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Ethics of Teaching Ethics

Teaching v. Training

Teaching - imparting information, skills, judgment, or the like in order to benefit the recipient (the student).

Training - imparting information, skill, judgment or the like to benefit someone other then the recipient.

E.g. the purpose of corporate training is to benefit the corporation (whether or not the trainee benefits as well).

University professors claim to teach, not just to train. We cannot teach ethics unless we believe doing so will benefit our students. This limits both what we can teach and how we can teach it.

Hence, university professors tend to equate training with a) instruction too specific to be of general use (knowledge which imprisons) or b) rote learning (a form of teaching not appropriate to the subjects they teach.

Is Ethics Good for Students?

Increased ethical sensitivity

is certainly good.

Whatever a student wants to do with what she's taught, she'll at least want to know what she is getting into. No one wants to get into trouble through overlooking what could have been obvious.

Increased knowledge

of the special standards of conduct of one's own prospective profession is good for much the same reason.

Improved ethical judgment

seems equally good. Even if someone is in fact a bad person, he will want to be able to act properly w hen that is prudent.

Improved will-power

seems to be good for the same reasons. Power need not be used, but it's good to have about when necessary.

Ethical Means of Teaching Ethics


- getting student (or trainee) to believe claim or to recognize some standards to means that bypass her reason

E.g. by withholding relevant information, by mere repetition, or by mere social pressure.

What's wrong with indoctrination?

  1. Fails to treat student as a rational person (What would Kant say?)
  2. Denies student to make sure claim or standard comports with what he already knows or believes. Leave student vulnerable to teacher's mistakes or misunderstanding of student's plan of life (what would Mill say?)

Absolute neutrality

- "facts, just the facts"

If you are in fact indifferent to the standards of your profession, then presenting the standards as "mere facts" is OK. (But why practice or teach this profession?)

If you do care about your profession's standards (if, that is, you yourself profess them), should you try to seem neutral?

Do you want to give the impression that one can be a member of your profession and not care about the good it seeks to accomplish? Should you? Doesn't being a member of that profession involve publicly supporting the good?

e.g. Isn't declaring oneself to be an engineer declaring oneself to be someone committed to treating the public safety, health, and welfare to paramount in engineering?

e.g. Isn't declaring oneself to be an accountant declaring oneself to being someone committed to giving an accurate and informative report of financial matters?
My opinion: professional students need to understand as soon as possible what they are getting into, what will eventualy be demanded of them. They should have the chance to get out early. No good can come from suggesting anything else. It is also good for other students, those going into another profession or none at all, to see professional commitment.

Screen out those who lack proper commitment?

- Is that good for the student? Is this a place where professional responsibility and teacher's ethics conflict?

answers may differ with profession

Giving your own opinion

- Ok, shows you care (and members of your profession have opinion on that question).

BUT, risky. It is important to make clear to students what's merely your opinion (that is, what competent members of a profession disagree about) and what is more than your opinion (that is, what represents a consensus on professional or formal standard).

Students need to understand the which questions are now open and which (for the time being at least) are closed - same as technical questions.

Giving your own opinion can also be good for another reason. If you state your reasons along with your opinion, students have a starting point (and model) for developing their own opinion on that question.

My experience

is that many students find such a starting point quite helpful (so long as a faculty member does not grade them on sharing what is merely an opinion).

Handout from EAC 2003 workshop, Copyright Michael Davis.