On Being Ethical

In the spirit of the season, we can all learn to be better individuals in our interactions with others. However, we first must know what we are doing presently before we can do better in the future. This is the story of how I first became concerned and what I have attempted to do about it.

About 10 or 12 years ago, I began to be acutely aware of generally bad behavior and attitudes among my students that hadn’t been there 10 years earlier: More lax class attendance and general unpreparedness, a rising sense of (unwarranted) entitlement to a high grade, increasing demands for unreasonable accommodation, a growing unwillingness to study for the class (or read the textbook), a decreased understanding of what constitutes cheating, ever more (and sometimes ingenious) attempts to cheat or manipulate or “game” the system, and a higher sense of “outrage” when they are caught or refused.

About then, I started distributing a short article titled Making Ethical Decisions from the Josephson Institute of Ethics to every one of my classes. I did not test them on it but I figured it could help some students be aware of the problem. I was not surprised when I saw no discernible difference in their collective behavior.

About five years ago, I started the research that eventually led to an online article on ethics. By the time I finished most of the preliminary research, I was astonished at the breadth and depth of unethical behavior in the schools and in business and in ordinary social life. Frankly, looking back, I should not have been surprised. I saw many hints of bad faith behavior in my adult experience but I ignored them for anything more than just individual incidents and personalities or outlier events.

On the other hand, I did notice that I seemed to have more than my share of these bad faith situations happen to me than to other people, but I put aside the observation as silly paranoia. Two unrelated events of my life in the late 1990s forced me to reevaluate my opinion that it was mere paranoia. But that is a topic for another day. In the meantime, back to the present topic.

After I decided to expand the scope of the article to include these nonacademic categories, it became quite clear I had far too big a project for the time allotted. Forced to limit the topic to what I consider the four most basic aspects of ethics, not lying, not stealing, not cheating, and following the Golden Rule, the result is still some 60 pages long. The article, titled On Being Ethical, can be found at http://www.sfjohnson.com/acad/ethics/Ethics.htm.

I learned a lot in preparing for the article. Many things I already knew intuitively were ethical (and personally practiced) but could not state precisely. Other things seemed new to me, but nevertheless I happened to be doing without realizing. A few were new points to me about which I discovered I was grossly guilty. And some things I already knew but was astonished to find out that most others did not know.

Future entries will be dealing with one small chunk of the article at a time. In the meantime, if you’ve got absolutely nothing better to do, slog your way through the article. You may be as surprised as I was at what you learn.

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One Response to On Being Ethical

  1. Steve,
    Just starting to read your ethics piece, but I was thinking you should also include some thoughts on ‘Authenticity.’

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