Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.
‘Ethics education’ is a broad term for learning experiences intended to help students develop ethically, whether in terms of increased ethical awareness and understanding or greater motivation to act ethically in the world. There are many forms of ethics education used in K-12 classrooms, experiential learning settings and in higher education.
Though not exhaustive, some prominent ethics education categories include character education, with a focus on learning experiences for the acquisition of central virtues and ethical character traits, and service-learning programs that attempt to build ethical awareness, motivation and related skill sets through experiential learning and service within one’s community. (For more information, see “The Handbook of Moral and Character Education.”)
It is commonly assumed that children are the proper subjects of ethics education. As developing people, children are thought to be in particular need of educational training in moral reasoning and judgment or the acquisition of virtuous character traits. It is true that children can benefit from quality ethics education — just as children can benefit from many other forms of education focusing on, say, critical thinking, reading and mathematics — and there are many child-focused ethics education programs in use throughout K-12 classrooms.
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However, it is a mistake to assume that ethics education is the sole province of the child. For one, as John Dewey noted in “Democracy and Education,” development and growth are lifelong projects. Adulthood is not a “static end” (a time in which growth and development have ceased) but rather a stage of life that presents its own developmental (including ethical) challenges and opportunities.
To recognize this, we need only consider the many ethical crises — ranging from Wall Street scandals to academic integrity violations in higher education and research — that occur in the world of adults. These examples reveal that all of us, adults included, have room for ethical growth. More commonly, we face ethical challenges in our everyday lives. We consider right and wrong action, we make judgments about how we ought to live our lives on any given day, and we can be confronted with ethical problems as we engage with others, at work, or in conversations with families, friends or acquaintances.
Plato wrote that it is the adult’s task to “live well,” to live ethically and to cultivate our virtues. As adults, and like children, we can benefit from taking the time to consider how to live an excellent life and how to respond well to the ethical challenges we face.
At the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State we practice ethics education for moral literacy. Moral literacy is a set of capabilities and skill sets that encourage ethical agency — by moving from ethical awareness to ethical action through cultivating ethical purpose — and help us to become ethical leaders in every aspect of our lives. We lead educational programs for moral literacy across a wide range of age groups, from pre-K and kindergarten classrooms (through our philosophical ethics in early childhood program) to undergraduate and graduate students to faculty members (through our many lecture series and faculty ethics workshops).
The key to our work is the understanding of ethical agency as a form of literacy. That is, as with other forms of literacy (reading or mathematical literacy, for example), we can develop important skill sets and grow in our ability to exercise these skills. In the case of ethics education, we can learn to understand and evaluate ethical situations and recognize ethical values and their importance in our decisions.
This does not mean that we will always choose an ethical path or that there are always easy answers to be found in ethical problems. Indeed, there are sometimes no easy or certain answers in complex ethical dilemmas. Rather, it means we take seriously the centrality of ethics in our world, we work to advance our own ethical sensitivity and awareness and we maintain ethical purpose. Making and living these commitments is a core outcome of ethics education.
Michael Burroughs is assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, senior lecturer in philosophy, an affiliate faculty member of the College of Education and associate director of the Consortium for the Study of Leadership and Ethics in Education.