Teaching Notes

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

Tuesday, August 18, 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. Responses are due by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 25. (Sorry, but no credit will be given this semester for late responses.)

21 comments:

Pamela A. said...

When distinguishing between what is ethical and what isn't I try to focus on the consequences. If a situation has a bad outcome or hurts other people in the process it might not be ethical. i believe that in order to be a truly good person you must take into account other people's feelings or reactions. In deciding what is ethical I usually try to remember the standards that my mother tried to impose on me while growing up because I believe most of them benefit me as well as others. First I think about how that decision may affect me then I think about the reactions of my loved ones and how that will indirectly benefit me or hurt me. This is one of the most important factors when deciding what is ethical and what is not.

nekaiya trotman said...

my principles are what i use to judge what is ethical and what isn't. If you have your own personal code of conduct there are certain things that you would do and certain things that you just wont. I also think that people should take themselves into consideration. if you are willing to do something to someone that you wont want done to yourself then most likely it is unethical and should not be done.

Howie Good said...

While you may not be aware of it, some classical notions or theories of ethics have emerged already from our discussion. The consequentialist approach that Pamela advocates is more formally known as the principle of utility and is usually attributed to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Nekaiya describes the Judeo-Christian ethic, more commonly called the Golden Rule. You might be interested to learn that originally "others" referred to people of the same ethnicity or creed -- people like yourself -- and not to literal strangers.

Jaime Prisco said...

I tend to think that when people judge what is ethical and unethical that it usually depends on the person in question moral compass. I feel that what some people might consider to be unethical may be completely reasonable to somebody else. However, i agree with the previous posters when it comes to judging what is ethical for myself. I usually think of the consequences of my actions to see if they cause more of an problem then the situation i am currently in. I guess, to me, it depends on if you feel that the consequences are worth doing what you are doing. Though i guess there may be some flaws in that argument because if you could do something immoral and you know that there are no consequences than it does not make you an ethical person. I guess its all relative. Many people are instilled with a basic knowledge of what is right or wrong and use that to measure and judge what is ethical and that is the code i usually follow.

Adrienne W said...

I think that it is really hard to distinguish a basic idea of what is ethical and what is not. We think something is ethical based on what we believe to be moral or right, but that leaves alot of room for disagreement. I decide whether something is ethical or not on how it impacts and affects the people or things that it deals with. If by doing something, you only hurt and have a negative impact on yourself and the people or things aroung you, then that is something i would deem as unethical. Its hard to distinguish what specific standards I use, because I judge whether something is ethical or not based on my sense of what is right and what is wrong; a sense that has developed over the years and that has surely been impacted by the people around me and their beliefs

Howie Good said...

Because I say something is right (or ethical), does that make it so? Because you say something is unethical, does that make it so? Are there recognized standards or principles that can be applied to a decision to determine whether it is ethical? Are the standards our parents gave us growing up sufficient? Isn't the world -- and particularly the world of work -- more complex than the homilies we were taught as children?

AllisonSoferSays said...

I believe a person judges what is ethical or unethical based on an internal moral code. This code is made up of societal expectations, teachings from familial influences, and personal beliefs based upon a mixture of two. Societal expectations dictate what the masses (or those in charge of the masses) believe is ethical. I believe this comes mostly from religious influences, because society relies heavily on a belief in the traditional Judeo-Christian God, as mentioned by previous posters. Familial influences can change the way a person follows societal expectations. For example, if a family believes something different, that also affects our internal code. As an example, I grew up in a liberal household, and I believe it influenced how I will react to certain situations. I think I base my belief of ethics on what I learned from my family. However, there are things that my family believes that I do not.

Kellie Noshfar said...

I base what is or isn't ethical off of whether or not it could potentially hurt someone's feelings or just come off as completely offensive. I think of the potential reaction someone might have, and go from there. My standards correlate to my morals as well, and I think that also helps to define what ethics are. As far as specific steps are concerned, I tend to remember lessons I was taught as a kid--whether in school or through my parents.

Howie Good said...

Kellie says it helps to define what ethics is. Fair enough. How do you define it? And if everyone follows what their parents taught them, then why is society -- politics, industry, the professions, the media -- so ethically messed up? Did everyone have awful parents?

Lindsey Claro said...

Personally, much like some of the other posts, I base a great deal of what I judge to be ethical or unethical on the consequences of my actions. Thinking about it now, I suppose I go through a very basic series of questions in deciding. These questions range from "Will I be able to live with myself after?" or "Will this be hurtful to someone?" or more simply asked "Would my parents approve?" Of course what is or isn't ethical really depends on the specific situation. I don't believe that there is always a clear-cut ethical or unethical stamp on every situation, for every person. I also think that just because I happen to think something is ethical/unethical doesn't necessarily mean it is. Everyone has different opinions and values that shape how they make decisions and help them sleep at night.

Colin V. said...

The dictionary defines ethics as a "set of moral principles, related to or affirming a specified group, or form of conduct"

I define ethics as what we as humans know is instinctually right and wrong.

I judge what is and isn't ethical as a combination of my own beliefs and societal standards. often times those two coincide but if they were to ever conflict i feel that my own sense of right and wrong will be what i follow. Much like the consequential view point pamela brought up, a "good consequence" either affects people in a good way, or affects less people in a bad way than the alternative choice.

i dont think blaming parents is the way to go for bad ethics, i feel it comes from an apathetic view towards ethics. society has developed an "i can do whatever i want as long as i dont get caught" mentality, and i feel that could very well be because we have such a forgiving society. Politician (insert bad politician thing to do here), apologizes and is honest to his public, people forgive and he gets re-elected.

maybe we should stop forgiving

Howie Good said...

Is it possible to know all the consequences of action before we take it? If it isn't, then how accurate or reliable is it to use consequences as a measure of ethics?

Also, our choices aren't always between good and bad; sometimes they can be between two goods -- such as telling the truth or sparing a friend's feelings. How do you decide then?

Julie said...

It is interesting to consider psychological principles when it comes to ethics - the biological, behavioral, sociocultural and cognitive influences that impact our ability to make any kind of decisions, or formulate thoughts about what supposedly right or wrong. I would agree with previous posters about gauging ethics in accordance with possible consequences that could be felt by others as a result of your action/decision. Whether you believe it's a result of societal conditioning or that it's human nature, I feel that most people have some sort of conscious that causes them to be sympathetic towards others. Although it might not seem like it anymore, I still hope that ultimately people DO care about other people. It is interesting to contrast this with characteristics associated with our generation, aka the millenials or the "me" generation. I do also think that when it comes to making ethical decisions, younger people in particular tend to take themselves into consideration first; this can lead to people making decisions that would benefit themselves (career wise, economically, etc.) with less regard for others around them who would be affected as well(impact on reputation, monetary needs, their feelings, etc.). Journalists probably juggle between these opposing forces constantly. Do you report a story that could harm someone's reputation with unsubstantiated facts if your editor wants you to, or it could "make" your career? I can't imagine many being so righteous and making what would seem like the more "ethical" choice if they were on the chopping block. I guess the point of all this rambling was basically to say that ethical decisions are never obvious, nor are they "black and white" kinds of choices.

bcoleman123 said...

When I judge if something is ethical or not, my main concern is the consequences that decision can have. Like many responses before mine, if it has the potential to offend or hurt someone else, than it usually is not ethical in my opinion. However, every situation has different factors and circumstances that can make it either ethical or not ethical..Another thing that helps me determine ethics, is the time it takes to decide. What I mean by this is that if it is tough to determine if something is ethical and you have trouble deciding, than it is usually unethical in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

In order to distinguish between what is ethical and what is not I tend to focus on how I would like to be treated. For the most part, I try to be the bigger person when it comes to many situations just because I feel that two wrongs do not make a right. If someone did something wrong to me, I try my hardest not to do the same back because that is not how I want to be treated. I also base my decisions on my morals & values that I was taught growing up. It troubles me when I see so much hatred between people going on or so many crimes occuring. I just feel like our time here on Earth is limited and we should not waste any second of it.

Julie said...

"Is it possible to know all the consequences of action before we take it? If it isn't, then how accurate or reliable is it to use consequences as a measure of ethics?

Also, our choices aren't always between good and bad; sometimes they can be between two goods -- such as telling the truth or sparing a friend's feelings. How do you decide then?"

...Saw these after I posted, and I figured I'd add a few quick things...

While this is true, I think I would still probably have thoughts about possible consequences in the back of my mind. What else do we have but society's standards, the biased judgmental of others and our own tainted ways of thinking? How can we even define right or wrong when it comes to morals?

The second question brings up a problem that people can face from a very early age: placing the sanctity of supposed truth against human emotion, which is unexplained and often irrational. While this may seem hypocritical considering what I said in regards to thinking about consequences, I don't think it's possible for us to protect the feelings of others all the time. It's really a situational thing. For example, if you had information that could impact an entire town about a friend's company, would it make more sense to let hundreds of people know what's going on, or to save your friend's job? Being as ethically sound as you think you could be is likely to sometimes come with a price, which is why decision making is so difficult for us and psychologists, scholars, philosophers and others have considered these dilemmas for so many years.

Howie Good said...

Let's summarize. So far we have had the following proposed as ethical guides or sources:

1) Gut instinct
2) Golden rule
3) What Mom and Dad taught us
4) Utilitarianism (Consequentialist)
5) Moral Particularism (that is, each situation is particular to itself and must be looked at in its specific detail, without special regard to precedents or abstract principles)

I keep jumping in so that you become aware that things aren't perhaps as transparent as they first seem.

Kevin H said...

I guess I use all my experiences throughout my life to judge what is and isn’t ethical. I believe that with time you gain a better understanding of life, and as you live through more experiences it makes it easier with age to more accurately decipher what is considered ethical. I use my own daily experiences for my own personal standards. I read somewhere that it takes a lot to mess up your children. That in raising your kid and worrying whether they get enough vitamins, or social interaction for instance isn’t what determines whether they’ll go onto be successful business professionals later in life, or high school drop outs. It takes on a much broader picture. If you simply love your child, provide for them the best you can, and teach them what’s morally right and wrong, they’ll likely go on to become decent adults that contribute to society. After a certain age it has less and less to do with parenting and more to do with what your child’s experiences are on a daily basis that contribute to what they use as standards for judging what’s ethical. Who your child chooses as friends is a bigger determinant on how they will turn out later in life and that’s something a parent has little control over. It has more to do with your child’s own decisions and experiences, that have little if any parental guidance that determines if they become a good judge of ethics and live ethically themselves; than if you were late in taking your child to music lessons one day that you persuaded them to join, because you thought it would contribute in making them a more well rounded person and maybe even a better judge at determining what is and isn’t ethical in life.

Patrick Mattei said...

I base my own set of ethics on the outcome of what could happen through my actions. If I am doing something that I know may hurt more people than it helps, it is not what I would consider ethical. However, people's opinions on the subject vary, of course. I think this way because it is the way I was brought up- the "golden rule" do unto others as you'd want done to you was my parents' motto when raising me and my brothers.

LindsayArden said...

The basis for my understanding of ethics is the phrase "do to others as you wish to be done to you". This triggers a series of questions regarding the consequences of an action or situation on all parties involved. Since many people are often affected by a single occurrence, one can find themselves having to choose which individual's well-being or best wishes should be honored. I find that to be the most difficult part. When someone has to get hurt, no matter what, how do you choose who? In other instances it is not necessarily obvious what effect a decision will have on others, in which case one is forced to look inward to find what they believe is right or wrong, and what higher purpose they believe they are working for. The concept of ethics raises many issues, such as prejudice, in choosing which party most deserves ethical consideration, and self-preservation, in a situation where the best decision for oneself is not the best direction for the public, or whole.

Eve said...

When deciding whether or not something is ethical, I usually find myself thinking about whether or not others think it is ethical. This is a mistake I often make. What we decide may be ethical or not is solely up to us and how we feel about any certain situation. Granted, there are certain beleifs and morals that are shared by large groups of people (families, religious groups etc.) However, I believe that each person has their own code of ethics that is implanted deep within them. It cannot be changed, altered, or reproduced. It is simply something we are born with. I am unaware ecactly of how my particular code and beliefs function. I know I try to do the right thing all the time, and I know that it doesnt always work out that way. The best one can do is try, and stick by their personal code.

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.