Have We Regressed into Nietzsche’s “Moral Nihilism”?
Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, Publishes 5th edition of his Accounting Ethics Textbook

The Immorality of the College Admissions Scandal

Put the Blame Where it Belongs, on the Parents

Who’s to blame for the college admissions scandal? There’s enough blame to go around for lots of people but the parents are front and center. Their attempt to get their kids admitted to some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. through the back door, side door, and every which way smacks of ethical relativism where they have defined what is right and what is wrong for their kids and themselves based on their own sense of morality not commonly-accepted standards such as virtue, fairness, and moral duty.

In all candor, for me the intention behind parents’ actions in the admissions scandal smacks of “moral nihilism,” which is a label attached to Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory that there is no morality: no right or wrong, just what we do for our own human development as we define it. When society regresses into a no morality exists philosophy, it’s just a quick slide down the proverbial ethical slippery slope before we reach rock bottom. Guess what, folks, we’re almost there.

It’s not just the college admissions scandal. It’s the pay to play schemes of Washington lobbyists, bribery of government officials, corporate greed: falsification of product safety data (think: Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, and Johnson & Johnson), and just a total lack of civility in society.

But, let’s return to the admissions scandal. Here are some facts to consider.

  1. Rick Singer, the consultant who helped parents cheat their kids way into college, advised his clients to have their children apply to receive 100% extended time on the SAT or ACT by feigning accommodations. These are routinely given out to those with a disability or special needs.
  2. Parents paid to have proctors change their kids’ ACT or SAT scores. In one case the proctor would bubble in the answers for the kid, guaranteeing they would receive the desired score. In that case the SAT score was 400 points above the PSAT score.
  3. Students were admitted through the “side door” after pictures of them engaging in sports such as rowing were doctored to make it look like the kids were competing. College sports coaches and administrators were then paid off to allot admission slots to these kids who may never play the sport.
  4. Straight bribing of college sports coaches to admit kids with false credentials.

Some claim this is nothing new and that pay for play schemes have been going on in college admissions for years. Parents give cash donations to colleges and expect favored treatment when their kids apply for admissions, legacy admissions exist for the rich and well-connected, and donations are made to fund some activity with the quid pro quo that their kids will be admitted. Generous father rev

In most of these cases while the intention of the gift can be questioned, the money is used for some definable purpose: improve programs to enhance learning experiences for students; fund scholarships for needy kids; endow professorships for highly-respected individuals; etc. I’m not saying this is necessarily ethically right, but it doesn’t rise to the level of the current scandal – bribery -- where cheating and fraud was commonplace.

What can be done to improve the admissions process and make it more ethically centered?

  1. Those involved in the scandal should be sanctioned – fired when called for. A message has to be sent by the institutions that these scandal-laden admissions schemes are wrong and won’t be tolerated.
  2. Colleges should use the events as a “teachable moment.” Sociology/psychology/philosophy professors should use the occasion to teach about morality, something that has become a lost art in society.
  3. Congress needs to investigate. I’m not a big fan of Congressional investigations because they oftentimes become political witch hunts but this is different. Republicans, democrats, and independents should all be up in arms about these scandals.
  4. Use the investigations to shine a bright light on all of the college admissions processes. This should include the traditional ways of donating money to give a kid a leg up on other candidates, such as hiring tutors and test-preppers. I’m not saying those able to pay should be prevented from doing this. Just level the playing field. Perhaps high schools can use some of their public funds to provide this kind of help for all in need.
  5. Every college admissions department should develop a code of ethics for college admissions and specifically define the improper activities in the admissions process. It should set high standards including honesty and personal responsibility.

We need to take away the unfair advantage that the kids of wealthy and well-connected parents now have. But, the underlying causes are not being dealt with. Cheating to get ahead is part of the game of life for all too many. Many folks now ask why should they play by the rules when so many get away with violating them or making up their own rules with little or no consequence. The lack of a moral compass in society is shocking.  

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 20, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.