01/25/2013 03:40 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Do We Begin Teaching Ethics Too Late?

As a lawyer, I'll be the first to admit that among our brethren at the bar, we see ethical failings. And I'm not talking about esoteric lapses in judgment; I'm talking about old fashioned lyin', cheatin' and stealin'. It's tempting to say that the lawyers who do this are the ones who attended law school years ago when there was no ethical training, and ethics was not a required part of the bar exam. But the cases (and sometimes headlines) involving younger lawyers tell us otherwise, despite required ethics education in law schools today.

Before you queue up the standard lawyer jokes, consider this: lawyers aren't the only ones messing up when it comes to ethics. The news of late is filled with examples of ethical lapses in areas such as insider trading and athlete doping. From the power halls of Wall Street to the sweaty locker rooms of professional sports, a lot of grown-ups who should know better are having a hard time making ethical choices. Surely they were advised when they got these jobs; no one gets to the Major Leagues or the league tables without the standard instructions on what is and is not allowed. And lest one make excuses about the pressure placed on sports icons or captains of industry, recall that we see such problems among used car salesmen, too, the traditional poster boys for allegedly slick and bad behavior.

In fact, we see it all the time, both in our personal lives and in the media. It is troubling not only for its frequency, but for its variety: Accountants who collaborate with clients over phony tax deductions. Doctors who take kickbacks for prescribing new drugs that they endorse for cash. Politicians who receive campaign contributions, then promote questionable legislation that these contributors support. Journalists who write stories based upon dubious, even non-existent, sources. Academics who fabricate statistics (or test results) to gain financial funding. Hedge fund managers whose traders employ inside information.

This is a far cry from the good old days when workplace unethical behavior was the butcher holding his fingers on the scale. Professions nowadays too often look the other way, somehow enabling a path of least resistance. While "best practices" are well and fine, some firmer basis is needed.

And it's not because these businesspeople aren't well educated. Many, if not most, are, in language, math, sciences, history, etc. They learned those skills precisely because they were required to learn and digest them -- even if, at the time, these subjects were as unpleasant to them as medicine or spinach probably was. They weren't at the same time, however, formally instructed on the quality of integrity, in circumstances where integrity wasn't always so easy to exhibit. They weren't taught to "do the right thing" when troubling ethical quandaries faced them: for example, when they saw bullying -- physical or emotional. When exam cheating was a commonplace means to excel. When violating a classmate's privacy would promote their interests, or amuse them. When using prohibited substances promised personal excitement. Indeed, when peer pressure overcame one's inner voice that silently and inwardly screamed "no."

In short, most students don't learn ethics at a chronological age at which, just like foreign language skills, the teachable moments arise at the best possible ages, making learning reflexive -- almost automatic. Unquestionably, our educational system simply waits too long to feed their classes ethics that students need, even if learning ethics might taste like medicine. And so, students first really come to learn ethics at a later age, typically as a young adult, when the core value of living an ethical life will no longer be reflexive (as it might have been if ingrained earlier). Sadly, it might be too late.

We're not saying here that ethics education would have kept a sociopath like Bernie Madoff from running off the rails. We're saying, instead, that today's youth, in particular, are endemically and regularly plugged into viral social media feeds that potentially corrode their moral compasses, especially since much of it contains news about other people's ethical quagmires. Collectively, youth lack meaningful course correctives to examine the choices they may routinely face in their own lives, and the conduct they may observe in their peers. Flexible ethics laboratories, if you will, in which mirrors are held up to today's student bodies must find a venue in every high school. It's important to present ethics ideas to youngsters at a stage when they are still young enough to entertain the idea that they could do something wrong -- and not too embarrassed to admit it. Young adults, I've found from teaching law school, are too convinced of their own virtue. And it is that inflexible certainty of being right that may in fact lead many people to make bad ethical decisions.

When I teach professional responsibility -- "legal ethics" -- at law school, many students chafe at certain scenarios that are Socratically presented to them. They often respond to classroom hypotheticals, which posit they have done some awful act, by insisting, "I would never do that. Period." These students, in particular, sometimes evince the naïve, almost-reflexive, purity of youth. They also may be embarrassed to appear before their peers as considering such behavior -- even in a classroom hypothetical. The "late start," however, may make their "classroom ethical integrity" short-lived, even fleeting. Once they (often rapidly) descend from the purity of the ivory tower into the real world -- where they can no longer "afford" the virtues of academic purity -- the situational ethics of the classroom may fall by the wayside. It's easy to be ethical in a classroom! Not so easy in the real world. A similar transition prevails from amateur standing to the pressure of professional sports, from grad school to high stakes on Wall Street, from med school to fighting with HMOs.

The fall, however, would not be nearly as steep had students formally learned ethics earlier. Now certainly, no one can fault American schools for not presenting a full ethics curriculum. Schools have their hands full meeting core requirements in this age of "teaching to the test." That is why this proposal is to call in the cavalry.

Role models -- not simply athletes with extraordinary vertical leaps -- more effectively than most, can show youngsters how they themselves dealt with ethical quandaries early in life -- sometimes poorly. Sometimes, regrettably. Surely, Barack Obama, Colin Powell, J.K. Rowling, Tom Brokaw, Derek Jeter, Oprah Winfrey, among others, also had to navigate ethical minefields early on in their lives. Did they slip up? Did they fall? If they fell, how quickly did they get up? And if they faced the need to navigate those same fields once again now, what would they do differently, despite the tormenting personal cost of integrity?

And, what would men and women such as these advise today's youth -- high school students, among them --- who have earned their admiration? The title "role model" means nothing if it doesn't impart to others in potential jeopardy of "falling" down the error of one's past ways. We best teach ethics by example.

Who will stand up? Who among us will admit aloud how he or she once "fell down" or found a way to stand tall in the face of possible ethical peril? For he and she will be a true role model.