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There is a lot of fiction to the NBC comedy The Good Place. If you are unaware of the plot of the show, it is essentially a testimony to one theory of what happens after we pass. The show begins with the main character, Eleanor Shellstrop, believing she has reached “The Good Place” (i.e. heaven) by mistake, and in a desperate attempt to fit in, she asks an ethics professor named Chidi Anagonye to teach her how to be good. Though there are a lot of humorous aspects and storybook elements to the show, one aspect of it that I thought was pretty realistic was the emphasis on people’s capacity to change. 

Perhaps you feel a television show is not a good testament to real life, and I completely agree. But watching Eleanor over time grow to be a morally better person still made me think about the way our society is structured. Is it impossible to teach people how to be a good person? If we spend years learning math, science, history, English, etc. in school, then why can’t we spend a little more time learning about morals? 

Thinking about this concept led me to do some self-reflecting. When did I learn the difference between good and bad or what doing the right thing even means? I certainly was never given a PowerPoint presentation describing different scenarios and testing me on what the “right thing to do” was, so when were those values instilled in me? Personally I think it has a lot to do with how we are raised. In the debate of nature versus nurture, studies of genetic twins have shown that anywhere from a quarter to a half of our tendency to be giving and caring is inherited; that still leaves a lot of the responsibility on nurture. Some studies attribute it to the parents’ or legal guardian’s sense of empathy and injustice, while others believe it has to do more with modeling and how the guardians act and respond to certain situations. On the other side, there are those who don’t believe the responsibility lies on the parents at all and that some kids are just simply bad seeds.

Whichever theory you believe, it is hard to dispute that to some extent, what you learn as a child definitely plays a part in your morality. So doesn’t it follow that if your immediate environment doesn’t teach you those important things there is the potential to learn it elsewhere? 

This question of whether teaching ethics would be effective at achieving any good is one that I have grappled with for quite some time. This is also the exact question a Stanford Panel sought to answer. Reading about their debates within the panel, it became clear that there are definite benefits but also valid reasons to be cautious about teaching ethics to kids. For one, many scholars participating in the panel “expressed discomfort with the idea that they have any moral authority over their students.” The professors’ perspective is that they are in no position to tell their students what is morally virtuous and what is not as it would imply that they are on some higher moral ground when in reality, many view their students as just as virtuous, if not more virtuous, than them. Therefore, to have that control over their behavior is seen as an abuse of power that many dislike. Moreover, it is definitely difficult to understand how one college course has the power to magically transform students into a more virtuous version of themselves in only one semester. But, in the end, I would argue that making ethics a mandatory class could only positively benefit students.

From that same panel, many of the professors agreed that such classes help teach students how to engage in ethical dialogue, assist in widening their tolerance and create a space where they can talk about their moral disagreements. And through such discussions, the Stanford professors admit that the impact on students can be huge: including helping them understand more about themselves while also improving their critical thinking skills and academic performances. Again, though the chances of one throwing their previously held mindset out the window after one ethics class is unlikely, opening up the floor for such conversations has the power to broaden peoples’ minds. Linda Flanagan, an advisory board member for the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School has said that by posing students with ethical dilemmas they must reflect on, it forces them to answer tough questions and as a result adapt better ethical decision making. In the process, by being forced to explore an issue from different sides — as Flanagan encourages kids to do — it also works to help kids understand and become more empathetic toward others as well. Such evidence shows that while ethics can be a hard topic to address, if done correctly it can be very beneficial and effective in shaping people’s minds.

If you are still feeling doubtful, I will end by leaving you with a simple question: to some extent, people are just the products of their environments. And so doesn’t it stand to reason that if we force people out of their comfort zone, away from the mindsets they are used to, and make them engage with new perspectives, a new product might emerge?

Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at