Some Thoughts on Ethics

5 Apr

This past Easter weekend, when all the left-overs were put away and the dishes were done, I put aside my Sunday to deal with my Graduate Ethics course. The University of Alberta requires all graduate students to complete an online course that focuses particularly on scholarly ethics and offers many examples of times when academic ethics may come into play.

The course was actually very enlightening.  I consider myself to be an ethical person, and I think that those who know me personally and professionally will attest to that. But like everyone else, I’ve experienced  situations that have ‘grey’ areas. It would be great if everything were cut and dry or black and white as they say but sometimes there is no clearly defined right or wrong path. Then you’re really left to decide personally which is the ‘most ethical’ option.

This was the case in many of the questions that were asked during the 5 hour long course. Or at least that’s how long it took me to do all five modules. Each module has a quiz at the end, which you are required to get 100% on in order to pass the course. You can try as many times as you need to, but in the end you must get everything right one way or another. The questions that were tricky for me were the ones that had a ‘most right’ answer. While three of five answers might be acceptable, one of those three is the most ethical option. For the first module, I admit, I took a quick skim through the notes, figured it would be common sense and took a crack at the quiz. First time, 5 out of 12. Crap. I kid you not, I thought to myself “Seriously!?!? Where did I go wrong? Surely I’m more ethical than a 5 out of 12! GOO!”

Then I figured I should read the notes more carefully. Yup, now I get it. Right in front of me was the whole idea about some answers being more right than others. And eventually I figured it out and yes, passed the course.

BUT – here’s my question: Am I now a more ethical person because I know the most desirable ethical answer to a question? Would I now respond different in that particular situation because I know the most correct way to deal with it?

Nope. Sorry. Probably not.

My issue is this: I think that ethics, while it would be nice if universal, aren’t*. Ethics change based on personality, value system, circumstance etc. If every situation had a clear cut definable solution, then we wouldn’t need ethics courses like this – we’d just consult the Ethical Scripture As Written By Whoever Is Most Ethical and we’d be done with it.

I think this course was helpful and educational, especially given that the course is distance education and considered a more professionally-focused program (translation: I will not become a professional academic after this MA is complete) but out in the real world, this stuff just doesn’t always apply.

*Side note – Now I’m going to argue with myself. Are ethics universal? Maybe the ethics are, but we as people are not? Humph. *pondering*

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