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Can Ethics Be Taught?

The debate as to whether ethics can be taught has spanned beyond centuries; even 2500 years ago, philosopher Socrates debated this question himself. His position, however, was evident: absolutely, yes. Socrates surmised that like many other human characteristics, ethics can be a learned concept. Many people disagree that a person is either inherently good or bad, and thus makes their decisions and follows judgment accordingly. However, modern psychologists tend to agree with Socrates’ notion that moral and ethical development is a process which can indeed be learned.

James Rest is one of the examples of psychologists who rendered the same position as Socrates. Rest was a psychologist based in America who primly specialized in moral psychology and moral development. He, along with colleagues extended a previous approach to moral reasoning in their Defining Issues Test, which focused on applying an objective measurement on moral development. In the test, there were four components to consider: moral sensitivity, judgment, motivation, and character. By being aware of morals and thus having motivation and encouragement to be ethical, a person forms an ethical or moral character. Rest and his colleagues found that an educational curriculum to influence moral awareness proved to be an effective approach in teaching ethical behavior.

Psychiatry and psychology have long studied ethical development and have even found the earliest stages to be instilled in humans at a young age. Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg found that moral development is obviously not formed all at once, and in fact, continues on throughout a person’s life, much like emotional and physical development in humans. Kohlberg details the different stages of moral development usually experienced throughout life, and even conducted studies in which his subjects reflected his earlier notions. As the subjects were more educated and challenged morally, they tended to excel through the levels of development. So, as psychology and Kohlberg had so masterfully proven, ethics may absolutely be taught.

Though we cannot control or necessarily learn aspects of our genealogy, we can certainly learn aspects of ethics and morals. A simple example may be of a child who is raised in a comfortable, but controlled environment with parents who are ethically good, charitable and understanding. This child is more likely to look at the actions of their parents and reflect that behavior into their own perspective. The same may be said for children, who have troubled friends or come from troubled homes, and the development does not stop when we are young; it continues into our twenties and thirties, when we are more likely to experience pressures financially, in familial situations, and in work related environments as well. Truth be told, we can certainly continue to learn ethics all throughout our lives regardless of age.