Using Negative Examples to Teach Ethics? Why It’s Not Enough.
AUGUST 20, 2014 LEAVE A COMMENT
By Linda Fisher Thornton
How many times have we tried to teach people about ethics by explaining every detail of what it doesn’t look like? We describe laws and regulations and ethics guidelines in great detail, then ask attendees if there are any questions. After learning in great detail how to stay out of trouble, the thought on their minds may just be “Okay, now I know what NOT to do.”
We can’t teach ethics by giving people negative examples.
Just as we don’t learn how to drive a car by only hearing about accidents, we don’t learn ethical behavior by hearing about the times someone didn’t use it. It should be obvious to us, but the lure of focusing on complying on laws and regulations is strong. Those laws and regulations, though, are only designed to prevent the “what not to do” examples we hear about in the news. So “teaching” them is only teaching people how to avoid punishment.
The trap in teaching people how to avoid punishment is that it doesn’t build an ethical culture. An organization can have everyone comply with laws and regulations, and still be unethical. Why? Because ethics is about leading with positive values, not just preventing ethical failures. If we focus people’s attention primarily on the shadow side of ethics (unethical choices) we are missing the point entirely.
Ethics is about leading with positive values, not just preventing ethical failures.