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Jordan Reeves

TED-Ed Community Manager, TED Conferences


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What's one thing you wish you had learned in school?

Maybe it's not your traditional math, science, social studies, or arts and humanities class--maybe it's something different. If you could learn one lesson in school, what would it be?


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    Nov 3 2011: Morality, the difference between right and wrong, and the best human way of improving my decision making skills.
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      Nov 4 2011: Emmanuel, I propose an argument of semantics, in that I believe you mean to say ethics rather than morality. I don't feel that morality has any place in public education. For an institution to decide what is right or wrong based on their standards and influence others to believe or adhere to those standards is appropriate for places such as boarding schools or military academies, but not for public institutions.

      The difference being that ethics are ingrained in our DNA- we know that it is right to love, and wrong to kill. However, the Catholic Church would say that the use of prophylactics is immoral, a concept which is debatable by others. Moral standards as taught in public schools today are frequently the rage of debate such as the pledge of allegiance, religion, uniforms and appearance, and sexual education as discussed by Letitia Falk, above.

      If you would agree that ethics rather, should have more emphasize, I would rally with you Emmanuel.

      In the words of Charlie Chaplin, from the film 'The Great Dictator,'
      "We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another."

      We are born knowing what is right and what is wrong. I believe we need not learn these skills, but rather study and practice them.
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        Nov 4 2011: Using your definitions, what I would have wanted then was this: the use of an objective and scientific study of ethics including its applications and explanations through the natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and the arts. Then, through that kind of study of ethics, I would have wanted/expected that my school teach it so well that at least the moderate-hard moral lessons of life would have been as easy to learn as it was to learn reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. The end goal being that I could gauge my morality and moral decision making skills against an objectively determined standard and improve my morality by studying the standards and its growth process. That's what I would have wanted in school, hardcore reading, writing, and 'rithmetic about "ethics".
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          Nov 5 2011: I understand now Emmanuel. I believe that the course you are describing is taught at the university level because of the complexities of such a topic. Certain elements of ethics can be found in other aspects of education such as business ethics but not with the level of implementation you are discussing.
          I think your wish of using organized ethical education as a measure of comparison to improve the standard of conduct in all other aspects of living, is a good idea.
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          Nov 14 2011: Emmanuel and Timothy, I have studied your topic for fifteen years and have this comment.

          Ethics is a difficult and worthy course.

          Beyond that, you are better off reading the classic thinkers' records and excercising your own judgment. The problem with formal education is at least threefold: 1) universites present the information in the most expensive way possible, 2) each professor has his agenda, and 3) no one wants to evaluate. However, you are very capable of evaluating on your own.

          The best avenue is self-study.for example, starting with Wikipedia's article on philodophy then consulting the "External Links" they provide.
      • Nov 4 2011: We don't know that it is wrong to kill. It happens all the time. People do it for sport. We do it as part of business - for example the pharmaceutical and asbestos industries.

        Right and wrong is always context specific. While we can have ideals about how the world should be and how everyone should behave, evaluating what is right or wrong is not always straight forward. In many cases, the best you can hope for is that your actions have not harmed or contributed to harm based on the information you have at hand.

        For instance, I only buy free range eggs. I would never knowingly support a battery hen operation. After buying a particular brand for 12 months I saw a documentary on TV that reported the brand I used were deceptive and had been labeling battery hen eggs as free range eggs. So all the time I thought I had been doing the right thing, I was unknowingly supporting something I am opposed to.

        In my mind there is no doubt that buying battery hen eggs is wrong. But the majority of people in Australia seem to not share my view. Even my sister doesn't share my view. She always buys battery hen eggs and the majority of the eggs on the supermarket shelves are battery hen eggs. Yet I "know" buying battery hen eggs is "wrong".

        Taking it a step further. If someone picks some eggs from the supermarket shelf that are labelled as free range, but they are one of the ones that the documentary showed as not being free range, is it right or wrong to let that person know? I am grateful that I know so that I can now avoid these brands masquerading as free range. But this doesn't mean that others want to know. Some people actually get upset when advised the eggs they are putting in their trolley are not free range eggs. They would prefer to think they are buying free range than know they are not so they can choose an alternative.

        I am grateful the education I received helped me to evaluate the reasons I consider something to be right or wrong.
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          Nov 5 2011: It seems like you are suggesting that because we may not be able to achieve a 100% certainty on a right-wrong issue, that we shouldn't bother studying it. We don't have 100% verifiable truths in anything. Some would argue mathematics, or computer science, or philosophy, and arguably those truths are 100% but we still don't have all of those.

          If there are context specific answers to questions of values, morality, or right and wrong, should we not try and find the contexts? Define the contexts? Simulate moral/ethical/right-wrong situations where we can verify applied contexts before implementing them?

          You buy free range eggs, and I buy the middle brand between cheap & organic, if I have to make a call then I pick organic. Are either of us wrong? Are either of us right? Can't we write it down somewhere that the manner in which we buy eggs should be at least environmentally conscious and necessarily concerned with what he/she can afford?

          The question really is: Are there times where we can know for sure or with reasonable certainty whether something is wrong? I think that question has a lot of merit and could definitely score a curriculum starting from kindergarden through 12th grade. Maybe it's a good idea to tell kids not to be bullies during their 1st grade ethics class?
      • Nov 5 2011: No, I don't mean that we shouldn't study it. In fact, I think the opposite. I think we should constantly be evaluating our actions and how they define us. But we can't say "killing is wrong" or "informing people is right". We must always do our best to be conscious of the context.

        The last line of my previous post - that "I am grateful the education I received help me to evaluate the reasons I consider something to be right or wrong" is about that. I don't think it is possible to define every single context completely - which is much of the reason our legal system has so many failures - so people must be responsible for evaluating each situation as they find it. At school I spent six months studying aborigines and slavery, and rather than being specifically about history, our teacher took us through discussions to help us evaluate how we felt about the ethics of slavery and how people are treated.

        With the free range eggs conversation, my objection to battery hens is in the treatment of the animals and nothing to do with environment. So again, we have a difference as to the perception of what is right and wrong. Some people believe it is economically responsible to do what is best for the economy and that delivers the greater good, while others believe there is no excuse for the cruelty of battery hen farming or harming the environment.

        I would love to enforce my view of right and wrong on everybody because, of course, I feel my morals are correct and right. But so does everybody else, including those who disagree with me.

        I agree kids shouldn't bully but I think it should go deeper than that. I think there should be discussion around why it isn't right to bully. What are the consequences? How would you feel if you were bullied? And while you and I might think it is wrong to bully, there are fathers out there who like to see their sons "being a man". It is known that psychopaths are very successful in the work place - success through bullying.
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          Nov 5 2011: I'm not sure what you mean by enforcing your views. I don't pretend to tell people what decision to make when faced with one. What I am saying is that it is entirely possible to improve a person's decision making capacity, in terms of the difference between right and wrong. We may not reach 100% accuracy, we may pick the "wrong" thing every once in a while, but surely we can get better at it?

          Maybe it is possible to taxonomize decision making contexts. For example, a person kills a man in a shop. Sure, circumstances could arise where we would permit that kind of killing but generally speaking wouldn't we frown on shooting people in shops. Could we say the same for a decapitation by samurai sword in a shop? Could we say that it is the same as telling a seven year old child that he cannot be the president because he is a minority?

          Should that kind of declaration to a child be in the same category as the shooter and the samurai? Why? Why not? When could it be possible that saying that to a child would equate to murder? Could it ever? Is that even a good question? Would understanding the degrees of relativity between these contexts make conversations easier and more productive?

          The very questions you are discussing about bullying, could be had in a classroom. What I don't understand is why everyone is afraid to use the words right-wrong in these quasi-relative contexts. Wouldn't it be possible to take those bully questions and turn them into questions about history or the social sciences? Couldn't we analyze historical movements in terms of rightness-wrongness?

          There will always be people who choose the wrong things, that's the nature of choice. It wouldn't be a decision if you couldn't choose otherwise. But is it really impossible to say that we can't teach one another to make better right-wrong choices? Can't we do that from a young age? If doing that could improve our chances of survival then isn't school the best place for it?
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          Nov 5 2011: Yes Julie! We can definitely say when something is right or wrong! Ethics are defined in human beings as right and wrong. It is wrong to rape. Every single human being on earth (except sociopaths and psychopaths, which suffer medical illnesses) know that it is wrong to rape another human being. This is unethical behavior. Even in what societies there have been where rape is an acceptable moral practice through perversion and justification, it could be argued that some level of mental awareness at the act being conducted against another human is wrong, which is why the women in these societies have sought help.

          What you are discussing about free range chickens is a moral issue that you practice. This is something YOU feel is wrong. That does not mean that everyone knows it is wrong. And even still, if you made more people aware of these things, they may begin to adopt your morals.

          The concept that one child does not know it is wrong to bully another, is fallacy. To inflict pain, humiliation, or sadness on another human being is unethical, and this is written in our DNA. The influence that you discuss about a father wanting his son to 'be a man' is a perversion of the natural way. If you had a hard discussion with that father and asked him if he knew it was wrong for his son to intimidate another colleague to do his work for him, he would know on some level that this is true, whether he admitted it or not.
      • Nov 5 2011: I should have clarified my statement about enforcing my view of right and wrong on others. I am not suggesting you are trying to enforce your view of right and wrong on anyone else. That was a reference to the idea of teaching children about absolute rights and wrongs. Who decides what is "right" and what is "wrong"? It is a well accepted tenet in psychology that generally people do what they think is "right", even though their logic will be confusing to others. A man who beats his wife generally has the belief that she deserved it and that he was right to do so. Rapists have many reasons for believing they are entitled. Hitler believed firmly in the rightness of his actions.

        There is what is called a "Background of Obviousness" and this varies incredibly between cultures and this is where a lot of "right" and "wrong" comes from. It also varies between groups within societies. So while one group will have one set of absolutes regarding what is right and what is wrong, another group will see things differently. For most people, their beliefs about right and wrong appear to be obvious, and they find it baffling that others can't see it. I don't know that there are any universally accepted "rights" and "wrongs". You may call it "perversion" when someone does not see it the same way as you, but that does not change the reality that there are whole societies on our planet that believe there are instances where rape is not only justified, but appropriate.

        When it comes to ethics, I think we should encourage children to think, discuss and evaluate, so that when new ethical dilemmas arise, they have a toolkit they have practiced and can apply to the same situation.

        There is a Ted Talk on oxytocin (sp?) and how it impacts ethical behavior. Worth a watch.
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          Nov 6 2011: Julie I think we are saying a lot of the same things in different ways.

          The concept of the background of obviousness is the same thing I was discussing about the societies that accept rape in Africa. However, within these societies, the women have reached out to the outer world for help. Here we see that through the societal acceptance and justification, we see that the more basic instinct of what is wrong prevails.

          I believe that all human beings are born with a basic natural instinct for what is right or wrong, and everything else is an adjustment from that point, with a limitless number of factors and influences answering the question 'Do I, or do I not?'

          On your last point of teaching children to think, discuss, and evaluate. I couldn't agree more. If I understand correctly you are proposing we encourage them to develop their own opinion based on their natural feeling toward the situation- and not simply on what someone else has told them. If we could truly isolate this idea, we might learn a thing or two about the development of human sexuality.

          I have watched the talk on oxytocin also, I thought it was interesting. I personally fear the application of that type of study though, in regards to potential medicines. I get anxiety if I take too much cough syrup haha.
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        Nov 6 2011: Neither ethics nor morals are written in DNA. Morality is relative to one's neurology, culture, peer-groups, and countless other influential circumstances.

        Furthermore, bullying is a generally natural and harmless form of social learning for children who are at a fundemental age of development. It usually becomes problematic with the interference of adults who don't understand or remember the emotional and mental climate of being young. Im not saying bullying is good or ought to be left uncorrected, but that it should not have priority over other health issues. Children are actually quite resistant and adaptable, and I would rather see parents guiding their children than trusting school personel to see to their childrens emotional well-being.

        I observed that you and Emmannuel both were rather agrumentative toward Julie and did not seem to listen to what she was saying. Demonstrating "confirmation bias"
        "If you had a hard discussion with that father and asked him if he knew it was wrong for his son to intimidate another colleague to do his work for him, he would know on some level that this is true, whether he admitted it or not. "
        This is called anecdotal evidence and it is pretty much useless to everyone in the scientific community. Like Julie said, it is the human condition to validate our actions deep within by way of seemingly logical reasoning. Humans have an incredible ability to justify just about anything.
        So, while you say the fictional father probably knows he's in the "wrong", chances are he has in some complex way justified his actions and those of his son to himself. To continue on an anecdotal path: he probably would feel actual guilt only if someone he respected were to chastise him, or if he were to be ostracized by his peer group. Human opinion is complex and leveled and affected (again) by many aspects in circumstance.

        In layman's termsAllow me to lose some of my grace - Some people... just...dont want their kids to be pussies. =/
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          Nov 6 2011: Sam you stated your personality is partially a product of genetic heritage from your parents, so you support the idea of hereditary behaviorism.

          We are all born with certain basic awarenesses that are necessary for our complex interactions to ensure our survival as a species. Wanton killing or maiming of one another would interfere with this, therefore, no one needs to teach us on a societal level that harming each other is wrong- we are born with that knowledge.

          Sam you said "Furthermore, bullying is a generally natural and harmless form of social learning for children who are at a fundamental age of development."

          The First Lady, Michelle Obama, might disagree. The platform of her "Let's Move" campaign targets the real harm caused by bullying, in specific.

          Richard Gale, an australian boy, bullied a larger classmate for quite a while. Eventually the larger classmate picked him up off the ground and slammed him into the pavement. This event which was filmed by another classmate and posted to youtube.com spurred a high level of awareness discussion worldwide for the dangers of bullying.

          And I am confused by the rest of what you discuss. I referenced an anecdote by Julie, which you cited as anecdotal evidence, (and useless at that) and then followed it with anecdotal evidence.
          "So, while you say the fictional father probably knows he's in the 'wrong,' chances are he has in some complex way justified his actions and those of his son to himself."

          Interesting how that works.
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          Nov 6 2011: I didn't mean to say that we needed a class to create "wimps", nor does the topic relate solely to bullying. Things like standing up for yourself, standing up for others, understanding your ideas and emotions and the difference between the two. All of that information is priceless to a human life. Now, whether the child chooses to be a bully or not to stand up for himself is a different issue. The idea is to give them enough information, tailored to their age, so that they can make the best decision a 7 year old can make.

          It doesn't matter to the nature of the class what decision the child makes for himself. We won't ever be able to give a 100% answer to something that involves choice because that would make it not be a choice. If there was only one right answer to a question then it isn't a "choice". That is the whole point of right & wrong, to make the right choice, and to do that you need information. Why not teach that information school?

          If a child is presented with information about "bullying" and he at least somewhat understands what it means to be a bully or not be one then he is in a better position to make the decision. I expect that more often than not children will understand and decide not to be bullies or will stand up for themselves or will have better emotional control, etc. Whether the parent does or does not want the child to be a "wimp" is actually completely irrelevant because the child is the one making the decision and the school is only providing information.

          If the parent has a problem with a decision the child makes, that is his issue to take up with their child. I would imagine that the father would present the child with more information or bully the child into being like daddy. However, either of those cases is completely off topic and irrelevant. What we're talking about is providing children with solid decision making skills and information in school, not how their parents will react to the curriculum.
        • Nov 8 2011: Neither ethics nor morals are written in DNA. Morality is relative to one's neurology, culture, peer-groups, and countless other influential circumstances - well said Sam.
    • Nov 9 2011: Teach people to recognize and develop the process by which they decide whether things are 'right' or 'wrong.' It would be progress even if children were taught that such processes exist, so that they could return to the idea on their own. The first I heard of the study of ethics or was introduced to any ethical decision-making tools was grad school. Why not kindergarten?

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