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  • Reverend James Squire

Are Smart People More Ethical Than Others

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Do smart people make better ethical decisions? There was an article in the “Inquirer” (July 5, 2020) by Janice Armstrong that students in top tier schools (Masterman and Central) used social media to vent ugly hateful views of their female and non-white classmates. There was a strong letter to the editor that perhaps intelligent people are just like everyone else in making or not making ethical decisions.

There are a couple of views on this correlation. The writer of the letter indicated that the students needed to listen to the ground breaking musical, “South Pacific”. Lt. Cable says in the musical that “racism is not born into you. It happens after you are born.” The letter went on to say that maybe young Philadelphians should pay attention to Cable’s song, “You have got to be carefully taught.” The letter suggested that students need to attend support groups so that they experience first-hand the impact of their comments on others.

Robert Coles, a professor at Harvard, reflected that he was appalled to learn that one of his A+ students in his ethics course was treating the cleaners in his house very badly. This would support the view that you “have to be carefully taught”. There is no one better than Coles in covering ethical issues. The letter and Coles story indicate that intelligence and ethical decisions may not go hand in hand.

I want to focus on the support group recommendation of the letter. I taught Ethics for 38 years at an elite independent school. I am sure that all of my students did not make ethical decisions in their lives, but I have also heard from many of them how my course guided them in doing the hard right and not the easy wrong.

One of the goals in the course that I taught was to make ethical decisions become second nature. This is what elite athletes strive to do. For example, in basketball you get better by practicing a shot over and over again. When you enter a game, this shot would become more available to you. Ethical behavior has to be caught as well as being taught. It has to become a matter of the heart over just the head or knowledge. Aristotle made it clear that good deeds must be done over and over to achieve ethical action.

If the Harvard student in Coles’ class had experience in doing the right thing in the treatment of his cleaning lady, he and cleaning lady would have had the possibility of a better experience for them both.

The letter to the editor had it right. You have to have experience of both the head and the heart to translate ideas to action. I provided both in my Ethics course

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