In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics and Education

  • Introduction

Education Ethics and Education
Christopher Higgins, Katherine Jo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0142


It is typically when something goes wrong—cheating scandals, inappropriate teacher behavior, embezzlement by administrators—that we hear talk of professional ethics in education. Thus, we tend to associate professional ethics with the codes written to proscribe such egregious conduct, which unfortunately reduces ethics to the narrowly moral concern of which actions violate basic norms of rightness and draws our attention away from what is distinctive about ethical reflection in education. Ethics includes not only dilemmas of right action but also questions about one’s life as a whole: what is worthwhile to pursue, what is admirable to become, what does it mean to lead a good life? When we broaden our normative focus to consider the full range of ethical considerations, we see that education is an inherently and unavoidably ethical enterprise in which educational professionals have multiple, even conflicting, obligations, making even the most mundane moments morally complex. What, how, and why we teach—all of these involve questions about the good. Our policies, institutions, curricula, practices, and interactions all rely on an understanding of what it means to be an educated person and embody a vision of human flourishing, for both students and educators. This article presents the work of thinkers and scholars from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, past and present, who have cast the most light on these critical questions. The works have been organized into three broad categories that define the contours of the various concerns related to professional ethics in education: (1) those works that illuminate how education is a fundamentally and thoroughly ethical engagement as well as those that defend particular ideals as the aims of education; (2) those that pertain to what it means to be an ethical professional in education; and (3) those that examine complex ethical tensions and problems that arise in educational decision making and everyday practice. Each category contains further subdivisions indicating the key topics shaping discussions of professional ethics in education. In addition, some sections present works in an analytic rather than chronological order; that is, tracing the development of and relations among general concepts and their applications within education. Although there are many rich ethical issues in informal and higher education, the focus in this article is on K–12 schooling, a choice that reflects the balance of scholarship on this topic.

The Ethical Nature of Education

Thinkers throughout history have understood that education is an inherently ethical enterprise, and scholars have made this case both philosophically and empirically, demonstrating that education operates according to certain assumptions, implicitly or explicitly, about what is good and right, and, most importantly, about the good and right end of education. Arguably in all cases, some mixture of implicit and explicit ideals is at play in any educational practice and institution. Moreover, educators may make a deliberate effort to inculcate these ideals through targeted curricula in the name of moral education, but their priorities and values pervade and are reflected in all choices about pedagogy, curriculum, and various aspects of school relationships and organization. The section Education as an Inherently Ethical Enterprise presents works that make a philosophical case for the ethical imperative embedded in education as well as important empirical studies that have made salient the ethical and moral nature of all educational activity. Ideals of the Educated Person, Visions of Human Flourishing includes the works of key figures in the history of Western educational thought who have deeply influenced the educational aims that undergird various educational practices. Contested Terrain of Moral Education Proper discusses works that represent major strains of thought on moral education proper that inform debates related to professional ethics.

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