Bioethics Commission member Col. Nelson Michael was recently interviewed by BioEdge, a bioethics news site, about the Commission’s capstone report Bioethics for Every Generation: Deliberation and Education in Health, Science and Technology. Col. Michael discussed lifelong bioethics education, which the Commission supports in its report.
In the interview, Col. Michael said “ethics education is best when it builds on itself over time. Just as we would not expect to develop math skills in an engineer or an accountant by starting with calculus, similarly, we cannot expect to develop ethics literacy unless we build an early foundation starting with the basics.” Col. Michael’s description of ethics as a skill set is supported throughout the Commission’s report, which outlines ways in which ethics can be incorporated at all levels of education.
At the primary school level, educators can help students start to build moral values and positive character traits. This includes developing moral habits such as empathy and honesty, and encouraging students to develop a moral identity, which includes recognition of the importance of moral values to a student’s way of thinking. Though these might seem like difficult topics for young children to comprehend, ethics education initiatives have already shown that children are able to grasp these concepts through age-appropriate learning activities. An ethics program in New South Wales, Australia developed a curriculum to help K-6 students develop skills necessary for ethical decision-making with activities and examples to which children at various stages of development can relate. For example, kindergarten-age students are asked to consider what distinguishes “intentionally” hurting someone from “accidentally” hurting someone, while elementary school students are asked to consider what constitutes fair punishment.
Students at the secondary school level can continue their ethics education as they begin to solidify their own morals and values. In the report, the Commission noted that integrating ethics education at this stage is not without its challenges. As students’ curiosity and understanding of complex and controversial topics develops, educators need to be prepared to handle concerns about ethics promoting particular values. The Commission’s report outlines a variety of models that can be used to teach ethics, and emphasizes that ethics education is about preparing students how to think ethically, rather than what to think. The report also emphasizes that ethical questions and topics can be incorporated into existing courses, such as biology, chemistry, social studies or history courses.
At the post-secondary level, students transition to a college environment, where they are expected to think more critically and independently. At the undergraduate level, there are a number of avenues by which students can expand their ethics education. Ethical topics can be discussed in existing core courses, such as courses in biology, genetics, chemistry, history, philosophy and political science. Students also might have a number of extracurricular options for further exploring bioethics, such as participating in intercollegiate bioethics bowls, through which students can form teams and debate students from other schools.
As students move into graduate and professional programs, their ethical training will become more specialized, and can continue to build upon the ethical skills that students have learned throughout their life. As the report Bioethics for Every Generation notes, ethics training is sometimes required in a number of professional programs, such as nursing and public health.
Col. Michael notes in the BioEdge interview that the idea of lifelong bioethics education is “ambitious,” and it is true that integrating bioethics at all levels of education is not without its challenges. However, all of the Commission’s reports consistently emphasize the importance of incorporating ethics education at all levels of education, because everyone, regardless of their background, will encounter a bioethical challenge at some point in their life. This could involve making a difficult decision about one’s own health or the care and health of a loved one. Developing the skills needed to make difficult ethical decisions does not happen overnight, and like any other skill, requires time and practice.
The Bioethics Commission has developed a series of educational materials that can help develop ethics decision making. All materials can be downloaded for free and used by educators or interested individuals. The Bioethics Commission encourages feedback on its materials at firstname.lastname@example.org.