Teaching Notes

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

Friday, January 15, 2010

Life 101

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, philosophy professor William Irvine says many people have trouble naming their grand goal in living. Do you? In other words, of the things in life you might pursue -- fame, fortune, love, self-realization, change, escape, wisdom, power -- which is the thing you believe to be most valuable? Why? Do you consider the thing in ethical terms? Is it its ethicality that makes it desirable?

Your response is due by noon, Wed., Jan. 27.


KHutchinson said...

I've thought over and over about this exact subject, and the most valuable thing, the grandest goal I can think of is achieving happiness. I've far since decided that money isn't everything, and fame, big houses, and fancy cars have never impressed me. Couples together for 50 years can still be miserable, and the lady with the brilliant goal oriented career still sometimes goes home lonely to her cat. The only thing I truly really want out of life is to be happy. I don't know if this is an ethical goal in life for everyone, but considering me as a person, it would have to be done ethically. I would never step on anyone to get to happiness, or bask in the sorrow of others. My happiness would come from a genuine and wholesome place; achieved by working hard (no matter my job), and being a good and respectable person. How could that not be ethical?

Howie Good said...

So is happiness a feeling? A state of mind? A state of being? Does it remain at a fixed amount all the time? Does the amount and type of happiness fluctuate? And what is the source of happiness? Is it always the same for the same person? Does it depend on the situation? Are some sources of happiness worthier than others (material possessions versus doing charity or creating art)? Lastly, if happiness is a feeling, and happiness is related to ethics, is ethics also a feeling?

Crafty Green Poet said...

Happiness is a grand thing but not one I'd aim for specifically. Why? Because I've often found that happiness sneaks up on us while we're immersed in other things - a good long walk, a crafting project, writing a poem, spending time with a loved one. My aim is be to try to live a life as much as possible in line with environmental sustainability, making choices guided by their ecological impact. Along the way I've discovered that the simpler life (not the simple life, I live in a UK city!) is a very good route to happiness. And yes choosing the path of best environmental sustainability is an ethics thing.

KHutchinson said...

That's a lot of elements and questions to tackle. For me, happiness is a feeling as well as a state of mind. Being a big believer in mind over matter, it's all in your head. Yes, situations may present themselves to fluctuate the momentary happiness that exists, yet at the end of the day, true happiness stems from living my life to the fullest, embracing the opportunities presented to me, being honest and responsible, and making sure to take the time to enjoy the little things. In doing this, my happiness on the grand scale fluctuates much less than based on the moment to moment spectrum. Happiness doesn't depend solely on anything, it's a collective of every element to life.
Happiness if a feeling, yet I don't know if it is directly related to ethics for every person. For me, as one person I can say that MY happiness is based on ethics. Doing good for others and myself whilst staying in line with my own set of morals or ethical standards.
I'd say ethics itself is not a feeling, but rather a philosophy, as it changes from person to person, and culture to culture.
I can only speak for myself when saying that happiness and ethics go hand in hand, but I also think a good amount of people would agree.

Maxim said...

I believe that William Irvine is pretty spot in his theory, because, until this point, I’ve always wanted certain things in life but have never really been able to pin point anything in particular as my grand goal. Of the examples listed (fame, fortune, love, self-realization, change, escape, wisdom, power), my first inclination would be love. But then when you really think about it, were the Beatles right when they said, “All you need is love”? At this point in my life, that is what I want the most. But love won’t pay my bills. So then I tell myself, “Maybe my main goal in life is to have fortune?” In ethical terms, if all you care about is making money, then what kind of person are you? But even the richest people can be unhappy. Being rich and being powerful kind of go hand in hand, and in order to be powerful, it’s said that one must step on a lot of people. That doesn’t sound very ethical to me either. All I know is that I agree with KHutchinson’s earlier post in that I want to be happy. Whichever one of the examples listed above makes me the happiest, that is my grand goal in life. Happiness may be a feeling or a state of mind, it may not last all the time, and it may come from an infinite amount of places, but if I am happy because I can be creative, have love, and be free to do what I enjoy, then I will consider my life’s grand goal complete. When I pursue that goal, I want to do it in the most ethical way possible. I will not be happy if my quest for obtaining my grand goal requires me to make unethical decisions. Especially when what makes me happiest is seeing the people I love and care about happy.

Howie Good said...

Is money the root of all evil? Does power corrupt (and absolute power corrupt absolutely)? Hmmm. Most moral philosophers condemn money when the making or accumulation of it becomes an end in itself. They also condemn it when it serves as a means to a bad end (conspicuous consumption). But when money is used to enrich our lives in ethical, cultural, and educational terms, it isn't bad; it can be good. The same goes for power. What are using power for? To empower others? Or to oppress them?

Kim said...

The thing that i believe to be the most valuable is Love and family. I chose this because I think they are the two most important things to have in your lifetime. It's ethical because it's something everyone should have,experience and know. Although I used to think money can't buy happiness I learned a lot through the years, so I would put fortune on my list of things valued in life as well. It might not seem ethical to have fortune on my list since it can be portrayed as greedy looking or materialistic, but I think that with a steady amount of money in life, it can diminish the hard times that may come from not having enough of it. It can make room for more of a healthy way of living and get rid of all those things that go on our families or economies that show that people are having troubles. It can also ultimately bring us back to the feelings of love and having close families feels like again without those hardships. So to get that love and family happy I do think fortune is important just to keep a steady life style without the worry.

Joshua said...

This topic of discussion has always crossed my mind over and over. What do I truly want out of life?? I have always come to the conclusion that I really want to achieve family. I don't know how this sounds, but growing up, I have always witnessed the relationship my parents had with their own family members and it wasn't too good. I always wondered why, but I always learned that no matter what, family should always be there. I always believed that blood is thicker then water. I have also come to a few complications with cousins and aunts etc, and it hurts me to be betrayed by family. You would actually expect it more from a friend so to have it done to you by a family member hurts more. As for this to be ethical? I think it is very ethical. I don't want money or fame because I feel that would be too selfish of a goal in life to pursue. I am not just thinking of myself in my goal, I am thinking of everyone in this case (all of my family members). For me later on in life to say, that I have a good relationship with most or all my family members, would be a great success.

Kim Plummer said...

I’ve never really thought about a grand goal in my life before. Come to think of it, I’ve always thought of my goals in smaller achievements—like wanting to be published or winning an award for a documentary. But, I think that all these smaller achievements fit into the grander goal of self-realization. For me, I think many of these grander goals fit into achieving self-realization.

I think I consider it so valuable at this specific time in my life because I’m going into my last semester and while there’s tons I want to do, I’m not sure how I’m going to apply myself outside of school. So, it seems pretty appealing.

Once I come to realize how I fit into the “real world” and the professional field (which one? I’m still fuzzy about that…) a lot of these other goals could be achieved. When I know where I belong professionally, I hope I will be able to make a small enough fortune to sustain myself, that I love myself more for achieving it and that I could have the wisdom of knowing what I’m capable of.

It’s hard to consider self-realization in ethical terms because it seems a little bit self-centered since it is about realizing your own potential as an individual. It’s not so much it’s ethicality that makes it desirable, but what it means for the individual and the spiritual and emotional richness it provides. That considered it doesn’t seem to be unethical. In fact, I think it would be hard to appreciate the richness of one's own self-realization if you sought it in unethical ways.

Anonymous said...

I think William Irvine makes a great point because it is really hard to have a grand goal in living because as you mature and go through different stages in your life, your goals change. I definitely have trouble picking one thing as the goal for the rest of my life. When I was younger and even to this day I think finding love is something that is really important to me and something that would make me feel fulfilled in my life.I also think that love is an ethical goal, but maybe not a very practical goal. I also would love to be successful in my career and gain as much knowledge as possible throughout my life.I would love to be able to make money through my career, though I do not want money and fortune to be my main focus in life, but the fact is that in this society you need to have some sort of steady income to live. Having an enormous fortune is certainly not my main goal in life, but if I can earn money doing something I love, I think it would certainly contribute to my goals in life. When thinking about this question and what my goals for the future might be I did not purposely think about my answers in ethical terms, but I definitely considered if my goals would be the "right" thing to do and if I would be content with those decisions for the rest of my life. So yes, I think that a certain level of ethicality makes these goals desirable to me.

LImpagliazzo said...

My one goal in life was to find happiness. Of course, like everyone else in the world, I want fame and fortune, but that isn't realistic. Yes, it will keep you happy for a while, but what happens when it's gone? To be truly happy, you have to find something, or someone, that you love. If you find that, then what else do you need? For me personally, it is ethical, but to someone else the thing that makes them happy may not be ethical.

Skeeter_Deeter said...
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Skeeter_Deeter said...

Aren't we here to be happy? Don't we live day by day attempting to improve our lives, to make them happier? Isn't that why we go to college? Isn't that why we were told in middle school to prepare for high school, told in high school to prepare for college, told in college to prepare for the real world? There's a standard "happiness template" that we all seem to be disillusioned by. Things don't make us happy, WE make ourselves happy by being able to control our own minds. That is why I believe truth to be the most valuable aspect of life. It's a broad word, truth can apply to many different aspects of one's live. But to me, self-truth, being able to know what you want to do and how you want to do it, weighing out the compromises we'll all have to ultimately make (how many decisions have you nullified because of how they might affect someone you know or love?) and becoming settled with those decisions. As far at ethics go, I believe living in constant attempt to discover truth, and to carry on as an honest person will bring you happiness. When one can live without disguising their needs, and by expressing his or her soul to its full potential -- that is what I believe to be the grandest goal in life.

Howie Good said...

I'd use somewhat different terms than Skeeter-Deeter (really, guys, it'd be easier if you used your full and actual names)but I agree with the basic points. What Skeeter calls self-truth I'd call self-awareness and autonomy. By autonomy, I mean the capacity to act and decide for oneself matters of importance. I mean freedom.

MBachmann said...

I think that all of the aspects written in the question such as fame, fortune and so on are all small things that can lead to happiness. I agree with the previous posts that happiness is my main pursuit in life. Almost everyone would love to have fortune and even fame but then you have to think of the cliche saying, "money doesn't buy happiness" and I truly believe that. For me happiness is having my family and friends who support me and who are always there for me. Everything else such as achieving my dream job, having a nice house and car are little extras in life which can result in a short term happiness. Since it's the people I care about who make me happy I do believe that it is in ethical terms. And as for the question "Is it its ethicality that makes it desirable?" Even though it is ethically right that my family and friends are my main cause of happiness that is not the reason why I desire it. There are many things in life that can make people happy without ethicality playing a role. If you desire something and it is ethical you may just have a clearer conscious but I don't think it's the main reason to desire something.

M.Blumenfeld said...
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M.Blumenfeld said...

I know what it is that I want out of life right now and I know what my main goals are in life at the moment. Im not sure when and how or if I ever will acheive them.
I agree with Kim Plummer when she talked about coming to realize how you fit in the world is very important to achieving your grand goal in life.

I think maintaining a healthy balance between your goals and reality is powerful and in a way lets yourself free.

This is because in, "realizing where you fit in the world" you allow yourself to realize your full potential as a person in relation to your goals and desires. Once this is realized, it is only ethical to yourself to do everything you can to fit how you define yourself. whether it be a musician, painter, writer, family man/woman, reporter, father ...etc.

It is this state of feeling content with your life which is most important to me. Money, fame, luxury all comes second to the feeling of knowing that you have have done everything in your power to fufill your own life's goals.

Chelsea LaDue said...

I agree with Skeeter_Deeter. I think that everything people do in their lives is what makes them happy. The things we do in our day to day lives are done to further our happiness. I also agree with Crafty Green Poet when she says "happiness sneaks up on us while we're immersed in other things." For me, my biggest goal in life is to be successful at the career that I choose. I've witnessed my mother and father work in jobs they hate and I don't want that for myself. I want to ultimately became an editor for a magazine, and I feel like I would do that ethically, but sometimes we have to do things we don't want to to get what we want. The same goes for people who want love. Would they not step on someone else's toes to get the man/woman of their dreams? Of course, I also want love and family, but everything I've done in my life thus far is to achieve my goal of becoming successful in my career. To tie my goal into happiness: while I am achieving my ultimate goals in life, I feel like that's when I am happiest.

Chelsea LaDue said...
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Howie Good said...

Michael reframes the question in an interesting way. He basically suggests we have a duty for self-improvement or self-cultivation -- a kind of "be all you can be" theme. An important moral philosopher, W.D. Ross, felt similarly that self-improvement was a prima facie duty, meaning it was a duty that was right or good on the face of it. So in desiring self-improvement we desire what is good or ethical. Of course, we need still to determine what we mean by the term "self-improvement." Michael seems to suggests it's developing our talents to their full potential. I would agree.

lindsey said...
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lindsey said...

I would choose fortune above all. I believe It’s true that its better to be lucky than anything because good fortune can bring you fame, love, change, escape, self – realization, wisdom and power. With luck you can achieve all of these without actually possessing the capabilities of any of them. This choice was not based on ethics because one may not deserve everything they gain from having good fortune. The Ethical choice would be self – realization or wisdom. Each choice would allow you to better society without necessarily greatly benefiting yourself. Ethicality does make a choice more desirable if you wish to better yourself without hurting society; kind of like owning a hybrid.

Howie Good said...

By "fortune" I meant wealth or money -- but luck or chance, which is how Lindsey interpreted fortune, does play a giant role in our destinies. Are you lucky to have been born to your family? To be born or live in this country? To be graduating at the college during the time of the Great Recession? How does the fact that we DON'T entirely control fates affect our view of ethics? Does it make it more important to ground action and identity upon recognizable or less important? Is ethics a way through the chaos of human existence or simply a crutch to disguise the terror of human existence?

Sarah Boalt said...

I have never really considered my grand goal in living because I have enough trouble just trying to figure out what to do after college, though my goal is to be a writer. I can say though that one of my main goals in life is to be happy with my life and what I'm doing. I think it is important to love what you do and get fulfillment out of it. Being happy and loving what you do is what makes it truly worth doing. I would say that going about achieving happiness ethically is also what makes it worth it. I think it provides a sense of true fulfillment. I can say that as long as I am happy, other potential goals, such as fortune, have less meaning to me. Aren't many goals set in the pursuit of happiness? I believe it is the ultimate goal in many people's lives because achieving goals makes a person happy.

DevonP said...

I don't want to narrow my life goal down into one term, so I will describe my goals. I have a girl in my life that I have been with for quite a while, and almost everyday I imagine us living in a very rural area with a modest house and wild life all around us. My goal is to maintain the relationship I have with the person I love, live a good life by her side, as well as essentially living in the "woods". In order to obtain the home goal, I will have to aquire some sort of fortune, how much I do not know. All of these dreams full under the "happyness" umbrella. If this is how my life unravels, which I hope it will, I will be happy. If I achieve it unethically I don't believe I will be happy.

Howie Good said...

you reflect a bit, you'll realize that what many of you are talking about is the relation between means and ends. good means lead to good ends, or at least can. bad means taint even good ends. that's what i infer from many of your posts.

Victoria said...

Although I have never stopped to think what my "grand goal in living" would be, I would have to say self-realization. I believe that all the listed life ambitions lead to self-realization. In my opinion self-realization leads to happiness, and it would probably take change in myself and the effect I wish to have in the world before I can accomplish it. On the way I may come across money (which in my opinion directly correlates with fame and fortune). I hope I will gain wisdom, and love. My escape from the norms of society and constraints of others will lead to my self-realization. I don't expect this will happen until I have changed my life around countless times and realize that my ultimate happiness is in my own existence and that what I do in the world really does matter. Self-realization covers them all and is the least superficial of them all, yet it may be considered selfish, I believe it includes true, eternal happiness.

Julia said...

It is so true that most people, including myself, have trouble naming their main goal in life. I can immediately say it isn’t fame, fortune, or power. I think the people that have these things are still missing and yearning for something more, such as celebrities who have “everything” and still are unhappy and unfulfilled. This lack of fulfillment may have to do with the ethical part of their brains or hearts, wherever it comes from, gnawing at them and telling them there has to be more. As the old and cliché saying goes, “money doesn’t buy happiness.” Although, I can sure tell you that if I had money to buy certain things my happiness-o-meter may move a little more to the left. I would have to say that self-realization is the most ethical choice in my eyes. To realize one’s potential and be at terms with it, well, it can be a beautiful thing. It can also be a sad thing. To dream forever of being a rock star (fame) and to finally realize you are a terrible guitar player can be heartbreaking, but there is so much truth in realizing what and who you are. Of course, love and family are very important things in life but knowing who you are, and loving it, is paramount. What good is realizing your true potential if you end up hating yourself? As did the classical Greeks, we value self-knowledge and knowing who we are allows us to establish our own code of ethics. After self-realization, we can better reach out in a personal relationship and in a family.

Samantha said...

I think if I had to choose one of these choices as my main goal it would be self-realization. At a different point in my life I think I would have said fame and at another point I would have said love, but ultimately right now I want to be self-realized. I honestly don't think I could achieve any of the other goals listed without it. I don't think I can find love until I truly love myself and I could not gain power without confidence in myself knowing that I have worked to my full potential. My second choice in this list would be wisdom but I also don't think one can truly gain knowledge until they realize that they don't know everything yet, another thing that can only be achieved through self-realization.

I had not considered the ethics of this choice before now but I do believe that is an ethical one. It may seem a little selfish but at least I won't be stepping on any toes to achieve it. Only I can know when I have become self-realized so I wouldn't directly be having a positive influence on anyone else, but I think that being an honest, happy and so-called "good" person can have an indirect impact on everything.

Howie Good said...

Stepping on toes is part of life -- and ethics. Ethical choices aren't always between right and wrong or good and bad. Sometimes they're between two goods, such as privacy and the public's right to know, or between truth-telling and minimizing harm. This is important to remember, as it means which must develop a method for considering our choices and for picking one to follow. And when we follow, toes definitely get stepped on.

Every choice has consequences.

Allison said...

Many people find themselves when at the end of their lives reviewing their accomplishments and re-playing their most memorable moments; having their life "flash before their eyes" so to speak. Wrapped up in that moment, some can't pin point the reason for their lives, and their meaning on earth. The Angelina Jolie's of the world will rest easy on their death beds, knowing that they have made an impact. Having been the modern day superhero, a philanthropist that is genuinely concerned for the well being of mankind. That is someone secure with how they used their time. The forty two year old man living in his parent's basement may have a hard time when looking for his relief. His flashback will consist of a string of dead end jobs in fast food restaurants and department stores. His life story is not a failure, that's what he has aimed for. Some people never want to grow up, being taken care of and being close to loved ones is what makes them happy and is how they want to live.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that living for yourself and your own personal goals is what I value most in someone's character, as in my own. Knowing that I did what I felt was important and right by me will sooth my mind at the end of my days. I may strive to accomplish other goals along the way, but the bigger picture will always be, to do right by me and my values. Fame, fortune, power; those are all things that could be obtained, but are not as realistic as self- realization. As a kids we would always hear "reach for the stars", "live life to the fullest", that is what our lives have been based on. If all of the other things fall into place along the way, it will just make everything a little bit sweeter. It may seem selfish to say that self-realization is my grand goal in living, but when you look deeper into the issue, it seems like a reasonable choice. If fulfilling your own ability, and knowing you did your very best makes you happy and proud, it will be easy to accept love, and change as well as many other rewarding things.

George Selby said...

Change is the most attractive of the goals suggested. I believe that ethically conscious change is the true goal of every ethical person. Valuing change means that I do not accept a status quo that makes me unhappy, or collides with my ethical code. When I say I strive for change, it means that I am striving for a number of other goals at the same time. If I am single, then the change I am seeking is love. If I am broke, then the change I am seeking is a steady job. If I am unhappy about being a nobody, I will strive to make so much change around me that I can become famous. Stress, I must convert to escape. To change at all I am first required to understand myself, and my potential. How can I change for the better if I don’t even understand what’s best for me? Like Mike B. says above, being self-aware is a very important thing for anyone to do before they can truly meet their goals.
By this logic I profess that valuing change as a life goal is the same as valuing any and all other goals that a person could possibly have. This applies to both the smaller individual scale and the larger society level.
If I didn’t value change as the most important goal in my life I would consider myself apathetic. A lack of motivation to change means that I have lost my ability to see things critically. I have become a spectator without a voice; without concern for what it is I’m watching, like someone watching a reality TV show. I would accept the sub-prime. This is the epitome of unethical.
People who inspire the most change are some of the most respected in society and in history. They leave a legacy that is sometimes studied for generations. I think that every human has a natural desire to leave behind a legacy. Parents are driven by this motivation, just as experts in any field who wish to advance our society, or artists who want history to remember their art. Goals that do not involve leaving a legacy do not interest me.
The best thing I can hope for in life is that I will in some way change the world in any ethical way, and that someone will remember that I did it after I am gone.

Andrew Limbong said...

My only goal in life is to make sure that when I look back in the moments before I die, I don't find a wasted life. Other than that, I don't really know what I want from life. Do I want a family? Probably. A good job? I guess. But what matters most is that, in the long scheme of things, my life isn't a waste. Much of this does include things already discussed, like change and self-realization, but beyond that, I cannot really grasp at the idea of anything tangible being a life goal.

As for the question of ethics, I'd consider making morally bad decisions a waste. When I look back on my life, I want to find that I made all the right choices. They might not be the ethical choices, but I hope they'll be the right ones.

aDavis said...

First things first, I believe no ultimate goals are without ethical dilemmas. When you get down to it, who will you have to wrong in order to make yourself happy? Irvine is entirely correct in his assessment that many go through life aimlessly, no real end or meaning in mind. That's just taking the easy way out. What are people scared to face when they can't answer this question? Seems like many avoid it at all costs. I do believe that happiness is the most valuable goal to try and achieve. I would love to be noticed for my talents, and make even a small dent of a change in the world. I want to share parts of my passion with the world. I want to help, whether through my writing, words, or any other outlet. Money is a beautiful thing to have, but too ethically challenging to pursue without my conscious beating me to death. I absolutely consider my goals in ethical terms. I don't believe there's any other way to evaluate them, really. I believe the illusion that wanting personal happiness as a life goal turns out less ethical problems makes it subconsciously more appealing to me. I will follow this goal to the end, yet in no way am I free of ethical obstacles. Whatever happens along the way happens, I just know I want to be as ethically prepared for it as possible.

Chanel Arias said...

I guess one of my biggest problems is that I've never taken the time out to ask questions pertaining to what my goals in living are. Probably because I never take the time to ask what my goal for doing anything is, I tend to do things out of enjoyment and see what comes of it.

What I struggle with most is sharing stories and personal experiences with people and gaining the intended reaction. So the most valuable goal in life, for me, would be discovering the perfect way to for me to share knowledge and experiences with other people. Once you get old, the most important purpose you have, is to share what you know and what you've learned.

With the goal of figuring out how exactly I'm going to tell my story to the world, it will also motivate me to live a life worth telling about.

JustinMcCarthy said...

It certainly is difficult to pinpoint one’s most important goal in living. I’m sure everyone has pondered this at some point. But as cliché as it may be and as many times as others have answered similarly before me, it really is true that happiness is the paramount goal.
You could have all of those things: fame, fortune, love, self-realization, etc. But without happiness, you can’t truly enjoy any of them no matter how great they are. And you could also have none of those things, but if you’re happy, your happiness can redeem you for all of the things you don’t have.
If I review the list of possible goals in life, I find that each of them could potentially be attained in an unethical way. But when it comes to happiness, I’m not sure if I could possibly be happy if my happiness was achieved in an unethical way.

eden rose said...

A grand goal in living is pretty hard to determine. Change happens too frequently to prioritize and give value to such things that you've mentioned. I feel that one can not just go through life wanting to achieve fame, happiness or power but that he or she must experience life's little struggles and achieve small goals in order to actually set and achieve ones big life goal. Personally I am a firm believer in focusing on the now, and knowing that my grand goal will be built up as my life unfolds. After reading these questions and thinking about what my response will be I will not only share my "grand goal" but my "now goal.” Fame, fortune, love, self-realization, change, escape, wisdom, power are all feelings and thoughts that have come in and out of my head these past 20 years, but there is one more that I would like to add. Although I said that life’s too inconsistent to have one big goal there is however a reoccurring goal of mine, trust. I think that our goals derive from some external thoughts or relationships and I have found that because of what I’d call a bad experience in the trust department, trust is what I strive for everyday. It’s hard to give your personal trust a value but what I believe is that my trust in other people is what’s valuable. This value is measured directly through interpersonal relationships and not just as one large category. Now the big, why? Everyone is ultimately out for themselves whether they like to admit it or not, but think of how hard it is to find someone you completely trust with your thoughts, life and remotely everything personal. For some this may come easy but I personally find this a very hard trait to find in others. Of course it may be my lack of trust in people but that’s why it is always my underlying goal. I want to trust. Now switching from my personal life goals, I’ll explain my thoughts on trust and ethics. Its almost obvious that these too go hand in hand due to the fact that trust goes hand in hand with cheatings, stealing, lying and other “unethical” acts but my question is, is it the fear of these unethical things that drive me to find the opposite? I think that I am searching so hard for the positive ethics of trust, yet just finding the negatives. The desire to trust is definitely driven by ethics, I want to be able to know that it’s possible to really just let go and give people the benefit of the doubt. I just don’t think people deserve it.

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.