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Should We Expect Ethics Professors to be Ethical?

A Note About Moral Responsibility

I have been wondering whether professors like myself, who are known as ethicists, behave any differently than non-ethicists. After all, if we do not then perhaps we’re not the experts in ethics that we pretend to be. If this is true, what might be the reason for the disconnect?

I recently read a research paper The Moral Behaviour of Ethicists.  The research statement is: If philosophical moral reflection tends to improve moral behavior, then one might expect that professional ethicists will, on average, behave morally better than non-ethicists. One potential source of insight into the moral behavior of ethicists is philosophers’ opinions about ethicists’ behavior of academics. A questionnaire asked respondents to compare, in general, the moral behavior of ethicists to those of philosophers not specializing in ethics and to non-academics of similar social background. The majority of respondents expressed the view that academic ethicists do not, on average, behave better than non-ethicists. Whereas ethicists tended to avoid saying that ethicists behave worse than non-ethicists, non-ethicists expressed that pessimistic view about as often as they expressed the view that ethicists behave better.

We might rationalize the results by saying something like a physician should tell her patients that exercise and a nutritious diet are the foundations of good health, yet they might be careless and uninvolved in their own exercise and eating habits.

The difference, of course, is that ethicists are supposed to be good role models for others to aspire to whereas not so much with physicians. Physicians might be scoundrels; ethicists better not be. We trust ethicists to do the right thing in the right way and for the right reasons.

What should an ethics professor do if faced with the following ethical dilemma: One morning a student telephones the professor that she won’t be able to take a scheduled exam because her car broke down on the way home from Las Vegas. She asks him to take it at another time. Ethical dilemma

Our first reaction might be to have compassion for the student and let them take it later that day. After all, it’s only a delay of a few hours. The problem here is the professor fails to consider that all the other students in the class managed to take the exam at the appointed time. Why should one student be treated differently? Is there an ethical basis to do so?

The ethical issue is fairness. It’s not fair that all but one student took the exam when scheduled while the tardy one was given a pass. Utilitarian philosophy holds that “equals should be treated equally while unequals should be treated unequally.” All students were supposed to show up on time. There is no valid basis to treat the tardy student differently so the professor should have declined to give that student a pass.

Another ethical issue is personal responsibility. We are responsible for our actions and if we decide to go to Vegas for the weekend, and have an exam the first thing Monday morning, then we should leave the day before to ensure that we arrive on time to take the test. If the car breaks down we have the time to find a mechanic to fix it. It’s important to consider the possible consequences of our behavior before we act not afterwards when we are unable to change the trajectory of our decision.

Ethics is all about intent. What did the student intend when she decided to go to Vegas the weekend before the test? She chose to have a good time rather than stay closer to home and not have to worry about being at the test at the right time, not to mention be better prepared for the exam. In other words, she acted in a selfish way.

Just imagine what other students might think if the professor allows the tardy student to take the exam later in the day. They will lose respect for the ethics professor who failed to consider the fact that all but one student met their responsibilities as students to the professor, each other, and the university community at large.

I’m not saying the ethics professor was unethical in allowing the student to take the exam at a different time. Instead, he suffered from moral blindness. He was unaware or insensible to moral issues pertaining to himself and the students. The moral of the story is that the professor should find a different area of expertise.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 8, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .