Moral Literacy

The best gift I ever got was . . . when an organ donor gave me and five other patients . . . the organs we needed to live. I guess you could say I got another time at bat.

—Mickey Mantle

No human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another.

—President George W. Bush

symbolic drawing of an eye over lady justice with scales with blue and yellow backgroundKaren Korell

At the heart of the current debate about stem-cell research is the question: How do we weigh the potential of this research for improving the lives of millions of people suffering from degenerative diseases against the sanctity and rights of fertilized eggs? Is the destruction of human embryos mitigated by the promise of alleviating human suffering?

Questions of ethics as complex as these have become a common undercurrent of our public discourse, from news reports to congressional debates. Crucial moral decisions are being made by policymakers as they discuss the ethics of stem-cell research. Debates about the inherent sanctity of human life versus quality-of-life issues are common topics of op-ed columns. Opponents of stem-cell research warn of entire industries of embryo manufacture whose sole purpose is dismemberment for research. Proponents cite the potential of stem-cell research to repair spinal cord injuries or cure illnesses such as Alzheimer's or diabetes.

Stem-cell research, although a particularly complex and pressing moral issue, is hardly the only critical moral problem we face. The war with Iraq, corporate greed, racial profiling, and sex scandals involving political and religious leaders are just a few of the issues that have made headlines over the past year.

Perhaps it is time to include a fourth literacy alongside the educational basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Rock Ethics Institute, in the College of the Liberal Arts, was established to ensure that Penn State students receive an education that includes moral reasoning.

Living an ethical life is an achievement, one that must be cultivated. None of us believe that our children's moral development is something we can take for granted. We share our values with them and teach them right from wrong. We encourage our children to develop good character each time we talk with them about why dishonesty is wrong, or try to instill compassion toward people in need. But moral literacy requires training and practice throughout our lives. All of us as individuals, as professionals, and as citizens will need to make numerous moral decisions. The ethical situations we face frequently will be complex and often will be unique. What stronger argument is there for making moral literacy a component of our formal educational experience?

One of the basic components of moral literacy is ensuring that one is knowledgeable.

Just as a scientist can conduct successful research only by being well-informed about all relevant facts and theories, so too the moral person must be well-informed. Too often, moral debates are fueled by ignorance. The recent arguments about stem-cell research provide such an example. It is often the case that those who debate the ethics of cloning are unaware of the fact that not all stem-cell research involves the use of a fertilized egg—a fact that bears significantly on the moral context of the debate.

Often, too, empirical facts are interlocked with values. Disability advocates argue that the counseling that accompanies the genetic screening of fetuses for abnormalities often rests on the false belief that the life of a person with disabilities is an impoverished life. While not denying that a child who is blind or who has Down's Syndrome will be different from children who do not have these conditions, disability advocates argue that proponents of selective abortion for abnormalities too often embrace the false belief that life with a disability is not worth living. In fact, individuals who are experienced in living with a disability often give a much higher rating to their quality of life than do the nondisabled.

Each of us, to be a moral agent, must take the responsibility to be informed before making moral judgments. But there are also social imperatives. The news media, for example, in striving to provide interesting “sound bites” about human cloning has often been ethically irresponsible in failing to adequately explain the science of cloning. Politicians debating cloning legislation often do not acknowledge the full range of scientific options that are available.
A second component of becoming a moral agent involves cultivating moral virtues. Common moral virtues that are shared across cultures include honesty, fairness, respect, responsibility, and caring. Our sense of ourselves, as well as what others think of us, often rests on the extent to which we live up to these virtues. When Clonaid announced it had produced the first cloned human beings, but then refused the DNA testing that could have verified its claims, the company's credibility became highly suspect. In the same way, the recent corporate scandals raised concerns about the moral character of CEOs at Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia and triggered debates about whether corporate culture is at fault by inculcating profit as a goal more valuable than justice or fairness.

A third component of moral literacy is the development of skills of moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is complex, requiring attention to rights and duties, codes of action, the intentions of actors, and the consequences of actions. Along with the critical-reasoning skill of identifying unwarranted assumptions or prejudices, moral reasoning requires identifying the values at play in any moral situation. Moral reasoning also necessitates being open-minded, listening carefully to the views of others, considering the ethical implications of decisions, learning how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our own and others' positions, and taking responsibility for our actions and beliefs. It means being willing to investigate our own values. But investigating values does not mean rejecting them. In fact, the practice of moral reasoning often results in commitments becoming stronger as one comes to appreciate more fully the reasons they are embraced.

Pondering issues like stem-cell research or genetic screening forces us to clarify our views about the sanctity of human life. While we may agree that “no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another,” few of us hold that human life is so sacred that it should never be sacrificed. Most in this country, for example, think it is sometimes necessary to risk lives in war to protect political ideals, and many in the U.S. are willing to reinstate a draft in which young people could be required to put their lives at risk for the country. On the other hand, few of us believe that human life has little inherent value. Many are outraged at the history of abuse of humans who have been deemed inferior and denied basic rights because of skin color or other biological differences. Facing these issues responsibly requires that we be morally literate.

Moral literacy involves a complex set of skills and habits that can be cultivated and enriched through education. Like other forms of literacy, it is best developed in the home and the community as well as in the schools. Still, the best way to ensure that we are part of a moral nation is to commit educational resources to this crucial ability. How can we afford not to?

Nancy Tuana, Ph.D., is Dupont/Class of 1949 Professor of Philosophy, and director of the Rock Ethics Institute in the College of the Liberal Arts, 240 Sparks Building, University Park, PA 16802, 814-865-1653;

The Rock Ethics Institute was established in 2001 with a gift from Douglas and Julie Rock, with the object to promote ethical awareness and inquiry in the University and in the public and professional sectors by supporting curricular innovations designed to improve moral literacy across the University curriculum, building collaborative research projects around ethically based initiatives, and encouraging public dialogue on ethical issues. Information on the Institute's many programs is available on the Web at

Last Updated May 19, 2016