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Ethics and Morality

Ethics in the News – Contemplating Complex Decisions

A trifecta of juicy stories with ethical dimensions.

One of the most fun and challenging parts of teaching ethics to both undergraduates and graduate students is to have them move beyond learning lists of rules (e.g., "Honesty is a good thing," or "Do good") to appreciate the complexity of decisions professionals have to make when applying complex systems of rules and principles, filtered through and integrated with their own values and virtues. (I promise that this was the longest sentence in the entire post.) I like to scan the news for illustrations of complexity, and this weekend I hit another jackpot of three diverse and fascinating news items. Not only was each story worthy of discussion on many levels, they all highlight some of the subtleties involved in ethical values, reasoning, and outcomes.

The Bad Mark

The first story is directly concerned with business ethics but is easily translatable to psychology, academia, and other professions. It concerns Mark Hurd, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Hurd resigned, or was forced out, depending on the account, mostly because he falsified some expense reports. He apparently was trying to hide a personal relationship he was having that itself led to claims of sexual harassment. The message is clear: Don't falsify statements. Tell the truth. Right? That's the first message, but another subtle message might be this: According to the LA Times, Hurd will receive a severance package of over $12 million. So beware, kiddies: If you make it to a high position-—perhaps by lying and cheating?—don't act unethically, or else you will stand to never have to work another day in your life.

The Bad Grade

The second story is more directly about education: The Mount Olive (New Jersey) school district voted to do away with grades of D in their middle and high schools. Students will now have to earn 70% to pass courses, rather than 65%. This story can inspire lots of discussions about how education is structured, the ethics of grading, and choices individual teachers need to make. I'll tackle the ethics of grading more fully in future posts. For now, just a couple points to help us appreciate complexity.

Report Card

According to the first sentence of one Associated Press story, "Students in one New Jersey school district will have to work harder to pass." This sentence may not be entirely correct (thus raising other issues about how the media report news). After all, teachers have choices. They can use the same techniques, assessments, and grading criteria as before and many students will fail. At the same time, it's possible that teachers will (subtly or not-so-subtly) choose (consciously or not-so-consciously) to change their grading practices such that students who would have received 69, or 68, or 65% will now earn 70%. Thus, some D students will become C students rather than F students. Why might teachers choose to do this? Lots of moral motivations are possible. Teachers could change their grading and give more students C's out of compassion, pressure from parents or peers, enhanced teaching ability, convenience, their own experiences as students, and all combinations of these and many other possible motives.

Here's another interesting question embedded in the Mount Olive story: What do grades mean? One former teacher was quoted by the Associated Press as being in favor of the proposal, saying: "It's a good idea and raises the bar for excellence in academics. If you don't know 70 percent or more of something, you don't know it." My question: Where did that number of 70% come from as the bright line between knowledge and ignorance? Do we really have only one criterion for all types of knowledge and skills? For example (one that's meant to provoke discussion): Would I be satisfied if the pilot of my airliner knows what 70% of the controls on her panel mean? Alternatively, would I buy an ice cream cone from a Baskin-Robbins employee who knew 67% of the flavors he had versus 70%? Let's question some of our assumptions, shall we?

The Bad Example

The third story flat out struck me funny: The associated press reported that WikiLeaks, that bastion of openness devoted to pure honesty, was going to continue releasing classified documents. Now comes the funny part; here's the second paragraph of the AP story:

"I can assure you that we will keep publishing documents - that's what we do," a WikiLeaks spokesman, who says he goes by the name Daniel Schmitt in order to protect his identity, told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday." [italics added]

Apparently, openness has its limits....

Ice Cream Flavors

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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