harvard psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg was one of the first
people to look seriously at whether a person's ability to deal with ethical
issues can develop in later life and whether education can affect that
Kohlberg found that a person's ability to deal with moral issues is
not formed all at once. Just as there are stages of growth in physical
development, the ability to think morally also develops in stages.
The earliest level of moral development is that of the child, which
Kohlberg called the preconventional level. The person at the preconventional
level defines right and wrong in terms of what authority figures say is
right or wrong or in terms of what results in rewards and punishments.
Any parent can verify this. Ask the four or five year old why stealing
is wrong, and chances are that they'll respond: "Because daddy or mommy
says it's wrong" or "Because you get spanked if you steal." Some people
stay at this level all of their lives, continuing to define right and
wrong in terms of what authorities say or in terms of reaping rewards
or avoiding unpleasant consequences.
The second level of moral development is the level most adolescents
reach. Kohlberg called this the conventional level. The adolescent at
the conventional level has internalized the norms of those groups among
whom he or she lives. For the adolescent, right and wrong are based on
group loyalties: loyalties to one's family, loyalties to one's friends,
or loyalty to one's nation. If you ask adolescents at this level why something
is wrong or why it is right, they will tend to answer in terms of what
their families have taught her, what their friends think, or what Americans
believe. Many people remain at this level, continuing to define right
and wrong in terms of what society believes or what laws require.
But if a person continues to develop morally, he or she will reach what
Kohlberg labeled the postconventional level. The person at the postconventional
level stops defining right and wrong in terms of group loyalties or norms.
Instead, the adult at this level develops moral principles that define
right and wrong from a universal point of view. The moral principles of
the postconventional person are principles that would appeal to any reasonable
person because they take everyone's interest into account. If you ask
a person at the postconventional level why something is right or wrong,
she will appeal to what promotes or doesn't promote the universal ideals
of justice or human rights or human welfare.
Many factors can stimulate a person's growth through the three levels
of moral development. One of the most crucial factors, Kohlberg found,
is education. Kohlberg discovered that when his subjects took courses
in ethics and these courses challenged them to look at issues from a universal
point of view, they tended to move upward through the levels. This finding,
as Rest points out, has been repeatedly supported by other researchers.
Can ethics be taught? If you look at the hard evidence psychologists
have amassed, the answer is yes. If you read the Wall Street Journal,
you wouldn't have thought so.
This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics V1 N1 (Fall
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