Is Ethics a Body of Knowledge? (No! It’s a Process of Human Growth.)


By Linda Fisher Thornton

If you think ethical awareness is about knowledge and learning, think again. Knowledge and learning are only useful in ethics if we are open to receiving them, open to shifting our perspective, and open to changing our minds.

Famous thinkers have long tied ethics to human growth.  Immanuel Kant believed that is “Man’s duty is to improve himself; to cultivate his mind; and, when he finds himself going astray, to bring the moral law to bear upon himself.” John Dewey said that “Growth itself is the only moral end.”

Why does human growth matter to us as ethical people? Take a moment to think about how we prepare ourselves for ethical living and ethical leadership. If we’re not pushing ourselves to become better people, and intentionally raising our level of ethical awareness, we’re probably stuck in the “ethics is a body of knowledge” mentality. 

Growth may be difficult, but there isn’t any other way to fully embrace ethics. We must grow into our ethical competence…intentionally…over time. When we are tempted to take a shortcut and think about ethics as a class or a theory, we should remember this: The “body of knowledge” isn’t going to need to make tough ethical choices. We are. 


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  1. I would simply add the word “only” to your first sentence, as ethical awareness is certainly somewhat about knowledge and learning. Otherwise, you once again hit a home run here – thank you so much for your thoughtful, action-provoking posts!


  2. As with any behavior, ethical choices are an integration of our beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and–ultimately–our chosen actions. Many of our behaviors are unconscious or subconscious, and often our ethical choices are made without going through a formalized evaluation or assessment that reflects our personal identities.


  3. Your new piece on growth is really excellent. You have a way of explaining it better than myself. The key to this growth however is the willingness to be open to it. With out this, it is like speaking to a post in the ground.


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