Morality on the Road

Should the High School Economics Course Include Ethics?

By John Morton Mort morton2

Over one million high school students enroll in an economics course each year, usually in their senior year.  That’s an impressive number.  While these courses vary greatly, three formats dominate.

About 150,000 students take Advanced Placement Economics.  This program consists of a one-semester microeconomics course and a one-semester macroeconomics course.  Because students can earn college credit if they pass a standardized test at a certain level, AP Economics is similar to the college introductory economics course.

Most students take a one-semester course, which is a watered-down college introductory course with personal finance added on. 

The third type of course is a one-semester course focused on personal finance with some economics thrown in.

Despite their differences, these courses all share one feature--they do not teach economics within an ethical context.  This puzzles me.  Adam Smith is considered the “father of economics,” but when he lived, he was considered a professor of moral philosophy.  In the years right after the Enron scandal, there was an interest of economics teachers in teaching ethics, but the interest was short-lived.

What is the study of ethics?  In short, it is the consideration of what is right or wrong.  Ethics is about defining and living a good life.  It’s about making life better for others.  It’s about integrity.  An ethical person wants to make the world a better place.

A study of ethics would seem to be a natural fit in an economics class.  For example, one of the first lessons of economics is that both parties gain when they trade.  The emphasis is on improving our material standard of living.  It seems to me that students should also discuss the effects of trade on peace, virtue, trustworthiness, and discipline.  From another point of view, how important are integrity and responsibility to successful trade?

From my own teaching experience, I know that students respond well to these ideas because most of them hope the world will be a better place with them than without them.


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