Ethics Experiment

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Teaching ethics is a tricky business. At least in my experience, the first problem is our generally inadequate notion of what ethics is about. When we hear about morals or ethics in common speech—or in one of the forms of media—it is most often assumed to be about decision-making in difficult situations. How do we negotiate a particular moral dilemma? Ethics texts are full of these, and generally there is no particular answer to them. For those who like the modernist-postmodernist paradigm, this popular understanding is modernist/rationalist reaching back, let’s say, to Kant with his search of the “categorical imperative” and earlier.

The pre-modern (ancient and medieval, Biblical, Confucian, and some forms of post-modern) tradition is to understand ethics as about who we are, the quality or “content of our character,” about our habitual responses to people and situations, whether we are consistently just, truthful, courageous, wise, self-controlled, respectful, etc. (most of this is just translation of the classical cardinal virtues). People with these qualities can be trusted to make wise decisions when called upon. And because they exercise these qualities, they find themselves more rarely in those difficult situations. In this understanding ethics is about how we can become moral or ethical people.

The second problem, in my experience the most difficult, is that today we bring very different experiences ourselves about what is right and wrong to the table (or classroom) when discussing ethical questions, say, about business practice (about which I have the privilege of teaching). How can we come together with some common ethical experience, and how can we break out of the “decision-making” pattern into the fuller “virtue” experience?

To get there, I have devised an experiment that I ask the class to undertake. (I have borrowed some elements of this from others in discussions about university teaching, in particular colleagues and friends in the Association of Core Texts and Courses.)  Aristotle said that to study ethics with him, he expected the students in his discussions to be well brought up.  That is, they had to have attempted to live ethically and well.  I ask my students to try this.  Here is the assignment I give them. 

Beginning at the end of class …and continuing for the next week, attempt to live as morally or as ethically as you can. By this I mean, according to your highest values, what you know, believe, think, have been raised to believe are good ways of thinking, speaking and acting or behaving. You can think of simple basic goods or values for example: truthfulness, honesty, fairness, or justice, respecting others and the rights of others, meeting your obligations, maintaining a good “work ethic,” doing or being the best that you know how to do and be, being chaste, watching appropriate videos, using decent language, even completing your homework when you should (surely this is a good), etc.  Attempt to live your values, what you believe and know to be good, and as you do, pay attention to your thoughts, moods, feelings, and whatever else you experience.  You might want to keep a brief journal of your experience(s). What does it feel like when you  succeed or when you fail? How hard is it to live and act ethically? What goes on in your mind?

I then ask them to write a brief email explaining their experience so that I can use it anonymously in our class discussion.  I try to comment on at least 10-15 of their responses so that many of them recognize their own, they see similar responses in others, and so that they get a sense of the range of responses.

The results are always interesting. I have found them pretty consistent over the years.  I invite you to try the experiment and comment on your experience. I have offered my class (fall 2010) the “opportunity” to comment anonymously on this blog for some extra credit toward their semester grade (truthfulness in the interest of full disclosure).  After some comments (if some comments) arrive on this blog, I will add what students have repeated throughout the years on their moral experience.  I hope to use whatever results are posted here in future courses (anonymously). 

You may recognize that Christian spiritual guides sometimes use this kind of experiment with their disciples (another source of my borrowing).  Thanks for the help.  I hope you find the experience interesting.

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  • yia

    Yes, I like to think so; not just in business but in every aspect of our live. I agree with you Dr. Vavis, that we must carry our-self to the highest moral ethical character as possible. The foundation ethical judgment must be base on the “content of our character”.
    Based on my one week experience by trying to act ethically, I discovered that is extremely difficult to achieve good moral characters. I mean, it is very hard to act and respond ethically to any obstacles or issues at first. Unwarily, the first two days of the experiment; my regular bad habit keep jump ahead of what I trying to act morally. So most often time, I have to pause myself and think thoroughly before I act on it. As experiment move toward the middle to the end of the week, thing seen be getting somewhat easier. I notice that as I train myself to become good moral characters, my good moral behavior got trigger and respond to the particular issue lot quicker. Sometime, my good moral character completely overlaps and dictates to respond to those particular issues instead of my old bad habit. This little short experiment, I can see the improvement from my everyday bad habit routine to how I choose to act and respond to the issue at hand, morally and accordingly.
    I would think that if I keep training myself to become a good ethical person in every aspect of life. Overtime, I would definitely succeed it.
    By Y.H

  • Gzv3

    I agree Dr.Varvis, when we think of what ethics mean, the first thought that comes to mind deals with making decisions in difficult situations. Before taking the Business Ethics course, personally it was really hard to define ethics. Now I really understand what ethics is all about. Ethics takes place every day of our lives, in every situation. This article really caught my attention with the statement, “In this understanding ethics is about how we can become moral or ethical people”. Is interesting how we are born with talents, gifts, qualities, yet we must learn how to become ethical people. I had never thought about it but this article got me really thinking. Life would have been much easier if we would have all been born with ethical values. Violence, injustice, murders, theft, wouldn’t exist; this world would be a wonderful paradise. But if that was the case there would be no purpose in becoming a better person, no reason to fight for justice, peace or truth.
    I believe that if ethics was seen as part of who we are, if ethics became part of our personality and character, than ethics would be taken seriously instead of just a step in decision making. I personally had an interesting experience with the experiment, which I seem to understand better as the course approaches the end. At the beginning of the experiment it was all about making the right decisions. I would stop for a minute and thought of all the consequences my actions would bring, and then I would think if the decision I was about to take was ethical. For the first couple days the experiment was nothing more than just making good decision. Towards the end my perspective of the experiment changed. I didn’t have to stop to decide if I would be making an ethical decision, it become part of my thinking. As time passed it became an important part of my everyday living. Now is not just part of my way of thinking but it has become part of who I am. Ethics has to be incorporated into the everyday life with both small and big issues, so it can become part of our character and eventually part of who we are.

    By: G.V.

  • Steve

    This is Steve, responding to the comments of my two students below. Thanks to both of them for taking the time to write.

    They both reflect what most students who have participated in the experiment have found. Making ethical choices is not something that we just do. It is not just a rational decision. The ability both to make the choice and to act on it is the result of how we have disciplined ourselves to be and act moral over time, in many situations, and sometimes painfully.

    Most students reflect that in some way they have to restrain themselves–not take something they want, say what is on their mind, or do something to satisfy a personal desire. They have to say ‘no’ to themselves. Or they have to say ‘yes’ to the request (explicity or implicit) of someone else and act sometimes in costly ways–help someone, act with courage to defend and so on. This may mean they have not to cut corners, to speak or act with truth (even when the truth is not in their favor), or to offer costly assitance or not take advantage of someone.

    And some student have two further experiences. First they feel more mature, complete, or good about themselves and others. My students below reflect this. And further. they see the world more clearly in more moral terms. They begin or develop further the ability to recognize moral goodness and its opposite. And this has some profound implications. It would seem that the moral guides we can or ought to rely on are those in whom we see goodness or moral uprightness in action, which is the result of practice over time, in many situations, and in costly ways. Or as the Biblical saying goes “by their fruits you shall know them.” To be a good moral decision maker means then that we have to practice moral decisions, develop moral “muscle memory,” and learn to see the implications or our actions and those of others through experience.

    Teaching, and learning ethics is not a quick or easy process. It you haven’t participated in the experiment, try it. And then let us know if you experienced some of the same.