Ethics in the classroom and common ground

I have been involved in a very stimulating conversation on Durff’s blog around the issue of ethics in the classroom.

Both Durff and I agree that ethical behaviour must be stressed in the classroom and modeled by teachers. I think you can tell from our comments that we are both quite passionate about this.

Where our views start to differ is how this is done. You can read about our differing viewpoints in the comments to the original post – what I find interesting is the conversation that has developed.

Ethics is messy – it really does have to do with our own world-views and it can be messy and difficult to talk about the things that really matter to us, the things that hit us in our gut, that touch our values around what it means to be human. The rub in all of this is that we do not all have the same values nor the same world view.

Two of my beliefs related to this topic:

  • I strongly believe that we can not assume there to be one ethical plumbline to live by. Furthermore I think that this assumption implies another, that if one does not adhere to this plumbline then one is acting unethically. I think this is problematic in any society that is diverse.
  • I believe that ethical decisions should be contextual and arrived at from within a situation rather than determined from external sources like codes of conduct/ethics. (I have written more on this subject, if you are at all interested I invite you to read this paper, though I warn you it is a bit lengthy :) Conversations for ethical decision-making in secondary schools (Rosen, 2005) )

I do think it important – indeed necessary – to create a common ground in order to be able to have conversations around ethics, in order to be able to teach about ethics.

In trying to understand Durff’s insistence on an ethical plumbline, I wonder if perhaps this common ground is something along the lines of what she means.

Such a common ground for me would have to:

  • acknowledge that there is more than one world-view in the room
  • acknowledge that my world-view is not better or worse than yours, just different
  • be prepared to learn about different beliefs and world-views
  • be prepared to take a considered position when I am involved in decision-making
  • understand that a considered position includes more than one or two considerations

What would be important for you to have in this common ground?

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  • sweetleaf says:

    as an alternative student i was in an ethics class in college when i quit going, without withdrawing…so you know where i come from. anyway…my feel for the common ground would be a foundation of respect for all considered, making ethics obvious. ideally any code/policy designed for ethical practice, comes from a regard for the quality of life, that is not possible without respect. this has to leave room for what is random? a quality of life can not be based on a rule or regulation in and of itself. thats my intuitive anyway.
    note- being on a site of the educated, (or even if i wasn’t), i apologize for my lack of capitalization. i know it makes my read harder. it is because i developed this as a lazy habit. i will do what i can to change this when i have a keyboard that is not at a 45 degree tilt away from me. thanks for your tolerance. a good ethical practice.

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  • mrsdurff says:

    Along the ethics discussion…educators who teach k12 can help prepare our learners for college by teaching ethics – here is the article

  • Tracy says:

    Steve – thanks for joining the conversation.

    You wrote, “Wouldn’t it then be wrong to try to teach your own belief system of plurality as being the “right” one?”

    I think the essence of that question, or rather the answer, lies in method.

    Do I teach an ethical system as being the one and only?

    Or do I teach different systems, model my own way of engaging in ethical dialogue – based in curiosity, care, and a respect for diversity – and teach how to take a considered decision?

    Ultimately, these are the questions that arise for me out of the original conversation on Durff’s blog.

    Personally, I feel it is unethical to teach one system as ‘the truth’ because that creates friction with my values of respect and care, which are important to me.

    What I am writing around has more to do with a process than a belief system, though I could probably argue that I believe very strongly in this process!

    Cultural relativism holds implicit a suspension of value judgment. I do not adhere to that, it is impossible to suspend judgments based on value since values are so important and central to who we are as humans.

    I am talking about something that focuses not only on difference but on seeking what it is that connects within those differences. Way too subjective for relativism!

    I am going to think some more about this.
    I will be back :)

    Thanks for pushing me to think and to reflect, good stuff!

  • Steve says:

    Not sure what happened. Here is the quotation that I tried to include in my previous post:
    “Cultural relativism seems to give plausible answers to ethical questions only in a culture (utterly unlike our own) that is homogeneous, unreflective, unchangeable and free of serious moral disagreements. Ironically, the very social complexities, mutabilities and controversies that make relativism attractive also render it useless, unclear and implausible as an account of ethical truth.”

  • Steve says:

    Great discussion…
    I have no answers to this dilemma. However, one thing I do know… one can (and should) acknowledge, respect and discuss different world views. But, there are world views that do assert that their view is indeed the “best” or the only correct world view. And, if I follow this discussion correctly, this world view would also have to be respected. How, then, can you defend the notion that every world view or ethical belief system is equal? Plurality itself is a world view that not everyone endorses. Wouldn’t it then be wrong to try to teach your own belief system of plurality as being the “right” one? Relativism asserts that there are no absolutes (plumb line) when it comes to ethics and morality – that they are only culturally, socially, and historically negotiated. For some cultures, slavery was right. For other cultures, human sacrifice was right. For yet another, the extermination of a certain human race was right. Do we accept all of these? Do we try to value them? Do we assume that those beliefs were as valid as our own… just “different”? I like this perspective on cultural relativism:


    So, who is “right”??? Sorry to end with a question :-)

  • Tracy says:

    Hi Christopher and thanks for the comment.

    I have an inkling that the distinction between morality and ethics is what is at hand here. It could be that I am talking about ethics while Durff was talking about morality. But I will let her weigh in on that.

    Habermas’ ideal speech situation reminds me of Bohm’s Dialogue (On Dialogue: A Proposal, 1995), a strong influence on me.

    Bohm’s approach was collaborative, with a goal of uncovering the beliefs and assumptions that underly what we say and do in order to reflect on them together and come to a greater collective understanding. It is this type of structure that I like to use when involved in ethical decision-making with others (as I describe in the paper I hyperlinked above).

    In reality, what I describe is an ethics of care (Noddings, 1984, 1992, 2002) – where care plays a large factor in any ethical decision I make. This highlights the importance of relationship and context for ethical decision-making.

    In my ‘ideal speech situation’ I will care for the people with whom I am making a decision and they will know I care for them. Again, this is ideal and something I strive for.

    How do I show this? Through my behaviour, by acting in the way I described in my post.

    As such, ethics for me is more of a process than a prescription.

    A process through which I approach a situation in conversation with others, where we uncover our values – what it is that touches us personally about the situation – and realize that each person involved cares deeply about the outcome, though their world-view around it may be different than mine.

    A process through which we can distill the common ground – generally tied to values – upon which we can make our decision.

    If I can model such a process to my students – one steeped in caring and respect for diversity – I will be happy.

  • Christopher says:

    Hi Tracey,

    I think that what may be helpful for your discussion is to distinguish between morality (an ideal set of rules that can at best be approximated at) and ethics (either at a ethical-political/community level, or ethical-existential/individual level).

    Habermas makes this distinction as part of his moral philosophy. Rather than asserting particular moral norms, Habermas identifies what is termed ‘the ideal speech situation’. It has the following rules, which are used in sincere discourse (i.e. when individuals are talking with one another with the non-strategic aim of arriving at consensus):

    1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
    2. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatsoever.
    2(a). Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatsoever into the discourse.
    2(b). Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.
    3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down [above].

    Since an absolutely ideal speech situation can at best be approximated at (being situated in a particular location precludes total inclusivity, and a zero-coercion environment is similarly hard to arrive at) Habermas argues that approximations of the above rules should be used to establish the norms that are used in a ethics. The interesting thing is that Habermas doesn’t identify particular moral norms – he instead provides a system by which individuals can determine whether or not their morals/ethics are valid or, to put it another way, proposes a normative scheme where a moral or ethical rule is valid only if the people that would be affected by the moral or ethical rule assertion would could be reasonably expected to consent/agree to the rule based on their faculty of rationality.

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