ADVERTISEMENT
Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

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

|

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.

______

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

______

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.

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

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Back to School Sale!

One year just $19.99

Order now >

X

Email this Article

X