Just consider this for a moment, you can tell a friend an important truth, which also, might end the friendship. You recognised that the continued uses of fossil fuel and cars and planes contribute to climate change, and yet you want to get where you need to go. When you see an interaction at a party between a man and a woman that seems off and wonder if you should intervene.
We face these challenges in our lives, big or small, and if we look closely, asks questions of ourselves. What are my principles, what are my values and what do I stand for. These questions makes us consider our obligations to ourselves. They are required decisions and actions, which in turn forms a part of who we are, making it a part of our character as ethical people.
The question is, how well equipped are we to respond to these ethical questions? On what basis do we tell a friend a painful truth as opposed to engaging in deceit, or decide to intervene to help someone in need. More generally, how do we know what it means to live a good life? So, we’re probably familiar with who an educator is (looks at Mrs goh and smiles) right, one who teaches and passes on information. Well then there are also ethicists. When I refer to an ethicist, I don’t refer to some magical person or saint who always knows or does and call tell others what is good. Rather the ethicist, can be seen in our everyday lives. This can be rather referred to as the “everyday ethicist”. It can be found in our homes, the streets, schools.
The everyday ethicist could be your friend, your family member, an acquaintance or even a stranger. The everyday ethicist, which is all of us, who can recognise, counter and respond to ethical issues that arise in our lives. Now, one does not need a doctorate in moral philosophy to recognise these, and in fact many of us has already considered the everydayness of ethics in our own lives. Teachers are consulted by students on a regular basis regarding ethical issues that they face in their lives. For example, as an undergraduate student, I myself would consult teachers about experiencing conflict between respecting the wishes of my parents and choosing my own course of study and future somewhere off.
However my point here is not that ethical issues are just prevalent in our lives, but its to take a step further and develop a better or worse answers to these challenges and questions right. We can act unethically, which in turn, hopefully we regret and learn from our mistakes, and we can act ethically. In ways that promote the good. And although there might be no single answer to decide between these two, the point is to cultivate our own ethical awareness to develop the skills needed to act ethically.
Now, ideally, school, which is one of the biggest socialising platforms in real life experiences, would play a useful role in helping to develop skills to respond to ethical challenges, right. We go to school, to prepare ourselves for adulthood. There's a variety of skills, in terms of academic, social and even personal, that helps us to understand the world, and most importantly, ourselves. For example, the way we get trained in the variety of academic subjects, we are also given informal curriculum of extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports and so on. However, what we dearly don’t receive is training in ethical education. Nor in an era of maxed out curricular activities and academic testing, do we even leave any space for a frank and honest discussion about the ethical issues we face in life.
This lack attention to ethics, has serious implications to our lives. Studies has shown that the results of thousands of survey interviews and hundreds of in-person interviews conducted with emerging adults aged 13 to 23, regarding their understanding of ethics has made two things clear from these interviews. That children and adolescents do raise ethical questions in class, like the issues they face in the hallway, their own lives and stuff, but these questions are often sidestepped and avoided in the classroom, by teachers and administrators in order to avoid controversy. The problem about this is that there is a failure to engage in useful ethical education opportunities to educate children from a young age. Teachers and children have to realise that it is possible to critically and respectfully engage in dialogue about ethical issues. Just as we develop skills in other areas in school we can develop skills of reasoning and empathetic skills that can help us to develop as ethical persons.
Related to the first, it became clear that many of the interviewees, didn’t possess the tools to adequately address the ethical issues in their lives. This includes ethical issues from cheating in a test-obligations to help others in need. Over 60% of the interviewees discussed ethics, as what is right or wrong, as entirely up to an individual.
Well, personal beliefs, intuitions and opinions are vitality important in order to act ethically in the world and developing our own ethical understanding. But, to think of ALL ethics, and All matters of right and wrong, as completely up to each individual can be challenging when it comes to taking an ethical stand as a community and not just as an individual, against things that are actually ethically wrong, things such as sexual assault, terrorism, and institutional racism, those type of things.
Therefore, it is also important to think deeply about some ethical foundations, those based in basic human rights, like care and compassion for others for example, that allows us to make basic assessments of right and wrong and allow us to make moral judgements in this sense. This sense of judgement, is not based in self righteous castigation of another person or community, rather it is based on the desire to understand, discuss and evaluate ethical beliefs. And sometimes, hard work is required to make ethical decisions. But this distinction can be lost, without any attention to ethics education.
So, what i’m advocating for here is not a universal set of ethical beliefs for all people, nor like, a map that solves all of our ethical problems, because no such map exists. What I am arguing is that we should educate our children and adolescents to respect the mini ethical beliefs and values there are in the world, and also be willing to recognise and stand up for their own ethical convictions. What I want to note here is that if we are worried about the controversy of introducing ethics into schools, well do recognise that children, too, are EVERYDAY ETHICISTS. That is when we are talking ethics with kids, we’re not talking about something completely new. If we’re doing it right, we are recognising ethical issues that children already have, and then building from these concerns to help them develop as ethical people.
For example, in a project that author, philosopher and educator, Michael D Borroughs runs, about philosophical ethics in early childhood, the team spends time talking ethics with 3-5 year olds. With the use of children’s literature, art works, and games to motivate those discussions. What they found from their work is that from a young age, children do possess ethical convictions and ideas. They have ideas about fairness, inclusion and exclusion, about what’s right and what’s wrong. Funny thing is, one of children’s greatest strengths in these conversations, which sometimes even adults lack, is the ability to be imaginatively present to care about the story/case studies, in a way in which they almost talked with the characters and to care about the outcome in a vital way.
In conclusion, what I am advocating for you today is that we think about the presence of other concerns in our life, and the possibility of ethics education as being a positive and helping us to address and think more deeply about those concerns and hopefully redouble our efforts to build an ethical community, both within and beyond our schools.