Teaching Ethics?


To Be Presented on August 31, 2003

9:00 AM Sunday at the

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

By William S Jamison


My argument:

Imagine we are playing a game of soccer. We know there are certain rules to play the game correctly. If it is a casual game we can be casual about the rules, but if we are being serious, we know that we must follow the rules. We might even need an authority figure or referee to insure that things are fair. So we play our game and everything goes about as well as soccer games go.

Now suppose that a team from another league challenges us to a game of soccer and we agree to play. Everyone sets up to start the game and as we begin we discover a problem. The other team is using different rules. The differences are serious enough that we simply cannot continue with the match because both teams are getting mad and arguments are breaking out all over the field. We realize we have to come to an agreement on the rules if we are to play the game.

With soccer, we might be able to come to a decision fairly quickly on such an issue. It is just a game and we are playing it for fun and exercise. So if we decide to accept one set of rules and all members of both teams know what the rules are, the problem is solved and the game goes on.

Now let’s apply this game metaphor to ethics. The community is playing the ethics game. Assume that everyone growing up in the community is taught to play the game of ethics according to the same rules. There is an authority available to enforce the rules. Everything goes about as well as a community can go. The players are conservative. That is, they want to conserve the game as the community plays it. 

Next, the same problem as in the soccer match occurs. Another community, or team, arrives and offers to play the ethics game with the community. In short order we discover that the rules of the game are different between the two communities. Again this results in arguments breaking out all over the “field” and these arguments need to be resolved.

In situations like this between competing communities if the authorities refuse to compromise the rules the results are normally harsh. The two communities do not fit well together since they essentially attempt to continue to play their own games separately. Since the game of ethics is taken seriously – it often is a matter of life and death – this can cause serious conflicts that disrupt the communities. Sometimes this disruption disables the workings of the community entirely.

Typically, the surviving communities are those that have either prevented foreign communities from moving in, forced foreign communities to play by the conservative rules of the community, or the authorities have promoted a compromise that enabled the ethics game to continue, though the rules are now modified. That is the rules have been made more liberal.

I will ignore the first two possibilities and focus on the third. Assume that the community we are concerned with has now revised the rules of the game and now the concern is to insure all individuals understand the new standards, the new compromised rules.

Add a dimension of complexity to this by considering that over the life of the community, several more communities have moved in so that the authorities are continually beset by conflicts and rules continually need to be compromised. Eventually things get so complex that the easiest recourse is to lighten up on rules altogether. The power of this is that freedom increases as rules decrease, and freedom allows growth. The weakness of this is that a decrease in rules weakens stability. The result is that we have a growing, more complex community that is decreasingly stable.

As a side note, the community may have different authorities, games may be continuously played in separation from one another, and rules may be increasing complex to avoid conflict between groups. An example of such a rule is equal opportunity. The rules for equal opportunity become increasingly complex as the authority attempts to ameliorate relationships between different groups.

Assume however that those responsible for teaching the rules of ethics in this increasingly complex community now consider their job to be primarily one of teaching those players from the various teams that the rules they learned to play by, say within their local leagues, are not the rules that should be used in inter league play. We might even say that the rules some leagues play by are rules for a game called soccer and the rules another league play by are called basketball. To resolve a conflict between a soccer team and a basketball team, the teachers advise that all rules that are in conflict should be ignored. Players can score points either by kicking the ball into the goal or using their hands to throw the ball into the basket. More players might start throwing the ball into the basket than kicking the ball into the net, even from the soccer team, once they realize they earn more points that way. But everyone is allowed to do both. We now have a very exciting and confusing game. Expand this metaphor still further and say we now have a game being played that includes all of the positive scoring opportunities of soccer, basketball, football, quoits, horseshoes, tennis, volleyball, bowling, baseball, pool, and track.  This is exciting, since practically anything can happen and does almost at once. It also means everything is confusing since individual players lose a sense of what they are to do, how they can best cooperate with their team, and frustration is incredible. There are those, of course, that do well and can use great imagination and talent to take advantage of the complex opportunities to excel.

Using a rough schema I would place various teams playing the ethics game – our most serious game – from conservative to liberal. Those most conservative are still trying to play a single game without compromising the rules they play by. Those most liberal are those that prefer the game-openness strategy and allow for the most complex and confusing game possible.

I would put the UUs in the liberal group. I would also venture to say that most philosophy textbooks used in college ethics courses are also liberal. Students are encouraged to experience other cultural perspectives and expand their consciousness to include all games played in the larger community. It is even the case that this game openness include even cultural perspectives not present in the community so that the student has a world-openness that is virtually limitless. This aspiration is associated with freedom of thought, critical thinking, being independent and autonomous, and encouraging not only toleration but mutual celebration of cultural differences.

I would also argue that the complexity is such that most young people being encouraged to accept liberal ideas are now encouraged to game-openness to such an extent that they will now conclude that there are no rules that are really enforceable, that the game has no conceivable point, and is in short, not worthy of their attention. Teaching them to reach this game-openness detracts from their ability to successfully participate in most conservative community games because they can no longer remember – or have never learned the strict rules of those games. It also leaves most too confused to be successful in achieving status, since that requires  successful participation in one or more games. The best players in the games achieve the most status.

Teaching ethics by encouraging such game-openness results in most students becoming confused and disoriented, a state that may prevent them from successful participation in games they will need to play to achieve careers. So I worry that teaching ethics as I now do is not preparing students for the kind of life they will need to lead but instead may be counter to their long term best interests.

This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated July 11, 2016. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.