The Ethics of Professional Ethics

When I was defending my dissertation a few years ago, a committee member asked me how I would respond to a tobacco company who asked me to advise them on the most ethical ways to harvest tobacco grown on farms in South America. I first answered, honestly, that I couldn’t imagine working for a tobacco company, but then I added that the only advice I could think of would be to choose a more ethical product in the first place and then worry about fair treatment of workers, protection of the environment, and so on.

It would, of course, be difficult to make a living as a professional ethicist if you simply Briberyadvised all your clients to go out of business. Accepting a paying job creates a financial conflict of interest from the beginning. If you want to keep your job, you will immediately know the parameters of your possible advice. In the worst case, you will simply be giving rubber-stamp approval to the activities of your boss. In the extreme case of a tobacco company, this conflict may be clear, but other conflicts are much less obvious.

The best problem for an ethicist to have, I think, would be an opportunity to work for a company or organizations with the same goals and values of the ethicist. It would make sense for a vegan ethicist to want to work for a company that sells cruelty-free products. If the company hired an ethicist to determine what practices ere ethical, it would be a perfect situation, but this is a case of an organization seeking out an ethicist whose conclusions are already known. This is hardly an ethics consultation. And just to vary the scenario a little, it is unlikely that a Catholic-owned organization is going to want to hire an ethicists who does not believe in the sanctity of life just as an organization providing contraception services would not want to hire a Catholic ethicists. If you can simply shop for an ethicist who agrees with your actions beforehand, there is no point in hiring an ethicist.

In some cases, companies really do want to seek expert advice on how to proceed on various products and actions. They seek out, naturally, ethicists who share their overall values but have additional training and demonstrated expertise in evaluating ethical quandaries. When helping some one choose between X and Y, ethicists can make a fairly objective evaluation, given that neither choice is presented as the preferred choice. Rather than “Have we been ethical?” the organization is asking, “Which of these two choices is the most ethical way to proceed?” In this case, asking more than one ethicist would seem advisable. Then, the organization is still responsible for its decision, but it is based on more (and more nuanced) information. Still, it is possible for people to use the ethicist for moral cover (“Hey, the ethicist said it is ok, so there!). Providing moral cover for your employer is just never going to look good.

Ethicists can proceed, though, by offering a thorough analysis without necessarily giving a green light to any particular action. With so much training behind them, ethicists should be well prepared to answer questions about agency, autonomy, rights along with background information on previous cases and debates. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time a new problem arises.

The professional ethicist can help with questions such as:

  • What are violations of autonomy?
    Is autonomy the only concern?
    What is the importance of narrative in moral decision-making?
    Do men and women operate with different moral frameworks?
    What are moral agents?
    Who is (or should be) of moral concern?
    What is the importance of virtue in organizational ethics?
    Is care necessarily part of ethical deliberation?
    What are positive and negative rights?
    Which moral choices are obligatory and which are supererogatory?
    What is the difference between human rights, human development, and human capabilities?
    Who is responsible for justice?
    Must ethical decisions be impartial (do family and friends matter more)?

Slaying monsters: Ethics as a Matter of Opinion

I have the distinct pleasure of teaching ethics to many students who, frankly, do not believe the study of ethics is of any benefit to them or anyone else. From time to time, usually near the beginning of the semester, a student will express frustration that a required ethics class seems a colossal waste of time, as ethics is “just a matter of opinion.” People have to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, and one opinion is as valid as another.

I challenge this as most ethics teachers challenge it: “So,” I say, “If someone were to kill someone, no one has any moral authority to challenge that person’s opinion that such behavior is perfectly moral.” Students will often then say, “Well, it depends.” I will then assert that whatever it depends on is the fulcrum of the student’s own moral theory—it is a creepcore moral value. With a little engagement, we usually get around to a fairly simple statement of what I do take to be a near universal moral value. It is okay for people to have their own moral opinions and to make their own decisions about their behavior so long as they are not hurting anyone.

Of course, we do hurt people. We execute people. We put people in jail. We take scissors away from running toddlers who would rather play with the scissors. We hurt people in many ways. Most students will agree that it is acceptable to hurt someone with some greater good in mind—or, for some students, it is acceptable to hurt someone as punishment. It hurts to give a child a vaccination, but the purpose is to protect the child and society from disease. It hurts to kill someone who has broken into your home to murder you, but killing the guilty to protect the innocent is considered a good by almost everyone, even as we acknowledge pacifism and non-violent resistance. This being the case, most students will agree that it is wrong to harm someone who is innocent, unless that harm is aimed at a greater good (e.g., I may violently knock someone to the ground to prevent her from falling thousands of feet to her death or give a child a vaccination to protect her from disease).

When we accept that it is wrong, generally, to hurt innocent people, we are left with two questions: 1. What constitutes harm? 2. What is a person? The first question seems easy until we try to answer it. When some information will be extremely painful to someone (say, some embarrassing photos and personal information of someone are posted in an office he is completely unaware of unlikely to ever know about), is it more harmful to tell the truth or to keep a secret? Is failing to prevent a harm the same, morally, as harming someone? Many moral dilemmas revolve around just such questions. Even with these difficulties, though, I don’t think the question of harm is what derails morality. Reasonable people with good intentions can have productive discussions about harm, even if they don’t always arrive at consensus on what harms are or are not justified.

It is the second question that effectively ends progress of moral conversation. We want to say everyone deserves equal protection from harm, but we don’t always agree on who “everyone” is. The founders of the United States purportedly believed “all men” are created equal. Women, slaves, other minorities, and children did not fall under the umbrella of “all men” in either policy or practice. Everyone should be treated equally under the law, but some of us have a fairly narrow view of who “everyone” is.

Some people want only to protect rational beings, which would seem to indicate adult humans, while others want to protect, seemingly, all living things. I spend perhaps too much time trying to understand how people who seem to want to be moral can justify slavery, torture, sexual abuse, or even genocide. In most cases, the people guilty of the horrendous crimes are not amoral; they simply have a morality that does not recognize the rights of their victims. By one way or another, they have come to view their victims as less than human.

Thus, police may view those suspected of crimes as being beneath them and undeserving of respect and thoroughly devoid of dignity. People may view those of other races as being subhuman or animalistic. In the same way, too many people compare sexual minorities with animal behavior or will even refer to “those people” as animals. Women are often viewed, depicted and described as animals or even inanimate objects. The poor, too, are often described as vermin or even rubbish. People often deny the worth and dignity of many classes of people. Though we all come from the same creator (your choice who the creator is: evolution, God, spirits, or whatever), some of us manage to ignore the worth of others in our community.

Religious Friends, Quakers, have the idea that we should always recognize “that of God in everyone.” Even if you don’t believe in God, this idea is a powerful way to examine what others deserve our respect. We all share the same ancestors. We all share the same emotions. None of us is perfect, and no one is without worth. Even for those who have done the worst, dictators, terrorist, and so on, we must remember that they, too, are made of the same flesh.

It is through empathy and compassion that we can better understand our enemies. I am not saying there can never be a justification for punishment or even some defensive acts of violence, but I am saying these acts must be carried out with the full recognition of our own flaws and the humanity of our enemies, opponents, and, yes, friends.

You are not perfect. Try to love another imperfect person today. And tomorrow.

Thought experiment: Financial Conflicts of Interest

Believe it or not, many people see no problem with financial conflicts of interest in health care. People who receive payments say they are only doing the same job they would do otherwise, except with more resources. This, they say, enables them to provide better health care. People who make the payments will claim that they are only trying to ensure that their beneficial products are able to improve the lives of as many consumers as possible. Even patients defend conflicts, saying they don’t mind their doctors making a few extra dollars in order to provide efficient, state-of-the-art service. Patients see these financial ties as a way to ensure groundbreaking treatments reach consumers.

Slippery Slope
A rather beautiful example of a slippery slope.

I’m not a doctor, but there are analogies for me. If we look at financial ties in another industry, it may be easier to see the problem. In education, the stakes are lower, but some parallels to the medical industry remain. I will begin with actual practices and then ask you to imagine further practices that parallel the medical industry.

First, instructors are commonly asked to review books for publishers seeking feedback on manuscripts or new textbooks. This gives the publisher an opportunity to get feedback from potential customers while also enabling instructors to provide input to publishers. Instructors get better books, and publishers are able to improve both their products and their marketing. The instructor is, of course, paid a small honorarium for the time invested in reading and reviewing the book.

Second, once instructors have given feedback, publishers may invite them to be more involved in the production of the textbook. They may be asked to write an instructor’s manual to accompany the text or participate in developing workbooks or online supporting materials for students. (Disclosure: I know that these first two items are practiced because I have reviewed textbooks and written an instructor’s manual for pay.) Instructors, of course, know the most about what instructors need and how students may use various materials. Improving the product benefits publishers, instructors, and students.

Now, imagine that an instructor sees an improvement in students’ success rates and general aptitude. The instructor begins to collect data and may even present at a teaching and learning conference on how these materials have benefited students. A publisher might (I don’t know of this happening in real life) offer to pay the instructor to give the same presentation at additional conferences. On the surface, this does not seem harmful. After all, the students really did improve using these materials, and the presentation was not developed with the aim of getting payouts from the publisher. Certainly, no students will be harmed by these presentations.

Finally, imagine this instructor begins to accept regular invitations from the publisher to present on the benefits of the products and encourages others to adopt the same materials for their classes. The instructor notes that most of her or his students are now earning A’s and B’s when the class averages were usually a B or C before the materials were adopted. To reward the instructor for this amazing success, the publisher begins to pay the instructor $100 for each A awarded and $80 for each B awarded. Soon, this instructor is widely hailed for improving student success and completion rates at a college that struggles with generally high rates of failure and incompletion.

Now, these payments to the instructor come to the attention of the student newspaper, which publishes the amounts paid to the instructor and the increase in high grades in the classes. The public is outraged, but enrollments in the class continue to increase. The instructor counters that no one has shown that even one student who received an A did not deserve an A. Further, the instructor says that the improvements in student success were documented even before the payments began. The publisher responds by saying that the materials it produces are of the highest quality and that it is proud of the success rates of the students using the products. Without the relationship between the publisher and instructor, fewer students would have benefited from these outstanding educational materials and that would be a real tragedy.

Questions to consider: 1. Did students really benefit from the relationship? 2. Were cheaper alternative materials available that were equally beneficial? 3. Is it possible that students received inflated grades, even if proving it so is impossible? 4. What would it take to identify this relationship as a moral problem? 5. Are all financial relationships with industry unethical? 6. If not, when does the relationship become unethical?

I think it is extremely rare for someone to go into a job with criminal intent to capitalize on the system and take home as much money as possible regardless of possible harm. No, everyone begins with the best intentions and becomes blinded to the possible effects of their actions. And, precisely because each person has no malevolent intentions, each person feels insulted by even a hint of judgment and defends her or his practices vehemently. Because good people do X or Y, it is easy to think it is impossible that X or Y is a bad thing, especially when we can show that many people have benefited from these practices.

åIt is easy to be blinded by the fog of good intentions and financial influence, and ethicists are not immune. The job of the ethicist is not to be perfect but to be on guard. The job of the ethicists is to constantly strive to get a clear view through the fog and to help others stay on the paved path running alongside that slippery slope.

 

Gender Disparity: Paycheck Fairness Act is not enough

Before I start, let me say that I support any effort to address wage inequality and I believe strongly in the right to equal pay for equal work. If the Paycheck Fairness Act helps to bring more equity to the workplace, I’m all for it, but it will not eliminate wage disparities between men and women on its own.

Republicans are wont to point out that women make less than men not because of discrimination but because of lifestyle choices. (Read a fuller discussion of this in The Guardian.) Their argument centers on the fact that it is possible to pay every woman in any given job the same wage as every man in a similar job and still end up with wage disparity because more women are in lower-paying jobs. To Republicans, this means sexual discrimination is not a problem (everyone should just choose to be a petroleum engineer or investment banker, right?), but for the rest of us it means that sexism is a pernicious problem that will not easily be solved with a piece of legislation.

First, we might ask why the jobs more women choose pay less than the jobs more men choose. One proposed answer is that men choose jobs that are riskier and require a more “masculine” personality. Women, it is assumed, will choose safer and less demanding jobs. Another answer is that women gravitate toward jobs that require fewer hours (they need to get home to the kids, you know?). And another is that women choose jobs that require less training.

According to the 2013 Physician Compensation Report, male doctors earn 30 percent more than female doctors. The report explains the disparity thus: “There are fewer women in some of the higher-paying specialties. For example, in orthopedics, only 9 percent of the survey respondents were women, whereas in pediatrics, 53 percent of survey respondents were women.”

Interestingly, the lowest paid specialty in medicine is now HIV/Infectious Diseases, which also happens to be the specialty with the second highest rate of overall satisfaction (just behind dermatology). The other low-paying specialties are family medicine, diabetes/endocrinology, and internal medicine. Other high-paying specialties, after orthopedics, are cardiology, radiology, gastroenterology, and urology.

While I can’t see that the risk of treating infectious diseases is lower than the risk of practicing urology, I do see that the lower-paid specialties focus more on care and concern and require human interaction. (It still may be true that women are more risk-averse, which may be why they are safer doctors.) It seems to me that we value technical expertise over human and care and concern in most fields. At least we are more willing to pay for technical expertise and less willing to pay for the care and concern that we will all need.

Teachers work hard and take many risks but will never earn as much as petroleum engineers. Ah, but petroleum engineers fatten the bottom line for their employers, you say. Let them try to survive without teachers to get them there. Let all the hard-working risk takers make it through life without the people who cared for them and helped them become successful. And men have always said this, haven’t they? We have clichés such as “Behind every successful man is a woman.” And women have done their work, largely, for free—because they had no other choice. So the work women have done is devalued (though prized in way) and undercompensated. If fewer people were willing to do “women’s work,” the price of such work may indeed rise, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.

And men sometimes choose work that may be seen as “feminized.” When they do, men also earn less because their work is undervalued, too. If the work were not undervalued, I aver that more men would choose different careers. After successful careers in industry, some men choose to leave their jobs for more “meaningful” work after middle age. The work people describe as “meaningful” or “rewarding” is almost always related to either caring relationships or creative enterprises; these are the activities that make life seem worthwhile.

Because these activities bring so much personal satisfaction, people are willing to do them for less pay. If petroleum engineering did not pay so well, I’m sure some people would still choose it as a profession, but many people choose it now only because it pays well and not because it enriches their lives in any other way. Many men are starting to reject the idea that they must choose careers based on how well they pay. Some men in the men’s movement reject being treated as “success objects.” Nonetheless, I think women are more likely than men to feel free to choose careers based on satisfaction rather than remuneration, and men are more likely than women to feel they must choose a career that pays well. There are many, many exceptions, of course, but not enough to close the pay gap between men and women.

So, what should we do to address the problem of wage disparity? First, stop devaluing “feminine” work. Recognize the true value of education and care. Second,  stop treating men as “success objects.” Remove the stigma from rejecting a high-powered career for a more rewarding and meaningful life. Finally, make it possible to find a balance between a career that pays well and a meaningful life. Some women may pass up high-paying professions because they do not want to neglect their family relationships or similar concerns. At the same time, some men neglect relationships and personally rewarding work because they feel obligated to earn as much as possible. Men and women would both behave differently if it were possible to enter any career without having to sacrifice family relationships, volunteer opportunities, and creative outlets. Another world truly is possible.

Will industry-funded research kill you?

Last week, I wrote a blog about the effects of financial conflicts of interest (FCOI) on treatment decisions of doctors and whether disclosure alone will have any effect on eliminating bias and corruption. As a result, I received some comments and information on FCOI in published research.

Before I say more, I would like to clarify that someone who is conducting research funded by industry is not technically, in my studied opinion, involved in a FCOI, because such a person has the single interest of generating products that will result in profit for industry. It is possible that research undertaken with the aim of commercial success will benefit humanity, but if profit is not possible, humanity be damned. (I am making an assumption, which may be naive, that most of us think medical research should be aimed at making life better for humanity.)

To help combat the problem of bias in research, John Henry Noble suggests prison time for those found guilty of scientific fraud. In my opinion, he makes two strong claims: 1. “The false claims of the perpetrators rise to the status of crime against society, insofar as they endanger public health by sullying and misdirecting the physician’s ‘standard of care.’” 2. “The due process of law is likely to uncover and judge the evidence of guilt or innocence more reliably and fairly than will the institutions of science and the professions that historically have resisted taking decisive action against the perpetrators.”

I agree that jail time is appropriate for egregious cases of scientific fraud, but I’m not sure it eliminates the problem of industry-driven research. Another person told me industry-funded research should be published for two reasons: 1. Some people are biased without the benefit of industry funding. 2. Some industry-funded research proves to be quite beneficial. Perhaps surprisingly, I agree with both of these statements as well–as far as they go. Certainly, many people carry any number of biases that do not result from corporate funding, and the history of scientific fraud is littered with examples. Further, corporate labs frequently create products I enjoy immensely.

Oddly enough, the person defending industry-funded research sent me a link to a paper to support the contention that FCOIs are not a strong predictor of bias. I say it is odd because the paper didn’t seem to support that position. The paper analyzed the associate between industry funding and the likelihood that the researchers would find an association between sweetened beverages and obesity. The authors of the paper found that “Those reviews with conflicts of interest were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association than those without them.” It is perhaps the conclusion of the paper that gives hope to those advocating for industry funding:

They [results of the study] do not imply that industry sponsorship of nutrition research should be avoided entirely. Rather, as in other research areas, clear guidelines and principles (for example, sponsors should sign contracts that state that they will not be involved in the interpretation of results) need to be established to avoid dangerous conflicts of interest.

In other words, it would reduce bias if sponsored researchers were limited to collecting data without analyzing it. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of industry-funded research, but so be it.

So, I do not think all industry-funded research should be banned. Rather, I think we (as a society) need to ensure that we have ample researchers who are free of FCOIs. In other words, we need substantial funding for independent research centers where researchers can work for the advancement of knowledge without a constant concern for the production of profit. Forcing our public universities and research labs to turn to corporations for funding corrupts our pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of society. We must restore public funding to education and research.

For more on the possible risks of funded research, read about Dan Markingson here. Or read about Jesse Gelsinger here.

Do all ethicists have a messiah complex?

Last May, Nathan Emmerich wrote a column warning that bioethicists must not become a “priestly caste.”In the column, he warns that giving bioethicists moral authority over all practices in medicine and healthcare will have an anti-democratic effect and hinder public discourse.

He may have overstated the authority that bioethicists generally have, but it is true that some see their job as handing down judgment on various practices in medicine and research while others, frankly, would be happier to just accept the opinion of “experts” in order to avoid having to take full responsibility for their ethical decisions. The ethical expert has arisen because of rising demand. After making a thorny decision, who would not want to be able to say, “My decision was reviewed and approved by experts in ethics”?

Ethicists will do well to resist a priestly role. If you begin to believe that something is morally correct simply because you believe or say that it is, then you should apply for sainthood, not a position as an ethics consultant. When Euthyphro is asked if he knows he is doing the right thing, he replies, “The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?” Euthyphro considers himself an expert on matters of morality and dismisses any suggestion that his opinions might be challenged. As he attempts to explain himself, his logic breaks down. Ethicists as experts would do well to open themselves to challenges from all corners as Emmerich suggests.

All this is further complicated, though, by Eric Schwitzgebel’s finding that ethicists are no more ethical than non-ethicists. Comparing ethicists and other professors, Schwitzgebel and his colleague, Joshua Rust, found that both ethicists and their colleagues reported that the ethicists were no more ethical than their colleagues. This is not terribly surprising. I may think I am a pretty ethical person but not be willing to say my colleagues in metaphysics are a bunch of thieves and charlatans. By the same token, they may think I am pretty ethical but have enough self-respect not to sell themselves short.

Of further harm to the reputation of ethicists, Schwitzgebel says ethics courses do not appear to have much affect on the ethical behavior of students. He notes that many of us who teach ethics do no claim that it will make our students behave more ethically. This is probably true in most philosophy departments, but ethics courses in law schools and business schools, for example, are designed to prevent unethical behavior down the road.

It isn’t likely that any type of ethics course can cause an unethical person to become more ethical, but courses can have an effect on ethical behavior. Courses in specific disciplines can provide a framework for codes of behavior in a particular field such as law, business, psychotherapy, or medicine. Through such courses, students can become well versed in expected norms as well as actual regulations from laws or professional codes of behavior. In addition, students can learn to examine cases and apply accepted principles of their fields to various situations they may encounter during their careers.

Theoretical courses give students a larger ethical toolbox to examine conflicts that arise in their careers and also in their daily lives. Few ethics professors have had students say that, thanks to the ethics class, they have stopped lying and cheating, but most of us have had students tell us that they now see questions in a new light. Rather than simply relying on instinct or prior teaching, students learn new ways to frame ethical problems and new approaches for identifying possible ethical harm. If nothing else, we give the students who are already ethical a greater vocabulary for articulating their actions and beliefs.

With any luck, ethicists, ethics instructors, and students will all leave the class with a bit of humility. The ethicist who believes his or her own hype as a moral authority has passed into dangerous territory. At best, the ethicist has the tools to examine ethical problems with greater detail and nuance. In the end, people eventually have to act, and a thorough ethical analysis can help guide them.

But ethics courses have a greater importance. Imagine a society where no one ever studied or discussed ethical theory or ethical decisions. It is impossible to imagine such as society, I think, because we do have to make decisions, and that requires thinking about them in detail. Some people would always rely on their “gut feeling,” but others would worry and ponder and ruminate. And they might seek the counsel of others who have spent time worrying and pondering and ruminating. And soon we would see the rise of a priestly caste and a separate group of committed but imperfect thinkers devoted to analyzing ethics in both theory and practice. We would make many mistakes, and many people would be hurt, but at least we would be trying.

At least we are trying.

How to Destroy Education (And a Nation)

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.
Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid’s Elements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  1. Instead of having instructors rate the scholastic achievements of their students according to effort and ability, rate the performance of instructors by how many of their students pass the class (or a standardized test). Alternatively, rate the performance of teachers by how entertaining their students find them to be.
  2. Turn student assessments over to the same corporation that prepares your textbooks and classroom resources.
  3. Expand online classes and purchase instructional modules prepared by the same corporation.
  4. Use instructional modules for both online and classroom lectures, reducing teaching to rote repetition of corporate-sponsored material.
  5. Tell instructors that the lecture is dead and should be replaced with professionally prepared audio and video materials, conveniently provided by corporate textbook publisher/testing service.
  6. Have students rate professors’ “effectiveness” as teachers.  A study by Scott Carrell and James West found that “student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning.”
  7. By judging teachers on student success, ensure that teachers at the most selective schools are judged to be the best teachers.
  8. Promote best practices for teaching that are based on the success of teachers at the most selective schools.
  9. Ensure that teachers fear retaliation if sufficient students do not pass their classes. Establish a quota for passing grades.
  10. Give students the impression that they will pass the class no matter how little work they do (see previous). A blog post by Richard Vedder notes that a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks found that “In 1961, the average student spent 40 hours a week engaged in their studies—attending class and studying. By 2003, this had declined by nearly one-third to 27 hours weekly.” Probably gotten worse since 2003. Students are doing less and less work while simultaneously being rewarded with better grades.
  11. Cut funding for education, forcing colleges to seek “public-private partnerships,” which enable corporations to determine the educational objectives of the college.
  12. Have adjuncts teach most of your classes with low pay and no benefits.

Teaching Ethics to Greedy Bastards

When a corporate executive, high-powered lawyer, or well-funded medical researcher is exposed for egregious unethical behavior, we often say it would have been a good idea for that person to have had a class in ethics with some follow-up training. We’d like to think that with the proper ethics training even the most heartless sociopath could be encouraged to at least follow some of the rules.

And if we can’t (note: we can’t) encourage bad people to be good people, what are ethicists worth? Well, our roles fall into several categories: 1. Providing ethical answers to dilemmas. 2. Offering ethical analysis of a particular problem. 3. Teaching ethical decision-making, which makes a good-faith assumption that the decision maker is sincere in wanting to be ethical. 4. Holding wrongdoers accountable for their behavior.

The first category is offered to clients who don’t want to take complete responsibility for their ethical decisions. Once a professional ethicist has offered an opinion on whether something is above board, an organization can say, proudly, “All our policies and procedures have been reviewed by someone with extensive training and expertise in ethics and found to be compliant with all ethical and legal codes.” Indeed, it can be a very good idea for an organization to get an outsider to review policies for possible ethical problems.

The second category is related, perhaps a subset of the first. When institutions encounter a particularly sticky issue, they might ask an ethicist to help them work through all the ethical considerations and explore how various ethical theories can help them solve the dilemma. Again, a useful role for the ethicist.

The third category involves training. Rather than giving answers to ethical questions, the ethicist can teach motivated individuals to analyze various conflicts on their own. Most people know how to think ethically, but they sometimes forget some of the considerations that professionals might find to be second nature.  Developing a more thorough approach to ethical approaches can benefit individuals and organization alike. It cannot, however, turn a bad person in to a good one. Evil people don’t lack ethical tools—they lack a conscience.

So, what do we do about the evil people? An important role for ethicists, in my considered and passionately held opinion, is to cry foul when individuals and institutions engage in egregious behavior. And when ethicists disagree on what is an egregious action, fervent debate erupts in the public sphere, benefitting the public and everyone involved, or so it should be. When ethicists sound the alarm that some behavior is abhorrent and shameful, a public chorus against such actions can at least ensure that the bad actors confront public scrutiny.

Think it doesn’t work? Remember in 2011 when executives at Transocean received bonuses for their safety record after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 and sent millions of gallons of oil streaming into the water? After public outcry, the executives thought better of keeping those bonuses and donated them to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Social regulation pushes and pulls behavior through honor and shame. In responding to abhorrent behavior, Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need. Not that appeals to morality—to justice, to human rights—are irrelevant.”

Most of us evaluate ethical theories in the following way: Knowing that I am an ethical person, which ethical theory best fits my behavior? Following this method, we can all justify our actions through theoretical ethics as we simply seek out the theories that validate our behavior. Given that we all have justification for our behavior, public outcry is not likely to immediately shake our perception of what is appropriate, and, indeed, the public rarely speaks as one voice. Further, the common view is often wrong, or so I judge it to be. Bertrand Russell once said, “In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Indeed.

Many people, especially those in power, feel their behavior is beyond reproach. They seem to think they could not have gained power if they were not deserving of it. Public outcry and public discourse, can remind them that they are, in common with the rest of us, flawed and fallible human beings. What this means is that we must raise our voices, express what we find shameful and honorable, and join or create a conversation over morality, dignity, and justice. Only when we suppress our voices do we lose. Only our common humanity makes our salvation possible.

Why my students love Ayn Rand

I think my Introduction to Ethics class is fairly typical. We start with Epicurus and work our way through Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant. After those heavy hitters, I try to lighten things up with some essays from contemporary philosophers (in the most general interpretation of the term). So, after reading some Kant, I move to an interview with Ayn Rand for a little break.

This may not be such as good tactic. When I first chose the assignment, I did so because the interview reveals Rand’s beliefs in a way that is stark and easily digested. I assumed anyone reading it would agree with me that her philosophy is reprehensible, and I would be serving the greater good of humanity by having them exposed to it. I try not to reveal my biases in class, and I really don’t want to tell them what to believe. I just hope they will hate Rand. I’m less concerned about what they will like.

Nonetheless, I always have a few students who declare that Rand is the first reading they have liked. I ask probing questions hoping to find that maybe they didn’t really get what she was saying, simplistic as it is, but I generally have to concede that they really do like what she says. As a result, I think I have created a small band of ardent Rand supporters over the years. The Tea Party can thank me. And I think I’ve identified the two reasons she is so popular with students:

1. As I mentioned, the assignment is easy to read and digest. After slogging through Mill and Kant, I can certainly understand why they would be relieved to find something they can understand on the first pass, even if the reading completely flies in the face of their supposed religious convictions. But the second point is more meaningful to me.

2. Rand is easy in another sense as well. She really doesn’t demand much of her readers. She tells them they must be selfish and pursue only what is truly gratifying to them. Now, Epicurus said that they should seek a pleasurable life through contemplation and serious examination of the world around them with great respect for their community. Aristotle tells them they must practice constantly to become virtuous in a way that will enable not only their personal flourishing but the success of their society. Mill tells them to seek their own pleasure but that they will derive the greatest satisfaction from pleasures that require much practice and refinement to achieve. And Kant tells them they can’t lie under any circumstances. Furthermore, they must help people who are worse off than they are. To follow Kant or any of the others, they would have to put out a great deal of effort to change how they live, but to follow Rand’s advice they don’t see that much more effort is required. In their minds, at least, they are already living Rand’s ideal life. And, they get to feel pretty self-righteous comparing themselves to recipients of government aid (my students do not consider low community college tuition to be a form of government support).

I suppose I am hopelessly naive to think my students will take my class looking for hints on possible self improvement. They are seeking validation for their current lifestyles, not ideas on how to improve.

Except when they are not seeking the easy way. It is easy for teachers to get discouraged and forget all the talented and hard working students who are in constant search of new information and new challenges. Many of my students have now gone on from the community college to universities and graduate school. They have admirable careers in fields such as law, science, health, and social work. I am humbled by them.

For further reading:
1. 10 (insane) things I learned about the world reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
2. How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the US into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

What is the value of ethics courses?

New students in my ethics classes are often either pleasantly surprised or disappointed to learn that I will not be teaching them which behaviors are ethical and which are unethical. Some of my colleagues in other disciplines also seem to think I should tell people how to behave; when they see someone behaving badly, they will say, “That person needs to take your class.” I hate to disappoint, but my classes probably won’t make your unethical students and colleagues do what you want. My only hope is that it will help the ethical ones (and most people strive to be ethical) analyze their own behavior and ethical dilemmas more deeply and constructively.

Several people have told me it is impossible to teach ethics (they’ve said the same of logic and even philosophy in general). I was generally baffled by their statement until I had a slightly more in-depth discussion with a European while I was teaching in China. Rather than simply saying it is impossible to teach ethics, he specified that it is impossible to teach Chinese students ethics. When I asked him why, he said it was because they have no framework to understand ethical concepts. With a little more discussion, it became clear to me that he thought only Christians could understand ethics and morality. I’m happy to report that Chinese students (some are Christian and some are not) are quite competent to explore ethical theory and application. I am confident that students in every part of the world have the same ability.

I don’t teach ethical codes of conduct; my focus is on meta-ethics, ethical theory. I can think of nothing more horrifying than to have my students go out into the world and declare some action unethical with no more evidence than the fact that I said it was unethical. In fact, I would not want them to arbitrarily follow any code of ethics without any idea of why something might be either good or bad. Would you want to find out that someone didn’t steal from you or kill you only because it is in some code of ethics? (Blog that is soon to come: What is the purpose of an institutional ethics committee?)

What I hope I can teach my students, instead, is how others have analyzed what it means to be a good person or what it means for an action to be good. By doing so I hope my students can better understand their own methods for analyzing whether an action or a person is good or bad. As it happens, I don’t teach any courses in a field where it is important for students to remember a particular code of ethics (psychotherapy, for example), but even in such courses, I would hope instructors would help students understand the process of ethical analysis, rather than merely memorizing normative pronouncements. A useful education in ethics will demand that students examine their own ethical beliefs and the customs of their society with both openness and critical scrutiny. It is the only way moral progress is possible.