The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

First-Class Ethics: The Golden Means are the Ends

Striving for practical wisdom in the classroom

I met with my graduate ethics class for the first time yesterday. I LOVE the first day of a course because we get to create the atmosphere for the work ahead (Handelsman, 2011). The theme for yesterday turned out to be striving for the Golden Mean, Aristotle’s term for avoiding extremes in behavior and attitudes. The ability to avoid extremes and to contemplate actions based on the right combinations of virtues and other factors is called practical wisdomI found myself trying to use or display practical wisdom—shooting for the Golden Mean—in four ways.  

1.     The Mean between Scripting and Improvisation

I always prepare some things to say on the first day (about requirements, the syllabus, etc.), but I also want some real work to happen! I want to learn about my students by having them participate in meaningful discussions. If the first class is too scripted we will all be bored and I will convey to students that their role is to sit and listen. If the class is too unstructured we may not understand what’s going on in the classroom or the course.

A centerpiece of our discussion yesterday was an exercise that I’ve used to (a) put students to work, (b) challenge them to take risks, (c) help them encode information by making their cognitive frames explicit, and (d) learn where students are in their thinking and ability to communicate. Here’s the exercise: I present students with vocabulary from the course—technical terms that nobody could expect them to know because they haven’t read any course assignments yet. For each term I ask one of them (I call on them randomly) to define and give an example of the concept. “If you don’t know, make something up.” The other students can then add, tweak, or comment.

2.     The Mean between Support and Challenge

One of my principles of teaching is that the best way to learn is to work (play) at it in an atmosphere of trust, support, and aspiration. If students feel challenged but not supported in this exercise I risk making them feel “stupid” if they don’t know something. Thus, I tried to combine my challenge with support—by sharing my goals for the exercise, by reinforcing risk-taking, and by having students (and me) work together. If I can facilitate a collaborative atmosphere, this exercise can go very well.

On this particular day, my students did great on the exercise! They took risks by evolving definitions and examples, and they helped each other out. The best parts of the discussion centered on virtues and emotions:

3.     The Mean between the Extremes of Virtues

We spent significant time talking about virtues (desirable personal characteristics), including benevolence, respectfulness, prudence, humility, and integrity. They quickly came to understand (if they didn’t already) the idea of the Golden Mean, that too much or too little of any virtue is not good. They also recognized that professionals must display their virtues not only in moderation, but in combination. For example, therapists express benevolence to clients most effectively when paired with humility and prudence.

It was a delight yesterday to see students speculating about their (current and future) professional roles and situations in new ways—on the first day of class! They’re already working on improving their practical wisdom.

4.     The Mean between the Extremes of Emotions

One of the situations we discussed was this: You’re a therapist; a client comes into your office and says, “I robbed a bank yesterday.” All the students had some idea of their professional responsibilities, but none were totally sure. Again I was delighted, because they could experience their need (and I hope a desire) to know more, and to learn how to use that knowledge. 

As a starting point to the discussion and to help calibrate students’ moral compasses, I asked them how they would feel in the situation. We expressed feelings including compassion, anger, and curiosity. We talked about what behaviors, professional, un-professional, and non-professional, these feelings might provoke. It was at this point that I realized—with a new sense of clarity—that the Golden Mean, and the idea of combinations, worked for emotions as well as virtues. Any one emotion—especially if too strong—might not be helpful. But if my students could be aware of more of their emotional reactions—e.g., not denying their anger even as they feel compassion—they might be in a better position to make their best ethical judgments (Rogerson et al., 2011).

Did I succeed in finding and actualizing the Golden Means yesterday? A moderate level of humility would help me avoid being cocky and saying yes, and being pessimistic and saying no. Let’s be prudent: I’ll let you know in 16 weeks.

REFERENCES

Handelsman, M. M. (2011). First-class first classes. In R. L. Miller, E. Amsel, B. Kowalski, B., K. Keith, & B. Peden (Eds.). Promoting student engagement, Volume 1: Programs, techniques and opportunities (pp. 211-214). Syracuse, NY: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Available from the STP web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/pse2011/vol1/index.php

Rogerson, M. D., Gottlieb, M. C., Handelsman, M. M., Knapp, S., & Younggren, J. (2011). Nonrational processes in ethical decision making. American Psychologist, 66, 614-623.

[The picture accompanying this entry is from a piece by Esther Rumaner.  Used with permission of the artist.]

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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