Ethical understanding


This background summarises the evidence base from which the Ethical understanding capability’s introduction, organising elements and learning continuum have been developed. It draws on recent international and national research, as well as initiatives and programs that focus on ethical behaviour across the curriculum.

Ethical understanding can be informed by reason, character, values and ethical principles. Each of these is addressed in the Ethical understanding learning continuum.

People call on principles, concepts, experiences, senses, emotions and reasoning to guide them when making judgments. Therefore, it is important that students are exposed to situations that develop both their awareness of meanings and their practical reasoning abilities associated with their thoughts and actions.

Ethical theories can be divided broadly into those that focus on action and those that focus on agency or character; both are concerned with the ‘good life’ and how concepts such as fairness and justice can inform our thinking about the world. These considerations can lead to students’ developing a broad understanding of values and ethical principles as they mature.

Although they have their supporters and critics, interrogation of frameworks such as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (1964, in Crain 1985), Ruggiero’s encouragement to apply ethical issues (1997), and the Values for Australian Schooling (in National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools 2005), guides thinking about the dimensions of learning about ethical understanding and how it might be developed or encouraged throughout schooling.

The Australian educational philosophers Burgh, Field and Freakley (2006) describe ethics as pertaining to the character of persons and the wider society. Lipman, Sharp and Oscanyan (1980) state that ethical inquiry should be ‘an open-ended, sustained consideration of the values, standards and practices by which we live … taking place in an atmosphere of mutual trust, confidence and impartiality’ (p.189).

One area of study in ethics is human nature itself and how that may equip us to answer the question: ‘How ought I to live?’ The philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, along with Kant during the Enlightenment, and more recently modern philosophers such as Peter Singer (1997), identified the importance of reason as a human attribute – although their justification varied. Developing a capacity to be reasonable is one of the three elements of the Ethical understanding learning continuum. Other dimensions in the exploration of human nature are perceptions of activities and character: ‘What kind of person should I be?’ For some philosophers, this replaces the question of ‘How ought I to live?’

Although the basis of justification of what is right or good for the individual and for others is contentious, it is misleading to confuse disagreements in ethics with there being no right or wrong answer. There may be different positions, each with their strengths and weaknesses, and often there is the need to make a judgment in the face of competing claims. At the same time there is need for an open-minded, ongoing endeavour to create an ethical life.

The Ethical understanding capability has also been richly informed by understandings gained through the National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools (DEEWR 2005), and the resultant Values education initiatives in all areas of Australian schooling. In addition, the Melbourne Declaration on Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA, p. 5) states that ‘a school’s legacy to young people should include national values of democracy, equity and justice, and personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience and respect for others’. While Values education is certainly found within Ethical understanding, it is also located within other general capabilities, such as Personal and social capability.


Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 2011, Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies: (accessed 9 January 2013)

Burgh, G., Field, T. & Freakley, M. 2006, Ethics and the Community of Inquiry: education for deliberative democracy, Social Science Press, South Melbourne, Victoria.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2005, National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools:,8757.html (accessed 9 October 2011)..

Kohlberg, L. 1981, Essays on Moral Development, Harper & Row, San Francisco, California.

Kohlberg’s stages of moral development in Crain, W.C. 1985, Theories of Development, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, pp. 118–136: (accessed 7 October 2011).

Lipman, M., Sharp, A.M. & Oscanyan, F. 1980, Philosophy in the Classroom, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

McGuinness, C. 2010, Thinking and Metacognition video, The Journey to Excellence series, HMle – Improving Scottish Education: (accessed 7 October 2011).

McInerney, D.M. 2006, Developmental Psychology for Teachers, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training & Youth Affairs 2008, Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians: (accessed 7 October 2011).

Noddings, N. 2002, Educating Moral People, Teachers College Press, New York.

Ruggiero, V. 1997, Thinking Critically about Ethical Issues, Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, California.

Singer, P. (ed) 1983, A Companion to Ethics, Blackwell, Oxford.                              

Singer, P. 1997, How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stanford University, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (accessed 7 October 2011).

Back to top