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Point/Counterpoint: Can Ethics Be Taught?

By Dan Candura, CFP and Simon Hassan, CFP


As someone who spends a considerable amount of time delivering what some consider to be engaging and innovative training on CFP Board’s Standards of Professional Conduct, it should shock no one that I support the affirmative side of this discussion. When I lead two or three hour courses for CFP® professionals, I believe they gain more than just the satisfaction of crossing the requirement off their To-Do list – even if that was their primary reason for attending. Instead, I hope they have a greater understanding of the complexities of interpreting ethical questions. I hope they’re better prepared to serve their clients and navigate a technicolor world where few situations are black and white.

An Old Question

Whether ethics can be taught is hardly a new question. Philosophers grappled with the issue throughout recorded history. Socrates argued, “Ethics consists of knowing what we ought to do, and such knowledge can be taught.” Admittedly, our friend Socrates was not without a serious conflict of interest since teaching ethics was a bigger part of his livelihood than mine! But still he sets up one of the best cases in the nurture versus nature aspect of the debate. We accept that it is important to teach children the difference between right and wrong – especially if we have ever had the pleasure to be stuck in a room for more than 30 minutes with a half a dozen of the little beasties. Left to their own devices kids can be quite awful.

Stages of Decision Making

Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg taught that ethical development occurs in stages. Children make ethical decisions by considering the reward or punishments that could result.  But, children need a better framework for making decisions than what will happen if I get caught. Will Mom be happy? Will Daddy be upset? Some see this as a parent’s first responsibility with considerable assistance from churches, schools and even organizations like scouting and team sports. We want our children to lose the self-centered focus of childhood. Kohlberg found that as we reach adolescence our peers and the importance of the group frame our decisions (which goes a long way to explain that hairstyle I sported in my teens). To the blessed relief of all parents, Kohlberg described a third stage that some reach where decisions are based not on what is good for me or my group but rather on what is the best for all.

Teaching Facilitates Learning

This ability to recognize the virtue of making decisions that benefit others while sacrificing our own self-interest requires a more sophisticated and altruistic process of evaluation than simple observation of rules or allegiance to peers.  Instead it requires that we understand different points of view and that we learn to challenge ourselves to look at an issue from more than one perspective. It is often not easy and often uncomfortable.  It is, in fact, work – as are many of the lessons we have learned in our lives. And, it is far less painful when a good teacher helps us reach inside ourselves and find new insights about the world in which we live. This is no less true when the subject is ethics than it is with science or music or math. There are patterns and processes that help us to recognize the nuance of various situations and evaluate varied courses of action. The more time we spend exploring these issues the better we become at dealing with them when they occur. The more practice we undertake the better performers we become. It is the essence of wisdom and professionalism and it takes time and experience to learn and achieve. So, can ethics be taught? Most definitely.  Should it be taught? If we want our colleagues to be less selfish and more generous, it should.


Of course you’re right, Dan.

I think the confusion about this issue springs mainly from two meanings of the word “ethics.”  The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that in its general sense the words “ethics” and “morality” can be used interchangeably, but that it can also have “a narrower meaning, referring to the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual.”

When we talk about ethics in a particular profession we are using the word in its second sense above: compliance with a set of generally accepted professional norms. By nature these impose higher standards (including for education and client care) for the members of a particular profession that apply to those who are not members. Those who subscribe to a profession voluntarily adopt these tougher rules for the public good and to distinguish themselves from those who are not members.

Codes of Ethics

Ethical rules need not be spelled out in a Code, but often they are.  In the case of financial planning, FPSB’s Financial Planner Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility lists the ethical rules that must be followed by practitioners who are permitted to use the CFP® marks.  On top of these, any additional rules may be imposed by the organization licensed by FPSB to award the CFP designation in their particular part of the world.

Morality (right and wrong) can be taught – and those of us who are parents know that this is a big chunk of our role.  Teaching morals is not always easy, and what’s right and what’s wrong can depend on the particular philosophy, religion, or culture of those doing the teaching.

Teaching ethics – in the narrower sense of the term as explained above – is much easier.  The rules are pretty clear (although they continue to develop over time – as evidenced now by the gradual acceptance of a fiduciary standard for financial planners around the world).  But the benefits for those who comply are also pretty clear: not just in terms of personal satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem, but also ultimately in the expectation of professionals for higher incomes, and enhanced business value that arises from a more sustainable business model.

Ethical practice, and gradually rising minimum standards for true professionals, is ultimately “win, win, win”.  Our clients should be better off; so should we; and so should our exciting new profession.


Do you think ethics can be taught? Comment below to let us know your thoughts:

1 comment to Point/Counterpoint: Can Ethics Be Taught?

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