Are we practicing ethics just to comply?

I attended a luncheon last Friday with the Dean of the Graduate School at Virginia Tech and several faculty and graduate students. While the discussions revolved around issues of ethics on a campus as diverse as Virginia Tech, with close to 7,000 graduate students from across the world, the central theme of the discussions was: Has the discussion surrounding ethics devolved into one of compliance alone?

Dean Karen Depaw noted that unfortunately this seems to be the trend, though there needs to be greater sensitivity to the question of ethics and its principles, at a deeper level. It is hard to have these conversations across the board with all disciplines, as some disciplines are more aware and naturally open to these ideas than others.

The nature of our work in a global setting has made it mandatory for us to evolve some global norms of ethics, all the while making sure that those who are new to the system of ethics on American campuses understand what the benchmark is. This in itself can become a challenge. Also, there is the problem of understanding the work of a university as a business or a public agency. This creates a tension in the paradigms that we apply to understand this problem.

While the university aims to educate, sensitize, and create awareness of these ethical dilemmas across the board, among faculty, students, and staff, one wonders whose responsibility it is to become aware of these issues?

I think the buck stops with each individual. Given the fact that as students we are all in an academic environment—to learn, do our research, and carry out significant work—the onus of learning is on us.

As doctors, lawyers, engineers, social scientists—all of us should be asking ourselves, What is the right thing to do? rather than just, How do we avoid getting into trouble?

While the university may facilitate the process of teaching ethics by putting together courses, by creating new avenues for sharing best practices, or disseminating the tools of the trade, the ultimate responsibility rests with the individual.

This is true irrespective of the discipline or the field of endeavor, as we will ultimately be held accountable for our actions—and the sooner that people engaged in research and academia realize this, the better.

This approach would also take away just the "compliance" mode of ethics and force all of us to be sensitive to these questions in a broader context.

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Tags: applied, education, ethics, higher, universities

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Comment by David Harold Chester on November 11, 2012 at 11:06am

When a person makes a show of ethical behavour or ethical teaching and is doing it in order to comply with instructions he/she has received about what to express, then in fact this is not ethical at all. Ethics must include the whole-hearted belief by the individual that what he/she is doing is the right thing. So the doubts expressed within this article do have justification, and the answer is that those who give these instruction about what ethics should be put across must make sure that their employees or teachers do so for more than their salaries.

If the "buck stops with the individuals", according to the Dean, then part of this ethical teaching must be toward the great ethical principles contained within our religious heritages. The Livitical urge to love our neighbours as ourselves is rather impractical, because we are not saints who can happily share their wordly belongings, indeed such a policy is unlikely to make much of a difference, and its political connotations in the form of socialism and communism, with hindsight have scarcely do much better. But the modification of the Golden Rule by Hillel the Elder comes a far closer second, because he gave emphasis to the double negative alternative of not causing offense to ones neighbours instead.

This principle when taken to a serious degree is connected to avoiding any polution of the planent which we share, as well as not withholding opportunities for employment or living, such as in the use of land and other natural resources. So much of our world is owned by those who would exploit the way that land grows in value, by holding it unused, that there is a lot of work for an ethically minded student body to attempt in later life.   

Comment by Mladen Joksic on October 23, 2012 at 5:21pm

Sabith, you make a good point. But, I wonder if by encouraging individuals to move beyond simple compliance with ethical rules, we will not only motivate them to think about them more deeply, but we will ultimately encourage them to question and in some cases, disobey them. After all, you can't ask students to think deeply about something, without examining it critically. The implications of this thought process might not always be beneficial. Think, for example, of cases in which students believe that an instituted norm at their University campus conflicts with moral norms they learned at home--they may decide not to comply. But, wouldn’t that then threaten the universal ethics/code of behavior that is necessary for campuses to operate?

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