Individualism trumps community and the world’s moral compass has been set to “anything goes”. Kim Knight meets the people who think it’s time to teach ethics to New Zealand teens.

Young people are self-centred, self-interested and self-ish. They are ego and, ergo,
their world begins (and ends) with them. They are the i-Generation - emphasis on the "I".

Maybe.

"Turn it off," she said. "I can't watch."

My 11-year-old niece closed her eyes against the screen, blocking out the kids with no shoes, raincoats or lunch. My sister shrugged: "Don't pretend you can't see it. Do something."

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For the next six months, my niece sold foot-rubs and baking. She charged her mother $2 for vacuum cleaning, and when she got $50 for her birthday, put the lot towards her KidsCan fund. Last year, she transferred $150 to the charitable trust that helps children whose lives bear no resemblance to her own.

I have never been more astonished. Or, it turns out, ignorant.

In 2016, Volunteering Auckland registered 711 people aged between 10 and 19 years - a 60 per cent increase on its 2013 figures. The youth cohort is now the organisation's third largest (the largest is 20-29-year-olds, those stereotypically self-absorbed millennials).

"I've been with Volunteering Auckland for 21 years," says general manager Cheryll Martin. "I've always known the other side of the story about young people. They are the most innovative, energetic, passionate resource for our community. But they want connections and a feeling of belonging.

"What I'm seeing, is they're not getting that personal connect from their devices. They're
actually starting to look up from their devices."

I was 32 when I got my first cellphone. My niece got her first at 12. Nobody under the age of 18 has lived in a world without Google and this is just-the-way-things-are. But what if teenagers want - and need - more?

The modern adolescent has never had more "friends". Conversely, they have never felt so isolated. Families are scattered, wealth is distributed unevenly and teenagers must compete to survive, let alone thrive.

Their world is changing hard and fast and they're following it live and as it happens. They know about the Syrian refugee crisis and the Paris terror attacks. They know that, in December, a 12-year-old American girl live-streamed her suicide. And they knew, long before "Roastbusters" entered the parental vernacular, that there were teenagers who got drunk at parties and others who took out their phones and filmed what happened next. What they're less clear about: how to make sense of all this.

"Commentators contend that rapid change has resulted in a society with little cohesion and a diminishing sense of common purpose and vision for greater community good," says Catherine Syms, academic researcher and high school teacher.

Ethics is a time-rich subject. You need to be able to have a good discussion, to listen.

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"We no longer have a society where the triumvirate of church, family and school assists young people in developing a shared morality - some would be glad of that in a secular society - however, since we don't, where else will young people find those values if we are not talking about them in the classroom?"

In 2014, Syms began PhD research into ethics education in New Zealand. Her aim: to review the potential for introducing formal ethics programmes into high schools.

In Singapore, South Korea, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Australia, ethics is part of the high school curriculum. Supporters say it promotes critical thinking - a crucial skill in an era when technological advances push ethical boundaries, and an "anything goes" culture pervades.

Nobody is arguing individualism is a bad thing. But for teens, the disconnect from "community" can have consequences. Worst-case scenario? Isolated adolescents, whose inability to articulate their feelings, or understand their world, manifests in high-risk and self-destructive behaviours.

In New Zealand, that's particularly relevant. A recent OECD report reiterated the headline we've become too accustomed to reading: This country has the highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world.

Syms says there is growing momentum for change, " to re-engage youth in meaningful 'values-based' discussions ... in order to respond to perceived adverse current social trends."

She acknowledges the word "ethics" has contentious connotations. Back in the late
1800s, governments committed to a secular or non-religious public education system. Today, state schools can provide religious instruction, but only in a non-discriminatory way, and pupils must be able to opt out if they wish.

Some people fear introducing ethics is a slippery slope to indoctrination. And so, instead, page 10 of the New Zealand Curriculum (the national policy document that directs student learning in all schools) is headed "values". It lists excellence, innovation, inquiry, curiosity, diversity, equity, community, participation, ecological sustainability and integrity among the values that should be "encouraged, modelled and explored" at school, but leaves it up to individual institutions as to what that actually looks like in the classroom.

In 2010, at Auckland's Diocesan School for Girls those values found expression in the country's first school-based Centre for Ethics.

Set up by Syms (who now teaches in Australia) it's an ethos, rather than a physical building.

"Having a building would be kind of limiting," says Bilqis Hague, 17. "Having a metaphorical centre is a way of making sure it's not limited to one place and time."

Diocesan School for Girls was founded in 1903 on the then quite edgy premise that humans with two X-chromosomes might benefit from an education. Today, Year 7-13 students pay $20,950 to attend. There are fresh flowers on the coffee table in reception, and a rack of recent, glossy magazines. I couldn't figure out why the floor in one classroom appeared to be moving - and then realised I was looking at an indoor pool. The last uniform redesign was courtesy of Dame Trelise Cooper; the Ethics Centre's patron is former student and current Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.

Hague and Olivia Beckett (16) are, respectively, deputy head and head of the student-run Ethics Committee. Right now, they're knee-deep in organisation for the annual "soapbox" competition. Last year's topics included child marriage, euthanasia, rape culture and - the winner - how white feminism is different than feminism for women of other skin colours.

There is an annual ethics dinner (themes have included sport and assisted dying) and it is through the Ethics Centre that a media studies class might organise a music industry expert to talk about illegal downloads and copyright, and a maths class might hear from a statistician about lies, damn lies and statistics.

What ethical dilemmas currently occupy these student leaders?

Hague: "I'm interested in medicine, so I'm really interested in things like genetic modification. Is it right that we should have the power to control things which we weren't always able to control?"

Beckett: "Specifically, recently, we've been talking about things like the 'alt truth' and people like Donald Trump and politics and the idea of people just blatantly twisting what is actually true. I think that's really important to discuss."

Ethics is about equality ... at the end of the day, we're all humans and we all have the same rights, like the right to learn and the right to live in a safe home.

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Smart. Articulate. Insightful. Consider this response to a question about the alleged isolation of today's teens:

"There's lots of social activities you could be involved in," says Hague. "But you're also finding yourself. And you need to be able to look inside yourself, rather than just being influenced by everyone around you."

Hague believes school is an appropriate setting for ethical discussions. "It's a place where you learn about not only things like maths and English, but also about the world and about humanity."

Beckett: "And at school, you're surrounded by your peers who may have similar views. It can encourage you to express your opinions. At home, it's more like your parents telling you what to do."

How all-encompassing is ethics?

"There is the ethics of authenticity, of honesty and all that stuff comes into academics. In sport, in team games, ethics affects every decision. It's not just the big things like euthanasia or the death penalty," says Beckett.

Dio is a private, Anglican school with a decile 10 rating that indicates relatively low numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students. Last year, when the school turned 112, the Ethics Committee organised 706 students and teachers to take part in the "Eat My Lunch" scheme that, for every lunch purchased, delivers another free to a child in need.

Is ethics a luxury balm for upper-class guilt?

A crucial glimpse of the real world for the "haves" who are statistically more likely to go on to roles where they make decisions for the "have nots"?

Beckett: "I feel like everyone can relate to ethics. Whether you're privileged or not."

Hague: "Ethics is about equality ... at the end of the day, we're all humans and we all have the same rights, like the right to learn and the right to live in a safe home."

And, as one researcher found out, interest in the subject is not restricted to high-decile learners.

Deborah Stevens is the co-director of programmes for the New Zealand Centre for Science and Citizenship, a charitable trust that offers a nationwide programme aimed at "empowering and motivating people to become informed and active citizens, capable of rigorous debate about contemporary social issues".

In 2010, as part of her PhD research, Stevens ran a pilot bioethics programme in a large, state secondary school in Wellington. Over the year, some 78 students from across the academic spectrum attended 30 hours of classes.

Bilqis Hague and Olivia Beckett.
Bilqis Hague and Olivia Beckett.

There were no books. Instead, students talked - and, more importantly, thought - about topics of ethical concern. Things like ethical food and animal welfare. Organ donation. Brain development. Whether a chimpanzee could be a person. What, actually, was a person.

"The thesis highlighted that although we are faced with a number of ethical issues, for example, climate change, personal privacy, organ donation, animal rights, and human reproductive technol-ogies, people are ill-equipped to grapple with these issues," says Stevens. "A time and place needs to be provided to develop the skills of thoughtful and critical engagement required."

Students loved bioethics. Sample response: "You learn about yourself; you learn values for yourself; you learn how to make decisions, like life decisions that will actually affect you ..."

In her thesis, Stevens notes the current curriculum is not entirely bereft of ethics education. Level 3 biology, for example, looks at ethical aspects of developing
biotechnologies.

"History, social studies and health consider politics, poverty, race-relations and relationships between the sexes. Film, poetry and novel studies within English frequently include subject matter of a bioethical nature - for example, the use of the movie Gattaca, or the use of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale.

"Unit and achievement standards, which invite students to compare and contrast ethical theories within two applied issues - for example, abortion and euthanasia - are also available in religious studies, and health and physical education."

But, as one teacher reported to Stevens: "Bioethics is eye-opening, energising and ground breaking. Ground-breaking in terms of finally a subject that is about learning, and only about students' learning ... I'm not looking at my grades and thinking, 'Oh, yes - excellence, merit, merit, excellence, great,' because the likelihood of students forgetting in two years' time why they got that excellence and how they got it - I mean compared to this, which is about life; in the real world they will use this, and they will use the way they think about things ..."

Stevens acknowledges there are practical barriers to school-based ethics programmes.

"Why hasn't it been formalised in New Zealand schools? Well, we have a massive, chock-a-block curriculum. If you're going to put that in, what do you take out?

In sport, in team games, ethics affects every decision. It's not just the big things like euthanasia or the death penalty.

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"And it's a time-rich subject. You need to be able to have a good discussion, to listen. The teacher is there as a facilitator, it's not a hierarchical learning situation where the teacher can just impart something."

Integration across subjects, a la the Dio model, is one potential answer, says Stevens.

In the corridors at Dio, the ethics-in-everything ethos is expressed in student posters with titles like "what is beauty?" and "environmental issues". There is a wallchart of handwritten "ultimate questions". Where did we come from? What is our conscience? When do we get souls? Do we have souls? What happens when we die? Is space infinite? Who is God? Is there a god? What is the meaning of life?

Last year, Irish President Michael D. Higgins said the teaching of philosophy was "one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world".

Writing in The Guardian, Irish cognitive scientist and philosopher of medicine Charlotte Blease, said teaching children to think was more important than redoubling investment in science, technology and engineering, et al. "We will need people who are prepared to ask, and answer, the questions that aren't googleable."

Knowledge, agrees Diocesan principal Heather McRae, is "just not enough in today's world".

"Our young people should understand their role in a democracy and how it works, as with Brexit and Trump, there are growing examples of potential global instability when populations choose not to participate or are uninformed."

Posters encouraging students to think about ethics decorate the walls at Diocesan School for Girls.
Posters encouraging students to think about ethics decorate the walls at Diocesan School for Girls.

How do you be a good person?

Nina Blumenfeld, Dio's Ethics Centre director, says distinguishing between right and wrong is ethics "at a very simple level".

At senior levels, "What I stress to students is there are no black and white answers to most things in life. There are a lot of grey areas and it's those grey areas that need exploring." She quotes St Thomas Aquinas, who claimed "an untroubled conscience is not a conscience at all".

"You need to investigate. If you don't investigate your life, if you don't think about how you're living and why you're living and everything that involves you, then you are not really a productive being."

How do you be a good person? I rang my nephew, three years younger than my niece, and put that question to him.

"Don't bully people," he said. "Be nice to people. Don't hurt anybody and be friends."

You should do this, he said, "because if you're not a good person, then people won't be good to you."

How often is he good?

"Hmm," he thinks. "I would say, often."