Can Ethics be Taught?

- D.S.Sheriff, M.D.
Dean, Academic Affairs, Vinayaka Missions, Salem.India
Mailing address:
24 Manickam Street, MDS Nagar, Salem-636007, India.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 15-17.

; It is an inherent quality learnt as a part of a development process of a personality. The imbibing of value system, therefore, predetermines the ethical behaviour of an individual. An individual learns to respect the values imparted by the family in particular and society at large.

Can Ethics be Taught?

; Ethics is a study of one perception of what is right or wrong (1) in a given context or a situation. It is an attitude of how one reacts or relates to an incident, happening or a stand one takes in the house or at the place of work. It is an inherent quality learnt as a part of a development process of a personality. In other words, an individual learns the values of life as a part of growing up without being separated as another instructional behaviour taught as a part of the curriculum. The imbibing of value system, therefore, predetermines the ethical behaviour of an individual. These behavioural responses are dependent upon certain external factors like one's culture, religious beliefs and regional influences. In an Indian context the institution of family as well as community; system play a major role in the embryonic nurturing of ethical attributes and judgment. An individual learns to respect the values imparted by the family in particular and society at large.; Rather one's lifestyle embraces within its fold the ethical guidelines. Parents many a time become the role models for their children and act as vehicles of learning of life values.

An individual learns the basic concepts of life in a contrasting milieu of personal observation and tutoring. The family sets down its own traditional behaviour. With these influences setting the tone of for ground rules of rights and wrongs,; teaching of ethics as a doctrinated subject has to cross layers of set ideas in the minds of the learners. Along with it the change in past life style of simplistic approach to holistic but complex present day high tech life demands the intrusion of newer life value systems. Concern and understanding therefore become the most important key words of ethics. The social upbringing of a person, the level of literacy as well as the standard of living of a social person do play and influence the learning process of ethics. In other words the blending of professed values with operational values do determine the moral sensitivity of a person to simple day to day activities to complex issues of one's occupation.

; Therefore, teaching of ethics may be an attempt to justify our actions or inaction in the name of science or medicine or humanities. Technology is simply stated could be called as manipulation of nature for human well-being. (2). Universities or places of learning generally feel apprehensive about the sudden spurt of knowledge explosion which has outpaced the general understanding of a common man who has to reap the benefits and consequences of advanced knowledge of living. When I say a common man must understand what is happening in the name of science which is going to penetrate the lifestyles of living. In other words there is a communication gap between the advent and advancement of science and the common man. That gap has necessitated the need to teach ethics to the givers of science or policy makers so that their methods of application of science brings no harm to the simple interests of living. In other words modern day demands that sensitivity to human feelings and needs become paramount. Logic, common sense, knowledge, technical skills, economic upliftment, health and disease and more - these aspects are juxtaposed against the value and reverence for human life. With many options in hand a giver has to face many ethical dilemmas which can be solved when one has the right science tempered with humanities in him or her. That ability to judge what is right science requires the student or teacher or scientist to learn the basics of human introspection loudly taught as Ethics. In such a context if one has to ask a question Do we have practically trained teachers of ethics. Volumes of scientific literature will name a set of elitists group of philosophers, scientists, policy makers hailing from the prestigious group of Institutes of Ethics like the Hastings Center, USA, Departments of Philosophies and medicine all over the globe along with select committees of Ethics in hospitals or institutions. This group will analyze, write the alphabets, set the syllabi, develop the framework, devise guidelines and grade the curriculum.; Great Philosophers, religious thinkers, practical scientists - all will act as guiding beacons of light for the living of ordinary people.; Therefore, we have great humanistic thinkers who place human welfare above science. Yet materialistic advancements have outweighed the social developments of mankind.

; Biotechnology of living including the gene sequencing, screening, testing, cloning, agricultural and animal science marvels, space odysseys, test tube babies and other scientific miracles have created better opportunities and options to make one's life comfortable. The multiple availability of materialistic opportunities has created wider options of choices one can look for.; The knowledge to decide which option is suited to the individual's need demands proper guidance and education.; Therefore it is high time that we have proper dissemination of knowledge to the common man who will understand and follow what needs to be followed for his well being. That dissemination of knowledge depends upon true education of information to the consumer.; Keeping these contradicting needs and apprehensions, education of ethics needs proper communication skills including responsible mass media, which will make everyone of us Science Literate. That is a very big responsibility on every true citizen of the world. Keeping these contradictions in mind I wish to justify my thought that ethics must be an imbibed virtue rather than a taught science. I will illustrate few cases to highlight some of these thoughts for you to ponder and deliberate. Family plays an important role in building a mind that could ethically judge a situation or one's life.

Case 1.

; In the olden days (even now in some places) the parents fixed marriage. The bridegroom's family visits the would be bride's residence, have a look at the bride, discuss the capacity for the family to sustain a relationship querying the economic, educative and cultural soundness of the bride and her family. In one such incident the bridegroom was shown a lady and bridegroom got married to find out he was married to another person with mental retardation.; In legal terminology this could be taken as impersonation. But the bridegroom said that he will honour the marriage. This was Islamic wedding wherein the priest; before the marriage takes the consent of the bridegroom and bride. He said that I did promise to take these women as my lawfully wedded wife. I need to honour that commitment. To honour that commitment he stayed married to her for life. In the process he fathered a male child. He could take care of his wife and child; meeting their personal, psychosocial demands. The same person in his occupation was honest and sincere never succumbed to the temptations of corruption.; He hailed from a very poor family. He learnt his values of life from his mother's advice and her sufferings.; He was neither a creative genius nor a writer to give a painting or a literary piece. Instead he made his life a literary marvel. What do we learn from it?

1. A true man will honour his commitment. In that process he will bring no harm to his dependents.

2. Altruism is the end for one's egoism.

3. A mentally compromised person's right to procreation can be justified if the sane partner could mother the child.

4. A child could grow with minimum hurts and maximum benefits comparable to a welfare society or other adopted parents or steps parents.

5. The right to choose the decision and to abide by one commitment was inherent quality than an acquired one.

6. A man or woman must look beyond their interests to create a stable family, which is the smallest unit that could build a stronger nation.

; ;A child born in such a family has an innate quality of moral consciousness which will make him to think before each step of life or before taking a decision to introspect whether what he does is right or wrong.; This is an exceptional case for discussion. But it does bring the point how strong the family values coupled with religious belief influences one's personal behavior. To such a person if one teaches that abortion could be undertaken in such situations when it brings harm to the mother how he or she will react. If he is the physician what option he will choose? Will he leave the decision to the patient? Or will he impose his righteousness on the patient?; If the patient says I want the baby comes what may to my health for my family needs a baby badly?; Will you take this as an act of informed consent of the patient? Ethical Principles can be taught but not situations for each situation creates a unique example of its own. That is why the concept Bring No Harm brings new meanings every time we discuss it. A child who was plucked away from the parents in the childhood to be grown as an instrument to become a professional thief or a killer may not understand what the precept means. I was impressed by an anecdote narrated by a speaker trying to bring out the difference between teaching and learning. He said that one person was trying to teach a student how to play a flute. The other person was asked after a period of listening whether he has learnt to play the flute. He said No and went on to say that he has done the job of teaching. He has forgotten to ask whether I have learnt it.; How true it is to all aspects of teaching and learning?

; Bioethics is one such subject that needs to be learnt though teaching may only help the process of learning. In an Indian context I adopted the following four questions to probe what place an Indian gives for teaching of Ethics;

1. What do you understand by the term Bioethics?

2. Do you think bioethics must be taught separately as a subject? If so, is it at the school level or at the college level.

3. If you think what areas needs bioethical considerations?

4. How do you think you can make people understand the value of teaching of bioethics?

; A cross section of people who had answered these questions, numbered 1200 (620 males; 580- females).; 60% of the respondents were literate with a minimum qualification of senior high school to doctorate degree holders.; The rest were workers (15%),; office clerks (10%) and 5% were unemployed youths.

; Only 20 percent of literate segment said they understood the term Bioethics. They gave very vague definitions. All of them had voiced one concern that there is slow degeneration of value system in all walks of life that is very dangerous for a developing country like ours.

; Most of them felt that in schools in the name of moral education the pupils were educated to be civic responsible. That is to start the day's work with a prayer, to respect parents and teachers, to maintain personal hygiene and to regard work as worship, to keep the surroundings clean. But Bioethics as a specialized could be taught as an ancillary subject at degree level.

; The areas they thought that need to be given great ethical considerations are: 1) politics and political leaders 2) traffic rules and regulations 3) Education and Health 4) Mass Media.

1.Politics and Political Leaders

; Today Indian Politics have drifted slowly away from the polity of people's welfare into personal welfare. Speeches, actions and slogans adopted were taken as vehicles of mass appeal giving scant respect to realities and needs of the society. Rather the emotive components have taken upper hands rather than intellectual and rational deliberations. Regionalism, religious bias, personal character assassination, the longing to stay long in power and power hunger have dominated the political scenes instead of the strength and unity of the nation barring times of emergency.; For a large democracy like India politicians and politics need revamping of values that will guide the nation towards true development rather than projected statistical development.


; The number of people getting killed by accidents has increased to such an extent it has become a routine news item of many of the dailies. Traffic rules are given scant respect, Roadworthiness of vehicles have been pushed to the back seats, accountability on the part of authorities is reduced to clinging on to one's position. The manufacturers of vehicles and the easy availability of finances have made people to buy vehicles in erratic numbers.; Most of them donut have a basic knowledge as to how they must drive the vehicle they have bought.; Every vehicle has a knack and way of being driven which needs to be highlighted by the suppliers. Instead what is being done is mass appeal slogans like Buy this vehicle- save petrol for it gives 75 kilometers running for one litter. Traffic rules are not given great care. These are some of the statements prepared out of their responses.

3) Education and Health

; Commercialization education has led to the opening up of greater numbers of universities, colleges and institutions all over.; Distance education has tried to bring down illiteracy. Higher Education including professional colleges has tried to improve our human resource base. But the value system of our education has been deteriorating due to either private management dictating their personal policy or infiltration of politicians controlling the field of education. Though we have all India Bodies of Control for the maintenance of standards of education, the dictum "money is the great Organizer" dilutes the moral dictates of education.

4) Mass Media

; Responsible mass media is the greatest asset of a country whether it is a Newspaper, magazine, Television or Information highway Net Work. Reporting of certain scientific matter as News item like manufacture of petrol through indigenous methods or sensationalizing volatile and sensitive news items or highlighting specifics of an incident or false claims of commercial advertisements do hamper the development of a developing nation.

; I have highlighted some of the complex issues of learning and teaching of bioethics in an Indian context as I understand with the help of few questions and answers along with my own introspection of value systems that I envisage is detrimental to the welfare of a citizen. Yet the field is wide open for many more discussions which could find a way of reporting the responses of common man regarding certain specialized fields like biodegradation, AIDS, Genetics and other applications of science. Yes, we too have very efficient machinery of educating the people the values of life. But the scenes of majority and the poverty that fills the canvass of our nation calls for more studies and efforts to feed, educate and shelter him to bring the common man to the table of thinking so that the edification of ethics will be appreciated by one and all.


1. D.S.Sheriff. Literature and Medical Ethics. Editorial. J Roy Soc Med 1988;81:688-90

2. Schilpp PA. The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Tudor Publishing Company, New York,1952.

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