Ethics, broadly conceived, concerns the moral principles that guide what humans do, and the branch of knowledge related to moral principles. Ethics goes beyond simply what is, and endeavors to lay the groundwork for what should be; every pedagogical decision, including whether, what, and how to teach literacy, rests implicitly or explicitly on moral principles. The moral principles of educators and those charged with developing and supporting literacy education matter profoundly for educational decision-making. Relatedly, the issue of justice (social, redistributive, recognitive, representative) is an inescapable one in education, where children’s lives, futures, and flourishing are routinely determined by choices made by those with power. Some of the central ethical principles that may be taken from discussions of ethics and social justice into the specific realm of education include: ahimsa and satyagraha; human relatedness; a moral relationship to place and to non-humans; varied conceptualizations of love; respect for individual freedoms, including the freedom of human flourishing; equality of opportunity; and mutual respect for the multiplicity of differences that exist among people.
There are three areas of inquiry that may help educators and researchers examine the moral principles at stake in instructional decision-making about literacy. First is the issue of how, or to what extent, literacy development should be conceptualized as an ethical goal. If it is conceived as an ethical goal, we should ask whose notions of development count, who has access to literacy, and who is included and excluded are all critical questions. Literacy goals should then also be seen as socio-culturally, contextually, and individually contingent. Second is the issue of how literacy teaching may be a pathway to support students in be(com)ing ethical individuals, and/or in transforming society itself to become more ethical. If literacy is understood in this way, ethical individuals should be willing and able to think deeply and carefully about ethics, use print and other media critically and with discernment, and take action in the service of making the world more just. Finally, the act of relating ethically to others (as teachers and students, as readers and writers) in the literacy classroom must be theorized. We must consider treating texts and authors in ethical ways, and consider ethical dialogue as a literacy pedagogy, and honor divergence in interpretation and composing. The intent is not to provide definitive answers, but to indicate some of the ways in which such questions and possible answers may complicate and expand views of literacy education.