The Ethicist: Just Like Riding a Bike?

It often feels hard to do the right thing, easy to do the wrong one. But what if there were a way in which we could learn to be ethical in just the same way that we learn other practical skills, like driving and reading? Happily, there may be.

In my last column, I explored the central problem faced by those who teach ethics courses (namely, that such courses, in and of themselves, are powerless to make anyone behave more ethically unless they have already made a commitment to do so), and I made the case that we have a hard time acting ethically when our thinking about an issue is not properly lined up with our emotional responses to it: we often know what we ought to do (or what we ought not to do), but fail to act as we should because our feelings get in the way.

Nick, learning to ride a bike. (Photo by By Nick Richards from London, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nick, learning to ride a bike. (Photo by By Nick Richards from London, UK CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In this month’s column, I want to consider a proposal made by a philosopher named Mark Alfano, who suggests we must first identify how we should act in situations that call for us to make an ethical choice; and then practice acting in the desirable ways so that the corresponding character traits become our own.

Alfano observes that if we are simply told that we should “do the right thing,” we are often at a loss: what does that even mean? If, however, when we are confronted with an ethical dilemma, we ask ourselves “What would an honest person do?”, we usually have no difficulty identifying what that course of action would be.

And we can ask the same question with reference to any desirable character trait: “What would a generous person do?” or “What would a just person do?” How we should act, if we wish to be persons like that, will become clear. Of course, the difficulty I discussed in last month’s column remains: how can we get ourselves (or other people) to want to act in honest, or generous or just ways?

This is where the second step in Alfano’s method comes in, but to understand it, we need to know a little bit more about virtue ethics.


Alfano works within the theoretical framework proposed by Aristotle, who believed that we learn to be ethical people through practice, that the more often we behave as an ethical person would, the more we will come to feel as an ethical person should (namely, taking pleasure in performing actions that we know to be right), and the easier it will become for us to continue that ethical behavior. In the Aristotelian picture, our emotions, our actions and our intellects all line up with one another in the right way: an honest person feels pleasure when he tells the truth, guilt when he tells a lie.

By North Charleston from North Charleston, SC, United States (Learning to swim) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Learning to swim. (Photo by North Charleston from North Charleston, SC, US, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

For Aristotle, learning to be ethical (or virtuous, to use his preferred term) is more like learning a skill — like swimming or reading or riding a bike — than like the intellectual exercise of figuring out what we ought to do. Think of what it felt like when you were learning to swim or read or ride that bike, how hard it was in the beginning, how much you had to practice before you could do these things with ease, how now – if you have done them often enough – you are able to do them without conscious thought.

For Aristotle, learning to be ethical or virtuous is the same way: we learn what it is that we ought to do from our parents or teachers; we practice behaving in that way; and, over time, what we were taught becomes unconscious knowledge. It’s not just that we will know, in some intellectual sense, that we shouldn’t shoplift at Walmart or Canadian Tire, it’s that the thought of shoplifting will not even cross our minds.

Alfano observes that, however appealing the thought of being a completely honest (or generous or just or patient) person might be, most of us do not – yet – find it easy to be the kind of person who routinely and consistently manifests these traits: we are more like swimmers who know how to keep our heads above water but have difficulty swimming long distances; readers, who no longer have to sound out the letters but sometimes find it difficult to concentrate when we pick up a book; or cyclists, who don’t wobble too much, but who need to dismount and push our bikes when we come to a steep hill. So, how might we be moved from the category of those who sometimes struggle to behave ethically to the category of those who have internalized ethical traits so that they find it easy to act as they should?


Alfano modifies Aristotle’s proposal slightly but significantly: to get people to become more ethical, he argues, we should tell them that they already possess the specific virtuous traits that we want them to demonstrate.

For example, if we want them to behave courteously, we might complement them on their social skills; if we want them to be more generous, we might applaud them for the help they offer others. When we compliment them, they feel good about themselves, and will not want to disappoint us, so – at least when they are around us – they will continue to live up to our expectations.

Children at Buk bilong Pikinini (Books for Children), Papua New Guinea. (Photo by Ness Kerson/madNESS Photography for AusAID, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Learning to read. Children at Buk bilong Pikinini (Books for Children), Papua New Guinea. (Photo by Ness Kerson/madNESS Photography for AusAID, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Over time, this will mean that they will have ample practice acting in these particular ways, and these desirable responses will become instinctive, part of who they are: they will become courteous people, or generous ones, and they will take pleasure in acting in ways that accord with those traits.

I don’t know for certain that Alfano’s proposal will work in practice, but I am planning an experiment with my classes this fall. Every year, I spend time in September telling my students not to plagiarize and warning them of the penalties if they are caught engaging in any kind of academic dishonesty, which range from a grade of zero, to a zero in the course, to expulsion from the university.

In short, I send a negative message: don’t copy stuff from the internet, or else! If Alfano is right, however, this approach is all wrong. What I should do (and what I now plan to do), along with explaining the university’s policy on academic dishonesty, is to tell my students how honest and hard-working they are, how committed to acting with academic integrity, and how proud I expect to be of them as I see them work through the material on their own.

If all goes well, most of them will not want to disappoint me by plagiarizing their work, and they will learn to take pleasure in working through complex philosophical ideas, making them their own and then presenting their own thoughts to me in their assignments.

It will be an interesting experiment, and one that readers of the Cape Breton Spectator can try themselves, on their children, or co-workers, or in any groups they participate in. (And, of course, others can try this method out on us: my colleagues might find ways to help me become more courageous or honest, just as I can do the same for them.)

We might even try this approach on a larger scale; for example, we might compliment local politicians on their integrity and hard work, rather than criticizing them for their lies and laziness: perhaps they will surprise us by living up to our hopes, rather than confirming our worst expectations.


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.






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