Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.
Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.
So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:
According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. http://theconversation.com/you-say-morals-i-say-ethics-whats-the-difference-30913
Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.
I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.
This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.
So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.
But I really really wanted to see how it ended.
So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’
‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but the fact that everyone does something doesn’t make it okay. Saying ‘Everyone does it’ is basically the antithesis of having ethics.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’
At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing. (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)
In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.
There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!
One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.
‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.
I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.
Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’ Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.
And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.
*(And, yes, you read right. Austrian students have Religion as one of their school subjects. If you want to hear my thoughts on that disturbing reality, you can read ‘Heathen Talk’ or ‘Scene of the Crime’.)