…a public debate sponsored by the Madison Collaborative and JMU’s Debate Team drew a capacity crowd of approximately 180 to Miller Hall Wednesday night. Debate Team members Samantha Perez and Nathan Buchholz argued the affirmative contending that not only is the teaching of ethics ineffective, in a perverse way, it is counter-productive, producing better cheaters who more eloquently rationalize and justify their unethical decisions. The negative, contending that ethics should and can be taught, was set forth by Rachel Keith and Jacob Bosley. Keith and Bosley emphasized the contemporary crisis in ethics and, while conceding that improvement in ethics pedagogy is needed, they asserted that it is possible and, further, that abandoning the effort to teach ethics would exacerbate the problems.
Professor David McGraw moderated the session with craft and finesse, eliciting clear and substantive questions from those in the audience and adding his final commentary on the ethics of teaching ethics. According to McGraw ethics instruction should involve activities focusing on how to reason ethically, providing a strategic framework for ethical considerations, not lecturing on either what to do or what to think.
McGraw noted that clarifying different conceptions of what it means to teach ethics is essential to the debate.
In the affirmative, Perez and Buchholz characterized typical ethics instruction as settled ethical decisions being “crammed down the throats” of students who operate with fixed ethical dispositions. Because students’ ethical dispositions are emotion-based and fixed by previous experience, and appropriate ethical decisions are not a matter of empirical demonstration, the affirmative asserted there is no motivation for students to study ethics. When forced to learn ethics using “cherry picked” case studies, students subvert the process and develop more effective strategies for rationalizing their existing values and behaviors. The negative emphasized a conception of teaching ethics best characterized as providing an ethical reasoning framework and skillset, like that in the Madison Collaborative Eight Key Question framework. Implicitly agreeing with the rejection of the “force feeding” view of ethics instruction, Keith and Bosley highlighted the potential for ethical transformation via effective instructional techniques such as authentic case studies and open discussion about vexing problems.
Both sides called upon research. The case against teaching ethics relied heavily on a two-semester study that showed the inclusion of ethical reasoning in instruction actually decreased scores on an ethics assessment. To this was added multiple instances of bad ethical decisions being made by persons who had presumably been educated in ethics. In addition, external constraints on ethical behavior such as the law or recalcitrant administrations of business schools, hospitals, and business itself were pointed to as reasons to avoid teaching ethics. The case for teaching ethics relied upon other research investigations which demonstrated effectiveness in teaching ethical reasoning and the promise of making a positive difference in actual decision making. The many instances of bad “devilish” decisions were attributed to either ineffective ethics instruction or none at all. Calls from judges and medical leaders for more instruction in ethics provided support for the negative case.
Kudos go to JMU debate team members Perez, Buchholz, Keith and Bosley for a lively educational debate introducing those in attendance to the controversies raging over teaching ethics in institutions of higher education. Each debater represented their assigned position well. JMU’s debate team, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Davis, garners national recognition for their many accomplishments. Through public debates such as this the university community benefits from the team’s talents.
By vote of the audience the argument in the negative, namely that ethics can and should be taught, won the day. But everyone in attendance was a winner. We ran a rich and robust intellectual sprint through one of the more controversial topics in higher education today — can ethics be taught? We agreed that ethics can be taught. The challenge is to do it well.