Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Is Ethical? How Do You Know?

How do you judge what is and isn't ethical?
What do you use for standards?
Are there specific steps you go through to decide?
(Don't be shy about reading each other's responses or using them as stepping-stones for your own reflections.)
Your response is due by Wednesday, August 25, by 6 p.m.

24 comments:

Kelsey said...

I learned the difference between right and wrong when I was kid. The majority of it was from my father, and the rest of it was from my sisters, friends, and Disney movies. I feel that although my family was around more often, Disney movies taught me a lot about the difference between right and wrong.

This is how I judge what is and what is not ethical. An ethical decision, on my part, would be to cause the least 'drama' or complications with my choice.

I wouldn't call them steps, but rather guidelines to my decision. The one guideline that I think is always necessary to an ethical decision is the amount of harm caused to a person or group of people physically, emotionally, and socially.

Ryan Smith said...

I’ve never really stopped to think about how I judge what is or isn’t ethical but after reading this question I found myself noticing my own actions along with other people’s ethical judgments. I came to the conclusion that I normally go by the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. There are many variations of the golden rule from all different religions and beliefs, but that version is what stands out in my mind. I am not a very religious person but I do believe that treating others the way you want to be treated is a good rule to live by.

Small children are normally egocentric, so growing up I didn’t always know what I was doing wrong or why it was wrong. Our parents try to act as models and give us the basis of our morals. It’s drilled in our heads as children to “play nice”. When my sister and I would fight my mom would say things to me like “How would you like it if your sister pulled your hair?” This forced me to put myself in my sister’s shoes and see that others are affected by my actions. In elementary school I can remember the golden rule laminated hanging over the chalk board and my teachers referencing it on more than one occasion.

Now that I am older and can make decisions without my parents or teachers, I have a lot of empathy. Whether this came from my parents or my own experience I do not know but I always try to make decisions after thinking about both sides of the argument. I don’t necessarily use steps when making ethical decisions I try to cause the least harm and treat others how I would want to be treated. I guess my guideline is if you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to other people.

Scott Broskie said...

To judge ethics is difficult. I feel that ethics and morals are learned at an early age and can be changed as you grow as a person through enlightenment. When I judge a situation or decision I look and see which outcome hurts less people even if I am one of those persons hurt. My ethical standards were instilled in me as a young child by my mother but I did not adhere to them at first, I was a brat and bully because of my size. When I went to junior high school I realized everything I had learned and applied it to my life from then on. I do my best to take the metaphorical high road and better myself and the people around me.

Bridget said...

I think there needs to be a differentiation between ethics and morals. Morals are what we are taught as a child from parents, family, friends and the social world. Ethics often grow out of our morals, but there is also a set standard of behavior that is considered “ethical” for most groups and is more universal then morals. Although ethics and morals often parallel each other, but they are not the same thing. For example, whether or not a student feels morally alright about plagiarism he or she knows that there is a standard set against it and the college community as a whole considers plagiarism to be unethical.

Ethics are often community standards rather then individual standards, and what is ethical (or unethical) is often defined by a group as a whole. This doesn't necessarily mean that the community always agrees, of course, or that deciding what is ethical is an easy decision. In general, though, there are ethical guidelines written for almost any profession that work as a base to judge actions against.

When those guidelines fail, though, I rely on my morals to tell me what is right and wrong. The Golden Rule is always one to follow when trying to decide if a decision is ethical or not. The Hippocratic Oath, “do no harm” is also a helpful guide. And when in doubt, I just don't do or say whatever it is I am unsure about.

Deidre Drewes said...

In a lot of situations, when I'm faced with an ethical issue I think to myself "What would mom do?" My mother, who I often consider to be one of the most ethical and considerate people there are, has a lot of influence on my ethical decisions.

I don't find myself placed in very many ethical situations in which I need to put myself in my mother's mindset. With the exception being two weeks ago when I knocked off someone's sideview mirror in passing. While most of my initial reaction was instinct (pull over, assess the damage, etc.) my final decision to leave my information on the mirrorless car stemmed down to what my mom had taught me was right.

I am not a very religious person, so decisions I make are not based on any higher power. However, Karma does guide my choices. If I pull myself out of a situation and analyze, I think of the outcome of those actions, if I would have wanted myself to be effected in the way my choice will effect others, and will this come back to bite me in the butt. If any of my answers to the above questions are undesirable, then I'm probably not making the "right" decision.

Howie Good said...

Deidre in using her mom as a moral exemplar is following a principle that Aristotle outlined in his "Ethics." Aristotle suggested that we can learn virtue by emulating the example of virtuous people, whom he called "phrenemos." Deidre's mom is on such phrenemos," at least to her.

Others of you have invoked other moral principles, even if you haven't formally named them. So far these include the Judeo-Christian Ethic and the Principle of Utility.

Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

The term ethical refers to an innate and immediate response to a behavior, action, or situation that leads a person to respond with intentions of goodwill. Not everyone obtains good ethics, in fact, many people don't. I do believe, though, that ethics are learned through cultural and societal examples. As Professor Good said in his reference to Aristotle's notion of "phrenemos," the standard for ethical behavior is set early in life through the example of family and peers. These standards, though, are subject to change as a person develops his or her own ethical behavior that may differ from inherited values.

Ethical behavior, to me, means to act in a way that will have an outcome of goodness, even if it is against others' expectations or desires. It is the ability to offer a hand to a student being bullied, or return the money-filled wallet to its rightful owner. A quote from Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind when thinking about ethical behavior, "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." I think this is very important, to act with compassion and treat others the way you would hope to be treated. When you are acting ethically, you feel calm, content, and fulfilled, whereas unethical behavior often results in angst, doubt, and guilt. I believe that these immediate emotional responses are tell-tale signs of one's ethical behavior.

sawyer22 said...

I think that the best way to distinguish what is ethical is to weigh the consequences of our actions. Like Kelsey said, choose whatever will create the least drama. I think this is an excellent rule of thumb. If posed with an ethical decision, take into consideration the outcome. If the outcome has the potential to somehow hurt others (or create drama) it probably is not a good decision.

Lisa Burdzy said...

judge what is and isn’t ethical based on how something affects other people. If someone is physically or mentally hurt as an intentional consequence of something, then I judge the action as unethical. My standards for this judgment are not, limited to people; if an animal is hurt by someone’s actions, I also believe it to be unethical.
I think that American society tries to layout what actions are ethical through popular culture. This is why children’s book and television shows almost always have a significant “moral to the story” that encourages what our society believes is ethical behavior. We have to realize and respect that other cultures have different sets of ethical values.

Jon said...

I don't believe that ethics or ethical actions are a question of right versus wrong. Ethics to me generally encompasses the gray area between the black and white of right and wrong. Whereas people have a basic idea of what is wrong, but not everyone agrees on what is right.

I will tend to view the pros and cons of a situation, and if the negative out weighs the positive, then I probably should not go down that route. Although if the positive is for my personal gain at the expense of another, the action should also not go into effect.

It is possible to be hard-hitting without compromising dignity and/or reputations. It is possible to give the truth, but perhaps with tact; because being "brutally honest" just translates to "hey, I'm just rude."

Matt Conti said...

Honestly I find it hard to judge what is ethical sometimes because I think many things are subjective. I would say killing a person is unethical, but if it was in self defense it could be seen as acceptable. I would only be able to judge what is and isn’t ethical if I knew the whole story.

I learned my ethics from my parents at a young age. My mom especially would tell me if what I was doing was right or wrong. She started it by telling me to be nice and caring of my sisters’ feelings, which of course lead me to just being nice and caring to everyone. My parents were open and willing to answer questions if I had them and I would often ask them about things I saw on television or real life. If it was unethical to them they would tell me and explain to me why it was wrong. Of course as I got older I started judging things for myself, but I always have my original guidelines to help.

I don’t really go through steps to judge what is or isn’t ethical or at least I’m not conscious of it. I guess first I would collect all the information about a situation, and then I would run it by my original guidelines I learned from my parents. Then I would go deeper and see beyond what is obvious and follow what I believe and judge it from there.

Nicole Moss said...

I think that judging what is ethical and what is not ethical is something that is opinion based. Sure I think that most things that are considered ethical are considered to be so because of societal norms and the way things are viewed in a specific culture; but I also agree with most people when I say that determining ethical and non-ethical is something that we learn as children. We learn what is right and wrong from those we look up to, or those who are there in our lives to teach us right from wrong.

We are taught not to steal, cheat, and lie (to name a few), but not only because they are wrong-but because they can affect other people in a negative way.

I believe that the general rule of thumb is that if it is looked down upon by others it probably is not the ethical thing to do. This could be a standard to go by, and I do believe I use it as one of my standards in determining ethical actions. I also think I use the comment above as a standard, if something is hurtful to someone else or effects them in a negative way, I consider it to be a non ethical action. I do not believe I use steps in my decisions, more so determining what I believe is the right and wrong thing to do based on how I was raised and the things I have learned throughout my life that are looked at in a positive and negative way.

I_Estrella said...

Hmmm, You would think the question would be a little simpler to answer. The truth however, I that we all view what is ethical slightly different. Some as we’ve seen will say that it is simply analyzing what’s right and what’s wrong. I think it’s more than just doing the right/wrong thing though.

When I consider whether or not an action is ethical, I think a lot has to be considered; such as, who will be affected by such action and in what way. I feel that when deeming what is “ethical” the situation must be weighed. I don’t think a “wrong” will necessarily be unethical, unmoral maybe.

Like many I learned what’s relatively right and wrong at a young age. As we get older I think we judge what’s right or wrong, by acting in such manner we would accept others to act on us (As a few people have mentioned).

Arantza said...

I think that the question of what is and isn't ethical is really hard to answer. What Matt said made a lot of sense to me though, he says that it is subjective. If someone murders someone that it is unethical but if it was in self defense, well then what?

Also, what I find really interesting is that something so controversial like abortion can be seen as both ethical and unethical to different types of people. What seems to matter is the environment you grew up in and the one you may be in now.

To decide whether something is ethical, I usually try and think back to what my parents taught me and the way I was brought up. I went to Catholic school for 6 years before entering college and I also think that that may have something to do with some of the things I think are right and wrong. On that note, I'd just like to say that I wasn't 100% shaped by the Catholic church on deciding whats right and wrong. However, I am not sure how to truly differentiate between morality and ethics.

When I first think of the word "moral" I think of right and wrong, and even religious beliefs. But when I think of the word "ethics" I think of the business world and its surroundings.

Rachel said...

There are many instances in which people’s opinions clash and form debates over controversial issues. They don’t even have to be controversial; I think strawberry jelly is better, my sister thinks blueberry is. The world won’t end depending on who has the better (or “right” opinion). The point is, everything is situational. When it comes to issues that can not be measured, or given quantitative value, there is room for debate and options. What is deemed ethical falls into this category. There are no scientific tests in which we pour elements of good and bad into a beaker and see what color they turn (although that would be pretty cool). Therefore, the answer to ‘what is ethical’ is situational; it depends on the subject upon which ethics is being placed upon, the person who is giving their opinion, and their unique experiences in life that brings them to their answer and opinion. (Oh, and also how they are feeling that day, and what the weather is like. And whether they got enough sleep the night before. Get my point?).
Ethics could be defined as the idea of what is socially, mentally, emotionally, “right” or correct, pertaining to a specific situation, from a specific person’s unique view point. There could be amassed consensus on what is perceived as ethical by popular opinion, derived over centuries, through the form of religious regulations and political laws. But again, those are all situational; many different religions, and many different governing bodies. In some religions of the Middle East, it is deemed “correct”, religiously, and politically, to stone a person to death, if that person does not adhere with their laws. On the lighter side, if you give the “okay” sign in Brazil, you are going to offend someone.
How do you know what is ethical? I believe that every person, when they are born, has an instilled sense of what is proper behavior, which can be called the conscious. I also believe that the surroundings a person grows up in, and the way their caretakers nurture them lends to their behavior and thought processes. Of course there are exceptions; there are many tests done questioning the biological and mental discrepancies seen in serial killers and murderers, as well as the social backgrounds of criminals, which are factors in their decisions and actions.

Marcy said...

I feel it is hard to clearly define ethics. There are no black and white instances in life; every situation contains shades of grey. I try to be the best person I can be and make smart decisions, but just because some decisions seem right to me, doesn’t mean they do to someone else. This doesn’t necessarily make one of us wrong or a bad person either. Ethics are based on perception; society, geography, and the like factor in.

When I do have to make an ethical decision, I usually ask myself the consequences of the situation and how I would want to be treated. One always has to take into account that “Golden Rule”, although sometimes it can be ignored. I’m a firm believer that each situation in life needs to be looked at separately from another; no situation has an exact replica.

I would like to think that I will be able keep my ethical standards in all aspects of life, including my job. You should be the person you want to be at all times, not just when it is convenient. This case especially, since the job of a journalist is based largely on trust.

Jess Wilson said...

I have thought about how I reason between right a wrong, but I have never written it down so I will try to do that now. I think everyone makes their own judgments based off of their own personal experiences, both positive and negative. It is very difficult for me to profess absolutes about what is ethical and what is not, mainly because I do not believe in absolutes. In my own experience, I have found that there seems to be exceptions for everything in our world, the world of journalism included.

I do not believe there are specific steps I go through to decide if something is ethical. I have a good sense of these things and I can usually trust my first instincts in most situations. A few people on this blog have referred to quotes in their answers, and one quote I thought of while reading them is “Practice what you preach.” This quote gets a lot of people into trouble in situations that blur the line of ethics. What is right for me may not be right for you. My friends frequently look to me for advice for I often think about this in helping them out. What I deem to be ethical does not mean it is the right thing for someone else to do. I may not always practice what I preach, but I believe in all that I say. Every moment presents an opportunity to delve into the pros and cons “doing the right thing.” As long as there are ethics, there will be differences of opinion.

John Purcell said...

The main way that I judge what is and isn’t ethical, journalistically speaking, is through a utilitarian perspective. I look at what the greater good of a decision is versus the possible negatives effects it could cause to some parties. As Marcy stated, there are many shades of gray when it comes to ethics. I am not sure there always are a right and a wrong answer. It could be very subjective to view one person as unethical and another as ethical. Some situations, though, will clearly establish an unethical decision. While not entirely, I feel ethics are learned standards for applying and modifying our morals we learned as a child. The type of society and environment will greatly affect your ethics code. It is what you learn from the good and bad in life that will shape you for better or worse ethically.

I think the first step in an ethical dilemma is if it is illegal or not to do. Although, at times some illegal decisions could be more ethical and even if it is legal it might not be ethical. That is way I try to fall back on my Utilitarian philosophy. How much good will come out of this decision versus how much harm. You might have to harm some people to be ethical. Achieving the greater good and informing is what journalism should accomplish. Money should never affect a civic duty, which journalism is, but this can be hard at times. Without money, the publisher being happy and ad revenue, there is no paper. If a paper can’t be ethical for financial reasons, is it really worth having the paper? Ethics should strive above everything.

Tyler said...

I agree with what Bridget had to say as far as ethics stemming from our morals. However, doesn't that mean we don't necessarily have to differentiate the two, as much as we have to realize that they coincide with one another?

I believe that we are all born with a certain moral aesthetic. The way I see it, it's kind of like a platform upon which to build Legos (hopefully a comparison we can all relate to). When you're born, you're left with this platform and a bucket full of differently shaped Legos. People (i.e. parents, role models, friends, etc.) show us how we should be using the building blocks we were given, which are the individual ethical decisions we make throughout life.

I don't believe the Lego structure is ever completely finished, as I don't think anybody is ever 100 percent ethical. People make rash decisions, as sometimes we are forced to act faster than our ethical minds can work. When this happens, that portion of the Lego structure looks out of place. At any point in life, I believe we all have the ability to realize what we did was unethical. Then, we can rebuild the individual sections of the moral aesthetic.

So, basically what I'm saying is that we can't completely divide ethics and morals, as Bridget said. Ethics are the right and wrong paths we take on Moral Road, so to speak.

Meg Zanetich said...

To me, doing the "ethical thing" is something you should have been taught at an early age. I can remember being young and my dad telling me about a time he was driving home in the pouring rain. He saw a car on the side of the road broken down with a young girl inside, needless to say he stopped and helped her. His reason was that he hoped that someday if that was me, someone would stop to help.

I feel like in certain situations you base your decision on your gut feeling but if you really sit back and think about it, you might realize what you should do.

I know I personally over-analyze everything so it makes me sleep better at night knowing my decision making is not at the expense of another person.

Arlene said...

I personally believe we were all born with an internal device that detects what is right and what is wrong. When we do something wrong that device alerts us in our wrongdoing. Whenever I make a wrong decision or hurt someone purposely, I feel a knot in my heart that blocks me from functioning normally. There are some people who try to fight that internal device by inputting their beliefs accordingly to their community and the people whom they grew up with. Although some devices have been accustomed, the natural nature of that device will eventually defeat it.

A standard for being ethical is also considering others and not just yourself. This world does not revolve around one person. If you do commit a wrong act and your conscious about it, I believe you will get punished, but only if you are aware of it. The way you grew up and the morals you were taught also plays a role in what you think is wrong or right. I don’t follow a set of steps to decide what is ethical, rather just my gut feeling that controls what I believe is ethical. Ultimately interpreting what is and what isn’t ethical will come natural to our judgment.

Christine Picault said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine Picault said...

I believe that everyone is born with the instinct to distinguish what is right versus what is wrong, but I also believe that as one gets older those instincts tend to change. As I was growing up, I originally learned ethics from my parents. They told me what to do and what not to do in certain situations, whether it related to school or manners at the table. As I got older I started to follow other people around me and things I had seen on television, and it tends to be these influences that complicates one’s choices as to what good ethics are.

I differentiate what is ethical and not ethical by seeing if there is any truth behind the circumstances involved. If I feel uncomfortable about it and it takes a long amount of time to attend to the situation then it isn’t ethical. If I feel right about something and I know that it is indeed true, it is ethical. When using standards to see if something is ethical or not, I put myself into my mother’s state of mind. She plays by the rules, and always ends up making good decisions. Along with following my mother’s state of mind, I also follow what I feel is right in my heart. If I do not feel right, I just won’t go through with it. I also consider what others have to say, because even though opinions sometimes are not obligatory they should still be heard.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.