The ethical life is a complex and dynamic process. Formulas that make it all seem so simple ("just follow the Golden Rule," "Love is all you need," "All I ever needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten," "don't be evil") are attractive and convey some profound truths, but they mislead. Aristotle knew, for example, that the virtues are skills that must be practiced over time -- they can't simply be taught in a classroom or reduced to a slogan. Buddha spoke of a life-long developmental process of walking the "Noble Eightfold Path." Confucius knew that any innate goodness we possess will be insufficient unless it is deliberately cultivated and developed.
Although the dynamism and complexity of the moral life have been understood for a very long time, the lesson is given new evidence and urgency every now and then. For example, recent findings in neuroscience speak to the power of preconscious factors in our decision-making, complicating our understanding of ourselves as rational deliberators having free will.
Ethics courses are often taught with great emphasis on ethical deliberation. We are likely to spend a semester with students defining morality and ethics, addressing cultural relativism, analyzing the ins and outs of various classic ethical theories, and maybe (if the course has an "applied ethics" orientation) trying out decision-making models. The assumption throughout is that humans are rational deliberators who, faced with discreet occasions of moral crisis, can find our way to proper solutions with deft employment of the tools of ethical analysis and assessment.
This approach to ethics education which forefronts ethical deliberation is an especially good fit to the traditional college classroom. It's what we do well. But the "dynamic of ethics" is larger than this. A more comprehensive approach would account for at least two other realities.
First, there is the question of ethical sensitivity. Before I begin to deliberate about a moral problem, I have to recognize that I have one. Ethical sensitivity is the ability to perceive moral issues as moral issues. Unfortunately, we have a tendency toward what Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel have called "ethical fading:" failing to recognize that my decisions have a moral component. Instead of facing the moral import of a choice, the ethics "fades" and the choice is interpreted through some other lens: "it's just business," "this is a financial matter," "we're just following the law here." Ethics education will be more effective if it trains people to have their ethical antennae up and alert to the moral significance of our decisions. Rather than ignoring the inconvenient feeling that we're treading into ethical territory, we will make better decisions if we are mindful of the full significance of the matter at hand.
Second, there is the question of ethical action. It is one thing to know the good; it is another to do it. Ethics professors are well aware that a student who writes an "A" paper in a course on ethical reasoning might treat it all as a purely intellectual exercise taking none of it to heart, or even use their reasoning skills to obfuscate and persuade others to immoral practices. Returning to Aristotle, ethics is the practice, the habituation, of moral excellence. Mary Gentile, who will be speaking at the Rochester Institute of Technology on December 9, argues that the ethical deliberation model overlooks a major factor in the moral life when it implies that all we need is to know what is right. Instead, as she writes in Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right, we should be more concerned with "empowering the parts of us that already want to do the right thing." That is, we need to attend more to giving people strategies for doing right when there are pressures against it (as there often are). Stephen L. Carter makes a similar point in his book, Integrity, arguing that knowing what is moral is of little value if we do not also do the right thing, for the right reasons, and are willing to speak up for our moral motives to others.
Thus, the dynamic of ethics involves ethical sensitivity, ethical deliberation, and ethical action.