One question too rarely asked in education is: What relation is there between ethical behavior and learning? Or is there a meaningful relationship? Does unethical behavior interfere with learning? Of course, from this comes the question of “whose ethics” or “what is ethics?”
A similar question arises in politics. It can be argued that the heart of ethical behavior for a politician is to serve the interests of his or her constituents. And, if this is true, does the ethical behavior of politicians depend on their willingness and ability to educate themselves about issues, take on new positions—in other words, to be empathic and subsume their own personal interests to that of those they serve?
I am not a professional ethicist but I recognize that all of us ask ethical questions all the time. Every time we consider which action to take, or we ask “should I think long term or short?” Or “should I think only of my self-interest or other people’s?” Or we try to figure out which actions will create the best possible life for us—these are all ethical questions. Ethics is often defined as a system of, or principles of, morals, or the way we decide what is moral. Moral usually refers to what is right versus wrong, good versus bad, socially acceptable versus unacceptable. Today, ethical and moral are often used synonymously.
Ethics and morals thus have to do with how we act, especially how we act in relation with others. And we relate differently to people according to what we think we know or don’t know about them. We relate to our parents differently than our friends, to our lovers or close friends differently than acquaintances. We relate differently with those we assume agree with us versus those we think disagree with us.
When we think someone agrees with us, we assume we understand their point of view. However, how often have you assumed someone agrees with you and then been proven wrong? Corradi Fiumara, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, points out that when “perceiving one’s own mirror image in others, it then becomes difficult to accept others as ‘real’ persons.” We can easily reduce the other to an image of our self. In a like manner, when someone disagrees with us, or we assume they do, we often reduce them to “not-us” or in opposition to us, and refuse to see them or hear what they have to say. We label them as opponents or enemies and we lose the sense of them as full living beings. We see them merely as an idea, our idea.
In either case, we have to be careful with our assumptions or we jeopardize our ability to learn⏤to learn who others truly are, or learn from them and their viewpoint. We remain closed-in. In order to learn from others, we must allow ourselves to change and take in something new. We can’t hear what we don’t listen to. We can’t listen without making ourselves vulnerable. We can’t be vulnerable to other beings without recognizing they are like us, but not us. That we know some things about them, yet don’t know so much more. Only when we realize that we don’t know can we begin to know others.
The philosopher Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” The self arises in relationship. There is no “I” without a ‘you’. ‘I’ come to exist in relation to something or someone. There is no understanding of self without an understanding of other, and vice versa. To relate with others, we need an understanding of who the other is. We need to let them in.
Thus, to act ethically, we must be drawn beyond our already assumed answers, beyond what we think is true or untrue, like and dislike, beyond our old images of who we are. If our inner voice is drowned out by past understandings and beliefs, we can’t hear anything new and can’t hear or see what is happening, what we are involved in, now.
The same has to do with learning material in a classroom. If we don’t sometimes question what we think and believe, it’s difficult to know what we don’t know. If we think we already know the material, we won’t listen to it or see it. If we think we can’t listen, we won’t. If we feel threatened, we turn away. We can’t learn anything. And we can’t act ethically.
One problem with our political system now is that we have politicians who not only don’t listen to others, they have an ideology that says they should not listen to others. What does not mirror back to them their own self-interest is mirrored as evil and threatening, or as a lie, as something not-to-be-heard. They believe in egoism, and probably agree with the philosopher Ayn Rand that only by being selfish will the good of the whole be served. They believe that only by being selfish can you be rational— and think it is the height of irrationality to be compassionate, or altruistic.
In this way they refuse, as Lisbeth Lipari says in her wonderful book Listening, Thinking, Being: Towards An Ethic of Attunement, to listen for others, so as to hear the otherness, the reality, of others. That other people (and species) are feeling beings, alive, valuable, both like them and different. They cannot conceive or feel that others can live or think in a way beyond what they imagine and believe. All they listen to are the internally pre-recorded announcements of what they have already assumed as true. And thus, they fail to understand themselves as beings reaching beyond what they imagine and believe, beyond what they already have known.
They do not recognize that who they are is shaped in relation to how they understand, feel for, and relate to others. To usurp, dismiss, ignore the humanity of others is to undermine their understanding of their own humanity and ability to learn about and from others. Thus, they have a self-imposed or belief-imposed learning disability. And if ‘I’ only arises with a ‘you,’ then we are born with and out of an ethical concern. The belief-imposed disability thus creates an ethical disability. This administration, as is clear to so many, is unethical not just about one policy or another, but at its core.
**I recommend Lisbeth Lipari’s book to educators, to anyone interested in language, compassion, learning.