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Ethics: Defined and Explored

Ethics: Defined and Explored

Reasoning based upon the fulfillment of one's moral duties.

The relationship of ethics to judgment

According to Nelson (2005), "the 'good' in good judgment includes a serious effort to find solid ethical grounds for decisions and actions" (xi-xii). However, Davey and Davey (2001) noted that many instructors today have abandoned the explicit exploration of how students' values interact with what they are learning. Regardless, Carter (1983) argued that even if an instructor does not make ethical exploration overt, "the academic world is always teaching values, even when it claims to be objective or value-free" (p. 15).

Seven "intellectual and moral virtues" in ethical reasoning

Ethical judgment guides how we put our abstract values into action in concrete situations. The values relevant to any given situation will vary depending upon one's role in that situation: the time and place of an event will likely dictate whether someone responds to it primarily as, for example, an engineer, a teacher, a father or an American. Different sets of values are associated with each of these roles.

However, we are all thinkers, and Paul (1995) identified seven "intellectual and moral virtues" (p. 259-262) involved in ethical reasoning.

  1. Humility - An honest awareness of one's limits and aversion to claiming more than one actually knows.
  2. Courage - The commitment to give a fair hearing to ideas that may at first seem dangerous or absurd, even in the face of one's own strong negative reaction.
  3. Empathy - Willingness to imagine one's self in another's place to better understand them, as well as a willingness to remember episodes of one's own moral failings.
  4. Integrity - Commitment to holding one's self and others to the same standards of evidence and proof.
  5. Perseverance - Willingness to struggle with confusion and ambiguity over time in the face of frustration and opposition, to achieve insight.
  6. Faith in Reason - Confidence that everyone can learn to think for themselves and humanity's interests are best served by encouraging everyone to come to their own reasonable conclusions
  7. Fairmindedness - Ability and willingness to assess all moral viewpoints with the same intellectual standards, without regard to one's feelings or advantage.

Paul argued that cultivating these character traits is essential to develop truly independent thinkers. He also emphasized that these traits can be internalized to different levels over time, as a learner moves from being uncritical, to being a self-serving critical thinker, then finally (hopefully) developing into a fairminded critical thinker (p. 258).

The ethical profiles of our students

Generally, research indicates that no differences exist in the level of ethical behavior across academic majors (Borkowsky & Ugras, 1998). Research has been mixed in regards to gender effects, with several studies finding that females tend to display more ethical behavior, when compared to males (Borkowsky & Ugras, 1998; Knotts, Lopez, & Mesa, 2000). However, these gender effects appear to vary according to the type of ethical dilemma presented (Oldenburg, 2005). Furthermore, older students tend to make more ethical decisions than younger students (Borkowsky & Ugras, 1998; McCabe & Trevino, 1997; Sankaran & Bui, 2003). Several interesting contextual factors also appear to be associated with level of ethical behavior in college students. McCabe & Trevino (1997) found that academic dishonesty was lower in students when their peers disapproved of this behavior and for students who had higher GPAs. They also found that level of academic dishonesty was higher when students reported higher amounts of time spent in extracurricular activities and/or for students who were involved in fraternities/sororities.

Teaching ethical reasoning skills

Ethics is not solely the domain of ethics courses (Rizzuti, 1983) -- content in any courses is not constructed in a vacuum. Students take the knowledge they obtain from all courses into the 'real world' where they will be faced with ethical situations where they must determine how to keep their opinions in context and reason through value conflicts.

Though they may need to be drawn into a conversation about ethics, Penn (1990) found that targeted focus on ethics instruction can increase students' ability to reason ethically. The most common method for engaging students in exploring ethics is the use case scenarios. Provocative case scenarios that present moral dilemmas -- when two 'rights' oppose each other -- are an effective way to engage students in the exploration of values (Davey & Davey, 2001). Some instructors even give students the in-class opportunity to face a real ethical dilemma themselves.  Importantly, because ethical discussion often involves morals and emotions, they must be facilitated with care.


Borkowsky, S.C., & Ugras, Y.J. (1998). Business students and ethics: A meta-analysis. Journal of Business Ethics, 17, 1117-1127.

Carter. A.H. (1983). The teaching of values in colleges and universities. In M.J. Collins (Ed.), Teaching values and ethics in college (pp. 11-18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davey, J.D., & Davey, L.D. (2001). The conscience of campus: Case studies in moral reasoning among today's college students. Westport. Connecticut: Praeger.

Knotts, T.L., Lopez, T.B., & Mesa, H.I. (2000). Ethical judgments of college students: An empirical analysis. Journal of Education for Business, 75(3), 158-163.

McCabe, D.L., & Trevino, L.K. (1997). Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: A multicampus investigation. Research in Higher Education, 38(3), 379-396.

Nelson, J. (2005). Cultivating judgment: A sourcebook for teaching critical thinking across the curriculum. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press

Oldenburg, C.M. (2005). Students' perceptions of ethical dilemmas involving professors: Examining the impact of professors' gender. College Student Journal, 39(1), 129-140.

Paul, R.W. (1995). Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Penn, W.Y. (1990). Teaching ethics: A direct approach. The Journal of Moral Education, 19(2), 124-138.

Rizzuti, C.J. (1983). Who should teach ethics? In M.J. Collins (Ed), Teaching values and ethics in college (pp. 53-60). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sankaran, S., & Bui, T. (2003). Relationship between student characteristics and ethics: Implications for educators. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 30(3), 240-253.