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At the same time, we need to accept that although the blunt instrument of the law is necessary, it will always be insufficient to detect wrongdoing and – by bringing the perpetrator to justice – deter others from doing the same. Into thIs considerable gap must come ethics. We need to teach it to our children from at least prep to year 6, and optimally, through the senior school years too.
Ethics is a subset of philosophy, and philosophy programs for children as young as five exist in some Australian schools. My own children went through a program at their primary school, which was outstanding. They learnt how to listen, take turns, reason and argue. They enjoyed every minute of it and emerged from the program as critical thinkers capable of contributing constructively to the our democratic society, which requires an informed and inquiring citizenry.
Properly taught, ethics reinforces the need for careful listening and respectful argumentation by supporting children to explore and debate difficult questions such as, should drug smugglers be executed? Is it OK to lie, and what is love?
Academic reviews of such programs have found that children are more than capable of engaging in age-appropriate ethical inquiry. It helps them clarify and articulate their own values, to learn and understand the different views of their classmates and to modify their own under the weight of further evidence.
The trouble is that when school starts this week, only Victoria will have ethics instruction in the curriculum where it belongs, so it can be delivered with the authority and expertise of qualified teachers. Elsewhere in the country, where ethics is offered, it's provided by volunteers and positioned as an alternative to special religious instruction or scripture.
This is a false dichotomy, and forces too many children to miss out. Scripture classes do not purport to teach ethics and the evidence shows they don't. What they provide to children of a particular religion is instruction on the basic tenets of that faith.
Leaving aside the contested question as to whether this sort of instruction is appropriate in Australia's secular schools, what is beyond question is that ethics should be made available to all children, whether or not scripture is provided during school hours or their parents choose to enrol them in it.
If we believe that our democracy, our economy and our sport will run a whole lot better with people of integrity at the helm – not people who only do the right thing when they're confident of getting caught – then we must equip the next generation with the core skills they need to be the honest brokers of tomorrow. We need to teach them – every single one of them – ethics.
"Cheaters never prosper" is a modern phrase, though a similar idea hails from the 17th century. Found in John Harrington's Epigrams, it comes with an ironic twist. "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
The twist reminds us that keeping humans honest, and preserving the values of honesty in society, have never been child's play. But now that ethics is, we might finally have found the answer.
Leslie Cannold is an ethicist, researcher and public speaker on gender, values-driven leadership and respectful relationships.