Code of Ethics

What do you think? Should schools have codes of ethics or not?

David Warlick does and has posted an attempt at a Code of Ethics in "Getting Right Down to It". The four basic principles (expanded with subprinciples) are:

  • Seek truth and express it
  • Minimize harm
  • Be accountable
  • Respect information and its infrastructure

One wouldn't think that these principles would be controversial. However, Stephen Downes disagrees with codifying them. Let's look at his main points:

Yes, they can, but what is it that distinguishes a code of ethics from, say, instruction from a teacher or parent? It is one thing to tell people what they ought or ought not do - even I do that. And quite another to codify that. When something like ethics is codified, then this gives people room to be 'ethical' by watching for loopholes or playing legal games. It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic rather than the letter, to be ethical by holding your behaviour accountable to your own sense of good and right, not some arbitrary third party construction.

This is setting up a false dichotomy. Yes, "It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic," but that doesn't mean that should be no letter. I would prefer to see the possibility of the spirit informing the letter, and the letter informing the spirit, with each mutually reinforcing the other.

Also, as far as codes leading people to watch for loopholes as distinct from telling people to do, you should meet my seven-year-old son. He remembers everything I tell him to do and not to do, and is constantly formulating exceptions. So, we might consider codes simply as the pragmatic recognition of the fact that not everyone possesses or "adhere[s] to the spirit of an ethic." Thus, rather than being "arbitrary," they often are evolving adaptations by a concerned party to historical evasions of ethics. Having said that, it would be appropriate to bring the other concerned party, the students, into the writing (and ongoing re-writing) of a code of ethics.

Because the rules will never be complete. Freedman writes, "Surely the starting point is to instil the ethical value of citing sources with permission, before bringing in the obvious exceptions?" But if the rule has exceptions, then the rule, as stated, is wrong. Shall we start listing exceptions? No, because then we could never stop? Another rule, then? No, because it, too, will have exceptions.

Why should rules be complete in order to be valuable? Rules should be considered as prototypes that offer guidance rather than perfect completeness. In fact, we should consider exceptions not as endless problems, but as endless opportunities for learning. When an apparent exception arises, we can question the rule and the exception: Is this action really an exception? Why? In what ways does this exception inform our understanding of the rule? Should we change the rule or simply, noting the exception, complexify our understanding of the rule?

There is a reason we leave application of the law to the discretion of judges and not merely to adjudication of fact. The interpretation of referees and umpires rather than electronic sensors. Why we often appeal to the 'spirit of the law' rather than the letter. Why we think sticking to 'the letter of the law' is cheating.

This example of judges contradicts Stephen's position. Without laws, there would be no need for judges to interpret their application. Following this logic, there would be no need for laws. Conversely, with laws and rules, we and our students have the opportunity to interpret them, reflect on them, and grow in our understanding of the principles involved in their formulation.

The only 'morality' a person follows is his or her own, a feeling that this or that is right or wrong. Any appeal to an external sourse changes the definition from 'morality' to 'authority'.

This is a red herring. No one creates their own morality de novo. Morality is constructed on the basis of interactions with external sources, such as family, community, social institutions, and culture. (Consider the Vygotskian perspective that the social plane exists before the psychological plane.) In addition, morality is not static but changes over time with experience, that is, with interactions with external others. When people perceive an external source as having legitimate authority and persuasive reasoning, over time they may come to integrate the external position as part of their identity and thus their own morality (see self-determination theory).

Rules are normal, and so are exceptions. Consider rules for writing. When a paper is important, I go back through my paper with one rule (e.g., topic sentences and coherence) at a time looking for how well I have followed it. This practice of following rules helps my writing become clearer and more persuasive. Yet sometimes I see a need to break the rules. Life and writing are too complex to understand in their entirety. That's why we reduce the complexity down to manageable prototypes, or rules. So, of course, rules have exceptions. But until the "incomplete" rules have become automatic, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand where the exceptions exist. Learning is a matter of complexifying one's understanding of prototypes, and external guidelines can help scaffold the process.

Still, we might ask whether rules (with their exceptions) are sufficient for all contexts. Perhaps, for some purposes and contexts, stories might work better. I'm reminded of Shell's Global Scenarios:

The Shell Scenarios are carefully crafted views of the future. They provide a tool to explore the many complex business environments in which companies work and will be working. During the last 30 years our Scenarios have helped us and others to link the uncertainties we hold about the future to the decisions we must make today.

Along these lines, The Farmer’s Wife a children's story by Idries Shah, exemplifies the potential of stories for teaching ethics. In this story, a farmer’s wife drops her apple, which rolls into a hole. Unable to get it out, she asks a series of animals and objects (bird, cat, dog, bee, beekeeper, rope, fire, water, cow) to help her. However, each one in turn refuses and is called “naughty.” Finally, she asks the bird to peck the cow. Being naughty, the bird obliges and sets off a cascade of actions in reverse order of animals and objects, returning to the bird again, building up to the point at which it is expected that the last (and first) animal, the bird, will retrieve the apple. However, instead, at the last second, a wind blows the apple out of the hole, “And everyone lived happily ever after.” This short story juxtaposes (1) asking according to one’s own interest with asking according to the recipient’s interest (or nature), (2) allegedly naughty beings (and the good farmer’s wife) with living happily ever after and (3) an expected outcome from a linear cascade of causes with unexpected chance.

Stories like this one hold our interest better than rules, stay in our minds longer, and, when well-crafted, contain contradictions that exemplify the complexity of ethics.

Still, neither stories nor rules are sufficient. A spirit of morality in the schools and communities is crucial. Without it, people will, as Stephen wrote, look for loopholes, because in such a case, the stories and rules do not reflect students' environment, which seems to be the case in general, at least in the U.S. From Thomas Lickona's book Character Matters, the "2002 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth" reports that in high school, 75% of students cheat on at least one exam; 40% steal from a store; and 40% will "lie to get a good job." Jeffrey Selingo in his article "The Cheating Culture" (Prism Magazine), reported that in the mid-nineties, cheating at least once was around 82% for engineering students and that it has been rising since then.

So, despite laws and existing rules, students are, as Stephen wrote, following their "own" morality. And as I wrote above, an individual's morality is not created de novo; it's the result of interaction with others and environmental pressures. So, what are schools and universities to do? Speaking on character education, Dwayne Huebner (curriculum theorist and Professor Emeritus, Teachers College) is worth citing at length on this point:

First, recent discourse about moral and spiritual values in the classroom is incorrectly focused. That discourse assumes that there is something special that can be identified as moral or spiritual. This assumption is false. Everything that is done in schools, and in preparation for school activity, is already infused with the spiritual. All activity in school has moral consequences. The very highlighting of the need to teach moral and spiritual values in schools implies a breakdown not in the spirituality and morality of the student, but a breakdown in the moral activity and spirituality of the school itself, and of the people in control of the school. Those in control of the schools cover their own complicity in the domination system by urging the teaching of moral and spiritual values. They do not urge that the moral and spiritual climate of the schools, which they control, be changed. That teachers do not feel the freedom to be critical and creative is a sign of their enslavement to other principalities and powers. The need is not to see moral and spiritual values as something outside the normal curriculum and school activity, but to probe deeper into the educational landscape to reveal how the spiritual and moral is being denied in everything. The problem in schools is not that kids are not being taught moral and spiritual values, the problem is—the schools are not places where the moral and spiritual life is lived with any kind of intentionality. (The Lure of the Transcendent, pp. 414-15)

I'm not quite sure what Huebner's perspective is on intentionality, but Alicia Juarrero in her book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System defines actions as "behavioral trajectories constrained top-down by an intention." Behavior—the enactment of meaning, moral values, and beliefs—results from a self-organizing process of a person’s history of reciprocal interactions with his/her environment, a process in which interdependencies between intentions and actions, individual and society, are entrained. If intentions are not regulated and are not followed by action, people will follow the thoughts, intentions and actions of others. In other words, people conform to their social environment unless they intentionally, and persistently, will to do otherwise. That's all that students are doing, conforming to their environment.

So, again, what are schools to do? Although schools, too, have interdependencies between themselves and their communities, they must take the initiative in entraining their intentions and actions to match the ethics they wish their students to embody. That's not easy to do. Most learning is unconscious. Thus, when breaking old habits to form new ones, it's helpful to structure support into the environment that promotes conscious intention and reflection. Rules and stories can be two such types of support. They remind us of prototypical actions that we wish to emulate, as in the case of David Warlick's principles. Thus, there is no essential dichotomy between ethics and rules or stories. All are useful, in fact, necessary: The spirit provides the motivation to act ethically, and stories and rules (along with experience) provide the support and knowledge to do so.

For other links on this topic, see David Warlick's response to Stephen Continuing the conversation on ethics, and also via Stephen Downes, see Terry Freedman's response to Stephen and Susan van Gelder's post.