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.

 

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.