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Can we Reverse the Declining Ethic in Society?

June 16, 2015

Character Does Count

 

Various definitions of character exist. One that I like comes from the organization CITRS, an acronym that stands for some of the basic tenets of character – Character, Integrity, Trust, Relationships and Success. According to CITRS, it is “‘client-centered’”, meaning that it develops programs to enhance what administrators and teachers are already doing. CITRSworks within existing organizational constraints to help schools reach their goals by infusing character education and development within their existing curriculum, including the new requirements of the Common Core.

 

Another organization, and one that I am more familiar with, is the Josephson Institute of Ethics. The Josephson Institute has identified “Six Pillars of Character”. I use them all the time to teach virtue-based ethics education to my students. Here are the Six Pillars with examples of underlying traits of behavior.

 

Trustworthiness

  • Be honest • Don’t deceive, cheat, or steal • Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do  • Have the courage to do the right thing • Build a good reputation

Respect

  • Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule • Be tolerant and accepting of differences • Use good manners, not bad language • Be considerate of the feelings of others

Responsibility

  • Do what you are supposed to do • Persevere: keep on trying! • Use self-control • Be self-disciplined • Think before you act — consider the consequences • Be accountable for your words, actions, and attitudes • Set a good example for others

Fairness

  • Play by the rules • Be open-minded; listen to others • Don’t take advantage of others • Don’t blame others carelessly • Treat all people fairly

Caring

  • Be kind • Be compassionate and show you care • Express gratitude • Forgive others • Help people in need

Citizenship

  • Do your share to make your school and community better • Cooperate  • Stay informed; vote • Obey laws and rules • Respect authority • Protect the environment • Volunteer

 

The Josephson Institute conducts training programs for all kinds of organizations and helps to bring character education into the schools. I’d like to say such efforts are making a difference with respect to ethics in society, but things seem to get worse rather than better with the passage of time. Then again, it may just be a sign of my age that I compare the current generation to earlier ones that I taught, but I do notice some stark differences.

 

The one that concerns me the most is the sense of entitlement. On many occasions I’ve had debates with students about how I graded their work. These are not initiated to enhance the learning experience. It’s not learning for learning’s sake-driven. Quite the contrary, they are mostly designed to see if a student can get a point or two more on an exam. Some even try to wear you down with questions and comments that at an earlier time would have been unheard of.

 

The work ethic has clearly changed. Perhaps it is part of the Internet-driven social media society we live in today. Students need to be entertained today. It’s not enough to be a great lecturer; in fact, that may be a detriment. It seems to inhibit concentration and focus. The attention span of students today seems extremely low. I do realize there is quite a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder and that ADD may be partly an explanation. But, it’s more than that.

 

The constant texting and typing distracts students from applying their mind to new and unstructured situations, whether in the classroom or in life. The result is critical reasoning skills are not very well developed. This is a problem in the real world because oftentimes the problem you encounter today is not the same as before so a set of thinking skills – including ethical reasoning skills – is necessary to decide what the proper action to take is.

 

Character education is a must and it should start in K-5. Character-based decision making requires developing certain values that inform ethical decision making such as the ones mentioned before. Still, that is clearly not enough. It is a necessary but insufficient condition to ensure that ethical behavior can improve in society.

 

The traditional African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, is true when it comes to inculcating ethical behavior in children, adolescents and young adults. It’s harder today than ever before because the systems that we used to take for granted to get the job done no longer exist or are ineffective. Some are even harmful.

 

Parents are largely uninvolved with the ethical development of their kids. The schools often shy away from teaching traditional ethics based on “The Golden Rule” for fear of being criticized for preaching values that may not be acceptable to large chunks of society. The entertainment industry long ago lost its place in the village by appealing to society’s basest instincts. Forget about role models, unless you want to point to negative ones.

 

I often reflect on what I can do to make things better. How can I reach my students and open their minds to the importance of developing ethical values and not letting self-interest in the form of wealth, fame, fortune, and self-indulgence get in the way of developing one’s ethical self to improve ethical behavior and contribute to society in a meaningful way.

 

One thing I know is those of us committed to the cause must keep on trying. The worst thing that could happen is for people of good will to walk away from the challenge and not be able to say I did all that I could to change the culture.

 

As the poet William F. O’Brien said, it is “Better to try and fail than never to try at all.”

 

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 16, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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