Although there is some debate over the extent to which ethics can be learned, the environment has a substantial impact on ethical beliefs. Society has a multitude of ways in which it can influence a person’s personal code of ethics. Starting in the home and continuing throughout society, individuals learn the difference between right and wrong and good and bad. Strong ethical training leads to living a good and moral life and accepting the responsibilities and rights of adulthood.
The earliest time people learn ethics from society is through their interactions with family. The parents, siblings and other family members are parts of society, and the way they interact with a child can have a profound influence on the child's ethical standpoint. For example, in a loving family in which sharing and care for others is emphasized, a child may learn compassion and altruism and develop an ethical standard that involves giving and care for fellow humans. In a neglectful family setting, the same child might begin to develop an ethical framework in which everyone is out for himself, and learn that it's best to take what you can get in any way possible, because nothing will be given to you.
An individual's ethics might be even more strongly influenced by educational institutions. In elementary school, children learn how to interact with others. Many schools teach young children about sharing, collaboration, commitment to others and how to communicate. Ethical behavior is rewarded, while unethical behavior is punished or discouraged. In high school, college and graduate school, ethical beliefs are conveyed to students in different ways, that might include self-directed teaching models, cheating policies and the honor code, and direct discussion of ethics in class.
Television, radio, the Internet, theater, the newspaper and cultural events are all mediums through which messages are carried to an audience. Although most media is not intended to directly teach or influence ethics, there is often a side effect of communicating ethical values. For example, a television sitcom can carry messages about how our society feels about certain situations such as work relationships, marriage, friendship, poverty or how to behave towards strangers.
Religious institutions, from churches and mosques to synagogues, Buddhist temples and religious societies have a profound effect on the ethical beliefs of individuals. Religious institutions have the explicit goal of teaching people how to live ethical lives as perceived by the religious hierarchy. TValues and ethical standards are imparted by religious elders and teachers, by community and group events and by religious texts and teachings.
With maturity comes exposure to a wider sense of the world and its flaws. The ethics learned at home and in school and church don’t always mesh with the reality of the larger society. Government is one example of where ethics can go wrong. Public officials are overtly and sometimes inadvertently influenced by lobbyists, friends and family members. Nepotism and favoritism regarding government appointments and laws can lead to cynicism about political ethics. (ref 4) On the other hand, the United States government holds itself out to the world as a leader in democracy and human rights, challenging its citizens and other nations to meet those high ethical standards. History and the leaders who don’t succumb to the temptations that power brings can play a role in shaping the morals and behavior of the individual.
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images