One of the most frequently encountered questions for an ethics professor is the basic one: “Can you teach ethics?” This, of course, is mildly threatening if you are a self-interested prof whose very role depends on the answer to that question being “yes.” How can anyone teaching ethics answer that question objectively? I think that there are good reasons to believe that you can teach ethics. First, if you cannot, it is virtually the only realm of education that is held to be unteachable. Second, if you examine the argument, what people are really saying is that you cannot teach ethics “up”; everyone knows that you can teach ethics “down,” as evidenced by the extensive cheating reported in colleges and the failures in business ethics that insure that I always have a job doing what I do.
I find myself in the awkward position of saying that ethics are not fully formed when students get to college, so they can be taught. That makes me uneasy, because I would prefer that they would be fully formed. But if they are not fully formed, it is quite possible that they are well formed when they get to college. By that I mean that a student is sensitive to what is right and wrong, and that student reaches informed judgments based on a defensible structure for ethical decision-making. I also mean that person has the moral motivation to do the right thing when it would be easy to choose otherwise, and then has the strength of character to follow through and actually do the right thing.
The best evidence of that to me is the picture above, which includes the three men in my life who are most important to me, my father and my sons. My dad, Ken, is an Iwo Jima veteran, and at 92 is still my hero. He taught me many things, but two of the most valuable were that hard work and commitment to my calling was my daily responsibility, and that there was no substitute for honesty. I wish that I could say that I saw those two things reflected in my life. But somehow, for all my shortcomings, I see them reflected clearly in my sons.
Kenny, my father’s namesake, is six years out of college and on the fast track with his multinational corporation. In fact, he is about to launch out on a significant career opportunity overseas that will take him far from us. Of course, I am happy for his successes. But I admire his quiet determination to work with uncompromising excellence, and to lead in the same way. I know that, day after day, he rises early in the morning to meet his commitments, and I have never heard him make excuses in the midst of trying circumstances. In fact, he has spent a good piece of his young career supervising people my age and trying to help them adopt the same commitment to excellence that he pursues. In all of this, he adds energy to any group of friends with his happy spirit and sense of humor. When he comes home, he demonstrates tremendous compassion and kindness to his younger siblings and his parents, and he takes a genuine interest in our lives.
Nathan, ten years younger, works just as hard. But I admire his focused search for truth, and his willingness to confront hard questions and to be uncomfortable in that search. He does not accept things at face value, and he has a habit of examining his own motives for why he does things. I think that will serve him well in the long run as he tries to maintain his character when he leaves home. He looks up to Kenny for many things, including his work ethic and his energy. No foosball table is safe when those two are on opposite handles, and Thanksgiving has been a stream of shouts and laughter as they have played together.
We will send Nathan off to the college classroom of someone like me. Nathan’s values, if not fully formed, are very well formed. And he is teachable. My hope is that his ethics professor will activate that search for truth and not undermine it.
But as I look at the picture above, I see the imprint of my father in my sons. My Dad was not a perfect guy; neither am I, and neither are my sons. But he is a man of integrity who has demonstrated lifelong commitment—to his family, to his work, to my mother. He has given my sons a great gift of which they are only partly aware.
Can you teach ethics? Yes. My father is living proof. It may not come with an assigned catalog number or classroom. But, life on life, we change those who are important to us. And I am grateful that one more time, last night, my sons were able to hear his voice and see his face.
I only hope he has a sense of how his life will reverberate in the generations to come.