STEM Modules:

Moral Literacy

By Nancy Tuana and Stephanie E. Vasko

Introduction to the Module

With content contributions from Michael Burroughs (Rock Ethics Institute, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA)

In this module, you will hear from Dr. Nancy Tuana, Director of the Rock Ethics Institute and Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University. Dr. Tuana will present an introduction to ethics, ethical thinking, moral literacy, and provide you with a framework that you can use to spotand analyze ethical issues in a situation or scenario. You’ll be able to test your knowledge as we go and practice your ethics-spotting skills with a case study at the end of the module.

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. Define ethics and moral literacy
  2. Understand and list the components of moral literacy
  3. List the steps of the 12-steps approach and apply this approach to different scenarios

Introduction to Ethics and Moral Literacy

What are Ethics? 

The study of ethics involves identifying when the behavior of an individual or a group is right or wrong. In order to determine whether an action is right or wrong, we also need to examine what types of things are good or desirable. This typically means understanding the ethical values that are relevant to a particular behavior or action. 

While there are ethical principles and frameworks that provide guidelines that can help us to make responsible decisions about ethical issues, acting ethically is not about learning and following rules. Moral literacy involves a complex set of skills and abilities that enable individuals to weigh options, consider multiple relevant factors, and make responsible decisions about complicated ethical questions that they face. These include questions in their professional life, in their personal life, and as citizens. Moral literacy thus provides a basis for acting ethically. 

A Note on Terminology 

The distinction between the terms “ethics” and “morals” is not one that is used consistently in the literature or even in everyday discourse. The terms are sometimes used to distinguish between theoretical investigations of ethics, that is, philosophical study of the basis of normative claims and identification of ethical principles, and morality as the practical application of this knowledge and skills in everyday life. A robust discussion of the definition of morality can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia. 

The study of ethics in philosophy has focused primarily on ethical reasoning skills and has often overlooked other important abilities and dispositions such as moral imagination and ethical sensitivity. For that reason, we have elected to refer to the literacy that we aim to promote through these lessons as moral literacy to underscore that while ethical reasoning skills are a crucial component of this form of literacy, there are other important domains as well for those who wish to develop their ability to act. 

Moral literacy is a life-long achievement, for we find ourselves confronted with new, and sometimes unique, ethical issues throughout our lifetime. The term “moral literacy” is used both to distinguish it from the ethical reasoning training common in philosophical approaches to ethics or the rule based approaches common to codes of ethics. While ethical reasoning is certainly an important component of moral literacy, only one part of the knowledge and abilities needed to be a morally literate individual. 

We are often faced with unexpected and complicated ethical situations that require that we speak up and take appropriate action. The best way we can prepare ourselves for these situations is to develop the skills involved in moral literacy, and gather resources that encourage moral agency so that we are able to go from ethical awareness to ethical action through cultivating ethical purpose.  These are also skills essential to becoming ethical leaders in every aspect of our lives. 

Moral literacy involves several important abilities, including:  

  1. Ethical Sensitivity 
  2. Ethical Reasoning Skills 
  3. Ethical Motivation

The Cultivation of Ethical Sensitivity 

The cultivation of ethical sensitivity, that is, the ability to determine whether a situation involves ethical issues, is augmented in a variety of ways.  The cultivation of empathy or compassion is a frequent element of the development of the ability to “ethics spot.”  Being sensitive to the impact of injustice by, for example, feeling compassion for the victim of a bully or for the suffering of those living in poverty, is often a way to appreciate that there is an ethical issue.  Compassion does not address the question of responsibility, or enable us to formulate ethical obligations, but it can both help us see that we are in the moral domain and help to move us to action.  Given this, the cultivation of empathy and compassion is a frequent component of moral literacy.  In addition, the removal, or minimizing, of ethical insensitivity requires the cultivation of the ability to critically analyze our own and our society’s practices.  

In addition to enhancing our affective abilities such as our ability to empathize, our ability to spot ethics is also augmented by strengthening our ability to identify the moral virtues and ethical values relevant to an issue. Ethical sensitivity has three major components: 

  1. The ability to determine whether or not a situation involves ethical issues 
  2. The ability to identify the moral virtues or ethical values underlying an ethical issue 
  3. Awareness of the moral intensity of the ethical issue 

Let’s explore each component.

Does a situation involve ethics? 

The first component of ethical sensitivity, the ability to “ethics spot,” is an often overlooked ability. We often assume that what constitutes an ethical issue will be obvious. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some issues are so complex that it is difficult to determine whether or not they involve ethical issues. 

As just one example, consider the case of individual contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. We know that the aggregated overall increases in greenhouse gases are resulting in anthropocentric climate change, which is already having harmful impacts on a number of regions and is expected to have exponentially larger negative impacts in the future if emissions continue at the present rates. However, the impact of the amount of greenhouse gases one individual emits, even if aggregated over her or his lifetime, has an imperceptibly small impact on climate change. Given this, does the fact that some of my actions result in greenhouse gas emissions constitute an ethical issue given how small an impact each of my actions will have on global warming? For example, is it an ethical issue to buy nonlocal foods or foods out of season? Is it an ethical issue to drive rather than to take public transportation to work? Is it an ethical issue to keep my home temperature at 70°F rather than 60°F? 

Another reason that the ability to ethics spot is important is that what counts as an ethical issue will sometimes be unclear due to ethical insensitivity. Ethical insensitivity occurs when an individual’s, or community’s, ability to recognize that an action or situation involves an ethical issue has been hampered by other factors. This can happen when, for example, self-deception obscures the true nature of one’s action.  An interesting discussion of self-deception is the subject of a Ted Talk on Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self Deception. 

There are a variety of additional factors that result in ethical insensitivity. Consider three of these: 

  • Community shared prejudices 
  • Moral blind spots 
  • Habituating wrongdoing 

Community Shared Prejudices 

Community shared prejudices can make it difficult to see that our actions have ethical significance. The classic case of community-shared prejudices is the history of slavery, where many people believed that it was morally acceptable to enslave a group of people because they believed that these individuals were not “fully human.” At certain historical periods there was little opposition to certain forms of slavery due to the prevalence of the view that there was nothing morally problematic about the practice. Being able to ethics spot in such a context is very difficult and can require the ability to question the very values and worldview in which one has been raised. 

In a similar way, community shared prejudices occur in many contexts and can be difficult to identify, particularly for those who are raised in or trained to be a member of that community. Examples of current prejudices might be the following: counting monetary gains or losses in an economic cost/benefit analysis as a way to make decisions about vehicle safety in car manufacturing; the moral standing of nonhuman animals and the practice of farming animals; the assumption and insistence that there are two and only two sexes. 

Moral Blind Spots 

Moral blind spots result from a system of beliefs or habits that desensitize individuals to the ethical wrongness of actions.  Here the problem is not simply the choices that individuals are making, but a conceptualization system in which only certain aspects of the situation are seen and others are systematically ignored.  Moral blind spots have, for example, been identified by some theorists as explaining the high incidence of corporate scandals in the early 21st century in which neither the individuals, nor the business community in which they worked, grasped the ethical wrongness of the actions.  Moral blind spots come from habituated ways of seeing and associations that block individuals and groups from seeing aspects of the situation that they would, if they were attentive to them, see as unethical. 

Moral blind spots, while in some sense similar to community shared prejudices, are significantly different.  Community shared prejudices result in people seeing an action as either not within the domain of ethics or as ethically justifiable: e. g., slavery is acceptable because some races are not fully human; women are naturally subservient to men because they are incapable of self-governance and thus must be controlled; farming and eating animals is not an ethical issue because animals have no moral standing.  Moral blindness is, rather, a way of seeing the world that obscures one to the fact that an action that one would agree is unethical is occurring.  

As just one example, there is reason to believe, for example, that the startlingly high rates of incest coupled with the low reportage rates, is, in at least some cases, due to moral blind spots caused by false interpretive frames, namely, that incest is a rare occurrence that only happens in severely dysfunctional families and that, were it happening, it would be easy for a non-molesting relative to know that it was.  Moral blind spots can also result from something being too painful to acknowledge and, thus, we unconsciously suppress or turn away from it; again not an uncommon reaction with incest or other forms of child sexual abuse where there can be denial even in the face of evidence of the abuse (cf. Gladwell, 2012). 

Philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in a Washington Post article entitled “What will future generations condemn us for?” discusses historical examples of moral blind spots to foreground the question of the essay.  He discusses four arenas in which he predicts future generations will condemn us for, namely: 

  • Our prison system 
  • Industrial meat production 
  • Institutionalized and isolated elderly 
  • The environment 

What do you think?  Did he miss any moral blind spots?  

Habituated Wrongdoing 

In addition to the complexity of issues, self-deception, community shared prejudices, and moral blindness, habitual wrong-doing can blunt an individual’s ethical sensitivities.  Repeated small thefts from one’s business setting, “little white lies” on one’s tax statements, “pirating” music by illegally down-loading it from the internet, can become so “normalized” that individuals stop seeing those actions as unethical.  

Habituating a behavior can make the ethical significance of the behavior fade into the background.  Downloading becomes so “normalized” that the same person, who would not hesitate to illegally download a song or an album from the Internet, would refuse to walk into a music store and take a CD by slipping it into their pocket or bag because they would see that as stealing.  Similarly, a worker who would not even think about taking $100 out of the till might nonetheless take office supplies home from work for personal use without even seeing that doing so is unethical. 

For a discussion of other phenomena such as the Normalcy Bias and the Bystander Effect see Let’s All Feel Superior.

The second component of ethical sensitivity is broken down into two parts. These are an appreciation and ability to identify what is or is viewed as: 

  1. The intrinsic value of things or states 
  2. The relevant ethical values and the correlated virtues. 

“Values are our standards and principles for judging worth. They are the criteria by which we judge “things” (people, ideas, situations) to be good or desirable; or on the other hand bad, worthless or despicable; or, of course, somewhere in between these extremes.” 
– Raths, Harmin and Simon, Values and Teaching 

Intrinsic value is perhaps the most foundational, yet most controversial, of all aspects of ethical values. What things or states possess intrinsic ethical value has been a site of contention not only between cultures and even within one culture, but also throughout the history of ethical theory. Some posit that there is only one thing with intrinsic ethical value; others hold that there are multiple things or states that possess intrinsic ethical value. Human life, human flourishing, human freedom, human happiness, and human pleasure are common referents of intrinsic ethical value. Some have also argued that knowledge, wisdom, love, or spiritual enlightenment have intrinsic ethical value. While less common, there are cultures and theorists who hold that non-human animals or even ecosystems possess intrinsic ethical value. 

What we view as holding intrinsic ethical value shapes many of our ethical beliefs. Indeed, there is a clear correlation between what we hold as having intrinsic ethical value and those traits we see as being virtuous. For example, a virtue like trustworthiness is typically linked to traits such as honesty, reliability, keeping confidences, and honoring commitments. Students will, sometimes, not agree about the list of relevant values. This, in turn, presents a pedagogical opportunity to discuss why there might be differences in values and to think about how value differences between individuals or groups can lead to different judgments about right and wrong actions. 

Common ethical values include: freedom, trustworthiness, respect, loyalty, responsibility, fairness, caring, and sanctity. Many of these are correlated with the view of human life and/or human flourishing as having intrinsic value.  

Ethical sensitivity enables individuals to identify when beliefs about intrinsic value are in tension with practices, for example, how prejudice resulted in violations of beliefs regarding the intrinsic value of human life. It also provides a basis for understanding why individuals, communities, or cultures who embrace different values will have conflicting views on ethical questions and can have different judgments about right and wrong actions. It is also a way to consider the interrelationships between the ethical values that we embrace and the correlated ethical characteristics, or virtues, that we believe we should encourage in ourselves or in our communities   For example, if we see integrity as an important ethical value, we are likely to see trustworthiness as a virtue that we should cultivate.

The third component of ethical sensitivity, moral intensity, is particularly important for those difficult ethical situations where there are competing ethical demands or competing ethical values. It can also help us appreciate differences in ethical sensibilities between people or between cultures.  

The moral intensity of an action is often linked to the seriousness of the harm that could result from the action and/or the urgency of a response. This dimension of ethical sensitivity is linked to the first component, for it is often the case that cultivation of our affective abilities, such as empathy, can assist us in better appreciating the effect of actions.  

The ability to weigh the moral intensity of a situation is particularly important when we are faced with competing ethical demands. Consider the situation in which you promised to help tutor a friend before the upcoming test, but then get a call from another friend who is experiencing an emotionally difficult situation and needs your support. Moral intensity can be one factor in the process of deciding between competing ethical demands. How urgent is the problem the second friend is facing? How quickly do they need help? How does their need compare to that of the friend who wants tutoring help? 

Another illustration can be found in the types of conflicts professional engineers sometimes face when there is conflict between the principles of their professional code of ethics. A not uncommon example is a tension between “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” and “Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.” If a client is asking that the engineer keep the budget of the job within the parameters of the contract, but the engineer identifies an issue that could impact public health but would be expensive to fix, they find themselves with competing ethical demands. Again, while not the complete answer, the moral intensity of the situation is a relevant factor. If risks and impacts from not fixing the issue are high, that argues against ignoring the issue. But if the impacts would be small and/or the risks not high, then that makes the tension less salient. 

The moral intensity of an issue is, however, also linked to values. Those with different value systems can have very different views of the moral intensity of an issue. Those, for example, who see animals as having intrinsic value may view loss of species diversity due to climate change as an issue with high moral intensity, while others might see it as not being an ethical issue unless the loss of diversity impacts human flourishing. 

Training in identifying the moral intensity of a situation, and how various people or groups view this moral intensity, can therefore help us appreciate the basis of ethical disagreements. Being able to determine whether the conflict is due to differences in the values groups hold to be relevant to the issue or the moral intensity of the ethical issue can help us appreciate positions different than our own and understand the nature of ethical disagreements. This is an invaluable ability in understanding other cultures or engaging in cross-cultural dialogue. It can enable us to identify the particular nature of the disagreement and help disputing groups better appreciate the source of their disagreement.