Students delve into scenarios to ask 'what is ethical?'

by Janet Smith


James Madison University students numbering 115 and a few faculty members considered seven complex scenarios during an ethical reasoning workshop hosted by the university's Virginia Gamma chapter of Phi Sigma Tau, the International Honor Society in Philosophy on March 16.

The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, JMU's Quality Enhancement Plan, was the basis of the workshop held in the Allegheny Room of the Festival Conference and Student Center.

Development of the QEP, which began in 2010, is required of JMU for its reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – Commission On Colleges.

Dr. Michael Davis, assistant professor of communication studies and advisor to the JMU Debate Team, outlined the Eight Key Questions that guide The Madison Collaborative before the assembly convened in 14 smaller groups. Members of the debate team joined in groups to offer oral argumentation advice.

Outcomes – What are the short-term and long-term outcomes of possible actions?

Fairness – How can I act equitably and balance all interests?

Authority – What do legitimate authorities (e.g., experts, law, my god[s]) expect of me?

Liberty – What principles of freedom and personal autonomy apply?

Rights – What rights (e.g., innate, legal, social) apply?

Responsibilities – What duties and obligations apply?

Empathy – How would I respond if I cared deeply about those involved?

Character – What actions will help me become my ideal self?

"The questions help you determine for yourself what is ethical," Davis said as he set the stage for the groups to consider the scenarios. "There's not one answer that tells us how to act ethically," he cautioned.

The scenarios were:

  • Joe knows that in this economy, finding a job can be tough. He wasn't having any luck finding work since employers thought his Ph.D. over qualified him. So, he started applying for jobs without listing his doctorate degree. He now has a fantastic job offer from a Fortune 500 company. If Joe takes the job, he would start on an excellent career path and he could start repaying his student loans. However, he would also be starting his work relationship on a lie that could hurt him down the road. Should Joe take the job?
  • An organization provides annual grant money to charity project proposals. This year, two excellent projects are competing. One and only one of these projects must be chosen. The first proposal, from the World Peace Project, has the potential to moderately assist millions of people. Yet, this project also sets the stage for future improvement. The second proposal, from the Better Earth Initiative will drastically improve the quality of life of thousands immediately. Which project should the organization choose?
  • The year is 2075 and artificial intelligence (robots) now has fully developed autonomy, including full-scale emotional capacity. The number of sentient artificial beings now rivals the human population. Some believe these artificial beings deserve the same rights extended to humans. Others contend that there is no way to know whether artificial intelligence can be hacked or easily coerced. Should beings of artificial humans receive the same rights as biological humans?
  • A local group wants to hold a protest rally through a quiet, religious development. The group received permission from the local government. However, the residents have repeatedly asked the group not to protest through their neighborhood and deem the protest "hate speech." Should the group be allowed to protest?
  • A professor at a major university is grading final term in-class essays. He has graded all of the papers except one from his best student. However, his dog at the entire essay! His best student has over a 100 percent grade in the class, and it is impossible for her to get any less than an A+ in the course. The professor is considering entering an arbitrary grade for the assignment since grades are due in 15 minutes. Is it okay if the professor enters a final grade for the student? Or, should the professor make the student re-take the exam?
  • Panem just broke out in civil war. Over 1.5 million refugees have flocked to a neighboring country, Genovia. Until the war is over, the refugees are considered enemies of Panem. Genovia has a longstanding treaty with Panem to not aid its enemies. However, if Genovia refuses to take in and provide aid for the refugees, they will almost assuredly develop illnesses and starve. Should Genovia assist the refugees of Panem?
  • A low-income community recently found 200 kittens in an abandoned warehouse. There is no animal shelter in the community. Unless all residents donate $100 each, the kittens will have to be put down. Many residents in the neighborhood make much less than $100 a day. Should the residents provide the money needed to save the kittens?

Workshop participant Sidney Lawrence, a junior majoring in cultural anthropology, said of her experience, "It was interesting to see other peoples' points of view because what I find morally sound might not be exactly what another person thinks. Hearing different and opposing opinions definitely makes me think."

"This program showed me that it (The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action) can be successful," said Kevin McCall, a junior majoring in biology. "When I first heard about the QEP, I was a little doubtful that people would be interested. But based on the discussion, everyone talked and what they said was well thought out and showed that they were engaged with the questions. It makes me optimistic that the QEP is something that can be successful."

The ethical reasoning workshop is part of the semester-long program, "Rhetoric and Reasoning in the Liberal Arts," which is supported by a $5,000 grant from the Student Government Association. The program is also supported by the College of Arts and Letters, Department of Philosophy and Religion and Logic and Reasoning Institute.

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March 19, 2013

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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