The first is that modern-day ethics are an excuse to do what one wants, provided sufficient rationalisation can be given. Since, due to our prejudices, they cannot proscribe any course of action, they are useless--they cannot say not to do something. If a good enough excuse can be contrived, then it's `ethical.'
To me, ethics is the logic behind duty. It has nothing to do with -- and is in fact completely orthogonal to -- morality. Ethics does not depend on culture, moral reference frame, or opinion. It applies equally well to all intelligent, semi-rational beings, be they people, sapient aliens, intelligent robots, or whatever. (In fact, I would argue that the laws of ethics could be deduced game-theoretic fashion from simple axioms of interpresonal behavior.)
Ethics is watered-down morality, and morality is watered-down religion.
Morality and religion are also orthogonal, but that's a flamewar for another discussion.
One cannot learn to be ethical--one either is, or isn't.
Neither can education make one a good song writer, but the formal study of music, musical notation, melody, and poetry could certainly help. And so it is with ethics. The student of ethics is made to examine and study situations that might arise, and thus gain experience reasoning about them. Gaining this practice in advance is valuable, for one usually has little time for clear thinking when an ethical conundrum arises in one's own life. Real ethical decisions must be made quickly, and often in the face of people who are trying to manipulate you emotionally.
One approach an ethics course takes is progressive complication. An example: You work for a chemical company, and must dispose of used water. The water is not highly contaminated or anything -- it's just cheaper to use fresh tap water than to recycle it. Your duty is clear: dump the water in the lake, use fresh water from the municipal water supply. Justification: duty to not waste employer's money.
But a complication arises! (As they are wont to do when a philosophy professor is in the room. ;-) The used water contains small amounts of a chemical suspected of causing cancer, in concentrations that might just barely be dangerous, and the lake is used for the city water supply. Your duty is clear: recycle the water. Justification: duty to avoid injuring people who would drink the bad chemical. But another complication arises! The city's water purification process removes 99.5% of the chemical, rendering it essentially harmless. Duty: dump water. Justification: avoid wasting money recycling. But wait, another complication! Whiny uneducated environazis might bitch and moan anyway, giving the company expensive bad publicity. Does the bad publicity outweigh the recycling cost? And does the city's purification process really clean the water, or is it unreliable? What about fishing in the lake? How will it affect my career if I make a publically unpopular decision?
The example decisions are all completely divorced from morality, and center on simple abstractions of duty and monetary-equivalent cost, yet the proper course of action is not at all clear.
Trying to get this in a class through the biased eyes of a teacher ... is a futile task; Sisyphus had a better chance of success.
The goal of an ethics teacher is not to make the students ethical, no more than the goal of a mathematics teacher is to turn the students into good little numbers. Rather, it is to give the students the mental tools to rationally analyze ethical questions. And it must be done before a dilemma arises: you cannot self-teach the calculus of cost while the VP of Marketing is screaming at you about the production schedule you want to slip. At that point, you need to be able to lay out all the costs and benefits and rationally justify your actions. You also need to be able to make rational compromises, and you won't have weeks to think about it.
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
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