Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ethics Education: The most important topic that's so rarely taught

Today I received yet more reminders of how ethically deficient we are. On top of the Charlie Rangel outrage, in my own private practice just today, clients made the following statements:

"Lawyers often double-bill."

"I want to milk the education thing as long as I can so I don't have to grow up." Professional students waste class slots that could have gone to people who would use that slot to be productive, to better society.

"I flirt to get what I want and then I claim I feel violated when they flirt back." Beware.

As I've written before, physician clients admit to me that they do procedures, including surgeries, that could have more wisely been treated medically. Why? Simply to make more money.

All that ethical filth is on top of the corporate excesses, priests screwing parishioners (including children,) people lying on the resumes and income taxes, using synthetic urine to pass drug tests, and as I wrote about yesterday, hiring people to write their theses, etc., etc., etc.

A society in which integrity is lacking will be so much less than it otherwise could be.

What could help? Ethics courses have, of course, been taught for decades, especially in law and business schools, alas with only modest effectiveness. Nevertheless, my best proposal is, as I wrote yesterday, that a critical-incident-based ethics curriculum in which we feel the effects of unethical behavior on the victim, be suffused through K-16 education, including emphasizing the primacy of parents BEING ethical--No matter how much a parent urges their child to be ethical, if the parent behaves unethically, the kid will realize that the words are empty.

The message of ethics over expediency need be so woven into the fabric of all our citizens that people will reflexively, with little temptation, make the ethical choice, even if it leads to poverty.

Fortunately, ethical people are probably no more likely to end up impoverished by their integrity. They may even be rewarded for it.


Lightning Bug's Butt said...

I know I would have enjoyed an ethics class in high school.

The closest I ever came to it was a "Life Skills" class in 8th grade, a wonderful class from which some lessons stay with me to this day.

Jeffrie said...

"Fortunately, ethical people are probably no more likely to end up impoverished as a result of their integrity. They may even be rewarded for it."

This person was. Ethics isn't completely dead yet.

Anonymous said...

And let's hope that job councilors refund their clients money when and/or if their clients fail to find employment.

After all, if a client needs to see a job councilor more than once, maybe twice (once for an initial consult and analysis, a second time for a follow up and resume/cover letter workshop), we might deduce that the councilor in questions was not particularly effective.

Therefore it would be unethical to charge people for more than a session or two.

I assume, Marty, that you live by your own rules.

Marty Nemko said...

I do, indeed. And most of my client do get all they need in one to two sessions, sometimes three or four, but that's it. Yes, a few clients are better served with seeing me a bit more but that's it. That's why I charge by the hour, and not some fat flat-fee package. I want to provide big value added for every dollar I earn.

Basil Fawlty said...

"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."

From my observations and (of course - limited) experience - ethics that stick - come from family, childhood role models, community, military service, faith etc. It might take many years to train a person to follow principles, especially if the principles are at odds with the mainstream culture.

It seems to me that greediness and financial success are the core values of our consumer-driven society, where luxury is not shameful.

Just imagine that one morning everyone in this country wakes up smart and ethical (frugal, modest and environmentally-conscientious) person.

The vicious Shopping - Wasting cycle abruptly stops.
Sales - plummet.
Economy - collapses.

That could be the reason why ethics is not taught well in public schools - it is not important for the economy.

Thank you, Marty, for the good topic.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it, but at best, I think this is unlikely to work, and at worst, it is dangerous.

In classes on "ethics" during my childhood and professional training, I always saw the same trends. Most people couldn't care less. To them, ethics discussions are "boring" or "useless". They refuse to pay attention or truly think about the issues. When these people do speak up, you wish they hadn’t. I am an MD/PhD student, and especially among grad students and research scientists, I am shocked on occasion that their answers do not even address the question, "what is the most ethical choice in this situation?", but rather, "what could you do to make yourself feel better about doing something that is wrong, or not quite right?" or, "can I think of a situation in which someone else did the wrong thing, that would make it OK for me to do something similar?" (as an aside --despite the popularity of physician bashing, and though I do believe Marty's experiences related above-- on average, I have found medical doctors and students to be far more ethical and compassionate than other groups, on average). These people would actually benefit from just being told the "right" answer, rather than coming to the unbelievably flawed and self-serving conclusions so often resulting from these “discussions.”

How do you get someone who hardly cares about ethics, to truly engage in a discussion? Using grades as incentives doesn't work particularly well in other subjects, besides which, it is missing the point to attach the idea of ethics to material rewards. The problem is, by the time a child arrives at school, many fundamental attitudes and patterns are already developed, and every night children return to the places where that behavior took shape (home). I don't believe that school can counteract an environment at home where children observe and experience unethical behavior, or in which ethics are clearly secondary and subordinate to ambition and personal gain. At the very least, without solid support from the parents, this approach is unlikely to be effective. How to enlist the support of parents who honestly don't understand moral reasoning, or who find it unimportant? I wish I knew, but I'd also like to figure out time travel...

So I think the class-based approach is unlikely to be effective. Here's why I think it's also dangerous. As a child, I went to two schools absolutely dedicated to producing "good citizens." Large parts of our curriculum focused on "ethics". The problem is defining a "good citizen." We all agree that stealing is wrong, but what about which charities you should support, or which political party is best? I know this is not the point of the classes Marty suggests, but in my experience, when teachers believe it is their job to mold the moral character of their students, the results are not desireable. The over-zealous political correctness that Marty decries so often is a perfect example.

I think the best we can do is to take an interest in raising our own children, and teach moral reasoning. This requires spending time with your children, and actually talking to them, instead of sitting them in front of the TV and walking away. For those not fortunate enough to have good parents, we should have tougher penalties for acting unethically. It's not ideal, but it's better than the current situation. For example, if Rangel cheated on his taxes, he should not be "censured"; he should be getting a visit from IRS investigators. If he used his position in congress to influence donations by corporations, he should lose his seat (independent of whether the voters in his district would re-elect him).

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, Anonymous for your thoughtful post. Indeed, as I wrote, ethics' courses have not to date been overly successful. And it's possible I'm being overoptimistic in thinking that if it was suffused through the curriculum and filled with immersive, "what would you do in this situation" and why debates, it would help. But when I think of what made me more ethical, surprisingly, it was a two-minute lecture in a graduate school class: the instructor taught us about Kohlberg's six stages of moral development, the highest being when one makes moral/ethical decisions based on universal principles. I decided, unconsciously at that moment, that I wanted to make all my decisions based on that level of moral reasoning.

Marty Nemko said...

Excellent post, Basil. I don't think that ethics isn't taught because it would collapse the economy, but I do think it would be important, in the ethics curriculum, to discuss the sort of work that would be ethical while also keeping the economy going: in my judgment businesses that facilitated more widespread use of tutoring and of companions for elders would be examples.