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April 18, 2002

Teaching ethics in the classroom

What is the litmus test to determine if an action is unethical?

“Ethically, I can’t kill you, but I can take your job,” Pitt professor Steve Farber pointed out at last month’s conference on ethics sponsored by Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). “Taking your job certainly has an adverse effect on you, but it’s not considered unethical: It’s just part of the game.”

Farber, who is director of the public and urban affairs program at GSPIA, said his background in economics leads him to see most issues through the prism of cost-benefits analysis.

“I think of ethics as a trade-off: something that’s a benefit to one group, but with repercussions for others. Most of us would agree that something is unethical when there is a huge human cost or egregious financial cost — like the Enron scandal. But is the cost a matter simply of the magnitude of adverse impact? In the classroom, when we’re teaching ethics, where do we draw the line?”

Farber’s was one of many questions raised at the all-day conference, “Educating Ethical Leaders: Helping Faculty Bring Ethics Into the Classroom.” Some two dozen presenters from area universities, nonprofits and government agencies focused on various ethical components in the workplace and how to educate future professionals in the rules and standards that govern members of a profession.

William Frederick, professor emeritus at the Katz Graduate School of Business, maintained that Farber’s question was subtle and difficult. “As a society, we’ve always said to ourselves that ethics is defined by various social, cultural, religious and familial rules that have evolved out of philosophy or social science; that an action is unethical when a basic human right is trampled, be it little or big,” said Frederick, who pioneered the teaching of Business and Society at Pitt in the 1950s. “I believe we have a built-in predisposition deep in our brains that causes us to react when something unethical happens, that stirs us up to say to ourselves, ‘That’s not right.'”

But a comparable human predisposition might well be the source of why unethical activities in our society continue without abating, Frederick said. In analyzing business ethics over the past 50 years, he said there are three dominant explanations — summarized as character, culture and nature — for unethical behavior.

“Was the Enron scandal caused by men of flawed character? Are they just crooks?” Frederick asked. “Or did Enron happen because of the prevailing corporate culture? Are there flawed social values in corporations that pit one employee against another: in this case, the top dogs against the core people at the bottom who lost their retirement savings?”

Or, the third alternative, recently put forward as the result of studies in evolutionary biology: Are there biological roots for unethical behavior? In other words, are some people cursed with flawed genes?

“The constancy of problems over the long term gives evidence that they are endemic to the system itself, ” Frederick said. “The problem of Enron and Arthur Anderson is not new. It’s spectacular, dramatic and disgusting, but not new.” To back up his claim, Frederick listed his personal “dubious dozen” corporate scandals in the last 50 years, including Hooker Chemical and Love Canal; GM and the Corvair; Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India, gas leak; Ford Pintos’ exploding gas tanks; Wall Street insider trading; the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill, and others of more recent vintage, such as Ford’s SUVs versus Firestone Tires culpability battle.

“I have come to conclude that there is something innate in the system of business,” Frederick said, “and innate in many of the people who are in business, and it’s not just corporations: We have the Olympics committee, the Red Cross, the Catholic Church and some universities that are all in trouble.”

Which explanation an instructor accepts will affect what lessons should be taught in training professionals-to-be in the classroom, Frederick noted.

“If flawed character is your causative factor, you would look to philosophy as an academic discipline and try to teach virtuous personal traits: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, justice, honor.

“If you choose to focus on corporate culture, you would look toward the social sciences and focus on organizational values, such as community, caring, diversity, equality, human rights.

“And if you believe flawed genes and the human hard-wired brain are responsible, you look to the natural sciences — evolutionary psychology and biology, neuroscience — to discover the biological roots of unethical behavior. We now have studies showing that many of the things we admire — parental care, altruism, nurturing of the family — are indeed hard-wired, that we carry a brain today that is between 50,000 to 200,000 years old without change. Biologists say we still have Paleolithic hunter-gatherer brains.”

This last, rather pessimistic viewpoint, did not deter educators at the conference from suggesting methods for teaching ethical principles.

Peter Madsen, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics at Carnegie Mellon, told the conference plenary session that CMU recently decided to integrate ethics across the curriculum, and appointed his center to design and implement a pilot program for the university.

The program, dubbed ethical decision making (EDM), uses inter-active web-based case studies chosen by faculty to focus on developing cognitive skills useful in real-world decision-making.

“Bill [Frederick] is offering categories that explain unethical behavior,” Madsen said of Frederick’s presentation. “EDM focuses on cognitive issues rather than conduct issues.”

In the pilot program, a group of faculty engineers, architects and computer scientists first attended workshops on ethical theory and concepts. Faculty then were asked to choose examples of ethical dilemmas that are relevant to their discipline, such as causes of the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle for engineers, and then to put the case studies on the web for decision analysis.

“In the old version of problem-solving, you start with an analysis, look at alternatives, do a feasibility study, then choose among the alternatives,” Madsen said. “But ethical decisions are much more complex. Making them is not a linear process. There are several ‘decision points’ along the way, and there are contributing social, contextual and historical factors,” including real-world pressures to compromise ethical conduct, such as meeting aggressive financial business objectives, meeting schedule pressures and staying ahead of the competition.

Madsen added that accrediting agencies, including for engineering programs and business programs, more and more are requiring that schools teach a non-technical component in professional ethics “to train students in not just academics but in their real-world professional responsibility.”

Three faculty from different disciplines picked up on the theme of teaching real-world issues in one of the ethics conference’s side sessions, titled “Teaching Breaking Issues.”

Dane Claussen, associate professor and director of the graduate program in journalism and mass communication at Point Park College, said the challenge to teach ethics to journalism students is formidable.

“On the whole, journalism students, who are in the midst of a 50-year increase in their numbers, do not see a distinction between law and ethics or the importance of either,” Claussen said.

“There is cynicism among journalists in the field, and they’re rather poor at reading news themselves. Most students say ethics is a matter of opinion and that a course in ethics, if they even took one, didn’t solve problems.”

As of 1996, only 39 percent of journalism programs even offered an ethics course, Claussen said. “Why? They say, ‘We talk about this in every course.’ But that, to me, says it’s really not that important to the program.”

Claussen also decried the current trend of the media covering itself as news. “You have Koppel versus Letterman; you have the Harvard Business Review writer who had an affair with Jack Welch when she was interviewing him. Are these newsworthy?” he asked.

Even worse, he said, are news directors and reporters, in deathly fear of “getting scooped,” who are careless in their decisions and sloppy in their reporting.

“Does the public really care who gets scooped? Doesn’t the public prefer having a fair and accurate story the next day?” Claussen asked.

Despite the bleak picture, Claussen said there were some workable techniques for teaching ethics to journalism students.

“First, you have your own ironclad standards in the classroom. Sources have to be legitimate and backed up, for example. Second, you should expose students to organizational codes, such as the one published by the Public Relations Society of America. Third, you have to expose the tendency to lump all mass media together, when there are major differences.”

In addition, students must be made to develop personal ethical standards that they can justify and explain. “Pin them down. And show them that there is damage done by transgressions that is more than the reputation of the writer or the paper,” including the reputation of someone who is inaccurately depicted.

“Finally, teach them that professional competency is a core value and that professional competency and ethics are inseparable,” Claussen said.

Lawrence J. Metts, instructor in non-Western geography in the regional planning department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), cautioned that ethics can be a relative term.

“Ethics are founded in the culture of a society and so are different from society to society,” Metts said. “With my students, I use the analogy of the U.S. as a one-way mirror. Other countries are always looking inside our borders for what’s going on, but we seldom look outside those borders. I try to open that view to students by looking at examples in the news of regions we’re studying.

“For example, when we talk about AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa where there is no money to treat it, I ask students, ‘Should the countries treat it at the expense of clean drinking water or food?’ This opens their eyes to ethical dilemmas they don’t normally have to face as Americans and exposes them better to the world.”

Metts said he’s had to train himself to be able to say “I don’t know” when ethical issues come up, including the events of Sept. 11.

“Everyone was very upset. But when students asked, ‘What should we do? Why did this happen?’ I had to say I didn’t know. In today’s society, where time seems compressed, we don’t always have a long time to think about an ethical decision, there’s more pressure on us as individuals to act quickly, and we sometimes have to weigh the risk of thinking things through, but I believe even thinking about that is important in talking about ethics.”

Mary Jane Kuffner-Hirt, associate professor of political science at IUP, said she demands active participation in her classes. “I don’t ‘feed information’ in class, we develop it together,” she said. “I require my students to read at least one newspaper every day, and to be prepared to discuss whatever’s in it in class if I call on them.”

Kuffner-Hirt said that to her, civic responsibility is not just an intellectual subject, but an important part of living an ethical life, whatever one’s profession. She awards bonus points for students who can prove they have voted, for example.

“In political science, you can expect a certain amount of built-in interest in ethics in the students, even though I believe ethics should be covered throughout all courses.

“But I want my students to look at how ethical decisions can put others at risk. And in making those decisions, how do you isolate the risks? How do you evaluate them? When the government builds a road that seemingly benefits the community, I ask my students, ‘What if it’s your house they have to tear down? What if you’re displaced?’ I want to get the students to ‘feel’ what is happening. I try to put them in others’ shoes,” Kuffner-Hirt said.

She added that the teacher is fair game for the students in this regard. “I think it’s okay to let them ask the same questions of me, including personal questions.”

–Peter Hart

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