Posted in Teaching

Ethics and the Dark Side of Loyalty

The Good, The Bad & the Difference (2002)

On November 8, as an exercise in ethical reasoning, students in my Focused Inquiry classes formulated responses to questions submitted to Randy Cohen during his tenure as the writer of The New York Times column “The Ethicist.” Students worked collaboratively in four groups, with each of the four responding to a different question regarding campus ethics. One question addressed the market-style dining system, another dealt with course evaluations, and the other two, unsurprisingly, concerned cheating and plagiarism. The four questions–which appear at the end of this blog entry–prompted considerable discussion, enough to insure that I’ll repeat the exercise again next fall as an introduction to applying ethical frameworks.

Students in my Focused Inquiry classes considered those questions of ethics only a day before the announcement of the firing of legendary Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier following the arrest of Paterno’s former assistant coach, defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, on charges related to the sexual abuse of minors.

Sexual abuse—in Sandusky’s case, of eight young boys over a fifteen-year period—doesn’t present us with an ethical question. Its atrocity isn’t an arguable point. But what we would have done if we were Mike McCreary—if we had seen what he saw in the locker-room shower—is another matter altogether.

In his November 14 column in The New York Times, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” David Brooks addresses the vanity that followed the news of the atrocity: “The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.”

Though we may believe that we “would have behaved better,” historically we haven’t. Brooks cites complicity in the face of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide as examples of the normalcy bias that prevents people from “process[ing] the horror in front of them.” Brooks also notes people’s motivated blindness–“they don’t see what is not in their interest to see.”

On the November 18 broadcast of NPR’s Tell Me More, ethicist Jack Marshall, founder of ProEthics, observed how the events at Penn State exemplify the dark side of loyalty: “And the dark side, in this case, is that people were so focused on the football program, and so focused on the university, that their loyalty blotted out all other considerations, including a prime directive, which is loyalty to the human race, to our children, to the innocent.”

When we return to questions of ethics next semester, it’s likely that students will raise the subject of the Penn State scandal. If they do, it will present an opportunity to consider how acting ethically isn’t synonymous with following the law.

Along with demonstrating the difference between ethics and law, and the power of the normalcy bias and motivated blindness, the recent events at Penn State underscore how even our greatest ethical values, such as loyalty, can lead us to act unethically.

The ethical questions that follow are the ones that my students addressed in class on November 8. The first three are collected in Randy Cohen’s book The Good, the Bad & the Difference (2002). The fourth question appeared in Cohen’s column on January 20, 2008.

  1. The mandatory meal plan at my college allows you to eat as much as you want but prohibits taking food out of the dining hall. However, I think it’s okay to slip a sandwich in my backpack because I am only a little freshman, and the college needs to budget for lacrosse players. My sister, Shayna, believes this is tantamount to bringing an extra-large purse to a Holiday Inn buffet? What do you think? –Erin and Shayna Silverman, Boiceville, New York
  2. I attend an Ivy League university where students are graded on a curve. During the midterm exam, the student next to me was copying answers from my paper. Because a higher score would mean a lower grade for me, I intentionally wrote some incorrect answers, waited until she handed in her test booklet, and then changed my answers to the correct ones. Was this wrong? –Brenna Tinkel, Philadelphia
  3. A college student called last week to say his ‘friend’ had visited my Web page, lifted something I wrote, and turned it in as her own work. Suspicious, her professor plans to search the Web; if he finds the paper was plagiarized, he’ll recommend expulsion. The student implored me to take the paper off my site, lest his ‘friend’s’ academic career, and possibly her life, be ruined. What do I do? –Anonymous
  4. Our university requires us students to write anonymous evaluations of our professors. On one evaluation, a student made derogatory comments about a professor’s sexual orientation. The university hired a handwriting expert to confirm the identity of the culprit so punishment could be administered. The university claims the student broke the code of conduct, but if anonymity was promised, is this investigation ethical?” –S.C., Georgia

4 thoughts on “Ethics and the Dark Side of Loyalty

  1. It is gratifying that you found my work useful for you class. You might enjoy my new book, also based on the column, to be published by Chronicle in September, “Be Good: how to navigate the ethics of everything.”

    1. Thanks, Patty. The conversation was lively and inspired–it’s an activity that I definitely plan to repeat next fall as an introduction to ethical reasoning.

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