Liberal Education

Teaching for Ethical Reasoning in Liberal Education

The beginning of the end, it is generally agreed, was in 1962. Someone burned trash in the pit of an abandoned strip mine in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It was illegal; it was unethical; but people do this kind of thing all the time. An exposed vein of coal caught fire. The fire was doused with water, and town officials thought the fire was extinguished. But it wasn't, and the fire erupted again, unexpectedly, in the same pit just a few days later. More water was applied, and town officials thought that was the end of it. But again, it wasn't.

The fire spread underground. People debated long and hard as to what to do about it. As they debated, life went on. People attended to the problems that confronted them in their daily lives—making ends meet, raising their kids, marrying and divorcing—meanwhile relegating the fire to the backs of their minds. Every once in a while, though, the fire or its byproducts would emerge from the ground. Toxic gases would start to come up out of the ground. A basement would become very hot, and eventually people would realize that the fire had reached under their basement. Roads would start to buckle from the heat. Half-hearted efforts would be made to extinguish the fire, but the longer people waited, the more the fire spread, and the more expensive it would be to extinguish it. The government started to pay people to relocate. They had little other choice.

Today, Centralia, Pennsylvania, is a ghost town. All but the steadfast few have abandoned it. The town no longer appears on some maps. Relatively few people even remember the fire that still burns under the ruins of Centralia. Among those who do are the residents of Ashland, Pennsylvania, because the fire is making its way in their direction. They fear they may be next.*

The need to teach ethical reasoning

The story of Centralia is a precautionary tale for our society at large. The whole thing started with one clearly unethical act. Local, state, and government officials had a chance to do something about it, but they failed adequately to recognize the looming crisis. And so the crisis spread underground, erupting here and there, until it became unmanageable. The financial costs were staggering. But what about the ethics of making only a half-hearted attempt to control a fire that eventually would destroy the entire town, including the homes both of innocent victims and of those who did nothing?

One can argue that lapses such as occurred in Centralia are exceptions, scarcely the rule. The financial collapse of 2008 appears to have been partly a result of pure greed on the part of certain banks and bankers. At the time this article is being written, at least one well-known investment bank is under criminal as well as civil investigation. In 2010, coal miners died in a mine shaft that had been cited numerous times for inadequate ventilation, and a record-breaking oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred at least in part because of improper safeguards against such spills. The Deepwater Horizon fiasco has become one of the great ethical scandals of our time because the evidence suggests that BP, the oil company involved, knowingly cut corners to save time and money.

Such problems are nothing new. A. H. Robins went bankrupt in 1985. The company could not afford settlements for the more than three hundred thousand lawsuits filed against it as a result of its production and marketing of an unsafe intrauterine device for birth control, the Dalkon Shield. In 2001, Enron collapsed after Fortune magazine had named it America's most innovative company for six years in a row; it was a house of cards, built on phony books and fraudulent shell companies. Worldcom's bankruptcy came a year later, in 2002. It had incorrectly accounted for $3.8 billion in operating expenses. More recently, we have seen the end of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and numerous other financial enterprises. Few people reached the depths of Bernard Madoff, the epitome of unethical behavior on Wall Street, who now sits in a prison cell.

As a former dean of arts and sciences, I, like other deans, have discovered that students' ethical skills often are not up to the level of their SATs. The unethical behavior of college students runs the full gamut: drunken rampages, cheating on tests, lying about reasons for turning papers in late, attacks on other students, questionable behavior on the athletic field. Faculty members, of course, are not immune from ethical lapses either; few deans probably leave their jobs without having had to deal with at least some cases of academic or other misconduct on the part of faculty members.

Ethical Reasoning can be taught

Schools should teach ethical reasoning; they should not necessarily teach ethics. There is a difference. Ethics is a set of principles for what constitutes right and wrong behavior. These principles are generally taught in the home or through religious training in a special school, or they are developed through other forms of learning over the course of one's life. It would be challenging to teach ethics in a secular school, because different religious and other groups have somewhat different ideas about what is right and wrong. There are, however, core values that are common to almost all religious and ethical systems that schools do teach and reinforce—for example, reciprocity (the Golden Rule), honesty, sincerity, and compassion in the face of human suffering.

Ethical reasoning, by contrast, is a way of thinking about issues of right and wrong. Processes of reasoning can be taught, and school is an appropriate place to teach them. The reason is that, although parents and religious schools may teach ethics, they do not always teach ethical reasoning—or at least, they do not always do so with great success. They may see their job as teaching right and wrong, but not how to reason with ethical principles.

Is there any evidence that ethical reasoning can be taught with success? There have been successful endeavors with students of various ages. Paul and Elder (2005) have shown how principles of critical thinking can be applied specifically to ethical reasoning in young people. DeHaan and Narayan (2007) have shown that it is possible successfully to teach ethical reasoning to high school students. Myser, Kerridge, and Mitchell (1995) have shown ways of teaching ethics to medical students. Weber (1993) found that the teaching of ethical awareness and reasoning to business students can be improved through the provision of courses specifically focused on addressing these topics, although the improvements are often short-term. However, Jordan (2007) found that, as leaders ascend the hierarchies in their businesses, their tendency to define situations in ethical terms actually seems to decrease.

How does one teach ethical reasoning? In my view, the way to teach ethical reasoning is through the case-study method, which is the principal method I now use in my own course on leadership. Ideally, ethics is taught not just in courses focused specifically on ethics but in any course to which ethics might potentially apply. Otherwise, there is the risk that what students learn will be inert, that students will not see how to apply it outside the one course on ethics. Students need to learn how to reason about and apply ethical principles by being confronted with ethical problems in a variety of domains. They also need to be inoculated against the pressures to behave unethically, such as occur when there is retaliation for whistle-blowing.

Problems for teaching ethical reasoning

The following is a famous, perhaps now classic, problem for teaching ethical reasoning: A train is going out of control and hurtling down the tracks toward four people who are strangers to you. You are unable to call out to the people or get them off the tracks. However, it is in your power to press a button that will divert the train. But there is a problem, namely, that there is a person, also a stranger, on the tracks onto which you would divert the train. This person will be killed if you divert the train. Thus, you can touch the controls and divert the train, resulting in the death of one person, or you can not touch the controls, and four people will die. What should you do?

Consider also the following, more realistic problems:

  1. A university in New York City has run out of room. It is confined on all sides in a crowded city and cannot fulfill its expanding academic mission with the real estate currently available to it. Its solution in the past was to buy up as much neighboring land as it could. But it has run out of willing sellers. The university now is attempting to use the law of eminent domain to take over land by having the city kick out landowners. In order to do so, it has claimed that some of the areas into which it wishes to move are blighted. Landowners of these adjacent properties point out that the university has no right to their land and that if the adjacent areas are blighted, it is because the university itself has failed to maintain properties it has bought and, thus, has itself been a major contributor to the blight. What should be done?
  2. Your friend is the CEO of a powerful company in your town. You follow the local news and know that there have been some rumblings about his performance because, as CEO, he has just awarded a large no-bid contract to manage the construction of a new research center owned by the company. In other words, the winning contractor did not have to compete against any other companies for the contract. At a dinner party, you ask your friend the CEO how his vacation was, and he mentions that it was really nice. He and his family went on a weeklong free skiing vacation at the mountain house of Mr. X. You realize that Mr. X is none other than the owner of the company that received the contract to manage construction of the new building. What should you do?
  3. Doctors sometimes write notes on pads furnished by pharmaceutical companies with pens also furnished by such companies. Some doctors may also accept free meals, club memberships, subsidized travel, and research funds from such companies. With regard to gifts and subsidies from pharmaceutical companies to doctors, what kinds of guidelines do you think ought to be in place, and why? Is there an ethical failure here, and if so, does the fault lie with the pharmaceutical companies, the doctors, or both?
  4. Mr. Smith, a close friend of yours with whom you have worked closely in your company for forty years, is clearly dying. There is no hope. On his deathbed, he tells you that he has been burdened for many years by the fact that, between the ages of thirty-five and forty-two, he had a mistress whom he saw frequently and subsidized financially. He asks you to tell his wife what he has told you and to tell her that he begs her forgiveness. Mr. Smith has now died. What should you do about his request?

If students are not explicitly given chances to confront ethical dilemmas, how are they going to learn to solve them? In my own instruction, I care less about the conclusions students reach than about the reasoning processes that lead to them.

There are no easy answers to any of the problems presented above, but that is the point. Teaching ethical reasoning is not about teaching what one should do in particular circumstances—that is, perhaps, the role of religious training. Teaching ethical reasoning is about teaching students how to make very difficult decisions wisely when ethical considerations are involved and when the answers are anything but clear cut.

A model of ethical reasoning and its translation into behavior

Not all ethical problems are as difficult as the examples above. Yet people act unethically in many situations. Why? Sometimes, it is because ethics mean little or nothing to them. But more often, it is because it is hard to translate theory into practice. Consider the following example.

In 1970, Bibb Latané and John Darley opened up a new field of research on bystander intervention. They showed that, contrary to expectations, bystanders intervene when someone is in trouble only in very limited circumstances. For instance, if they think that someone else might intervene, the bystanders tend to stay out of the situation. Latané and Darley even showed that divinity students about to lecture on the parable of the good Samaritan were no more likely than other bystanders to help a person in distress who was in need of—a good Samaritan! Drawing in part upon their model of bystander intervention, I have constructed a model of ethical behavior that would seem to apply to a variety of ethical problems. The model identifies the specific skills students need to reason and then behave ethically. The skills are taught by active learning—by having students solve ethical-reasoning problems, employing the skills they need.

The basic premise of the model is that ethical behavior is far harder to display than one would expect simply on the basis of what we learn from our parents, from school, and from our religious training (Sternberg 2009a, 2009b). To intervene, individuals must go through a series of steps, and unless all the steps are completed, they are not likely to behave in an ethical way—regardless of the amount of training they have received in ethics, and regardless of their levels of other types of skills. Consider the skills in the model and how they apply to the specific ethical dilemma of whether a student, John, should turn in a fellow student, Bill, whom he saw cheating on an examination:

  1. Recognize that there is an event to which to react. John has to observe the cheating and decide that it is a situation in which he potentially can do something.
  2. Define the event as having an ethical dimension. John has to define the cheating as unethical. Many students do so; but some others see it as a utilitarian matter—it's okay if Bill gets away with it.
  3. Decide that the ethical dimension is significant. John has to decide that Bill's cheating on the examination is a big enough deal that it is worth paying attention to. Some students may see it as an ethical issue, but not as a significant one.
  4. Take personal responsibility for generating an ethical solution to the problem. There are ethical problems that are serious but that are not necessarily your ethical problems. John may decide that there is an ethical problem here, even a big one, but that it is none of his business. For example, John may look at it as the teacher's responsibility, not his, to turn Bill in.
  5. Figure out what abstract ethical rule(s) might apply to the problem. What rule applies? If there is no honor code, is there a rule by which John should turn Bill in? Perhaps John believes, on the contrary, that the rule is to mind his own business, or to avoid cheating himself, but not to turn Bill in.
  6. Decide how these abstract ethical rules actually apply to the problem so as to suggest a concrete solution. Perhaps John believes that one should turn cheaters in, but cannot apply the rule in this situation, realizing that he could not prove that Bill cheated.
  7. Prepare to counteract contextual forces that might lead one not to act in an ethical manner. John may be reluctant to turn Bill in because he believes that other students, including but not limited to Bill, will shun him or retaliate against him for being a "snitch."
  8. Act. In the end, the question becomes one not of how one thinks, but of what one does. It can be very difficult to go from thought to action. But the ultimate test of ethical reasoning is not just in how one thinks, but also in how one acts. John may believe he should turn Bill in, but he may not have the guts actually to do so.

The model sketched above applies not only to judging others but also to evaluating one's own ethical reasoning. When confronted with a situation that has a potential ethical dimension, students can learn literally to go through the steps of the model and ask how they apply to a given situation.

The effective teaching of ethical reasoning involves the presentation of case studies. But it is important that students also generate their own case studies from their own experience, and then apply the steps of the model to their own problems. They need to be actively involved in seeing how the steps of the model apply to their own individual problems.


Figuratively speaking, we are all living in Centralia. But should we do anything to stop the fire? And if so, what? Is it worth the cost? Or should we just deal with the consequences of the fire as they erupt, as we have been doing? Deciding what to do is one of the most challenging ethical problems of all. And if we do nothing, what will happen to our metaphorical Ashland, the next generation for which we bear as much responsibility as we do for our own? We need to take responsibility for teaching students to reason ethically. Otherwise, the fire will burn further out of control, with catastrophic results for our nation and the world.


DeHaan, R., and K. M. Narayan, eds. 2007. Education for innovation. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Jordan, J. 2007. Taking the first step toward a moral action: An examination of moral sensitivity measurement across domains.Journal of Genetic Psychology 168 (3): 323–59.

Latané, B., and J. Darley. 1970. The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Myser, C., I. H. Kerridge, and K. R. Mitchell. 1995. Teaching clinical ethics as a professional skill: bridging the gap between knowledge about ethics and its use in clinical practice. Journal of Medical Ethics 21 (2): 97–103.

Paul, R., and L. Elder. 2005. Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Sternberg, R. J. 2009a. A new model for teaching ethical behavior. Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (33): B14–15.

———. 2009b. Reflections on ethical leadership. In Morality, ethics, and gifted minds, ed. D. Ambrose and T. Cross, 19–28. New York: Springer.

Weber, J. 1993. Exploring the relationship between personal values and moral reasoning. Human Relations 46 (4): 435–63.


* Information about the Centralia mine fire can be found online at

Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University.

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