Developing ethical reasoning and/or ethical decision making
: Robert J. Sternberg, Cornell University
Why this Learning Objective Matters
Colleges and universities today, in their testing and even their teaching, place great emphasis on academic content knowledge, as they should. But when one considers the causes, later in people’s lives, behind failed job performance, failed relations with friends and colleagues, and even failed marriages, one is likely to find the root cause of the failure to lie not in content knowledge or even academic reasoning but rather in ethical reasoning (1).
One can have a degree in business, medicine, law, psychology, or education, and be familiar with the knowledge base of the profession, but nevertheless act in an unethical manner that undermines the utility of that knowledge. For example, if one looks at four huge and widely publicized business failures by CEOs (Kenneth Lay at Enron, Bernard Ebbers at Worldcom, Conrad Black at Hollinger International, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco), all were related to ethics (2). Some of the CEOs took their business down with them. Then there are the huge scientific frauds, such as that of experimental psychologist Diederick Stapel, who simply made up his data (3), and even frauds in education, including Corinthian Colleges (4), which deceived students regarding graduation and job-placement rates. There are even severe ethical violations in the ministry, as shown by the denials and cover-ups of child-abuse that have made headlines over the years (5). Much of this ethically-compromised behavior starts early, when students are in school. In one survey, 86% of high school students agreed that students cheat at some point in their high-school careers (6). Great professionals, citizens, and leaders in any field of endeavor are ethical people (7). They need to learn to reason ethically before they go out in the work force and start influencing and even controlling the fate of others (8).
Colleges should teach ethical reasoning rather than just ethical principles. Ethics is a set of principles for what constitutes right and wrong behavior. These principles are generally taught in the home, through religious training in a special school, or through learning in the course of one’s life. It is challenging (although certainly not impossible) to teach ethics directly in a secular school, because different religious, cultural, and other groups have somewhat different ideas about what is right and wrong under different circumstances. There are, however, core values that are common to almost all these religions and ethical systems that schools do teach and reinforce, for example, reciprocity (the golden rule), honesty, sincerity, compassion in the face of human suffering. In addition, many professions have codes of ethics that professionals are encouraged to follow, and sometimes, are bound to follow by contract or law. But even when given a set of ethical precepts to follow, be they personal/religious or professional, knowing what to do in a particular situation is not always clear. For instance, many professions have a code of ethics that discourages conflict of interest between personal and organizational activities. But exactly what constitutes a conflict of interest is not always apparent. Is having lunch with someone who seeks to influence you a conflict of interest? In some situations, it might be. But in other situations something more egregious, such as receiving a large gift, might be necessary to be considered a violation. So the problem is not usually in knowing the precepts but in knowing how to apply them. This is especially true when there are conflicting demands being made upon one’s actions, such as one person wanting you to do one thing and another wanting you to do something else. That is why instruction in ethical reasoning is of paramount importance over just teaching a set of ethical precepts.
Ethical reasoning is how to think about issues of right or wrong. Processes of reasoning can be taught, and the college or university is an appropriate place to teach these processes because so often it is taught no place else, and because it is essential for a successful adulthood. Although parents and especially religious institutions may teach ethics, they do not always teach ethical reasoning. Academic courses are the logical place to teach the cognitive process of reasoning especially as ethical issues relate to the content of a particular discipline. No matter how knowledgeable one is about their profession, if the knowledge is not backed by ethical reasoning, long-term success in the career is likely to be severely compromised.
Can ethical reasoning actually be taught with any success? Apparently so. Richard Paul (9), of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, devised a program whereby principles of critical thinking were applied specifically to teaching ethical reasoning to young people Robert DeHaan and colleagues at Emory University successfully taught ethical reasoning to high school students (10). Catherine Myser of the University of Newcastle and her colleagues have successfully taught ethics to medical students (11). And James Weber of Marquette University found that teaching ethical awareness and reasoning to business-school students can help their ethical reasoning, although the improvements are not always long-term (12).
Ethical reasoning is hard because there are so many ways to fail. Ethical behavior is far harder to display than one would expect simply on the basis of what we learn from our parents, from school, and from our religious training (13). To intervene, individuals must go through a series of steps, and unless all of the steps are completed, they are not likely to behave in an ethical way, regardless of the amount of training they have received in ethics, and regardless of their levels of other types of skills.
Consider the skills in this model and how they apply in an ethical dilemma—whether a student, James, should turn in a fellow student, Ben, whom he saw purchase answers from an upcoming examination from an ethically compromised Internet site:
- Recognize that there is an event to which to react.
James has to observe Ben purchase the answers and decide that it is a situation in which he potentially might have some role other than being a passive observer.
- Define the event as having an ethical dimension.
James has to define the cheating as unethical. Students do not always see cheating—such as purchasing answers in advance of a test–as unethical. Many students do so; but some others may see it as a practical or utilitarian matter. On this view, it is ok if Ben or anyone else can get away with it.
- Decide that the ethical dimension is significant.
James has to decide that Ben’s purchasing the answers for the test is a big enough deal that it is worth James’s paying attention to it. Some students may see Bens’ purchase of the answers as an ethical issue, but not as one of sufficient importance that it is worth their doing anything about it.
- Take personal responsibility for generating an ethical solution to the problem.
James may decide that there is an ethical problem here, perhaps even a major big one, but that the problem is not his concern. For example, James may view it as the teacher’s responsibility, not his, to do something about Ben. Or James may believe that he cannot be responsible for the behavior because he doesn’t really know or care much about Ben.
- Figure out what abstract ethical rule(s) might apply to the problem (including any codes of ethics relevant to the situation).
What rule applies? If there is no honor code, is there an institutional rule by which James should turn in Ben? Is he under any obligation? Perhaps James believes, on the contrary, that the rule is to mind his own business, or to avoid cheating himself, but not to turn in Ben. Or James may believe that student solidarity takes precedence over turning in cheaters.
- Decide how these abstract ethical rules actually apply to the problem so as to suggest a concrete solution.
Perhaps James believes that, in general, one should turn in cheaters, but that he cannot apply the rule in this situation, realizing that he could not prove that Ben cheated. After all, what if the supposed answers are not really answers to the test? Or what if some of them are wrong? Or perhaps he does not want to try to prove Ben cheated, feeling he has more important things to do with his time.
- Prepare to counteract contextual forces that might lead one not to act in an ethical manner.
James may be reluctant to turn in Ben because he believes that other students, including but not limited to Ben, will shun him or retaliate against him for being a “snitch.” And of course, he may be right. Acting ethically often comes at a cost.
In the end, what matters is not how one thinks, but rather what one does. It can be very difficult to translate thought into action. Nevertheless, the ultimate test of ethical reasoning is not just in how one thinks, but also in how one acts. James may believe he should turn in Bill but just not get up the guts actually to do it.
This model applies not only to judging others but to evaluating one’s own ethical reasoning. When confronted with a situation having a potential ethical dimension, students can learn literally to go through the steps of the model and ask how they apply to a given situation. For example, suppose James himself committed an ethical transgression and now regrets it. What can he do to make amends or otherwise set things right?