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Challenges to Ethical Behavior For Ethicists

My Ethical Dilemma

I have previously blogged about whether we should expect ethics professors to be ethical.  In reading up on this issue, I found  an interesting study on why ethics professors don’t behave better. The results made me worry about what might be happening to ethicists and whether they should teach college courses on philosophy and ethics. Mintz & Ethics Sage

At a philosophy conference, philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel offered chocolate to anyone who filled in a questionnaire asking whether ethicists behaved better than other philosophers. It wasn’t long before an ethics professor stole a chocolate without filling in a questionnaire.

In another study, Schwitzgebel investigated whether people interested in moral issues are more likely to steal books. By looking at library records, he’s found that books on ethics are more likely to be stolen than other philosophy books.

While the theft of books could be caused my students, it speaks of their lack of ethics for which we should be addressing or moral lapses by university professors. Either way, it’s not good news for ethicists such as myself.

So why aren’t ethics professors more ethical than the rest of us? Schwitzgebel thinks it may be because there is a difference between emotional engagement with moral issues and a more detached reasoning style that is necessary for careful analysis, but which may not make someone feel compelled to act more ethically. “More and more, I’m finding myself inclined to think that philosophical reflection about ethical issues is, on average, morally useless,” he says.

This concerns me because I use moral reasoning as the primary way to teach ethics to college students. How can it be useless? Am I wasting my time and that of my students?

The reason it may be morally useless to reflect about philosophical and ethical issues is because students may know what the right thing to do is but may not be able to voice and act on their values to make the moral decision. In other words, they need to learn how to carry out ethical decisions with ethical action, and there’s the rub.

In the real world, pressures exist both personally and professionally to deviate from ethical norms. It is precisely this pressure that must be dealt with.

Is there a solution to this ethical dilemma of why ethics professors are not more ethical? Yes, using the “Giving Voice to Values” (GVV) methodology can help to identify and act on one’s values (that should be ethical ones) to overcome the pressures.

GVV is a behavioral ethics approach that builds on the traditional philosophical reasoning methods and emphasizes developing the capacity to effectively express one’s values to ensure ethical action is taken. There is a need to develop an approach to express one’s values in a way that positively influences others by finding the levers to effectively voice and enact one’s values. GVV asks the protagonist to think about the arguments others might make that create barriers to expressing one’s values and how best to counteract these “reasons and rationalizations.”

What I am saying is if ethics professors integrated GVV in their professional lives, they would be better equipped to honestly teach moral values to students. Ethical dilemma

Here’s an example I faced during my years as a university professor. I discovered that a faculty member in my department plagiarized a research paper. I had investigated and found corroboration. He had taken a published paper and submitted it for publication in a second journal simply by changing the title of the paper. It was the identical paper.

The ethical issue for me was what should I do. After all, I teach ethics so my answer to this question had to reflect my values and those I teach my students.

I discussed the matter with the department head who told me to drop the matter. The reason given was the college was undergoing a quality control audit by an accrediting agency. Disclosure of the plagiarizing would affect its ability to be re-accredited.

I asked to discuss the matter further with the Dean of the college and was told not to do it under any circumstances. After agonizing for two days, I told the department head I was going to the Dean and he should come along and explain his position.

I decided to use GVV to prepare for the meeting. Simply stated, I considered the reasons and rationalizations that might be given to drop the matter and how I would react.

The main reason given to drop the matter was I needed to be a team player and be loyal to the College. It seemed the department head and Dean had already discussed the matter and it was decided to “let sleeping dogs lie.” We could address the matter after accreditation.

I pointed out such an action was dishonest because it was a lie by omission. The accrediting agency had a right to know about the plagiarizing especially because faculty research is a major component of getting re-accredited.

I tried to emphasize that if the accrediting agency found out about the omission, all trust would be lost on whether the College was being truthful about the information it provided for re-accreditation. That didn’t help to change the minds of the department head and Dean.

My last resort was to emphasize the need for me to act with integrity and I would go to the Vice President of Academic Affairs if the matter was not properly dealt with. That did the trick. The VP knew nothing about the scandal and by all accounts would have acted on the information. Lucky for me, she was a highly ethical person.

We did not get re-accreditation but were given one year to clean up our act. We did so by firing the plagiarizer, putting into play steps to deal with ethical violations quickly and effectively by faculty, and appointed an ombudsman to oversee ethics and professionalism in the College including establishing a hot line. As a result of these measures, we were re-accredited in the following year.

I was successful in voicing my values but paid the price. I no longer received research support funds and my teaching schedule was awful. I was assigned an 8 am class when students were still sleeping and an 8 pm class when they were inattentive.

Did I do the right thing? Was it worth the retaliation? Yes, I acted with integrity: true to my values. The tipping point for me was when I asked myself: How would I feel if my decision was discussed on social media. Would I be proud of what I did? Could I defend my actions?  These are questions that I tell my students to ask before deciding on the most ethical course of action.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 22, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .