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Ethics Without Indoctrination

Teaching Ethics to College Students

Do you teach ethics to your college students as I do? If so, how do you avoid teaching ethics without student’s feeling like you are trying to convert them to one set of beliefs or another? These are important issues for us as educators. Personally, I set a goal to help develop the moral sensibilities in my students.

I spoke about everyday ethics in my last blog. I presented five principles of ethical behavior that provide a foundation for becoming a better person. Applying these principles to everyday decisions is an art form in that it is an expression of who are as human beings and what we strive to achieve. To review, the five principles are: (1) make things better; (2) treat others fairly; (3) consider the consequences of your actions; (4) respect the rights of others; and (5) act with integrity.

Ethical persons may be motivated to do the right thing but can only do so if they know what that is. The first step is to understand the difference between personal values and moral values. Personal values include behaviors such as seeking wealth, fame, power, and prestige. These are not ethical values but could be adopted by others to pursue their self-interests.

Ethical values include honesty, integrity, respecting others, accepting personal responsibility, and being accountable for one’s actions. These are aspirational values we should strive to achieve, although most of us will not achieve them all the time. These are ‘the ought to’ of ethical decision-making.

Moral persons must learn the art of self-critique, of moral self-examination, and of ethical reflection to learn how to become more aware of challenges in making moral judgments. My students learn how to reason through ethical dilemmas and self-correct their behavior upon reflection.

As teachers, we must be careful not to tell students what to do but, instead, present a pathway to leading a more ethical, fulfilling life. This starts with ethical awareness and then builds up by learning how to make ethical judgments.

Ethical reasoning is the key. It helps to guide choices we make and deal with conflicts. Philosophical thought is the bridge between knowing what the right thing to do is, and doing it. We should act on ethical intentions, motivated to achieve goals not as an end in and of itself but, instead, as a pathway to ethical behavior.

We can cultivate character in our students without indoctrinating them by teaching them critical thinking skills. How do we do so? It starts with the “moral point of view” that says at least sometimes they must be willing to put the interests of others ahead of their self-interests. I remind them that parents do this all the time.

For example, we may be faced with a workplace dilemma where our supervisor wants to engage in financial shenanigans to boost earnings in a way that doesn’t conform to generally accepted accounting principles. We may choose to go along as we see it in our best interests to do so. We are told to be a team player. Our supervisor says it’s a one-time request. We feel pressure: we don’t want to lose our job. We may even risk being called a traitor and retaliated against if we don’t go with the flow but insist on following our ethical principles.

I have observed that once students internalize the real fear of losing one’s job, they tend to look for the path of least resistance and may compromise their ethical values. They tell me things like “this is the way business gets done.” I tell them maybe so, but they should ask themselves why they would risk compromising their values and reputation.

I tell my students that going along once often leads to expected behaviors in the future. If they try to reclaim the ethical high ground later, at that time their supervisor may remind them of their past actions. They become mired in the muck of having compromised their values with the need to cover-up past decisions. I tell them the cover-up often becomes worse than the crime.

For me, the key to teaching ethics to students without indoctrination is to avoid telling them what is right and what is wrong. Instead, I try to guide them through the ethical minefields and help them come to that realization on their own. I do this by building a path to ethical decision-making.

The problem with teaching ethics is you never know if you have been successful. It helps to remember what Henry Adams said: A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 3, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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