Dr Paweł Kaźmierczak
Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow
Teacher's professional ethics.
The paper starts with the discussion of the relationship between teacher's professional ethics and
general or fundamental ethics, contingent on the issue of teacher's professionalism. Further, it
presents various approaches to teacher's professional ethics, resulting from different classical
philosophical perspectives, centered on duty, consequence, virtue, value, and the person. Finally, it
argues for an integrated, personalist approach to the subject, providing a solid ground in the cultural
context of fluid modernity.
professional ethics, teacher, personalism, deontology, consequentialism, axiology, aretology
The subject of teacher's professional ethics is gaining ground both in terms of the volume of
research devoted to it, and in terms of its ascendency into the academic curricula. So my attempt in
this paper will be to clarify some very fundamental issues in the field of teacher's professional
ethics. Firstly, I will discuss the relationship between teacher's professional ethics and general or
fundamental ethics. My claim is that teacher's professional ethics must be rooted in fundamental
ethics in spite of the trends towards compartmentalization of human life. Secondly, I will present
various approaches to teacher's professional ethics resulting from different classical philosophical
perspectives, centered on duty, virtue, value and the person. Finally, I will argue for an integrated
approach to the subject, providing a solid ground in the cultural context of fluid modernity.
1. Rooting teachers' professional ethics in fundamental ethics
The first question dealt with in this paper is: What is the relationship between teacher's professional
ethics and fundamental or general ethics? The answer depends largely a) on the role we assign to
the profession in individual and social life, as well as b) on whether teaching is understood as
a) The role of professional work in human life
Regarding the role of professional work in human life, I would like to refer to Dietrich von
Hildebrand's book The Catholic Professional Ethos. He pointed out that der primäre Beruf (the
primary, that is human and Christian calling) is the necessary foundation on which der secundäre
Beruf (the secondary calling, that is profession) can only be developed. A crucial point is seeing
a human being as a spiritual person and focusing first on her being, rather than on achieving.
Therefore, Hildebrand decries the limiting of what is serious in life to the sphere of professional
work at the expense of religion, marriage or friendship1.
The phenomenon of overemphasizing professional work can be traced back to the secularizing
impact of Protestant work ethics. The inherent danger of depersonalization and alienation of the
human person results from the neglect of being and narrow focus on performance. Of course, this
tendency has only gathered momentum since the 1930's, when Das katholische Berufsethos was
published. Instead of the integration of the human person – the increasing compartmentalization of
human life into separate spheres has taken place. Therefore the postulate of the integration of the
human person, of her private and public self, and, consequently, of her various ethical aspects, not
only remains valid, but is all the more urgent.
On the other hand, Alasdair MacIntyre claims that we gain perception of what the good as such is
only by pursuing the good qua doctors, dancers or diplomats, in other words by participating in
practices in MacIntyre's sense2. This perspective urges us to focus on the specific issues of the
practice of teaching as a field of human flourishing3.
The particular character of teaching has been encapsulated by John Passmore in the concept of a
triadic relation, involving a teacher, a student, and a subject matter. The educational triad gives rise
to two chief questions: Does the teacher know the subject he teaches? Does he care to transmit this
knowledge to the students? Therefore, the teacher's knowledge of the subject and caring for the
students appear to be the key factors in his teaching practice. They are necessary to inspire interest
in the students and transfer the knowledge to them4. Such a conceptual framework enables us to
discuss the particulars of the teacher's professional ethics.
b) Is teaching a profession?
Apart from the question of whether teaching is a practice in the sense of MacIntyre, another
important one is whether teaching is a profession. There exists a substantial body of literature
corroborating the affirmative answer, although some doubts have been raised too. I will refer to an
1Dietrich von Hildebrand, Das katholische Berufsethos, Verlag Haas und Grabherr, Augsburg 1931, pp. 10-11.
2Chris Higgins, MacIntyre’s Moral Theory and the Possibility of an Aretaic Ethics of Teaching, Journal of
Philosophy of Education, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2003, p. 281.
3Chris Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice, Kindle Edition, Chapter 2, “Worlds
of Practice: MacIntyre's Challenge to Applied Ethics, A Closer Look at Internal Goods”. It is perhaps worth
noticing that MacIntyre himself claims that teaching is not a practice in its own right, but always a means to an end,
i.e. teaching mathematics belongs to the practice of mathematics, teaching biology to the practice of biology, etc.
This assertion has given rise to a heated debate, which inspired the entire Special Issue of the Journal of Philosophy
of Education (Vol. 37.2, 2003) and further comments from such scholars as John Dunne, Chris Higgins, Nel
Noddings, Kenneth Waith, Paul Hager or Richard Davies.
4Cfr. J. Passmore, The Philosophy of Teaching, Duckworth London 1980, p. 23.
authoritative analysis provided by David Carr5. He singles out five criteria of professionalism:
„(i) professions provide an important public service; (ii) they involve a theoretically as well as
practically grounded expertise; (iii) they have a distinct ethical dimension which calls for
expression in a code of practice; (iv) they require organization and regulation for purposes of
recruitment and discipline; and (v) professional practitioners require a high degree of individual
autonomy—independence of judgment—for effective practice”6.
According to Carr, teaching ranks high on the first criterion as it serves to combat ignorance, which
is an evil comparable to disease and injustice. The score on the remaining criteria may not be
equally obvious, but altogether, the case for the teacher's professionalism seems robust enough.
Elizabeth Campbell goes even further, asserting that teaching is „the core profession (...) in today's
Piotr Kostyło, drawing on David Carr's Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching, presents two
models of teaching, namely, teaching as a calling, and teaching as a profession8. The first model
presupposes a greater continuity between private and professional life, it is usually associated with
a lower income, compensated by a greater job satisfaction. It implies the view on education as
a transmission of culture. On this view, teacher is seen as a model of virtues. This model is still
present in contemporary theory, although the professional model seems to be dominant. In the latter
model, professional life is separated from private life, personal deficiencies are considered to be
irrelevant to the exercise of the profession. What counts is meeting professional standards and
norms as set by the rule of bureaucracy.
The two above-mentioned model seem contradictory. However, I would argue for treating them not
as mutually exclusive options, but as the complementary dimensions of the teacher's role, which
presupposes being an integral person in various social contexts, as well as securing a certain space
for private life. That means assuming a certain interplay between the statement that 'each person has
one self” and the statement of the difference between the private individual and public
This conclusion brings us to the question of ethics implicated in practicing the teaching profession.
According to a literature review by Elizabeth Campbell „educational scholars in the early and
middle decades of the last century tended to address the moral nature of teaching and schooling,
almost exclusively within the curricular context of the moral education of the young, rather than as
5David Carr, Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching, Routledge, London and New York 2000.
6Ibidem, p. 17.
7Elizabeth Campbell, The Ethical Teacher, Open University Press, Maidenhead Philadelphia 2003, p. ix.
8Piotr Kostyło, Wykluczanie jako problem filozofii edukacji. Komentarz do badań empirycznych, Impuls, Kraków
2008, pp. 154-159. Idem, Etyka profesjonalizmu i powołania nauczycielskiego, in: Joanna M. Michalak (ed.), Etyka
i profesjonalizm w zawodzie nauczyciela, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego, Łódź 2000, pp. 367-384.
9Elizabeth Campbell, The Virtuous, Wise, and Knowledgeable Teacher: Living the Good Life as a Professional
Practitioner, Educational Theory, vol. 63, No. 4, p. 414.
an element of the teacher’s ethical role, responsibilities, and practices". A proliferation of studies in
the field of teacher's professional ethics can only be observed starting from the year 199010. From
that time onwards, the ethicists have progressively focused on the teachers themselves, not just on
transmitting moral values to the students, although of course these two dimensions cannot be
separated from each other.
2. Approaches to teacher's professional ethics
While studying subject literature on teacher's professional ethics, one notices lack of consistency in
the use of basic terms, such as “value” or “virtue”. For example, some authors treat hope as a virtue,
while others call it a value11. The understanding of value or virtue also differs greatly from one
theoretical stance to another. Therefore, I will present five major ethical perspectives, focusing on
their versions which seem to have a more solid theoretical background, and which are particularly
relevant to the field of teacher's ethics. The main positions considered will be the following:
a) deontological – ethics of duty, b) consequentialist – result-based ethics, c) aretological – ethics of
virtue, d) axiological – ethics of value, e) personalistic – ethics of the person.
a) Deontological approach – ethics of duty
Deontological approach follows Kant's idea of categorical imperative, "Act only according to that
maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without
contradiction"12. So it rests on respecting norms, principles and contracts. It focuses on actions,
rather than on persons13. It is more attuned to the concept of teaching as a profession, and can more
naturally be expressed in the codes of ethics or codes of conduct. To give some concrete examples,
these rules may pertain to grading, to punishing for cheating or cases of plagiarism. Written codes,
however, cannot comprise the entire richness of the moral sphere, as most scholars in the field
agree14. Neutral and impartial attitude of the teacher towards the students is definitely not
sufficient15. At least, such is the evaluation of teacher's deontology by the scholars representing
b) Consequentialist approach – result-based ethics
10 Elizabeth Campbell, The Ethics of Teaching as a Moral Profession, Curriculum Inquiry 28:4 (2008).
11 Mirosław Pawliszyn, Nadzieja jako cnota. Beznadzieja jako degenaracja ducha. O jeszcze jednym trudzie bycia
człowiekiem, in: Iwona Jazukiewicz, Ewa Rojewska, Nadzieja i sprawiedliwość jako sprawności moralne w
wychowaniu, Uniwersytet Szczeciński, Szczecin 2014, pp. 81-102; Paweł Walczak, Nadzieja jako naczelna wartość
etyki nauczycielskiej, in: Magdalena Bajan, Sławomir Jacek Żurek, Etyka nauczyciela, TN KUL Lublin 2011, pp.
12 Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, (3rd ed.). Hackett, Indianapolis 1993, p. 30
13 Jacek Jaśtal, Etyka cnót, etyka charakteru, in: idem (ed.), Etyka i charakter, Aureus, Kraków 2004, p. 14.
14 Elizabeth Campbell, The Ethics of Teaching as a Moral Profession, op. cit., p. 366.
15 Piotr Kostyło, Wykluczanie jako problem filozofii edukacji, op. cit., p. 169-170.
Consequentialist ethical theories determine the moral value of an action on the basis of its outcome.
They are often expressed in the principle of benefit maximization, which hold that the best action is
the one that brings the greatest benefit to the largest number of people16. The application of this
principle to education would be that student results are the best indicators of good teachers and
good schools. Now, on the one hand, it is hard to deny that this is a reasonable statement. After all,
'By their fruits you will know them'17. On the other hand, the entire educational system seems to be
obsessed with the results, operationalized in terms of either exam performance or of alumni careers.
The attitude of maximizing educational benefits is inculcated in us to such an extent that some other
factors, mostly of personal and interpersonal nature, are left out of the picture.
c) Aretological approach – ethics of virtue
The classical ethics of virtue goes back to Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Contemporary
revival of virtue ethics is credited to G.E.M. Anscombe18, and its further development to Alasdair
MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Martha Nussbaum, among others. Modern virtue ethics has emerged
from the critical stance towards the deontology and utilitarianism and sees itself as an agent-
centered ethics19. When it comes to the field of teacher's ethics, a theoretical version of virtue ethics
is represented by a British philosopher of education David Carr. He adopts George Sher's broad
definition of virtue as a desirable character trait20. Following Aristotle, he perceives the foundation
of practical virtues in phronesis, i.e. practical moral wisdom (as opposed to techne technical
skills)21. The centrality of character in this line of ethical reasoning means that embodying virtues
and being a role-model lies at the core of the teacher's ethics22. Chris Higgins and Hugh Sockett
should also be mentioned as contributors to teacher virtue ethics focusing on the practitioner's
flourishing (eudaimonia) through character development23.
A Canadian educationalist Elizabeth Campbell presents the ethics of virtue in a more applied
version, embedded in everyday teaching practices. As virtues particularly relevant to the role of the
teacher she singles out honesty, patience, constancy, responsibility, non-maleficence and
16 Kenneth Strike, Jonas Soltis, The Ethics of Teaching, Teachers College Press, New York and London, 2009, Kindle
Edition, chapt. 1, What This Book Is About, Consequentialist Theories and Benefit Maximization.
17 Matthew 7:20.
18 G.E.M. Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy, Philosophy 33, No. 124 January 1958.
19 Natasza Szutta, Artur Szutta, Wprowadzenie, in: Natasza Szutta (ed.), Współczesna etyka cnót: możliwości
I ograniczenia, Semper, Warszawa 2010, p. 12.
20 David Carr, Jan Steutel, Virtue Ethics and Moral Education, Routledge, London and New York, 1999, p. 4.
21 David Carr, Professionalism and Ethics in Teaching, op. cit., p. 75. See also Joseph Dunne, Virtue, Phronesis and
Learning, in: David Carr, Jan Steutel, Virtue Ethics and Moral Education, op. cit., p. 51ff.
22 David Carr, Educating the Virtues. An essay on the philosophical psychology of moral development and education,
Routledge, London and New York, 1991, p. 259.
23 Hugh Sockett, Knowledge and Virtue in Teaching and Learning: The Primacy of Dispositions, Routledge, New
York 2012; Chris Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching. An Ethics of Professional Practice, Wiley-Blackwell Oxford
d) Axiological approach – ethics of value
The concept of value is immensely widespread, but at the same time ambiguous. It is usually used
in the subjective sense. However, the understanding of value that I subscribe to is an objectivist
value ethics developed in the realist phenomenology represented by Max Scheler, Dietrich von
Hildebrand, Roman Ingarden, and more recently by John F. Crosby and Josef Seifert or, in Poland,
by Władysław Stróżewski. On this view, values are objective qualities, important in themselves.
Dietrich von Hildebrand introduces the notion of the categories of importance, which can motivate
our will and our affective response. The three categories he distinguishes are: value, which is
important in itself, the subjectively satisfying, and the objective good for the person. The decisive
element of personal growth is connected with value-response, going beyond one's self towards the
important-in-itself25. This movement, in Josef Seifert's terms, might be called a transentelechial
movement26. Hildebrand stresses the need of the contemplative and reverent attitude towards reality,
which is the condition of value-response27. Such dedication is particularly relevant for the
professions “dealing with goods of high internal value”, including teachers28. In the case of teachers,
some special interpersonal attitudes are called for, along with reverence for the truth, which is
“dethroned” by contemporary culture29.
Applying the notion of values to the field of teacher's ethics we can conceive of them in Scheler's
terms: positive moral values (ideale Wertwesen) experienced by the teacher exert an attractive
influence on the student who can follow his example30. Taking into account Karol Wojtyła's
corrections to Scheler's emotionalism, highlighting the role of conscious moral effort in emulating
moral values31, we arrive at the conclusion that Philip Jackson formulated as follows: “no attitude,
interest, or value can be taught except by a teacher who himself or herself believes in, cares for, or
cherishes whatever it is that he or she holds out for emulation”32.
24 Elizabeth Campbell, Teaching Ethically as a Moral Condition of Professionalism, in: L. Nucci, D. Narvaez,
T. Krettenhauer (eds.), The International Handbook of Moral and Character Education, Routledge, New York
2014, p. 102.
25 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics, New York 1953, pp. 27ff.
26 Josef Seifert, Essere e persona, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano 1989, p. 354.
27 Jules van Schaijik, The Dietrich von Hildebrand's LifeGuide, St. Augustine 's Press, South Bend, Indiana 2007,
28 Dietrich von Hildebrand, Efficiency and Holiness, in: idem, The New Tower of Babel, Franciscan Herald Press,
Chicago 1977, p. 211-212.
29 Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Dethronement of Truth. in: The Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical
Association. Washington, D. C. Vol. XVII, 1943.
30 Max Scheler , Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik, Max Niemeyer, Halle a.d.S. 1921, p.
31 Karol Wojtyła, Ocena możliwości zbudowania etyki chrześcijańskiej przy założeniach systemu Maxa Schelera, in:
idem, Zagadnienie podmiotu moralności, TN KUL, Lublin 1991, p. 119-123.
32 Philip W. Jackson, The Mimetic and the Transformative: Alternative Outlooks on Teaching, in: Philip W. Jackson,
(ed.), The Practice of Teaching, Teachers College Press, New York, 1986, p. 124.
e) personalistic approach – ethics of the person
The approach that I endorse might be called personalistic, in that, while drawing inspiration from
both from axiology and aretology, and to some extent, also from deontology, and even from
consequentialism, it focuses on the person. A contemporary philosopher who represents this
position is Karol Wojtyła. In Love and Responsibility Wojtyła refers to Kant's categorical imperative
in its second formulation: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person
or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an
end”33 and transforms it into what he calls “the personalistic norm” forbidding using persons as the
means to an end, and stating that 'the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate
attitude is love”34. Thereby Wojtyła also subscribes to a universalist, categorical deontology as
a vital dimension of his personalism. He also states that Christian ethics cannot be conceived
In The Acting Person Wojtyła employs the notion of virtues, pointing out to their integrative
function, whereby they enable the realization of the personal structure of self-governance and self-
possession. He claims that the psycho-emotive integration or character building is a life-long human
task36. This general ethical principle is made more specific with relation to work in the Encyclical
Laborem exercens: “As a person, man is therefore the subject of work. As a person he works, he
performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content,
these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by
reason of his very humanity.”37 This statement is consistent with MacIntyre's notion of a social
practice as well as with the concept of goods internal to the practice, which are goods for the
practitioner helping him or her to flourish38, and its corollary that apprenticeship to a practice aims
As for the axiological dimension of his personalism, Wojtyła ascribes moral values to human
actions, resulting from the person's agency40, and, refining Scheler's position, holds that they perfect
the human person41. He goes even deeper by demonstrating that the ethical value of the human act is
conditioned by its personalistic value inherent “in the performance itself of the action by the person,
33 Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. op. Cit., p. 33.
34 Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1993, p. 41
35 Karol Wojtyła, System etyczny Maxa Schelera jako środek do opracowania etyki chrześcijańskiej, in: idem,
Zagadnienie podmiotu moralności, op. cit., p. 139.
36 Idem, Osoba i czyn, in: idem, Osoba i czyn oraz inne studia antropoogiczne, TN KUL, Lublin 2000, p. 291-295.
37 John Paul II, Encyclical Laborem exercens, AAS Vatican 1981, No. 6.
38 Cfr. footnote 3.
39 Chris Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching, op. cit., Chapter 2, Worlds of Practice: MacIntyre's Challenge to Applied
Ethics, What Counts as a Practice: The Proof, the Pudding, and the Recipe.
40 Karol Wojtyła, System etyczny Maxa Schelera jako środek do opracowania etyki chrześcijańskiej, op. cit., p. 138.
41 Idem, W poszukiwaniu podstaw perfekcjoryzmu w etyce, in: idem, Zagadnienie podmiotu moralności, op. cit.,
in the very fact that man acts in a manner appropriate to him”. This value consists in the fact that by
fulfilling an act man also fulfills himself in it42.
Ethical personalism applied to teacher's ethics obviously implies caring for the personal growth of
the students. This dimension has been elaborated within the so-called ethics of caring, initiated by
Carol Gilligan43 and Nel Noddings in her book Caring44. Nel Noddings insists that teaching is
a relational practice, not just a means to introduce students to other practices: “We affect the lives of
students not just in what we teach them by way of subject matter but in how we relate to them as
persons.”45 Relations of care and trust definitely are means of transmitting knowledge but they are
also ends in themselves, as they help students grow as whole persons.
But, perhaps not equally obviously, as Chris Higgins notices, personalism also entails teacher's self-
cultivation. Higgins insists on the teacher's right to pursue his own eudaimonia – flourishing and
happiness. In his view, pure altruism is an erroneous ethical stance, as it usually leads to the
teacher's burnout. It can be argued on many grounds that caring for one's own flourishing is deeply
ethical, as it is also a condition of “self-ful” teaching46. A person of the individual teacher as the
essential factor of ethical teaching deserves to be cultivated.
Conclusion: A solid ground for practical ethics notwithstanding 'fluid modernity'
The question arises as to what is the impact of the various above-mentioned theoretical ethical
systems on the applied ethics embedded in the teacher's real life practices? In this regard, Elizabeth
Campbell adopts a certain theoretical syncretism (encompassing both virtue ethics and ethics of
moral principles, but rejecting moral relativism) within the sphere of applied ethics47. I also tend to
view the above-mentioned perspectives as complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. I argue
that the perspective focused on the human person is the most appropriate, as deontological, aretaic
and axiological dimensions tend to merge or intersect in the human person.
Zygmunt Bauman perceives a distinguishing characteristic of the fluid nature of late-modernity (or
post-modernity) in “the absence of guaranteed meanings – of absolute truths, of preordained norms
of conduct, of pre-drawn borderlines between right and wrong, no longer needing attention, of
guaranteed rules of successful action …”48. The two main postmodern trends reflecting this
42 Idem, Osoba i czyn, op. cit. p. 306.
43 Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, MA 1982.
44 Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education., University of California Press
45 Nel Noddings, Is Teaching a Practice?, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2003, p. 249.
46 Chris Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching. An Ethics of Professional Practice, Wiley-Blackwell Oxford 2011.
47 Elizabeth Campbell, Teaching Ethically as a Moral Condition of Professionalism, op. cit., p. 102.
48 Z. Bauman, Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000, pp. 212-213, as cited in: Mark Howie, Embracing
the other within: Dialogical ethics, resistance and professional advocacy in English teaching, English Teaching:
Practice and Critique, May, 2008, Volume 7, Number 1, pp. 103-118.
characteristic are radical hermeneutics and radical constructivism49.
Post-modernism seems to be a Zeitgeist of our time, a prevalent intellectual attitude, particularly in
the field of social sciences. However, there are some clear signs that it is entering into the phase of
decline. It is very refreshing to see that approaches based on virtue ethics, deontology and on the
objectivist value ethics, which go beyond the postmodern relativism, are present in the
contemporary studies on teacher's professional ethics.
49 David E. Cooper, Interpretation, Construction, and the “Postmodern” Ethos, David Carr (ed.), Education,
Knowledge and Truth. Beyond the postmodern impasse, Routledge, London New York 1998, pp. 37-50.