Educating Jim

“Why do we study ethics? What does it mean to be a person of character, integrity, honor?”

Those were the questions I posed to students at the beginning of a week-long class at the New Hampshire Technical Institute on ethics.

“Most people want to do the right thing,” I said. “They want to be worthy of the respect and admiration of others both personally and professionally. The problem comes when we face a choice between what we want and who we want to be.”

The second day consisted of laying the groundwork:  a vocabulary of ethics; “is” vs. “ought” ethics; defining ethical values and putting forth a practical, decision-making model. Time was spent discussing the false notion of “personal ethics.”

“Personal ethics is a term,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “used to describe an individual’s operational code of behavior based on private values and beliefs. It is inevitable that individuals must decide for themselves how they construe their moral obligations and it is likely that personal conscience will embrace a wider range of values and beliefs than the core ethical norms.”

However, if we choose to believe that ethics is purely personal and that decisions can be based on each individual’s private code, then there is no justifiable basis for distinguishing between Kim Jung Ill and the Dalai Lama. Both live by their own personal codes.

Equipped with a code of ethical values and an objective, decision-making process, class discussions covered a variety of hypothetical situations. It was interesting to alter a scenario and listen to how the students would respond. Many of the rationalizations used were typical of what I’d find in adult exchanges: “It can’t be wrong if everyone is doing it”; “If it’s legal, it’s okay”; “I’m just helping another, so it can’t be wrong.”

At the end of the day, I left them with Josephson’s Five Steps to Principled Reasoning:

1. Clarify – determine precisely what must be decided.

2. Evaluate – assess the situation in light of stakeholders: who will be helped or harmed; which ethical values are involved?

3. Decide – make judgment about what is or is not true and what the likely consequences might be.

4. Implement – develop a plan of how to implement the decision in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs and risks.

5. Monitor and Modify – an ethical decision-maker always looks at the affects of their decisions and is prepared to revise a plan based on new information.

The final consisted of both a written exam and a presentation before the class based on a specific ethical issue. Students usually worked in teams, although one student, due to a weekend commitment, had to prepare and put forth her presentation alone.

With the approval of Professor Stephen Ambra, the topics selected offered insight into those issues students believed important. They constructed and scripted their presentations pointing out which ethical values were important and the stakeholders involved. All had to submit to a Q & A from the class. Their answers and level of engagement by the audience was a determining factor in their grade.

Among the topics selected – ethics in the workplace, lying, when does flirting become cheating? One explored animal cruelty; another examined the question, “When does law enforcement cross an ethical line?”

One topic new to me – medical ethics and social networking – explored the issue of privacy regarding posting anatomical photos of a patient on sites such as Facebook even when the patient cannot necessarily be recognized.

Two presentations examined assisted suicide. One intense scenario examining capital punishment had a mother on trial for murdering her daughter’s rapist. Another offering was entitled, Who Wants to be a Millionaire – Celebrity Ethics Edition staring Lindsay Lohan, “direct,” the student-host announced, “from the Betty Ford Center!” Correct answers elicited “spontaneous” applause (courtesy of a trusty laptop).

However, it was a presentation on Homosexuality in the Military that drew the most attention from both Steve and myself. The student, an Army Reservist, began with a compelling question regarding the recent decision to reverse the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy: Did the U.S. Senate and President Obama make an ethically justified decision?

Clear and thoughtful with a strong personal component, “The quality of a soldier,” she said, “is based on their actions NOT their sexual orientation.” The presentation not only offered a history of gays in the military as well as the current DADT policy, but drew the audience into discussion by concluding on the opening question.

Throughout the entire week, the class was consistently engaged in thoughtful dialogue about the very real importance ethics plays in our lives each day.

Friday, I’ll discuss what I came away with from my time with the class.

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