Discussing Ethics With Children and Teenagers

Should ethics be taught in schools? Many people shudder at the thought. It would be like teaching religion in public schools, some respond. It would be like teaching not just how to make a rational decision and think critically, but how to live one’s life.


And I am sure that position is valid in many cases. Some people think teaching is about telling students what is right and true—how to interpret historical events or understand a character in a novel. They would teach science or social studies by having students memorize facts from a textbook. So, to teach ethics in schools would mean having students memorize rules and make their thinking and behavior consistent with what is prescribed by the teacher or school system. So, maybe the first question needs to be, what does it mean to educate a person?


If education means something like providing the background knowledge and ability to analyze information, and think clearly and critically. If it means learning how to raise questions and cooperate with others, so children can live a meaningful life and contribute positively to their community, then how can ethics not be part of education?


In fact, how can ethics not be taught? Ethics means learning how to inquire into and figure out how to act morally, understand right versus wrong and what is good or proper. It has to do with figuring out principles to guide your actions. To provide any guideline on social behavior is thus teaching ethics. Don’t schools begin to teach ethics on the very first day of school, when children are given rules for classroom behavior? And do you want students to graduate without having examined how and by what principles they make or could make ethical choices? Or how to evaluate the implications and consequences of those choices? Considering the political climate in this country, can we afford to graduate students with a distinct lack of such understanding?


And students, particularly in secondary school, yearn to ask ethical or moral questions. They want answers. They want to know how to act, how to live, what is right.


So, to teach ethics, teach students to question using real, ethical questions. Such questions are essential to any discipline. In English classes, you could study the consequences of ethical choices made by characters in literature. In Science you could not only study atomic theory but the ethical dimensions of using atomic energy. Imagine asking the following in a class: Should you always try to tell the truth?

Imagine one student responds: “There is no truth.” Or asks, “How do you know what’s a truth or what’s a lie?”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is saying something you know to not be true.”

A third student: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale?”


Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They enliven a classroom and intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.


What are the consequences, if any, of lying?

One student says: “None— unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Another: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

A third: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”


So you suffer when you lie? The students said it. When you lie, you can create a fictional self that is weak and lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community? Conversation or speech is not simply self-expression. When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being. It’s a relationship. Lying, or any unethical behavior, has consequences. It can cause suffering and distort thinking.


So, why lie? What are your intentions? Your intention, if you lie, might be to help others or to advance yourself at the cost of others. Should the intention behind your actions be important in evaluating your choices?


What do you do when you act ethically? Which principles or ethical systems do you apply? Study this deeply and honestly and question your understanding of any topic or situation that calls for action. Study the ethical systems used by different people, systems like J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Greek or Confucian virtue ethics, Kant’s idea of universalizabilityBuddha’s 8-Fold Path, or the Golden Rule. Students can work to discern if the principles or values they use to make ethical decisions actually make their lives, and the lives of others, better or worse. What role does compassion play in acting ethically?


And besides applying an intellectual and personal moral analysis, you need training in social-emotional awareness so you can actually do what you intend and think is right.


*The photo: a part of my yard after rain ended, hopefully, the drought.