A person’s sense of ethics is one of the most fundamental aspects of his/her character. In fact, our ethics define who we are and what we stand for. Everyday, we make ethical decisions, often without consciously thinking about them – whether to play a sport by the rules, treat a library book with care, carpool rather than drive alone, or buy products tested on animals. When faced with such decisions, our actions are not always the result of deliberation, but instinct – stemming from an innate moral compass.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a utopian world. The newspapers greet us all too often with cases of corruption, rape, and needless violence. At the school level, we find instances of bullying, cheating, and a lack of team spirit. All such problems, whether at a societal or local level, ultimately result from individual unethical actions. Coming across these issues has always made me wonder – can we train ourselves to think more ethically? Can ethical decision making be practiced and learned?
Everyone has the capacity to be empathetic, responsible, and moral – I strongly believe that actively striving towards high ideals will ultimately make us live them. This determination to constantly better ourselves and develop a more ethical outlook must be inculcated from a young age in order to be truly effective. The best place to start is school – apart from academics, it is essential for education to emphasize building character. Unfortunately, our formal curriculum does not highlight the ethical dimension of the subjects we study, which is particularly important in the 21st century – an education in computer science or biology would be incomplete without delving into the complex ethical quandaries of artificial intelligence or genetic editing. The knowledge we gain would have no value if we did not use it ethically.
How can we make ethics an intrinsic part of our education, and more broadly, our school lives? Any such endeavor must have active student involvement, and ideally be student-led, to have the greatest impact. One way to bring ethics into the fabric of school life is to build a student-led Code of Ethics – a high standard of ethical behaviour that the school can expect its students to strive towards. A Code of Ethics would serve as a common moral framework to guide our thoughts and actions at school – if we actively try to live by it at school, it will help us navigate the complex world of morality even after we leave.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work towards this goal at my school, first with an ‘ethical leadership’ group and then with the student council, with support from the principal and teachers. I would like to share my experiences; they would be applicable at any educational institution.
To begin with, we needed to create an atmosphere of interest in and commitment to the subject – a Code of Ethics cannot be created out of the blue. This involved many stages, beginning with a poster campaign, posing thought-provoking ethical questions to generate introspection. The poster themes covered different aspects of our daily lives – from academic honesty and treatment of school property to bullying. With inter-house games a big part of our extracurricular activities, teamwork and sportsmanship were vital themes; an incident in the life of Gandhi, in which he confessed having eaten meat without his father’s knowledge, inspired me to design a poster on ‘trust’.
Further, it is necessary for us to be exposed to the ethical quandaries permeating every profession we may enter, and have active discourse on these dilemmas. We had an interactive panel discussion with respected individuals from various fields – law, medicine, business, media, and sports. The discussion was highly engaging. The lawyer faced tough questions from the students about defending criminals; the doctor addressed the pertinent issue of prescribing generic drugs versus specific brands. From media sensationalism to euthanasia, heated student discussions continued into the classrooms – this exposure left us keen for more.
The next step was to share perspectives amongst ourselves, on a regular basis, on issues we face at school as well as broader societal questions. The topics we covered included witnessing a classmate cheat on a test, spotting a foul the referee missed in an inter-house match, and the rights of animals. We even find ethical issues in ordinary, everyday actions – most of us download music and movies for free online without considering the intellectual property infringements we are committing. These debates are particularly fascinating because they reveal how our ethical stance changes depending on the situation – one’s reaction would be very different if one saw a sibling doing something wrong, rather than a mere acquaintance. Amazingly, the animal rights debate catalyzed a classmate’s switch to vegetarianism!
Once this atmosphere of reflection and enthusiasm about ethics was created amongst the students, we worked with each class to build the Code of Ethics, through brainstorming and collaboration. The Code is consistent with our school’s mission and values; uses positive and inspiring words; and is comprehensive to address all aspects of student life – from academics to sports, community service, and peer interaction. Its purpose is to serve as a guiding reference when we are faced with an ethical dilemma, and an inspiring ideal for our everyday thoughts, words, and actions.
Once created, a Code of Ethics must be treated as a living document – keeping ethical discourse alive in school is essential. The Code must be regularly reviewed and updated if necessary, and student activities around ethics should be implemented. For example, the core implementation group can organize a lecture series with individuals of high ethical stature, start community service projects, have ongoing debates, skits, essay competitions, seminars, and so on.
A Code of Ethics and its implementation should necessarily be idealistic; after all, we can only achieve our goal of making ethical consideration an intrinsic part of our lives by aiming extremely high. While it may seem too lofty a dream, the need for ethicality in a world torn by strife has never been greater – idealism may well be our saving grace. The hope is that this will instill a sense of moral duty and integrity in the minds of young students, the leaders of the future – ultimately contributing to a more empathic, just, and equitable world.
The author was a student at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, for the year 2015-16. He is currently a freshman at Harvard University studying physics, mathematics, and philosophy. He can be reached at email@example.com.