Can Ethics be Taught and Learned?

by Qamar-ul Huda, PhD

The stories of The Cambridge Analytica misusing personal information sold by Facebook, or the laundering of funds by powerful politicians as revealed in the Panama papers or Harvard University’s admissions process historical favoritism of wealthier candidates are usually portrayed as a story of a few bad apples giving the industry an ugly name. This narrative of a few number of bad apples, in some sense, provides comfort for those invested in the success of the institution—whether it be the largest technology company, democracy, or the one of the oldest universities in the world. Since common people cannot, or should not, be familiar with the complexities of the story then one should not worry about increasing financial misconduct, threats of social media to democracy, and corrupt leaders because these institutions are resolutely resilient to a few bad apples.

But scandalous ethical decisions in higher education or a designed political misinformation campaigns in the digital community should not be interpreted as random anecdotes. Since anecdotes imply random and unusual links and allows the interpreter to consider ethical lapses as normal human experiences. When ethics is left out of the broader conversation to purposefully to protect institutions, unfortunately then, the topic of ethics learning, applied ethics, ethical process-making and ethical outputs are left unexplored.

Whether it be a disruption of ethical practices in the professional workplace, amongst university students, or during social settings, there is always a demand for teaching ethics as part of the undergraduate and professional education. Whether it is in the political arena or in the professional fields of finance and technology, bad apples need to learn, practice, and be trained in an understanding of ethics to rectify their shortcomings. In midst of Facebook selling personal information to third parties who then sold it to corporations and political campaigns, The Atlantic Monthly reporter Irina Raicu wrote “Rethinking Ethics training in Silicon Valley” which explored if these ethical training seminars were sufficient in changing thinking and behavior in the work place. The assumption is: ethical training seminars for professional techies would prepare them to make more ‘thoughtful decisions’ when confronted with ethical dilemmas that involve the company’s products. Again, the primary reason to support employee ethical training seminars was to ensure that company’s products and services are not abused or misappropriated according to law or to the corporate culture. If these ethical seminars do anything, they attempt to re-align corporate values with the employee’s personal values.

However, if ethics training, and not ethical moral education, would help prepare technologists to make proper and thoughtful decisions, and ensure that they reflect upon their own values and personal choices, we need to ask can ethics be taught and learned?

Within universities there are plenty of ethic courses taught in business, law and medical schools, and in accounting, computer science, biology, philosophy and religion, sports medicine and coaching, political science and sociology classes. To major in the field of ethics as an undergraduate the courses will probably be based in the religious or philosophy studies department and emphasize an interdisciplinary framework. A history of ethics course will consist of Western moral approaches starting with Plato, Aristotle, David Hume Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. If one wanted to learn more about religious traditions, then ‘religious ethics’ courses examine major ethical and scriptural themes from the Abrahamic and dharmic traditions. In essence all of these courses are introducing a history of intellectual attempts on answering questions like “why be moral?”, “what is good versus evil?” and “what is a meaningful life?” Ethic teachers are instilling in students to critically engage with the Ancient Greeks philosophers up to modern scholarship of ethical topics. However, ethical courses in themselves do not pretend to be a substitute for moral education or moral formation, rather instructors vividly state that the reading materials are meant for reflection and criticism, i.e., find the problems in the sources and examine its worthiness.

Since ethics are not mandatory for students, nor are ethical seminars part of employee orientation, then is the teaching ethics enterprise by universities and corporation reaching their similar goals of cultivating holistic citizens capable of confronting personal conflicts efficiently? Is teaching of ethics, either in professional training seminars or to university students, not a pedantic exercise to understand past ethical and moral formulations to only become familiar with them but not to be applied in personal introspections?

If we return to the ethics training seminars designed for professionals who violated corporate ethical standards we notice that ethics is taught as an individual decision-making with no ties to history, culture, social structures, traditions, changing identities, and moral philosophy, thus we can expect the outcome that ethics is a personal choice. If ethics is only presented as a ‘corrective course’ to mistakes made in the workplace or is a result of process of remediation, then the participant learning about ethics is encountering the field when personal or corporate conflicts are identified and these actions need to be reassessed in a specific punitive context.

Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of The New York Times best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind believes personal ethics can be enhanced and enriched by seeing the world through the eyes and voices of others. To move beyond a hyper individualistic culture, Harari thinks it is very critical for the individual to learn from stories and experiences of other subjects. By learning from other stories, according to Harari, we can appreciate alternative modes of living, thinking, and processing information to benefit the broader society. Stories can be used to empower and reframe our thinking of other cultures and societies and form our ethical understanding of the world.

Instead of thinking about ethics as a series of random anecdotal stories of poor choice-making, it might be useful to frame ethics as a participation in moral culture, in moral institutions with moral actors. Then it might be productive to inquire how these systems challenge, support or obstruct ethical behavior. For example, what may be described as a system of incentives in a corporation, for example, needs to be in line with examining the employee perceptions of appreciation, rewards and promotion.

Do we teach ethics only to examine a history of intellectuals grappling with morality and evil, and not provide students -who will be professionals- with the tools they will need to recognize the personal moral identity with social and cultural structures? If students can distinguish and articulate the differences from an ethical value-based systems and utilitarian ethics versus secular humanist approaches of social justice, does this make the student competent and intellectually accomplished in the field of ethics? For some the answer is a definite and unambiguously yes; however, for critiques, the field of ethics is disconnected from a broader moral education or moral formation. Critiques of integrating moral education in ethical classes argue that such classes are ‘theological’ in nature which do not invite students to critical thinking. This polarized thinking of teaching and learning ethics is undoubtedly contributing to nurturing bad apples. There needs to be greater attention to context and social organization with which the individual understands personal and professional ethics. If ethic courses continue to ignore the structural limitations, and ignore long term objectives for students to be mindful, empathetic, self-aware, and self-critical, then we will not fully understand how the barrel of apples can be infected by a few bad apples.


Qamar-ul Huda is the Founding Director of the Conflict, Stabilization, and Development program at the Center for Global Policy, a think-tank in Washington, DC. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University, and an expert for the UN Alliance for Civilizations. See bio on page 124.