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Resistance to ethics instruction: the intuition that ethics cannot be taught.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In my last post, I suggested that required ethics coursework (especially for students in STEM* disciplines) are met with a specific sort of resistance. I also surmised that part of this resistance is the idea that ethics can’t be taught in any useful way, “the idea that being ethical is somehow innate, a mere matter of not being evil.”

In a comment on that post, ThomasB nicely illustrates that particular strain of resistance:

Certainly scientists, like everyone else in our society, must behave ethically. But what makes this a college-level class? From the description, it covers the basic do not lie-cheat-steal along with some anti-bullying and possibly a reminder to cite one’s references. All of which should have been instilled long before college.

So what is there to teach at this point? The only thing I can think of specific to science is the “publish or perish” pressure to keep the research dollars flowing in. Or possibly the psychological studies showing that highly intelligent and creative people are more inclined to be dishonest than ordinary people. Possibly because they are better at rationalizing doing what they want to do. Which is why I used the word “instilled” earlier: it seems to me that ethics comes more from the emotional centers of the brain than the conscious analytical part. As soon as we start consciously thinking about ethics, they seem to go out the window. Such as the study from one of the Ivy League schools where the students did worse at the ethics test at the end of the class than at the beginning.

So I guess the bottom line is whether the science shows that ethics classes at this point in a person’s life actually show an improvement in the person’s behavior. As Far as I know, there has been no such study done.

(Bold emphasis added.)

I think it’s reasonable to ask, before requiring an intervention (like ethics coursework), what we know about whether this sort of intervention is likely to work. I think it’s less reasonable to assume it won’t work without consulting the research on the matter.

As it happens, there has been a great deal of research on whether ethics instruction is an intervention that helps people behave more ethically — and the bulk of it shows that well-designed ethics instruction is an effective intervention.

Here’s what Bebeau et al. (1995) have to say about the question:

When people are given an opportunity to reflect on decisions and choices, they can and do change their minds about what they ought to do and how they wish to conduct their personal and professional lives. This is not to say that any instruction will be effective, or that all manner of ethical behavior can be developed with well-developed ethics instruction. But it is to say — and there is considerable evidence to show it — that ethics instruction can influence the thinking processes that relate to behavior. …

We do not claim that radical changes are likely to take place in the classroom or that sociopaths can be transformed into saints via case discussion. But we do claim that significant improvements can be made in reasoning about complex problems and that the effort is worthwhile. We are not alone in this belief: the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council of Biology Editors, among others, have called for increased attention to training in the responsible conduct of scientific research. Further, our belief is buttressed by empirical evidence from moral psychology. In Garrod (1993), James R. Rest summarizes the “several thousand” published studies on moral judgment and draws the following conclusions:

  • development of competence in ethical problem-solving continues well into adulthood (people show dramatic changes in their twenties, as in earlier years);
  • such changes reflect profound reconceptualization of moral issues;
  • formal education promotes ethical reasoning;
  • deliberate attempts to develop moral reasoning … can be demonstrated to be effective; and
  • studies link moral reasoning to moral behavior

So, there’s a body of research that supports ethics instruction as an intervention to help people behave more ethically.

Indeed, part of how ethics instruction helps is by getting students to engage analytically, not just emotionally. I would argue that making ethical decisions involves moving beyond gut feelings and instincts. It means understanding how your decisions impact others, and considering the ways your interests and theirs intersect. It means thinking through possible impacts of the various choices available to you. It means understanding the obligations set up by our relations to others in personal and professional contexts.

And methodology for approaching ethical decision making can be taught. Practice in making ethical decisions makes it easier to make better decisions. And making these decisions in conversation with other people who may have different perspectives (rather than just following a gut feeling) forces us to work out our reasons for preferring one course of action to the alternatives. These reasons are not just something we can offer to others to defend what we did, but they are things we can consider when deciding what to do in the first place.

As always, I reckon that there are some people who will remain unmoved by the research that shows the efficacy of ethics instruction, preferring to cling to their strong intuition that college-aged humans are past the point where an intervention like an ethics class could make any impact on their ethical behavior. But if that’s an intuition that ought to guide us — if, by your twenties, you’re either a good egg or irredeemably corrupt — it’s not clear that our individual or institutional responses to unethical behavior by scientists make any sense.

That’s the subject I’ll take up in my next post.

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*STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

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Bebeau, M. J., Pimple, K. D., Muskavitch, K. M., Borden, S. L., & Smith, D. H. (1995). Moral reasoning in scientific research. Cases for teaching and assessment. Bloomington, IN: Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and Assessment.

Garrod, A. (Ed.). (1993). Approaches to moral development: New research and emerging themes. Teachers College Press.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Momus 6:41 pm 05/29/2014

    Teaching ethics is not the same as teaching/instilling ethical behavior. The first can be learned even from bad and average teachers. The second is more complicated and requires much more from the teachers. Most likely only a few teachers will succeed. Of course many people in their twenties and later may behave more ethically because of the outside class, real life pressures from society, including legal penalties, work related penalties, etc.. which are less persuasive at younger age. And it is far from clear how to measure and compare peoples ethical “grade”. Is a person who makes small lies once a week less ethical than a person who lies only once every few years when stakes are high? etc..

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 7:10 pm 05/29/2014

    @Momus,

    The issues you raise (including how to define ethical behavior for the purposes of measuring it empirically) are addressed in the body of research literature mentioned in the post.

    Link to this
  3. 3. ThomasB 3:18 pm 05/30/2014

    Interesting. I have spent a considerable amount of time reading as much as I could find about honesty and ethical behavior and my conclusions are somewhat different. While it seems clear that moral behavior changes considerably over the course of one’s life, I have not been able to find evidence of the ability to cause changes in behavior in college students to a significant degree. The vast majority of the studies I have found (usually involving monetary honesty) typically show improvements on the order of 10%. One study claimed virtually 100% honesty after the subjects were required to read the 10 commandments before doing the test. Another showed more than 100% honesty (some responders had to have lied to their own detriment) when the subjects were called on land lines to their homes.

    Maybe I have missed it somehow, but in all my reading I have come across a study showing long-term change in behavioral honesty due to rational discussion. Not that I claim that it is not possible, just that I have not come across any evidence of it. (Keep in mind here that I am not a professional psychologist. I am a physicist/engineer who became a consumer of psychological information when I got into management).

    I have also learned to read press releases on these types of studies carefully. For example, the phrase “deliberate attempts to develop moral reasoning … can be demonstrated…” sets off alarm bells. Why “can be”? Why did he not say “has been” if it actually has been demonstrated?

    And “studies link moral reasoning to moral behavior”. OK, but which is the cause and which the effect? Does the moral reasoning case the behavior, or is it something else? Some of the latest studies claim that our conscious explanations of our behavior is to a large extent a rationalization of our unconscious thinking and decisions. Though whether our unconscious thinking is emotional, rational or if there is any clear distinction is another matter.

    (Sorry for the late reply. I have been busy and missed this post until I saw it referenced in the later one).

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