Ethics in the Classroom: What You Need to Know

Ethics in the Classroom: What You Need to Know

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Updated on Sep 9, 2009

Ethics and morals are often associated with religion, but schools can also provide important lessons in ethical thinking and action.

 “There’s a big fear out there that somehow teaching ethics in school will seep into students a particular religious viewpoint,” says Dr. Bruce Weinstein, aka The Ethics Guy. “But ethics must be taught and are being taught in school. It’s impossible not to teach ethics in a school.”

Weinstein, who writes a weekly column for and recently released the popular book Is It Still Cheating if I Don’t Get Caught?, says if schools have a code of conduct, they are teaching ethics.

According to Weinstein, there are five basic principles of ethics that are common to all faiths:

  • Do no harm
  • Make things better
  • Respect others
  • Be fair
  • Be loving

These values are defined differently in different parts of the world, but they are cross-cultural and expected among all groups of people. And Weinstein says they should extend beyond the walls of the sanctuary and should be taught and expected in homes and classrooms as well.

Dr. Larry Hinman, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego, explains that ethics in a secular context has to do with what people have in common in terms of humanity. “The questions we’re facing now are not how can we live well within our group, but how can our group live well with other groups in the world,” Hinman says. “We need to spend a lot of time listening to what other people say about their values, rather than just making assumptions. The more we’re able to see the common ground, the better our chance will be of building a strong society and a strong world.”

According to Weinstein, children today are looking to the culture at large for ethical guidance, and many adults are not setting a good example. And it’s not just the bankers (whose misconduct is easily identified within the current economy). Weinstein says children are looking even at the conduct of athletes, for example. “These athletes beef themselves up with steroids,” Weinstein says, and children think to themselves, “If these people can get away with it, why shouldn’t I?”

He points to a 2008 report released by the Josephson Institute of Ethics that found that of more than 30,000 high school students surveyed, approximately 65 percent admitted to cheating. Schools must teach ethics, Weinstein says, “otherwise the Bernie Madoffs of the world will set the standard.”

Hinman, too, is concerned with cheating—particularly students’ difficulty in understanding how it is harmful. “I’ll have a conversation with students about what, if anything, is wrong with cheating—who gets hurt,” Hinman says. “And most often, students think, ‘If nobody is getting hurt, how is it harmful?’” But Hinman explains that when someone cheats, it makes an unequal playing field. And if everyone were to cheat, we would be back to square one because no one gets an advantage.

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