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Liars, Cheats, & Scoundrels...and What to Do About Them

It’s time we taught ethical reasoning along with the three R’s

In 1962, in Centralia, Pennsylvania, someone burned trash in the pit of an abandoned strip mine. An exposed vein of coal caught fire. The fire was doused with water, and town officials thought it was extinguished. But it erupted again just a few days later. Once more the fire was doused with water, and once more town officials mistakenly thought that was the end of it. Soon the fire began to spread underground.

Now the officials debated long and hard about what to do. Every once in a while, as they debated, toxic gases from the fire would come belching from the ground. Roads would buckle from the heat. A basement would become very hot, and a family would realize that the fire had reached under their house. Still, attempts to remedy the situation were mostly halfhearted. The government, having little other choice, eventually started paying people to relocate.

So it was that a single unethical act gradually flared into a conflagration that could have been avoided if only someone had stepped in and taken responsibility for fixing the problem. The ethics scandals plaguing our society are like Centralia writ large. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, repeatedly tipped off about the colossal fraud perpetrated by the financier Bernard Madoff, did nothing. Many Catholic priests, aware that some fellow clergy were sexual predators, turned a blind eye. The same inattention to ethics plays out on the world stage, as it did in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the recent genocide in Darfur, in which the United States and other nations failed to act.

What this country needs is some serious instruction in ethical reasoning. Notice I didn’t say “ethics,” the basic guidelines by which a person tells right from wrong, which are really up to parents and religious leaders to impart. Ethical reasoning—understanding how to apply abstract ethical principles in real life, and how to make decisions when the right thing to do is anything but clearcut—is something that can and should be taught in schools. In fact, it should be taught early and often, at all levels of education. And it should be taught in a way that recognizes the extraordinary difficulty of translating ethical theory into ethical practice. Mastering the requisite skills could not only help people avoid ethical lapses of their own, but also prime them to take action when others are behaving unethically—when a Bernie Madoff or some other offender needs to be stopped.

Teaching ethical reasoning is not a new idea. Many colleges and professional schools offer such courses. Business schools in particular, responding to the avalanche of headlines about corporate malfeasance, have raced to include ethical reasoning in their curriculum.

That’s all very commendable, but it may be too little, too late in a student’s education. While business school students can benefit from courses in ethical reasoning, the improvements are often short term, according to research by James Weber, of Marquette University. Nor is on-the-job experience likely to heighten those students’ ethical awareness. Studies by both Lawrence Poneman, of Babson College, and Jennifer Jordan, of Yale (currently at the University of Groningen), have shown that as leaders ascend the business hierarchy, their tendency to define situations in ethical terms decreases. Exposure to ethical reasoning in an isolated course is not enough.

That’s why I say ethical reasoning should be taught at all grade levels and in all academic disciplines and professional fields. Case studies can be adapted to every subject and degree of advancement. Suppose, for example, that fourth-graders were presented with this case study during a lesson in American history:

The settlers who went out West sometimes did so with a sense of what came to be called Manifest Destiny. The idea was that Americans were meant to spread out across the continent. But the Native Americans who were already living in the West viewed the settlers as invaders. To them, it was as though people from another country had arrived out of the blue, insisted that they belonged there, and, when told to leave, started shooting. In light of this, was the westward movement ethical? The students would then have to decide what ethical principles applied. Were the settlers doing unto others as they would have others do unto them—that is, showing reciprocity in their thinking? Were they being honest in taking the land? Did they show compassion?

Here is a problem for high school English students:

In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Inspector Javert pursues Jean Valjean, a peasant who was imprisoned as a youngster for a very minor offense—stealing bread to prevent his sister and her family from starving. Javert argues that Valjean, in failing to report his whereabouts, has violated the law. However, Valjean has escaped his past life and is doing both well and good as the mayor of a town. Is Javert justified in his relentless pursuit of Valjean? The discussion of principles would follow. Was Javert obeying the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit? Should the universal principle of preserving human life (that of Valjean’s sister and her family) have taken precedence over the shopkeeper’s desire for payment? Did the good that Valjean did for his town compensate for his stealing?

Medical students, preparing for a field in which ethical questions crop up all the time, would ponder this:

Doctors sometimes write notes with pens and pads furnished by pharmaceutical companies. They may also accept free meals, club memberships, subsidized travel, and research funds from such companies. At what point does their acceptance of these gifts become unethical? And the discussion: Will a doctor receiving a gift feel a need for reciprocity—to give back to the pharmaceutical company? Was the doctor simply accepting a concealed bribe to use the company’s products? Was he or she compromising the integrity needed to take into account the patient’s best interest, not the drug company’s?

Here’s another sort of dilemma a doctor might face:

Imagine that Mr. Smith, a patient of yours, is on his deathbed. He tells you that many years ago, when he was between the ages of thirty-five and forty-two, he had a mistress whom he saw frequently and supported financially. He asks you to tell his wife, and to say that he begs her forgiveness. Soon afterward, he dies. What should you do about his request? Do you owe it to the patient to respect his wishes when he is deceased? Would you be doing greater harm than good in respecting the deceased patient’s wishes? Would the wife actually want to be told, and if not, is it right to tell her?

When I present such problems in my own classes on leadership, I care less about the conclusions students come to than I do about their reasoning. For example, one could argue that Valjean did indeed commit a crime and then violated the terms of his parole by disappearing from Javert, who was effectively a parole officer. Or one could argue that Valjean never should have been imprisoned in the first place, or that he more than paid his debt to society in other ways. The point is to get people thinking about all different aspects of life in ethical terms.

But useful as they are in the teaching of ethical reasoning, case studies are hardly sufficient in themselves. The fact is that students, despite the most ethical of intentions, struggle when it comes to putting theory into practice in real time. One day in my leadership seminar, I gained an uncomfortable understanding of that.

I am very proud of myself,” I told my seventeen seminar students. I had just returned from a trip as a consultant on ethical leadership, I said, and I had found an ingenious way to supplement my paltry honorarium. I had been about to fill out the reimbursement forms when I realized I could get reimbursed twice: first by the organization that had invited me, which merely required a list of my expenses, and second by Tufts, which required my receipts. That way, my compensation would be on a par with the work I had done.

I was bluffing, of course—I did not really submit for double reimbursement.But I kept a straight face and waited for the firestorm. Would the class—which had spent several months reading about ethical leadership, discussing it, and listening to real-world leaders expound on it—rise up against me in protest? Or would only a few brave souls raise their hands? I waited, and waited, and waited. Then I went on with my lesson plan, all the while expecting someone to interrupt and demand a return to the topic of my double reimbursement. It didn’t happen.

At last I stopped and flat-out asked whether anybody thought there was something off the mark about my scheme. I figured they would be embarrassed for not having spoken up, and quite a few were. Some said they thought I must have been kidding, others that they assumed I had had a good reason for what I’d done. Still others may have decided they would report me. Alarmingly, though, several students commended me on my clever idea—and more power to me.

In teaching a course on leadership, I had somehow failed to pass along the tools that would help them recognize patently unethical behavior and act against it. Was there something I was doing wrong? Something I wasn’t doing at all?

The answer came to me when I reviewed research by the social psychologists John Darley, of Princeton, and Bibb Latané, of Columbia, who pioneered a field known as bystander intervention. A few decades ago, Darley and Latané showed that people help crime victims and other unfortunates only in very limited circumstances. Even divinity students who were about to deliver a lecture on the parable of the good Samaritan proved to be no more likely than other bystanders to come to the aid of someone in distress. The greater the number of bystanders present, the less likely any one of them was to act. They all seemed to figure that if something were really wrong, then one of their fellow witnesses would have done something. In other words, you are better off having a breakdown on a lonely country road, with few passing motorists, than on a busy highway.

I found striking parallels between the situations Latané and Darley studied and the one I created in my leadership seminar. You sit in a classroom and hear your teacher brag about what you may consider to be unethical behavior. You look around. No one else is saying anything. As far as you can tell, no one else is even fazed. Perhaps you are simply out of line, you think. And so you let it go.

Adapting and modifying bystander intervention research to the study of ethical reasoning, I identified eight steps that everyone must go through in order to respond to a situation ethically:

1. Recognize that there is a problem.
2. Define the problem as having an ethical dimension.
3. Decide that the ethical dimension is significant.
4. Take personal responsibility for finding an ethical solution.
5. Figure out what abstract ethical rule(s) might apply.
6. Decide how the rule(s) could help in finding an ethical solution.
7. Prepare to counteract forces that might make it difficult to behave ethically.
8. Act.

Several students in my leadership seminar that day did not make it through the first four steps. They failed to recognize my double reimbursement as any kind of problem at all. Or, as I learned in the class discussion, they viewed it as a utilitarian problem, not an ethical one. Because I had worked hard, they thought, I was justified in seeking adequate compensation. Other students may not have seen that the problem’s ethical dimension was significant, or they may have concluded that the problem was mine rather than theirs.

Completing steps five and six would have been a stretch for virtually anyone in my class. The pertinent ethical rule was that to seek multiple reimbursement for expenses is a breach of faith, tantamount to theft. But the students probably had little experience with reimbursements, so that rule might not have occurred to them. And for students who made it to the seventh step, the disincentive to behaving ethically would have been obvious: if they confronted me, I might retaliate, perhaps by lowering their grade. Most would have had to weigh that risk carefully before moving on to the eighth step—taking action.

Ethical reasoning instruction needs to take those eight steps into account—otherwise there is little chance that the lessons of the classroom will find their way into the real world. There are many ways to incorporate the steps into a lesson plan. For example, students might be asked to perform “postmortems” of current events that hinge on ethics, analyzing which steps had been neglected and by whom. Role playing, sharing personal ethical dilemmas, and using cases studies that illustrate the steps one at a time might be other useful techniques. Exercises like these would both engrave the eight-step model upon students’ memory and help them see how to apply it.

What would the world look like if everybody studied ethical reasoning? It probably would not be without Madoffs—it’s hard to imagine a curriculum that would turn around a sociopath. But a thorough, systematic education in ethical reasoning, of which the eight steps would be an integral part, might well mean a world in which future miscreants are caught before they do extensive damage. And from where we sit right now, that looks pretty good.

ROBERT J. STERNBERG is a professor of psychology and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as president-elect of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology.

  © 2009 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155