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Ethics and Morality

A Bad Day for Ethics

Why do people do these unethical things?

Sometimes I'm embarrassed to be in academia. Can I vent to you for a few hundred words? I woke up this morning to news that Adam Wheeler, a 23-year-old Harvard student, is accused of all kinds of academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, faking transcripts, falsifying SAT scores, pretending to hold a degree, and lots of other really bad stuff. The story reminded me of others I've heard or witnessed through the years, including bad behavior by both students and professors.

Some cases get national attention—even when they're not from Harvard—and others pass under the radar. But each one takes a small toll on the credibility of my chosen profession.

Why would a student do such a thing? Among the easy answers are these:

  • For $45,000 I prizes and scholarships
  • He's a psychopath
  • He's merely the latest symptom of a sick academic system
  • It's all television's fault

The list of possible explanations could go on and on. I don't presume to know the answer, but

I do know how dangerous it is to settle on one simplistic idea. I'm skeptical (there's my academic training rearing its beautiful head) of folks who are sure they know the answer, and/or have only one answer. I'm especially skeptical of people whose explanations correspond exactly to their political, moral, or economic views. For example: "He did this because of the model set by George Bush and the travesty of his military record!" Or, "He did this because of the model set by Barack Obama and the travesty of his birth certificate!"

I just finished a semester of teaching introductory psychology in which we studied the bio-psycho-social model, which helps us understand the complexity of human behavior by looking for multiple causes on multiple levels. Among the biological factors, Mr. Wheeler (if the allegations are true) may have low levels of epinephrine, which some studies have shown to be associated with criminal behavior. On the psychological level, he may have a poor self-concept, an unfortunate collection of traits, a bad personal history, and/or some faulty thinking. On the social level, he might have been subject to (or misinterpred) one of our prevailing norms; for instance, that if we're not the best then we're nothing. (Someday I'll write a blog post about how I this culture we no longer know how to lose.) It is this perfect storm of biological, personality, situational, and cultural factors that may have produced Wheeler's alleged behavior-and gotten him all wet.

Just as I was feeling sorry for myself and my chosen profession, I heard the next two news stories:

Richard Blumenthal, a Senate candidate in Connecticut, was accused in a New York Times article of making mis-statements (they are just about exactly the same things as lies) about his military service.


Mark Souder, an Indiana congressman, quit after admitting to having an affair.

There's lots to think about from these stories, including these questions: (a) How severely should these folks be punished? (b) What's wrong with our societal institutions, and which ones? Politics? Academia? Marriage? (c) How to we train a generation of professionals to be more ethical (or at least less audacious and less stupid)? I'll leave these for another time. Today I'm feeling too embarrassed and sorry for myself....


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).

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