Do College Students Really Care?
The problem with teaching ethics to college students is they may not care. Some of my students ask me: Why should I care about being ethical now…when it seems people can get ahead in life by taking the easy way, which is not always the ethical way out.
I answer, perhaps this is so but it doesn’t mean you’ll be happier or lead a more meaningful life, two goals of ethical behavior. Happiness and meaningfulness comes from our interactions with others. The quality of our relationships can enhance our physical and mental well-being thereby creating happiness and greater meaning. If we’re not ethical with others, it’s less likely they’ll be ethical with us and achieving happiness and self-fulfillment becomes much more challenging.
Ethical behavior is a journey that begins with one step: it starts with committing to being an ethical person. Much like a commitment many of us make to lose weight and exercise more, being ethical takes practice and discipline. Like most journeys it takes time and effort. However, once you learn the tools of ethical behavior that can be applied to most any situation in life, you can establish a pattern of ethical behavior that serves you well in all life choices.
Ethics is a complex subject that encompasses ethical values and standards of behavior that have been debated throughout the course of history. One simple approach to ethics I use in teaching college students is by using the following decision-making process: (1) recognize the ethical issues (right vs. wrong); (2) identify the ethical values (i.e., honesty, trust, respect, responsibility); (3) analyze the ethical issues (utilitarianism, rights theory, justice and virtue); (4) decide on a course of action; (5) do the right thing. The result of this process is ethical behavior will occur.
Assume Sally had two dates with Bill, whom she met on an online dating site. She realizes the relationship is going nowhere. Bill has sent her numerous texts wondering what’s going on. Up until now, Sally has ignored them. This is a practice referred to as “ghosting:” ignoring the other party even though there’s something important to communicate.
Once I raise these issues in my ethics class, students start to relate better because many have been ghosted or ghosted others. I even have some who said firms they interviewed with ghosted them – no word on how the interview went or whether they would receive an offer. The honest students admit to have ghosted firms they interviewed with after they decided not to accept an offer even if one was forthcoming.
We need to engage students in debates in ethics classes and use topics they can relate to – like dating. Another topic that seems to go over well is using social media at work. Is it ethical to use one’s laptop, or company equipment, to go on social media sites during the workday? I’m not talking about during breaks or lunch. Most student say there’s nothing wrong with it. They claim they might do work related things at lunch to make up for it or stay later. Many say they work at home. To me, these are rationalizations for unethical actions. However, the burden is on the employer to set clear policies about personal time on social media at work, and most companies don’t have clear policies.
Ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking. Most people are ethical when they know they’re being watched. If someone in front of us on a line drops a $20 bill, we’re likely to return it because those in back of us saw it. If someone walks down a street and drops a $20 bill and there’s no one else around, the likelihood is that we’ll pocket it and move on.
We live in a world where ethical behavior is an afterthought. It’s not likely to change anytime soon because our political leaders, members of the media, those in the entertainment field and sports all seem to have no clue about right and wrong. As college teachers, we must make the effort to teach ethics.
A poem by William F. O’Brien says it well: Better to Try and Fail Than Never to Try at All.