Why We Should Teach Ethics in Our Public Schools

Why We Should Teach Ethics in Our Public Schools June 19, 2013

This is a guest post by my friend Tor Constantino. He is a former journalist, has an MBA, and works in public relations where he has directly reported to several CEOs in his career. He lives near Washington, D.C. with his wife and three children. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

During my career, I’ve had the privilege of reporting directly to seven different CEOs at various Fortune 500 companies. One of the best was a gentleman by the name of Joseph Clayton.

In addition to being an accomplished businessman and visionary leader, Joe was – and continues to be – a devoted husband, father of five children and a Christian.

I had a chance to catch up with Joe, who retired a few years ago as a multi-multi-millionaire, and he shared with me that he was recently invited to deliver the commencement address at his alma mater.

He was specifically asked to talk about ethics in business and the fact that the students he was addressing during his speech were the first graduates from the college that could earn a degree in “business ethics.”

Joe told me that his contrarian talk mourned the fact that a graduate business school felt compelled to offer a degree in business ethics.

“It’s a sad commentary for this country, its educational system and deteriorating family structure when college students have to be taught what’s right and wrong,” he said. “Those were lessons I learned as a young child in Sunday school. If you have to learn those fundamental rules in your 20s or 30s – that’s almost too late.”

I agree.

Leadership Learning Lamentations

By definition, a leader is followed by others – but what are those core principles and values that are guiding the leader?

One only has to Google the phrases “political corruption 2013” to find 437,000,000 entries or “corrupt business 2013” to find 58,400,000 entries. While not indicative of a trend, it’s difficult to dismiss those numbers as inconsequential.

The truth is that many leaders have glaring ethical gaps that are not being addressed.

Joe’s lamentations regarding the lack of ethical grounding within our current and future leaders alludes to the following scripture:

He who rules over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. (2 Samuel 23:3b)

Absent a healthy fear (i.e. respect and accountability) of God the best that secular man can aspire to are actually the basest elements of our nature.

Alternative Solutions

Atheistic philosophers such as Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mills and Friedrich Nietzsche each purported ethical constructs that excluded God in favor of leadership systems driven by ideas such as “the ends justify the means;” an existence driven by “natural man’s” appetites; the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure at all costs; and the “will to power.”

Stripped down to their core principles, these philosophical models of leadership lack vision, aspiration and sustainability. When those “ideals” have been implemented in business or government they have devoled into the axiom that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The reason for that is because such secular systems of leadership lack accountability to a higher authority or “fear of God.”

When Fear Makes Sense

The book of Proverbs equates the “fear of God” with hating evil as well as the pursuit of wisdom – which is often described as the application of knowledge on behalf of others.

It makes sense – common sense as well as dollars and cents – that business and government leaders should hate evil, pursue wisdom and apply their knowledge helping others.

I’m not suggesting our capitalist system and representative republic are replaced with a theocracy. But I do agree with Joe, that we could do a better job building the moral character and intrinsic values within our children and future leaders.

Instead of teaching ethics only in Sunday schools and graduate business schools, perhaps all levels (e.g. elementary, middle school, high school…etc.) of learning might benefit from a bit of ethical training. Our future may depend on it.

Question: Should ethics be a mandatory part of public school curricula? Share your thoughts with a comment below.

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  • hipmamamedia.com

    This was an “outta the park” post, Tor. You really hit a homerun with this one. Aside from the intrinsic Christian value of ethical leadership, it really does make sense practically for leaders to pursue wisdom, which you so eloquently said. It is to their advantage commercially! It is sad that our culture is so compartmentalized that we have come to the point where we see ethics as a separate entity from wisdom and we teach it as such, i.e, in Sunday School or special classes, instead of integrating it to everyday life as the Bible models.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful and kind remarks Maria. I agree that compartmentalization has been taken to the extreme where people defend egregious decisions in their personal lives, stating that such “bad calls” have no bearing on their professional lives. That type of thinking fosters a type of ethical bi-polarism where there is no “true North” that drives conduct but rather a floating ethos that shifts based on the situation.

  • tony kiar

    Some actions break trust. When a line is crossed a person’s life changes forever. One of the most tragic examples of this is when teachers take advantage of kids. In Ontario, we pride ourselves in the Character Education that the Ministry of Education has developed to help our children grow into trustworthy, healthy adults. Events in the news continue to show that we shouldn’t neglect or make any assumptions about the character of their teachers.

    • Great comment Tony. When I used to be a news reporter – the stories that got the most coverage and public backlash tended to be those dealing with violations of trust (e.g. corrupt cops, sexual abuse by clergy or teachers, parental child abuse….etc). No doubt that trust is a critical component of strong ethical footing.

  • Hmm.
    So, given this basis, why is it that so many “ethical” business leaders, who so lament the lack of ethics, consider it “ethical” to down-pay their workers, and earn some 250 to 500 X the average wage of the employees of their firm?
    Is it, as I suspect, that ethics to these folks, means that they are treated the way they want- but they can treat their employees with impunity? But, want those same employees to treat the customers of the firm as if they are valued employees?
    Methinks these folks protest too much (and talk too much) and don’t provide bonafide actions to justify these beliefs.
    We can start with one of the biggest blowhards, S. Truett Cathy, were the average wage at Chick-Fil-A is under $ 20K (for full time staff- it’s a little less when you include part-timers and up the hours to 40)- and his salary… And, his other “ethics”.
    I could go on, but there is no need to personally embarrass all these folks. Just remind them that the biggest part of what they claim is what they eschew- do first, talk later. (As opposed to do as I say and not as I do…)

    • Roy, great points – I think capitalism definitely allows for economic abuses to occur; however, those abuses absolutely occur in command-control and socialistic economies as well. I fully support the need for livable wages, equitable treatment for employees and career development.

      Personally, I can think of even bigger blowhards than Cathy such as Jamie Dimon from JP Morgan and Kodak CEO Antonio Perez.

      However, there are many more and the point of this piece is that business is littered with questionable ethics at all levels.

  • Araghast

    If one is going to achieve anything in developing ethics; whether it be in the business world, a school, or simply in your own life, requires one key element, which is necessary (and I think sufficient on its own):

    Accountability, as the poster correctly highlights.

    Combine selfishness with an ability to escape culpability and consequence, and the result is inevitable. This I think is an uncontroversial point of agreement to start with. As such I would consider it to be a perfect locus for any kind of curriculum on ethics.

    I am not however very keen on the idea that this accountability should only be towards god; Simply because, well… it doesn’t seem to work. One need only look to the sex scandals in the RCC, the promotion of a bill in Uganda that if it was left un-ammended would have have made same sex relations a punishable crime with the death penalty, not to mention people like Peter Popoff who swindled and deceived thousands of people through pretending to be a faith healer.

    Aside from the efficacy “fear of god” being debatable the comes the matter of which god to be held accountable to; or what culture the ethics are going to come from (if we’re going to be simply imparting the ethics derived from a religion or culture).

    I would also support as part of the curriculum teaching about comparative ethics, looking at how the cultures of now and the past helped shape the ethics held today. Ultimately I feel that if one can impart on kids that they can and will be held accountable for their actions, by their fellow peers, and then encourage them to hold others to account; that alone will make a major improvement.

    • You raise fair points Araghast and intelligent people can have differing viewpoints on complex topics such as ethics.

      While I agree with you that accountability is an important part of an ethical perspective, the atheistic philosophical tradition – as alluded to by the writers I listed – suggests that absent an accountability to God the only true accountability one has is to themselves.

      The concepts of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Hobbes’ natural man state that man cannot be ethical on his own.

      Regardless, thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      • Araghast

        One point in response to your reply would be that if there is no god, then mankind could only look to themselves for accountability to begin with.

        While god may or may not be an entity we will be held accountable to, we can guarantee that man can and will be held accountable… by other men.

        Of the examples about the efficacy of fearing god; Peter Popoff was made accountable by the work of James Randi and associates who illustrated his deception. It is the pressure of bad press and nations prepared to cut of financial aid to Uganda that is holding the Ugandan government accountable for its legislation. It is the attention given to the scandals and the work of grass root movements and activists that are pursuing justice for the victims of the RCC. One of (if not THE) purpose of any judicial system is to hold people accountable for their actions towards their community and society.

        Another point I would make is that for any action to be ethical (whether good or bad) would require that it affects another sentient being (We as humans do also give considerations to other species as well). The thought experiment I always use to illustrate for this is to imagine that one were truly alone: no other sentient beings that you could interact with or effect, no god to affect or interact with either; and then try to name any act that you could perform that could be considered moral.

        If you accept that you can and are to be held accountable to other human beings (which most of us do accept as part of being in any society) then you have the foundation for building an ethical society. Bottom up ethics (Ethical codes and practices developed by local communities which then shape a collective one) I think are preferable to Top down ethics (ethical codes which are formulated by an often insular authority and then passed down and imposed on the masses with or without their consent).

        • One of the most useful standards of ethical behavior I was derived from a graduate level psychology course I took. The ethical test is a simple one.

          Before engaging in any ethical “grey” area it’s important to ask oneself, “Would I want to live in a world where everyone did what I’m about to do?”

          I’ve found that to be extremely useful. Again – thanks for all the feedback Araghast!

  • Indiafirst intwentyfourteen

    I am a social activist. I am working to improve the society. Without ethics I found that there is absolutely no other way to stop political and business corruption. I completely agree with Bill that Ethics should be taught in Schools and at all levels.