There are those who, from childhood, are inclined to exhibit generosity, honesty, and patience while others seem inclined towards the opposite. Observing this, one wonders whether virtues are innate dispositions or learned and cultivated qualities. If they are inborn, then is it not an injustice to hold these individuals to the same ethical standards? If they are not, then when and how does that education occur and who is responsible for it? Commonsense and life experiences confirm that indeed there are those born with a particular disposition to some virtues; but since even they do not exhaust the range of virtues, lifelong education and training are imparative. Such training is emphasized by all religious, spiritual and humanist traditions and the former two outline rigorous paths to the perpetual endeavor of self-discipline and ethical agency essential to a good life.
In our contemporary world, we need ethics education and (re)training more than ever; because today, we live rushed lives juggling demands and deadlines, are always thinking of the next moment and seem to live neither in the present nor reflect on what just passed. Most of us seem to sleepwalk through the trance that is our unexamined lives. In the cosmopolitan cities as in the most remote villages in the world, we are bombarded by sights, sounds and sensations that constantly market every desire as a need that must be met and leave no quiet corners in our mental, emotional or physical spaces. Success is gauged by material fortune and fame frequently paid for by wagering one’s values and soul. In small or big ways, we all fall short of ethical standards but observing the dramatic public ethical and legal failures of politicians and cultural figures often with impunity, our individual failures by comparison are trivialized and normalized to the determent of our individual and collective life and afterlife.
The economic global crisis that has destroyed countless lives did not start with a sudden colossal misconduct of few people. It is rooted in our collective pursuit of acquisition and in the cumulative failure of many in small and big ways both through legal and illegal means where lying, cheating, and maximizing profit at all cost are not signs of ethical failure but the mark of a shrewd and successful person. The deposed dictators of North African/Middle East and the exposed financial institutions and multinational conglomerates executives had accumulated obscene wealth through embezzling from their societies and workers. Their worst offense, however, is the culture of corruption that has come to define business and societal norms for success. In its annual Youth’s Values and Actions study for 2010, the Josephson Institute of Ethics1 (JIE) in the United States surveyed 43,000 high school students in both private and public schools.
The findings were alarming! While the overwhelming majority (89%) acknowledged that it is more important to be a good person than a rich one, nearly a third of the boys and a quarter of the girls admitted stealing from a store in the past year; an additional 21% stole from a family member and 18% stole from a friend. While nearly 92% said their parents teach them to do the right thing and not to lie, 48% of the boys and 35% of the girls said they lied to save money on something and 80% said they lied to their parents about something important while nearly 60% cheated in school.
Some might argue that these are minor ethical infractions of children who have not yet morally or cognitively matured. Others might argue, well, that’s what happens in the secular materialistic West where family and religious structures have all but collapsed. Both of these arguments do not withstand scrutiny. Children are not yet intellectually mature but these actions are not one time incidents; they are repeated acts which, if left unchecked, become habits that set a faulty foundation for ethical deliberation. In fact, studies by JIE looking into this question found that childhood attitudes and behavior regarding cheating and lying were important predictors of engagement in such behavior in adulthood.
The researchers concluded that the belief that cheating and lying is necessary for success was crucial predictor of dishonest behavior in adulthood2. As for the argument of this being a problem in the secular West, the US is considered the most religiously diverse society. Hence, these children come from diverse religious, ethnic and class backgrounds and their parents, by student’s own admission, are teaching them values: to be good people, to do the right thing, not to lie. Additionally, if we concede that virtues like honesty and being a decent person are universal and not merely religious, should the (ir)religiosity of a society matter? Furthermore, considering the widespread corruption across all levels of society in the more religious societies including Muslim ones, these findings are relevant and may very well reflect these societies just as easily.
It is not that the survey participants did not know right from wrong; it is that somewhere along the way, they figured that lying and cheating are necessary for success and are a mark of skill and smart. This is because a particular conceptualization of a “good life” has been globalized and seems to be framed in market value terms: high-yield, low-risk/cost, short term investment. This market maxim corrupted our work and public lives and carries over and colonizes our private lives as we see it in the school, the community, the family and even within ourselves. We want things our way, want them now, and with least possible investment of time, energy or resources on our part, whether in our work, health, education, or relations.
In relationships with others, we ask for our rights before executing our duties and if our “needs” are not met as we demand them, then –in the calculus of the market – those relationships are not worth keeping. There are marriages that should end for the wellbeing of everyone involved, but the unprecedented worldwide high rates of divorce –where care, compromise and compassion are signs of weakness to hide from the “opponent” –no doubt reflect our new global ethical challenges and their social, mental and physical consequences. Because of, or perhaps in spite of, ethical crises, discourses on ethics abound in our contemporary world. There are professional ethics for business, medicine, governance, education and other fields which institutions require their employees to take; there are university courses on ethics; and countless books and articles are written about the topic all intended to instill ethics in us. But there are differences between receiving information and acquiring and implementing knowledge; the former saturates our world while the latter is exceedingly difficult. Learning ethics is a lifelong process the foundation of which is, as noted earlier, laid in childhood.
As parents, we teach youngsters not merely by what we tell them but more importantly by our conduct and how we justify them. They can learn from both our successes and failures depending on the lessons they see us derive from them. But the responsibility of teaching ethics falls, especially in today’s world, on everyone: families, schools, and communities. In his article, Before Teaching Ethics, Stop Kidding Yourself, Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy, concurs with Kierkegaard’s observation that it is not so much ignorance of moral and ethical values that is the problem but that most of us obscure our ethical and religious understanding overtime. Because what is right is not always what is easy or what is in our short term interest, our “conscience has an uphill battle”3 as we deliberate our options.
Ethics education, therefore, is not simply teaching abstract knowledge about virtues and ethical theories but it also “ought to include training to make us better able to detect inner reflections that are solely in the service of the pleasure principle” (ibid). Objectives of this training should include enabling students to contemplate what the barriers to the righteous life are chief among which is self-deception (ibid). Ethics education requires Socratic pedagogy to guide people in the important process articulated in the aphorism of the wise and required by all religious traditions: getting to know one’s self.
Fostering and modeling this process ought to be central to educational ethics as much as it should be to ethics education. A teaching of ethics that aims to cultivate good character and moral agency requires incorporating ethics literacy across the curriculum and a partnership between family, school, and community4. Ethics education should involve developing the ability to examine an issue, identifying and understanding what is known, needs to be known, and unknowable about that issue. Educators must then push students to explore all sides of the arguments and options and to question their own assumptions and values not so that they may be rejected but to grasp their bases (ibid). It involves understanding and tuning our awareness to recognize the ethical values at stake in an issue and prioritizing them in importance and consequences.
This requires the perpetual refinement of both our critical thinking and ethical deliberation, vigilant awareness of our capacity for self-deception, and a moral imagination that enables us to decenter ourselves to see things from the perspective of another and judge how our decisions and actions impact others5. It is a dialectical and continuous process of cultivating the virtues and moral agency so praised and prized by all religious/spiritual and humanist traditions. Religious/spiritual traditions have their systematic teachings and rituals for cultivating ethical character and agency. In our increasingly pluralistic societies, we also need to draw on the universal principles binding us together without sacrificing our specificity which can only enrich all of us. In this regard, some efforts have been made in character and ethics education across curriculum so as to overcome the fragmentation inherent in the multiplicity in fields of knowledge and to bridge the community and academe.
Chicago based DePaul University, America’s largest Catholic University, is one such example. It has developed a living document that compiles a common language for discussing and teaching ethics across the various fields6. Private institutes like Josephson Institute of Ethics: Center for Youth Ethics, cited earlier, has developed an extensive curriculum titled Character Counts; a framework for teaching six core traits (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship) that could be implemented across school subjects.
There are of course other values and virtues embedded in these six traits. This program is used by secular and religious institutions and communities in a coalition involving hundreds of civic, religious and state institutions and over a thousand schools7. In Islam, the concept of taqwa encapsulates that ideal ethical state. Taqwa “represents, on the one hand, the moral grounding that underlies human action, while on the other, it signifies the ethical conscience which makes human beings [vigilantly] aware of their responsibility to God and society.”8 This concept combines a state of being and doing with a relationship with self, God, and the social/material world.
Consequently, in the divine plan for human diversity, taqwa is the universal standard for excellence and the mark of moral community before God:
“O humankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to truly know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one possessing taqwa. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware” (Quran 49:11-13).
To train for this state, Islam’s ritual acts from the public declaration of faith, to prayers, fast, alms giving, to pilgrimage are ordained to achieve a higher objective of building a moral character that manifests in ethical agency responsible towards itself, God, and the social/material other.
Purification of the self is both the means and the objective of the rituals acts in the path towards the ultimate objective of attaining taqwa and excellence before God. Many of us Muslims have, sadly, reduced these transforming acts of worship into mechanical ones we can check off from our “must do list.” The continuous process of purification, therefore, requires the conscious awareness of self-monitoring (muraqaba) and of self-reckoning (muhasaba). Going from awareness to action is the most difficult task and the objective of ethics education and for the assistance in which we pray as the Prophet did: Lord, help me gain beneficial knowledge, and benefit me from the knowledge you enabled me to gain, and increase me in knowledge. A prayer for a transformative knowledge!
1. Josephson Institute of Ethics Releases Study on High School Character http://josephsoninstitute.org/
2. Character Study Reveals Predictors of Lying and Cheating. 2009. http://josephsoninstitute.org/surveys/index.html
3. Gordon Marino. 2004. Before Teaching Ethics, Stop Kidding Yourself. http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i24/24b00501.htm
4. Ethics education program at Penn State University’s Rock Institute http://rockethics.psu.edu/education/
6. DePaul University’s ETHICS 101: A COMMON ETHICS LANGUAGE FOR DIALOGUE http://commerce.depaul.edu/ethics/docs/EthicsManual.pdf
7. Josephson Institute of Ethics character counts project: http://charactercounts.org/overview/about.html
8. Nanji, Azim. 1991. “Islamic Ethics”, IN A Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer Ed. Oxford University Press. pp 106-118