In Praise of Moral Persuasion

Chuck Huff


What is it that we teach when we convene courses in computer ethics? Documents like the Hastings Center Report (Callahan, 1980) encourage us to teach ethical reasoning skills, and we certainly do so. More focused curriculum guides (Huff & Martin, 1995) also present a host of intermediate-level knowledge (e.g. privacy, software safety, intellectual property) that we teach. But we also teach a hidden curriculum (Meighan, 1986) about “an approach to living and an attitude to learning.” Simply by offering (or perhaps requiring) the computer ethics class we say something about what our department values.

Having done this, though, we are often curiously silent about these values in the class itself, preferring the more prosaic skills and knowledge curriculum. I propose here to praise the hidden curriculum of moral persuasion, to make a few steps towards understanding that curriculum, and by praising it to make that curriculum more respectable.

First, I would like to introduce two concepts that might help us better understand the role of moral persuasion in our teaching of professional ethics. They both come from recent work I have been doing in tracking the moral careers of what we call moral exemplars in computing (Huff & Rogerson, 2005; Huff, 2008). These are people who are well known for their influential commitment to good computing, in both senses of the term.

The first concept is that of moral career itself. What we have been finding is that, far from being uniform, our moral exemplars in computing exhibit a striking variety of ways they integrate their moral action in their professional work. Some have centered their careers on using their skills to design tools that help the handicapped, or that make personal data in commercial transactions safe. Others have worked tirelessly to reform the field of computing, supporting the careers of women and other minorities in the field, or agitating for changes in privacy or intellectual property laws. None started out their career saying to themselves “I will become a moral exemplar by acting in such and such a way,” but all regularly integrated moral and ethical concerns into their daily work. And by doing so, they shaped a moral career, a career with a trajectory influenced by their moral commitments.

The second concept is that of moral ecology. Part of what I mean by moral ecology is the somewhat stable, but constantly negotiated set of values that are agreed upon in a profession. But another part is the highly variable local ethical climates over which we have varying degrees of control. Our exemplars charted their moral careers through widely varying moral ecologies at national, organizational, and work group levels. Some used the agreed upon values of the profession (e.g. safety, user-centered design) to guide and motivate their work. Others attempted to influence the values of their profession, or of their nation, by calling attention to values (like gender inclusion) that might not initially have been thought of as central to the profession. All of them attempted to construct local moral ecologies that would help them pursue their projects.

Even our teaching is embedded in a moral ecology that is influenced by our students’ goals, our goals, the values and procedures of our departments and institutions, and the values of our profession. By teaching we are acting in a moral ecology and influencing that ecology. To opt out, and only teach “skills and knowledge,” is in fact to teach a hidden curriculum of values or to leave the values curriculum up to others.

As instructors, we can choose to influence the moral ecology of the classroom, to use moral persuasion in our teaching in a way that is self-reflective and organized. Here is a concrete example. Most of us spend some classroom time teaching codes of ethics. If we view these codes as expressions of the moral ecology of the professions, we will encourage students to be active participants in dialogue with the codes, agreeing with them, querying them, critiquing them, finding some pieces more relevant to their work than others. In this dialogue with respected members of the profession (represented by the code) they appropriate the commitments of the field into their moral career, into their sense of themselves as a professional. We can say much the same thing about work with cases or work with any of the projects students encounter across their curriculum.

Thus, a central goal of the hidden curriculum should be to help students discover the values of the profession and to integrate those values into their sense of themselves as professionals. Though I refer to “moral persuasion,” it should be clear that our students are not mere passive recipients of influence, but are actively constructing moral careers for themselves. Psychology long ago gave up on the idea that we are passive agents of social influence by “the society” or even “the teacher.” We actively seek meaning in our lives, we decide to adopt or discard the influence attempts of others, and we look for guidance from others for appropriate behavior and values. Whether they are self-aware or not, students are constructing moral careers, and are taking cues from their moral ecology (which includes us as teachers) about how to construct those careers.

Though the skills and knowledge we teach are necessary for ethical action (Blasi, 1980; Keefer & Ashley, 2001), they are not sufficient. It is the sense of self that motivates moral action (Blasi, 1980), or sense of the professional self that drives the ethical commitments and moral careers of computer professionals (Colby & Damon, 1992; Huff, 2008).

We need to think systematically about how we influence this sense of self, which values we want to teach, how to teach them, and how to measure their influence on our students’ moral careers. I think we can do this, and we can do it without abusing our power. Indeed, to not do it might itself be an abuse of power and an abdication of our responsibility in the moral ecology.


Colby, A. & Damon, W. (1992). Some do care: Contemporary lives of moral commitment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Keefer, M.W., & Ashley, K.D. (2001). Case-based Approaches to Professional Ethics: A systematic comparison of students’ and ethicists’ moral reasoning. The Journal of Moral Education Vol. 30, (4) 377-398.

Blasi, A. (1980). Bridging moral cognition and moral action: A critical review of the literature. Psychological Bulletin, 88, 1-45.

Callahan, D. (1980) Goals in the Teaching of Ethics, in: Callahan, D. & Bok, S. (eds) Teaching Ethics in Higher Education. Plenum, New York, pp. 61-74

Huff, C. W. (February, 2008). Good Computing: A Pedagogically Focused Model of Virtue in the Practice of Computing. Target paper for panel at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, San Antonio, TX.

Huff, C. W., & Martin, C. D. (1995). Computing Consequences: A framework for teaching ethical computing. Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery. 38(12), 75-84.

Huff, C. W. & Rogerson, S. (September, 2005). Craft and reform in moral exemplars in computing. Paper presented at ETHICOMP2005 in Linköping, Sweden.

Meighan, R. (1986). A sociology of educating. New York: Saunders College Publishers.