Teaching Notes

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

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. This blog is about having a dialogue. If I jump in, don't be alarmed. I'm just doing my job as I see it.)

Your response is due by Wednesday, August 25, by 6 p.m.

40 comments:

AGRAPS said...
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Howie Good said...

"good" or "right" or "logical" by whose standards? how and when do you apply those standards?

AGRAPS said...

In my opinion, something that is ethical would be something of a "good" or "right" moral standing, perception, or value. I believe the definition of the term varies; I know something is ethical when it seems practical and logical. A standard I have that determines the ethics of something is if it-whatever it may be- is some sort of positive enlightenment, or informative. (i.e., when questioning the ethics of a controversial story, I ask, "is this helping the public? is it tarnishing us?") There is not a decision making process, necessarily, when considering the ethics of something. I believe the decision is made subconsciously based on our personal morals and standards that we create through life.

Howie Good said...

if ethical decisions are subconscious, then how can we be responsible for them? and we are responsible for ours, aren't we? and what about professional ethics? is each doctor or lawyer or business executive (or journalist or pr practitioner) permitted to do whatever they "feel" is right or good or logical?

kaleighgriff said...

I believe that everyone knows the difference between basic good and bad. If you were to raise someone in complete isolation, I believe that they would know if their actions were “good” or “bad”. I.E. murder is bad, helping someone is good. However, I also believe that a big part of the evaluation process of whether something is ethical or not has to do with our upbringing and outside influences. Many people think that something is ethical or more often unethical, because their parents or media taught them to believe that. Also, there is a huge difference between individual ethics and societal ethics and these standards are mostly set by the media. An example of this would be “an eye for an eye” and the idea of justification or vengeance. On an individual basis a person can think their actions are ethical and justified however, society says they are not. When deciding if something is ethical or not a lot of the time you have to look at the possible outcome and effects of your decision. As the previous poster said, will my actions create positive or negative effects? There are many factors that go into this decision and for everyone the reasons are different.

Howie Good said...

The consequentialist (also called utilitarianism) theory of ethics has problems. Here are two:

1) Do you or I or anyone else actually control the consequences of our actions? Don't our actions often have unforeseen or unintended consequences?

2) All actions have both good and bad consequences -- good for some, bad for others. How do you decide, then, what is ethically right on the basis of consequences?

Another point: when you act as a professional, are you acting on personal ethics? are professional and personal ethics congruent -- that is, are they the same? And if professionals act on personal ethics, and everyone's personal ethics are different, then how can there be something called professional ethics?

kaleighgriff said...

It is true that there are positive and negative consequences for every action but maybe you have to look at what benefits the masses when deciding what is ethical? If the majority is affected positively, wouldn't it be the ethical thing to do?

Also, I think professional ethics are determined by the industry(i.e. health care, manufacturers, etc.) and the laws and rules the specific establishment puts into place.

Howie Good said...

Kaleigh, that is more or less the definition J.S. Mills gave of utilitarianism -- often expressed as "the greatest good for the greatest number." But what if the human race isn't so hot at math?

Jackie Northacker said...

I don't really think there is a specific way to judge what is ethical or not. I consider my personality to be most compatible with utilitarian views. I always try to go with whatever does the most good or right, depending on the situation, for myself or the majority. Moral values have a lot to do with the process of decision-making. My standards are mostly liberal, but also realistic. Something is ethical when it seems the most reasonable and rational. I believe people are free to do what they please as long as it does not affect others in a negative way. I think people are responsible for their own actions and decisions. However, society has failed to teach good moral values as well as ethical thinking. So in a way, we are only as responsible as what we have learned in life to be right or wrong. I first take into consideration all the options that are available. I weigh each outcome and then the consequences. I try to make a decision that outweighs the bad, even in situations that are lose-lose. Every situation in life is different and cannot fit into any pre-set mold of what to do. I think to be an ethical person, you have to let go of any bias or self-serving attitude. The utilitarian approach to life, in my opinion, usually works out best.

Marietta Cerami said...

My own personal way of determining whether or not something is ethical is by removing my point of view from the situation and trying to see it from the other side. In order to be ethical, I have to remove my own feelings and motives before making a decision. When I put myself in another person's shoes I can see how a consequence of any decision can affect both sides positively and negatively. I agree with Kaleigh in that our moral compasses have been shaped and molded by the way we were raised and our environment. Our parents from the very beginning train us to learn right from wrong with punishments and rewards. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and in my religious studies we were taught to follow our conscience. It may sound ambiguous but I have to trust my gut and what feels right in order to make an ethical decision.

K. Carroll said...

On many issues, I have a clear sense of what I believe to be ethical and unethical. I usually come to those conclusions by considering the outcome of the action in question. For example, journalists who knowingly publish lies to ruin someone’s reputation are unethical because they are abusing their influence over the public. Likewise, a journalist who publishes potentially unpopular information despite opposition is ethical because he or she is fulfilling the obligation to educate the public. In the grayer areas of ethical issues, I basically wing it. I take it situation by situation, and try and consider all possible outcomes before judging whether something is ethical or not. I don’t (consciously) use a set standard to come to a decision on the ethics of something; I try to take it on an individual basis. It’s vague, similar to what Marietta was saying in her response, but it works for me. I try not to judge (not always successfully) until I can really think about the outcome of the decision.

Another example I can think of to back up my thought process is the influence tabloids have over America. Magazines such as The Enquirer and Star serve to tarnish the reputations of public figures, and spread gossip to the masses. Now, as entertaining as that may be to read, it’s not exactly ethical. Publishing a story that outs a closeted government official isn’t ethical; unless he or she was using public funds to hire hookers, it’s none of the public’s business who he or she sleeps with.

Howie Good said...

taking ethics on a situation-by-situation basis is called situational ethics (in contrast to universal ethics). but precisely because most of us take ethics case by case, don't we need reliable -- that is, clear and stable -- criteria for judging the cases? if everything around us is swirling, should we be swirling, too, or trying to find a secure vantage point?

Kevin said...

I think you subconsciously judge whether the outcome of a situation will be ethical against your own morals from which you’ve been raised as a young child. I don’t agree with the statement that if you were raised in complete isolation that you would innately know it’s wrong to kill. We are animals by nature and would still have cave man instincts if it weren’t for the environment in which we were raised and being taught right from wrong. I use my own upbringing and lessons I’ve learned along the way as a standard to judge whether something is ethical. I don’t go through specific steps to decide though; I think it’s more subconscious than that. I think your conscience plays an integral role in whether you believe something’s ethical.

Liz said...

In order to be ethical, one has to have ethical and moral principles. One gains these principals through their upbringing and other sources such as philosophy, science, literature, music, religion, etc.

As human beings our personal experience shapes our view of what is ethical and moral behavior along with our education and what we are taught is ethical or moral.

In my opinion there is no real way of ever knowing for a fact what the most ethical choice or decision is because we as human beings are not omniscient and cannot accurately predict the consequences of our actions.

That being said, one can know to a degree what is right for one and in line with one's beliefs about morality and ethics. A person can choose freely what action to take when involved in an ethical dilemma, but must take the best action possible that will reflect well upon their ethical values. Factoring in the judgment of others also plays into ethical decision making and can tip the scales in either direction.

For example, say a lawyer who grew up wanting to practice environmental law ends up as a lawyer for big tobacco or the oil industry. At some point the lawyer might think, "Why am I, according to my personal beliefs, betraying the environment by working for evil corporations?" (Disclaimer: I am not claiming all corporations are evil, this is just an example) However, due to pressures such as keeping up the appearance of wealth and success that the lawyer receives from family, friends and colleagues, the lawyer feels pressure to remain in her or his loathed position as a "slave to the man" instead of saving the planet.

Since I'm on the topic of lawyers, I will jump to laws. Laws can play heavily into the question of ethical behavior but I think sometimes people can mistake lawful behavior for ethical behavior. While the justice system is in place to enforce mores and protections for those who cannot protect themselves, it is easily corrupted and twisted to serve the most fortunate.

In my opinion, ethics are very personal to the individual but also very public as they define your character and reputation dependent upon the decisions you make as most everyone takes note if you screw up and if you manage to not screw up for a very long time you become reputable.

Personally, my ethics are informed by my feelings toward the matter, my limited knowledge of what consequences my action or inaction might bring, how it makes me appear to others (am I being seen as I want to be seen or think of myself?), how I can be most honest to myself and my own beliefs, and finally how I can also be respectful of the fact that not everyone shares the same beliefs as me.

For me ethics is about treating people fairly and not cheating others in any way. Granted it's impossible to always make the right choice with no way of being sure exactly what the right choice is. Being reasonable and trying to understand where others are coming from, as well as using logical thinking and feeling compassion for others is very important in my opinion.

Liz said...
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Atkin said...

To start I'm just going to be completely honest — I don't know how I judge what is and isn't ethical. That's probably because I generally don't do any judging of the sort. Most of my decisions are made solely on the basis of whether or not the decision in question is a good choice for me. Admittedly there are moments when I have to decide whether or not to do something based on how my family or friends would feel, but I can't think of a time when I had to make a decision based on the well-being of the general public. So I'm not sure. If we're talking about ethics within my personal relationships, my rule would lean towards that of a consequentialist. Obviously one can't flawlessly predict the consequences of any given action, but one can't flawlessly do very much. And in some situations, there's a pretty good chance you can predict consequences. For example, if I break my mother's favorite teapot, she's going to be upset. I don't know exactly how she'll react to me, but I know she would be upset, because — duh— she's my mom. I know her. But who knows? Maybe my mom wouldn't care at all about the teapot. But that would be really, really strange. Nothing we do is perfect — we can't expect our ethical decisions to be.

Of course, that's not an excuse to dismiss trying to develop good ethical standards. We can't use strictly consequentialist theory when it comes to large and/or diverse groups of people. And again, I've never thought deeply about my own ethical standards (I guess it's a good thing I'm taking this class). The best thing to do might be to compare situations that are widely dubbed as ethical and unethical and analyze what the differences are between them. I assume we'll do this in class. For now, I'd say I usually stick with the basic “do unto others” rule. But I'm open to debate.

Malcolm Harper said...

To personally come to an ethical decision I believe that it is very important as I begin to analyze the situation in question; I not take my own personal values and beliefs but into account but rather also include what individuals in society believe to be the most ethical decision. If the situation occurs that my opinion of what the ethical decision should be differs from what society believes to be ethical I will go with my gut instinct.
To determine personal standards for myself I first have to analyze the situation in question by looking at what is being expected and aiming my expectations above that. As an athlete, I have played many sports throughout life and when I had my most success was when I would set higher standards that what were expected because with this motivation I could only impress not only myself but my coaches as well.
On the topic of decision making, in order for me to come to a decision that would lead to the best possible outcome I first analyze the situation very carefully. An example of this is when I am on a fast break in basketball and I have the ball running down court towards the opponent’s basket to score. I look at the number of defenders there are to determine if we either have the numbers (offensive players coming down court) that will lead to the favorable outcome I will then move into the next process of my decision making, execution. I then have to quickly resolve the issue of how we will score the ball into the basket by thinking of a few different skill moves to use before passing the ball to a teammate for the score. Sports have influenced this type of decision making to become my primary method of decision making due to its efficiency.

Samantha Minasi said...

I think in some corner of their brain, almost everyone knows whether what their doing, or what they have done is ethical or not. Without a process, or standards- they just know in their heads, and in their guts. Some of us listen to that inner voice, that plaguing feeling that leads us to often make good ethical choices, or perhaps go back and correct our unethical choices. Others I think, know just as well that their decisions might not be of the highest ethical respect- but simply don't care.

First, I think there is a distinction that needs to be made. Because the "is it ethical or not?" thought process can be different whether you're making a decision that only effects oneself, or if you have to make a decision that effects the lives of many. What is right for me, and ethical for me and my life may not be so for some one else' situation.

When deciding if something is ethical or not in my life I often decide based on that same feeling i described above. When in the midst of making a decision- hashing it out in my head, that hashing is almost always to satisfy my need to feel like I've considered all sides- but in the end I always seem to have known what the ethical decision was all along. I don't so much go through steps, as ask myself questions. "Is this going to hurt anyone?" "Is this going to hurt myself?" "Is this the right choice for me?" "Am I being stupid?" "Is there some way down the line this decision could blow up in my face?" "Have I considered all alternative choices?"

Making a decision that effects many, is a whole different story. You can no longer rely on personal moral standards,or methods of decision-making. The entire definition of "ethical" can change with a larger group of people. For example, raising school taxes in an affluent neighborhood to support a new sports field, or something is ethical. Raising school taxes in an economically depressed area where families aren't even able to pay their rents may not be ethical. "Ethical" is a relative term- that's why its so tricky. But if I were to be the one making ethical decisions for many- I think my process would be closest to the situational ethics Prof G mentioned in a post above. Taking each decision situation by situation to weigh out all aspects.

Kaitmint said...

I believe that ethics is something you are raised with, it is based on your character, religion and even nationality. I judge what is and isn't ethical by how it makes me feel. If i feel something isn't ethical, like for instance capitol punishment, I believe it is not right. But deciding on something smaller there is somewhat of a process involved in my ethical decision making. It usually involves how my parents would react to me making the decision or how they would make the decisions themselves.

Annie Yu said...
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Annie Yu said...

Many of the ethical decisions I make are based upon my values, attitudes, and morals, which are influenced by my cultural background, the friends I have, the society I live in, and a bunch of other factors. When judging what is and is not ethical, I try to think of how I would feel if the situation were to affect me directly and what the consequences would be. For example, if I were sitting on an extremely crowded NYC subway, it would be ethical for me to give up my seat to the elderly or someone who is pregnant. If I was the elderly or pregnant person on, I would want someone to offer me his/her seat. If the train were to move abruptly, I would probably have a higher chance of maintaining my balance and not falling than the pregnant or elderly person.

While people have differing views about what is ethical, I do think that we are all born with a certain sense of right and wrong. There are certain innate values that are common among many different cultures. I feel that if people from different countries were put in the crowded NYC subway situation, many of these people would also give their seat up to the elderly or pregnant person.

Dave Cohen said...

Personally I believe that there is no such thing as universal ethics. If there were such a thing then this class would be much more boring and there would be only one right answer to all of the questions. Now I'm not saying there aren't ethics believed by a majority just not universal. Different perspectives, lifestyles, up-bringings, will have a different code of ethics. Different standards also create different ethics. Take the obesity epidemic article we saw in class. Is it unethical to advertise certain foods when there is such an epidemic? Then again, who's to day that the people are not to blame. It is an advertiser's job to create business for a company. The same with tobacco. In my opinion, kids don't smoke because Joe Camel told them to and people don't eat fast food because of a clown. Yes they may be brilliant marketing strategies but there is also this thing called common sense. People in this day in age are given too little credit for their own free will.

Michelle P said...

I believe that we grow up encountering specific situations that challenge our ability to choose which outcome is right for us. I agree with Jackie, in the sense that we are allowed to do whatever, as long as there are no outstanding repercussions. We are also raised with various morals and values that affect our decisions. I usually weigh out the pros and cons in my head, and try to go with what I feel is the most suitable for me. I also think about every possible outcome before deciding what the final one is. But if in dealing with a large group of people, I don't think I'd be able to make a reasonable choice that would make everyone happy.

Howie Good said...

Let's review what people have said so far:

1) Most of you practice situational ethics.

2) Most of you are utilitarians.

3) Most of the rest of you follow the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

4) You derive your ethical values from your parents. (Which is kind of interesting if you reflect on the fact that your parents' values developed in a different era, perhaps with a different set of ethical challenges.) You also attribute your ethical values to society at large -- whatever that means. (Society is a big, abstract noun.)

5) A lot of you follow the promptings of your "conscience," though what exactly the conscience is is unclear -- a body part? your character? a flexible set of attitudes and opinions dependent on circumstances?

6) The relation between personal and professional ethics is uncertain for most of you.

Jenn Von Willer said...

Ethics is relative. It's whatever you want it to be and not. Meddling with ethics of your own and others is risky and sometimes consequential. Ethics isn't black and white but for those that believe in the 'norm', ethics is taken too personally with theories of morality, feelings and outside elements like censorship, religion and privacy in the mix. Like Samantha said, somewhere in the back of your mind you should already know what can be deemed unethical. From birth, how you were raised plus the settings or situations you've been exposed to and what you took in or took out from those experiences help ethics take its course. Still, it doesn't define ethics for everyone. Stealing is wrong. Rape is wrong. Cursing, well, that all just depends. Although your family may preach something to you, it's possible you may never agree with it (like religion or racism).

In the AP clip by Jamey Keaten, the Game of Death is a big hit in Paris. A deceptive game show with a disturbing twist leaving contestants exposed to humiliation and vulnerability is just what show producer Christophe Nick wanted. "Faced with exhibitionists, TV viewers have become voyeurs."

It's true because if you don't try to be even a little self-aware or refuse to be pried open and prodded at by new uncontrollable, unavoidable situations, then "normal standards" can't be created. With communication and social responsibility, ethics attempts to set the ground to build your moral character, however, it's up to the human mind and personality to obey standards.

Brandon said...

The best way I've found to determine what is and isn't ethical would be to take a step back from any situation that you are personally involved in (most journalist's attempt to remove themselves from the story but this requires one to even remove the slightest bit of emotion from the decision making process of what to publish, whether or not it will bring your story and consequently you more publicity, money, etc.) and judge from a complete 3rd party viewpoint. Now of course this third party may have different views from those of anyone else in the world, but at least it is an unbiased attempt to be the most fair to all involved.

To me, ethics is all about whether or not one can justify their reasoning. If one's reasoning for making a comment or publishing an article was sound and good, and the consequences were not as he intended, it can still be an ethically sound decision. There are so many different ways to view ethics such as utilitarian or absolutists, which strives for the doing of what is right for the majority, or others such as moral-based ethics choose to put an emphasis on choosing whatever outcome is best for an individual, that as long as there was honest thought and standards that one used to make a decision and he chose what was "right" based on his projections, I don't know if it is the right of others to decide how ethical his decision was. Every situation is different, which is what makes this class so interesting.

Even the most basic of problems in journalism ethics, the first amendment, is a hot-button issue because the only way you can support free-speech is if you believe all people are truly good and smart, allowing the free marketplace of ideas to exist and allowing the "good" ideas to win out. If one is a cynic, not believing all people know what is right or what is best, than maybe the first amendment isn't what is right or just.

kiersten said...

I would love to say that everybody has a “conscience” that for the most part distinguishes correctly what is right from what is wrong. However, there are people out there that have had experiences, different upbringings, and different relationships that have altered their “conscience” and may have changed their opinions on what is right from what is wrong. I believe in situational ethics; that what is ethical changes based on the situation and the circumstances. The ethical decision may not always be the popular decision or even lawful. People get caught up in their own opinions and desires that sometimes it can be difficult for people to clearly decide what is right.
Personally, I use my mother and my grandmother as a sort of standard for judging what is ethical and not ethical. This is because I believe that I have been brought up to look for things that are not ethical and try to change it. My standards are thinking about if what I did would make my mom and grandmother proud. For example, my mother was in a parking lot and saw a teenage boy cursing at and hitting a teenage girl. Although there were at least ten other adults witnessing this, not one person interceded most likely because they did not think it was their place. My mother went up to the couple and interceded because she thought it was the “right thing to do”. Whether or not it backfired on my mother, she did it anyway to help the girl.
The steps I take in deciding what is ethical and what is not include looking at the situation from an outside perspective. I remove myself from the situation completely. Then I think of what led up to the situation, how did it come to be? I weigh every option and every possible outcome I can think of. And then I decide what is most fair. I think about who was at fault, their motives, etc to reason the situation.
I think that there is a difference in personal ethics and professional ethics. I think that professional ethics may be a little more difficult to judge because of the fact that there are rules and status quos etc in a professional setting and the consequence of breaking them for the sake of being ethical can be more difficult for people sometimes.

bina fronda photography said...

I think that how one judges what is and what isn't ethical comes from how they grew up. We are trained to understand whats right and what's wrong as children, thus your background and the way you were raised has a lot to do with how you determine whats ethical and whats not. The way I personally judge what is and isn't ethical has to do with my morals, influenced by family, religion and culture. How I determine whats ethical and what is not is by determining what seems right to do, knowing that damage will not follow. Sometimes, you just know, its like a natural instinct. I think it depends on the person if there are specific steps to go through to decide. Some people just know, and don't doubt their understanding of what is right or wrong, while others question their own morals.

Zan Strumfeld said...

I think reading David Brooks' column before commenting helped prove my thoughts on the matter - the basic idea of ethics comes from an overall judgment and understanding of what we're taught, in classrooms, from our parents, what we hear in general. What's right and wrong can be such a controversial topic and what is ethical obviously differs from one person to the next. So really, how do we decide what is truly ethical and who decides this? I'm interested for class discussions to happen in order to start to reveal what people really do think.

When faced in a situation, a lot of us probably react on instinct in order to create the best outcome for ourselves. With this, we are grabbing ideas from what we have learned. I believe from there we have to decide what we want to make of those ethics that were "passed onto us." Just because my mom says one thing, does not mean it is valid. In all honesty, I think ethics can be [or are?] very opinion-based. It is then up to the self to make conclusions on what's best for him or her.

Steps? I guess you have to take each situation at hand differently. You need to weigh out your options and think about what would most appropriately benefit yourself without hurting anyone else in the process. This is obviously extremely difficult and differs from person to person, as I have said before. However, it's another story when other people are involved. You then have to look at their well-being, and how your decision on something will affect them.

beth said...
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beth said...

I agree with many of the previous entries that acknowledge environment, upbringing, etc. as key factors in how we perceive ethics and morality. A different environment will yield a different view of right and wrong. For instance, a child that grows up in a household where abuse is common, may mature with the idea that any kind of abuse is not necessarily unethical. "May" is a key word, though. They could very well grow up with a heightened awareness of exactly how immoral abuse is.

However, while environment affects ethics, I also believe that there is an innate human sense that helps us to distinguish moral from immoral -- the "gut" instinct. Personally, I feel that this sense is the most accurate way to judge right from wrong. When I follow my gut in making a decision, I notice that the outcome is usually much more positive. Yet, I do not always find myself listening to that instinct.

When faced with a decision, I tend to think of how the outcome will affect those around me. But, my personal decisions seldom affect a large population of people, unlike the decisions of large corporations or government officials do. My decisions, therefore, seem less significant to me, and so I am not always careful in coming to a conclusion. Nonetheless, I usually consider the matter at hand and try to measure all potential outcomes. The problem, I feel, is that one outcome or another is always overlooked, not necessarily intentionally. Overall, though, I lean towards situational ethics, even with the awareness that this sort of decision-making is not a "secure vantage point" when "everything is swirling" around us. In a world with so much diversity, I don't know that a secure vantage point is even a possibility. Like Dave said in a previous comment, I don't think that "universal ethics" could ever really exist.

Maria Jayne said...

We judge what is ethical and what is not ethical based on our relations with society. The people before us in our culture set the guidelines and we do our best to push the limits but if no one else follows it can be considered immoral or unethical. For example sex in the media used to be frowned upon and throughout time limits were pushed and it is now incorporated into everyday. It takes small changes and a lot of followers to decide what is ethical amongst a society and in the media.

Howie Good said...

maria raises the question -- as do others in their responses -- of whether what is acceptable to society at large is synonymous with what is ethical. Think about this, please: What if society at large believes in infanticide? In cannibalism? In torture? Does the societal consensus make it ethical, or just conventional? For ethics to be equated with majority opinion of society wouldn't it be necessary for that society to be inherently good?

Pamela said...

My perception on what is ethical is based on not only principles my family tried so hard to instill but also values taught by friends and educators.

Before making a decision, I usually try to determine whether or not my decision will physically or emotionally hurt myself or others. I think that a lot of us have a basic understanding of what is ethical, and while some don’t care if their decision could negatively affect somebody else, others get that indestructible knot in their stomach- I am one of those people. One small sign of nausea and I jump on what I believe is the more responsible decision. That wasn’t always my strategy though.

Although some of my values were influenced by the words of my father, many were born out of situations where I faced ugly consequences. I think that sometimes it takes a wrong decision and consequences to really understand what is unethical and what it is to have a guilty conscience. When I was fifteen, I smacked a girl in the face, something that in the eyes of my grandmother was unacceptable. “Violence is never the answer,” she says. Of course, as soon as it happened, I felt terrible and even though at the moment I felt like the girl deserved it, I realized it wasn’t when she hit me back. All of a sudden I was in a fight and I couldn’t believe it. But, I realized that I never wanted to smack somebody else in the face again whether it is physically or metaphorically, in the street or at work.

When talking about a much larger group of people there are many other factors that affect the decision-making process. I think there is a basic understanding of what is ethical that is constantly depicted in the media, but at the same time we all have different philosophies, religions, cultures, upbringings and values.

Jonathan said...

i judge what is ethical based on whether or not i believe the topic in question is truthful, humane and just. for example, someone mentioned in class that what is ethical might be what is best for the majority. however, in pre-civil war America, slavery seemed like the best option for the majority at the time. There is no question whether or not this is ethical, obviously, but the point is that it doesnt matter how many people are going to benefit from the decision, slavery was not humane or just, therefore, it is unethical.

My standards are determined both by common sense and previous cases. the decision on slavery is obviously just common sense, it's wrong, therefore it is unethical, period. but i believe that in unique cases, or cases that aren't as obviously distinguishable, you must look to find past examples of similar situations, and then based on the outcome of their decisions, or by the decisions themselves, you can accurately determine what forward steps would be ethical, and which ones would not.

(sorry that this is a little late, I didn't realize it was due at 6 today, it won't happen again)

Brianna McDonald said...

My ethical standards are often based on the different situations I've encountered in my life and the way they've made me feel. As many other people have said, most people have a general sense of right from wrong. However, once it comes to specific situations, I think most lines are blurry. Ethics is nothing near a black and white topic. My ethical views are influenced by everything I see around me, and mostly by the people I surround myself with. But at the same time, my ethical standards also influence what I surround myself with. I relate the best with people that agree with me morally. I usually know what is right from wrong based on what is most generally accepted. I believe professional ethics are generally along that same vein. What is ethical has been determined by somewhat of an "industry standard" and the ethics of the individuals involved do not usually make a difference in the larger scale unless they try drastically to make a change to something they find unjust.
I agree that a person's upbringing also affects his or her ethical standards. Generally, one will base his or her beliefs on those of their parents. However, it is not uncommon for people to oppose their parents' beliefs as a form of rebellion or once they see flaws in their parents' ethical standards. Many of my beliefs mirror those of my parents but I have friends who are more ethical (in my opinion) than their parents.
In order to make a decision between the right and wrong move, I usually have to assess the situation from the standpoint of my biggest critic. I am always conscious of who I could hurt by making either choice, and when it is not a clear-cut outcome, I have a difficult time making a decision.
So, as we talked about in class, I generally follow the idea that what is most ethical is what does the most good for the most people.

Also, this will be the only blog comment I ever post late, I completely missed the clearly-marked deadline on the post.

Atkin said...

I thought about this question for a while, because there are a lot of things in my life that I actively pursue — intelligence, honor, pride, adaptability and confidence to name a few biggies. But, speaking philosophically, the most valuable thing to pursue is truth. Truth is so essential. In any sense of the word, truth breeds intelligence, rationality and logic. It helps people make their own, personally relevant educated decisions. I value it so much, and I think it shows. Rarely do I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to lie, even social or work situations. I tell my boss the real reasons I want to take off from work because I feel that he will respect my honesty. And I always tell my friends how exactly how I feel about their actions. As I'll assume everyone has been, I've been lied to, talked about behind my back, manipulated and strung along. I've learned that honestly, though maybe harsh at first, is exponentially better than any of those. Because that's how life is. Maybe people would be better at dealing with adverse situations if they were better trained to deal with constant blatant honestly in their lives. Because sometimes it seems people in our society can't handle the truth.

Hopping back to our advertising discussion in class, because I know I was arguing with Prof. Good a little bit on the subject of lying and I want to clear this up. Allowing companies to spoon feed us untruths is bad. I agree—it breeds a culture of lies and makes us think that lying is okay across the board. After all, our politicians, advertisers, even our journalists do it. But what I was trying to say in class was that we can't just grumble, talk about how bad it is and sneer at cereal commercials when they come on. Conversely, we can't go out and rally that all these entities stop lying. It's unrealistic. It's unrealistic from a business standpoint, a political standpoint, and a cultural standpoint. But it's also unrealistic because absolute truth is unrealistic. From a professional standpoint, we have to pick our battles one at a time. Same goes for personal standpoints. Because even though we should always strive for truth, we need to realize that lies will always slip out of our mouths. And that's okay, but if we could all expand our thresholds for truth, I think we'd not only be more educated, happier, and able to deal with the realities of life, but we'd all be more ethical people.

I wouldn't say that truth necessarily equals righteousness, nor would I say that untruthfulness equals wrongdoing. But I would say that the ability to accept and appreciate truth makes you more likely to make ethical decisions. Because let's face it — lots of decisions made that are considered unethical are based off of lies. And I think we can find that through being true to others and true to ourselves, it can be easier to achieve all the other things we pursue in life — Intelligence, honor, pride...anything.

Atkin said...

I thought about this question for a while, because there are a lot of things in my life that I actively pursue — intelligence, honor, pride, adaptability and confidence to name a few biggies. But, speaking philosophically, the most valuable thing to pursue is truth. Truth is so essential. In any sense of the word, truth breeds intelligence, rationality and logic. It helps people make their own, personally relevant educated decisions. I value it so much, and I think it shows. Rarely do I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to lie, even social or work situations. I tell my boss the real reasons I want to take off from work because I feel that he will respect my honesty. And I always tell my friends how exactly how I feel about their actions. As I'll assume everyone has been, I've been lied to, talked about behind my back, manipulated and strung along. I've learned that honestly, though maybe harsh at first, is exponentially better than any of those. Because that's how life is. Maybe people would be better at dealing with adverse situations if they were better trained to deal with constant blatant honestly in their lives. Because sometimes it seems people in our society can't handle the truth.

Hopping back to our advertising discussion in class, because I know I was arguing with Prof. Good a little bit on the subject of lying and I want to clear this up. Allowing companies to spoon feed us untruths is bad. I agree—it breeds a culture of lies and makes us think that lying is okay across the board. After all, our politicians, advertisers, even our journalists do it. But what I was trying to say in class was that we can't just grumble, talk about how bad it is and sneer at cereal commercials when they come on. Conversely, we can't go out and rally that all these entities stop lying. It's unrealistic. It's unrealistic from a business standpoint, a political standpoint, and a cultural standpoint. But it's also unrealistic because absolute truth is unrealistic. From a professional standpoint, we have to pick our battles one at a time. Same goes for personal standpoints. Because even though we should always strive for truth, we need to realize that lies will always slip out of our mouths. And that's okay, but if we could all expand our thresholds for truth, I think we'd not only be more educated, happier, and able to deal with the realities of life, but we'd all be more ethical people.

I wouldn't say that truth necessarily equals righteousness, nor would I say that untruthfulness equals wrongdoing. But I would say that the ability to accept and appreciate truth makes you more likely to make ethical decisions. Because let's face it — lots of decisions made that are considered unethical are based off of lies. And I think we can find that through being true to others and true to ourselves, it can be easier to achieve all the other things we pursue in life — Intelligence, honor, pride...anything.

Atkin said...

I thought about this question for a while, because there are a lot of things in my life that I actively pursue — intelligence, honor, pride, adaptability and confidence to name a few biggies. But, speaking philosophically, the most valuable thing to pursue is truth. Truth is so essential. In any sense of the word, truth breeds intelligence, rationality and logic. It helps people make their own, personally relevant educated decisions. I value it so much, and I think it shows. Rarely do I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to lie, even social or work situations. I tell my boss the real reasons I want to take off from work because I feel that he will respect my honesty. And I always tell my friends how exactly how I feel about their actions. As I'll assume everyone has been, I've been lied to, talked about behind my back, manipulated and strung along. I've learned that honestly, though maybe harsh at first, is exponentially better than any of those. Because that's how life is. Maybe people would be better at dealing with adverse situations if they were better trained to deal with constant blatant honestly in their lives. Because sometimes it seems people in our society can't handle the truth.

Hopping back to our advertising discussion in class, because I know I was arguing with Prof. Good a little bit on the subject of lying and I want to clear this up. Allowing companies to spoon feed us untruths is bad. I agree—it breeds a culture of lies and makes us think that lying is okay across the board. After all, our politicians, advertisers, even our journalists do it. But what I was trying to say in class was that we can't just grumble, talk about how bad it is and sneer at cereal commercials when they come on. Conversely, we can't go out and rally that all these entities stop lying. It's unrealistic. It's unrealistic from a business standpoint, a political standpoint, and a cultural standpoint. But it's also unrealistic because absolute truth is unrealistic. From a professional standpoint, we have to pick our battles one at a time. Same goes for personal standpoints. Because even though we should always strive for truth, we need to realize that lies will always slip out of our mouths. And that's okay, but if we could all expand our thresholds for truth, I think we'd not only be more educated, happier, and able to deal with the realities of life, but we'd all be more ethical people.

Maria Jayne said...

"One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us."
-Kurt Vonnegut

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.