Bookmark and Share

Why Teach Bioethics?

Carolyn Csongradi


Bioethics is an important consideration for teachers because students:

  • want to know about the world around them
  • are experiencing self-discovery, which includes questioning issues
  • need to hone their critical thinking skills

January 2001

Men are neither angels nor devils; that makes morality both necessary and possible.7

New technologies force us to make ethical choices.

Scientists from the human genome project predict that we will determine the genetic causes of human disease long before treatments are available. Access to genetic and sequence maps will alter the face of clinical medicine in the twenty-first century8. With the gap between our ability to diagnose and treat or cure genetic diseases ranging from five to twenty or more years9, coupled with the high economic and social costs of disease, there is increasing pressure to explore genetic manipulation of somatic cells. How do we decide among current scientifically available options? How do we make those difficult ethical choices?

Young people are eager to debate ethical issues.

Adolescents are passionately interested in ethical questions suggesting adolescence may be a critical period for including bioethics in science education6. Knowledge arises when the mind interacts with content; an understanding of ethical issues develops as an evolving process around real-life situations. The question is what role should teachers play in the acquisition of this knowledge?

How do we make ethical choices?

Do we need to teach bioethics?

Plato asked a form of this question more than two thousand years ago: Is ethics taught, inherited or passed on by some other mechanism? Does ethics need to be taught? Experts have studied how we learn ethical concepts and behavior and what roles nature and nurture play in the process (figure 1). Their hypotheses don’t always agree.

Figure 1.

Knowledge Hypotheses
© 2001 ccsongradi

Some believe that ethics are learned by observation.

Hypothesis 1: Nature is more influential than nurture. Can the mind actually build knowledge from sensory information? We instinctively know some things, although group interactions and environmental factors may modify this knowledge. For example, as an extension of the mother-infant bond, we learn kinship preferences, recognition of specific individuals, social communication, and long term infant care.

Some scientific studies support this view. For example, neurologist Oliver Sacks13 befriended a young boy named Stephen, an autistic savant who was capable of memorizing complex scenery at a glance and retaining the information for long periods of time. From an early age he appeared to have little need for nurture - - human or otherwise.

Some believe that ethics need to be reinforced by instruction.

Hypothesis 2: Nurture is more influential than nature. Leading a field of neurobiologists, who explore how the human brain learns about the world, Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman hypothesizes that with repeated experiences, we develop and reinforce anatomically based concept maps. These concept maps subsequently modify how sensory information is processed and organized.3

“Natural Law” ethics, which has been traced to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, states that decision-making principles can be discovered through careful reflection and by observing nature. The law of nature, rather than individual preferences, determines what actions are right. The human mind need only possess the capacity for reasoned thought and the ability to communicate.2

Some believe that observation is balanced by instruction.

Hypothesis 3: Nature and nurture interact in sequential stages.
In a series of elegantly designed experiments, child psychologist Jean Piaget1 proposed that children pass through developmental stages where one stage builds on an earlier stage through assimilation and accommodation to the real world.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg strongly believed that moral development occurs in six stages.14 We grow from a point of self-interest to one of an increasingly larger circle of people. Our perspective changes with age and is comparable to growth in areas of psychological development. Educators should note that educational psychologist Carol Gilligan, Kolberg’s student, criticizes his theory because it is based on studies of males and, therefore, contains a significant gender bias.5 Others have also criticized Kohlberg for placing a higher value on one form of moral reasoning over another.

Some believe there is a critical window of opportunity through which we learn bioethics.

Hypothesis 4: Nurture interacts with nature at the critical window stage. We appear primed to receive specific environmental stimuli that are most easily incorporated during windows of opportunity (i.e., critical windows). For example:

  • A familiar example of a critical developmental window is the medical condition known as “lazy eye.” If the human brain fails to receive input from both eyes before about the age of five years, the information from the eye with very poor vision is permanently ignored even after corrective surgery or lenses.4

  • The acquisition of bird songs has also been extensively studied in the context of what is inherited and learned. For example doves, who have a species specific cooing rhythm, are unaffected by efforts to disrupt their learning. Their song likely has a genetic model that does not require a specific environmental stimulus .The sparrow, however, needs to acquire a template for its species-specific song sometime during its first four months of life. If no template is provided, the sparrow fails to produce a normal song even with subsequent adult song exposure.10

Evolutionist Ernst Mayr observes, “Man is distinguished from all other animals by the openness of its behavioral program… so in human beings ethical norms and definite values are laid down in the open behavior program of an infant.”12 He further states this is a very special type of learning akin to imprinting based on an innate capacity to acquire ethical beliefs.

What does this mean for science educators?

Students need classroom opportunities to engage in discussions and practice conflict resolution.

The acquisition of ethics and other forms of knowledge are dependent on exposure to content, properly timed experiences, and practice with reasoning skills. Since we acquire this knowledge from heritable and external sources, such as the classroom, students need an opportunity to:

  • engage in discussions that allow them to examine their values
  • practice resolving ethical conflicts in a real world context11

Science discoveries are occurring with unprecedented speed. Every day, we are faced with new ethical choices posed by these discoveries. The inclusion of bioethics in classroom curricula is more important than ever before. Bioethics is an excellent vehicle to generate interest and establish the relevancy of science content:

Bioethics instruction must assist students in distinguishing between fact and opinion.
  • The ambiguities of ethical viewpoints challenge critical thinking abilities and promote the development of problem solving strategies.

  • After students become interested in an ethical problem at the emotional level, they are motivated to discover the facts, better understand the problem, and come up with a reasoned solution.

  • Science topics are not void of personal or societal values and are open to subjective interpretation.

Conclusion: Studying bioethics can help a student’s self-discovery process.
  • Bioethical decisions often come down to a question of values or determining priorities in competing values. Students need to understand the difference between fact, opinion, and values; and develop an ability to make rational decisions, while recognizing the role of subjective interpretation.

We can assist adolescents in creating their own concept maps for the classification of objects and also for ethical values. The process of concept map construction will not happen with an imposed prescription for ethical norms, but through facilitating the process of adolescent self-discovery as they tackle real world conflicts.

Carolyn Csongradi is a lecturer at Santa Clara University in the School of Education and Counseling Psychology and a current member of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Board of Institutional Review. She recently retired from teaching chemistry at Palo Alto Senior High School in Palo Alto, California. She has also worked as a freelance writer and multimedia consultant for Access Excellence, a web site hosted by the National Health Museum. Previously, she developed science curriculum materials for the SETI Institute’s “Voyages Through Time” project and worked as a forensic chemist. Csongradi received her Master of Education and Master of Science in neurosciences from Stanford University in 1967 and 1975, respectively.

Why Teach Bioethics?

Bioethics in medical education

Dr. S. Van McCrary emphasizes the need for bioethics education for doctors, hospital staff, and medical students.

Ethical decision making

The “Ethics Connection” presents a framework for ethical decision making that is useful for teaching bioethics in the classroom. The site includes case studies and ethical issues.

Ethics Primer

The Ethics Primer provides interactive, classroom-friendly lesson ideas for integrating ethical issues into a science classroom. Free download or read each chapter online.

Bioethics organizations around the world

A listing of web sites for select international and national bioethics organizations around the world, including the U.S.

Ethics for Non-Ethicists

How to distinguish an ethical treatment from other kinds of statements. A basic introduction to ethics for non-ethicists.

Read a book

The following books were recommended by the author for educators who care to further investigate the topic:

  • » Beauchamp, Tom and James Childress, eds., Principles of Biomedical Ethics, fourth edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • » Kevles, Daniel and Leroy Hood, eds., The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  • » Singer, Peter, ed., A Companion to Ethics, (Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1993).
  • » Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Our Childrenby Meredith F. Small follows the various strands of nature and nurture that determine the fate of our children (Doubleday, 2001).
  • » Ethics in the Science Classroom An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers With Model Lessons for Classroom Use by Michael S. Pritchard and Theodore Goldfarb explains how to incorporated the study of ethics in the science curriculum. Numerous ethics case studies are provided.

Ethics Updates

A website designed for use by ethics teachers and their students. It reviews a wide range of information gleaned from current literature, both popular and professional, related to ethics. Get involved in a variety of discussion forums.

Ethics in education

Choose from information articles or professional development courses in ethics. The second link takes you to their events calendar, including seminars and ethics camps.


Teaching Resources from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR)

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) strengthens public trust in research through education and dialogue. Its diverse membership spans academic, industry, non-profit research institutes, health care, and voluntary health organizations. Through membership and extensive education programs, it fosters a shared commitment to the ethical conduct of research and ensures the vitality of the life sciences community.

NWABR Research Study on Bioethics Education
Fostering Critical Thinking, Reasoning, and Argumentation Skills through Bioethics Education –results show that when students learn strategies for ethical reasoning, they grow significantly in their ability to develop strong arguments for their positions.

Bioethics for the classroom

Iowa State University offers online links and resources for educators to help them incorporate bioethics into their courses. The second link takes you to an online, accredited bioethics course that they offer to help high school teachers “educate youth and adult audiences about the ethical issues surrounding biotechnology.”

For educators and students: ethics resource

“St James Ethics Centre is a fully independent, not-for-profit organisation which provides a non-judgmental forum for the promotion and exploration of ethics.” The site offers a dilemma of the month for consideration, survey participation, forums, articles to read, and more.

  1. Brainerd, Charles, Piaget’s Theory of Intelligence, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1978) p. 23.
  2. Buckle, Stephen, “Natural law” in A Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer, ed., (Oxford England: Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1993) p. 162.
  3. Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, (New York: Basic Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) p. 81.
  4. Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 10th Edition, (New York: Basic Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1983) p. 38.
  5. Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice, (Harvard University Press, 1993) p. 21.
  6. Gilligan, Carol, ed., Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) p. 166.
  7. Hart, H.L. Law, Liberty and Morality, (Stanford University Press, 1963)
  8. Hood, Leroy “Biology and medicine in the twenty-first century” in The Code of Codes, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) p. 138.
  9. Ibid, p. 159.
  10. Hooker, Barbara, “Birds” in Animal Communication, Thomas Sebeok, ed., (Indiana University Press, 1968) p. 311.
  11. Keating, Daniel, “Adolescent thinking” in At the Threshold, The Developing Adolescent, Shirley Feldman and Glen Elliot, Editors, (Harvard University Press, 1990) p. 77.
  12. Mayr, Ernst. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) p. 8415.
  13. Sacks, Oliver, An Anthropologist on Mars, (Vintage Books, Random House, 1995) p. 108.
  14. Thomas, Laurence, “Morality and psychological development” in A Companion to Ethics, Peter Singer, ed., (Oxford England: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1993) p. 464.

General References

  • » Lyons, Nona, “Two perspectives: On self, relationships, and morality” in Mapping the Moral Domain, Gilligan et al, eds., (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) p. 21.
  • » Noddings, Nel, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) p. 51.
  • » Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971) p. 113.

author glossary

Bioethics is a branch of ethics which deals with moral problems in medicine and the life sciences.
Ethics is a discipline that attempts to examine and understand ways in which choices are made involving issues of right and wrong.
Nature refers to heritable, genetic information passed from one generation to the next.
Nurture refers to environmental influences that may act to modify an organisms behavior.


Understanding Science