Teaching Ethics in a Morally Compromised World

Jeffrey Nesteruk explores the personal choices he makes as he tries to reach students.

August 8, 2005

Ethical lapses are in the news again. Former CEOs on trial.  Journalists receiving secret payments. Congress revising its ethics rules to protect one of its own. In such a troubling environment, we understandably hear calls for colleges and universities to incorporate more ethics into their programs of study. But amid such calls, I see little appreciation of the deeply personal challenge of teaching ethics.

After almost 20 years of teaching ethics, I'm still trying to get my footing. This isn't because of my lack of familiarity with the subject. I've long studied the classics in my field and eagerly devour the latest in journal articles. Nor am I at a loss for ways to bring the subject to my students. I've taught ethics in a variety of settings, from an elite business school to a struggling community college to the selective liberal arts institution that's currently my home. In each academic setting, I've been able to discover a set of pedagogical techniques that fostered lively class discussions.

My struggle in teaching ethics involves something more.  It involves, as Parker Palmer states in The Courage to Teach, "the self you bring to the project, your identity and integrity." In the morally shifting and conflicted world in which we live, my identity as an ethicist has always been a precarious enterprise.

This is because my identity as an ethicist is tied to the moral coherence of the culture in which I live. James Boyd White once defined culture as "a set of ways of claiming meaning for experience." Without a common wellspring of values, it's difficult for an ethicist to claim a definitive meaning for the work he does. Yet I teach within a culture that's morally at odds with itself. Contemporary life combines a pervasive skepticism about traditional morality with the strident reemergence of such morality. This moral dissonance can even come to reside in our individual psyches. My guess is that more than a few Christian fundamentalists watch "Desperate Housewives."

Within this divided moral culture, academia offers only limited options. Thus, David Brooks writes that young people seeking moral guidance on college campuses typically encounter two possibilities. There are those mostly on the left "who tell them to renounce commercialism, materialism, and vulgar endeavoring."  There are those mostly on the right who counsel "a consciousness of ... original sin" and a commitment to "the fixed truth of natural law" and "the traditions of orthodox faith."

Within such a cultural mix, my choice of identity as an ethicist has always posed a risk. This is because the wholeness that individual integrity presupposes is difficult in a culture so morally divided. Within the dichotomy that Brooks identifies, for example, where does someone like me -- someone who regularly both recycles and prays -- fit?

The cultural awkwardness of my identity as an ethicist poses a distinctive challenge in the classroom. This is because "the self you bring to the project" is central to teaching ethics. Moral education is about more than the information you convey to students or the skills you help them develop. It is ultimately about the persons they become in the process. With a subject as intimately linked to students' development as ethics, the self you bring to a course is crucial to its outcome. Students view all I do and say in the classroom through the lens of who they think I am. 

The cultural sensibilities they bring to their assessments of my character also complicate matters. My students' outlooks are often unreceptive to the possibilities of a common moral dialogue. They've grown up in a world in which the country has been carved up into red states and blue states. They log on to blogs that reinforce their own tastes and ignore those of others. They tune in to Fox News with its portrayal of issues from stem cell research to affirmative action as an ongoing morality play between secular humanists and religious conservatives. Thus, if I appear to come at things from either side of a cultural divide, I'll lose at least half the members of the class, even if they are unwilling to tell me exactly why.

Teaching across our cultural divides as an ethicist today requires drawing on an understanding of the moral life that is noticeably absent from our public media. The flaming practices of cyberspace and the shouting matches of talk radio encourage us to see the essence of our moral lives as residing in the views we espouse. Across much of our vast electronic commons, you are, morally speaking, what you believe. Speak favorably, for example, of gay marriage and you become, depending on who's judging, either morally enlightened or morally corrupt.

But away from the public airwaves, a different and deeper understanding of the moral life prevails in the more intimate relations of our daily lives. It is an understanding of the moral life that allows us to continue to talk to our neighbors, swap recipes, borrow drills, and enjoy our kids playing together, even if we voted differently in the last presidential election. This is an understanding of the moral life as depending more on the dispositions you have than the views you hold. The moral life, after all, is primarily something we do rather than something we talk about. It depends on traits deeper than the views we hold of the hot-button moral issues of our time. It centers instead on what Aristotle would have called virtues, our basic dispositions or ways of being in the world. Asked to describe the moral life, we typically include traits such as our capacity for kindness, our aspirations toward integrity, our respect for principle, our desire for worthy

More and more, I am drawing on this deeper understanding of the moral life in my courses. In a morally polarized world, it offers a classroom identity that keeps open the potential for a common moral dialogue. There are daily opportunities.  A few minutes spent listening to a student relate his anxieties over an upcoming exam. Stooping down to help a student when she drops her books on the floor. When my actions reveal I care about my students before they discover my views of capital punishment, I take on for them an identity that still has resonance in a morally fragmented world. I'm a person who is trying, however imperfectly, to lead a moral life.

Acknowledging the moral life as a practice we all imperfectly engage in engenders a distinctive understanding of the moral life. As an imperfectly realized practice, the moral life is always richer than our conceptions of it. We are always learning the meaning of kindness as we encounter it in its myriad manifestations. Each time we are able to stand on principle, we deepen our appreciation of integrity.

Recognizing the moral life as richer than our conceptions has a poignant value in the classroom. This is because of the way this recognition can cultivate our respect for our moral differences. In order to be meaningful, this respect must be genuine, not a lazy or indifferent tolerance. It needs to be a respect that compels us to want to learn more about why we disagree with each other.
Lately, I've noticed a reoccurring reaction I get from my students. They put it in different ways, but its essence is this: "You always treated everything we said as if it had value."  In whatever form this reaction takes, it's one of my favorite compliments. For, as is true of us all, everything a student says has value. Not equal value, of course. There are some classroom comments that are arrestingly insightful. There are plenty that are downright silly. But errors, even of the grievous sort, have value, even if for no other reason than they force us to better articulate the truth.  Recognizing this, my students are beginning the kind of genuine moral conversation so many of our public pundits seemingly no longer believe is possible.


Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor of legal studies at Franklin & Marshall College.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top