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Do You Know What Underlying Values and Principles Guide Your Ethical Decision Making?


Do You Know What Underlying Values and Principles Guide Your Ethical Decision Making?

Written by: Dr. Andrea Silva McManus

Proper ethics training I believe reduces stress around complex decisions and increases productivity.

When I teach ethics courses I start with two fundamental concepts I want my students to learn and carry forth in their personal and professional lives The first is the concept of Emotional Intelligence and its role in ethical decision making and the second a concept developed by my Doctoral Advisor at the University of Vermont the Moral Conversation which states that how we talk to each other is as important if not more important then what we are saying to each other. The moral conversation allows you to be an equal participant regardless of the level of knowledge you have or the ability you have to express it.

Like leadership, I believe emotional intelligence comes more naturally to some then others. It can however be cultivated through using MYT’s content and Nash’s Framework for Ethical Decision making. I love to cook and I taught Ethics, Leadership and Philosophy and Food courses among other subjects at the New England Culinary Institute. The best metaphor I can think of for this framework is it is a recipe for ethical and moral decision-making. When done well you have a great ethical decision, just like when you cook well and have your Mis En Place in place, a French term for everything in it’s place and it is the center stone of all professional kitchens. All your ingredients prepped on hand, a firing list of when to cook what all results in an excellent dish. Using your emotional intelligence to help you make ethical decisions is like having your proverbial ducks in a row. You know what you want, why you want it and what influence it will have on others around you.

Making crucial ethical and moral decisions, even leadership decisions requires a deep understanding of the emotions and the feelings that are behind these decisions, how they formed in our families, workplaces, religious institutions etc. Finally, we have to understand what the greater impact of that decision is going to be in the greater world around us.

I am of the opinion that most Ethics training is devoid of opportunities to explore deeply ones own personal beliefs, which drive the ethical and moral decision-making. If we don’t know how we feel about something how then can we really make a good ethical and moral decision. This is the central theme in my ethics teaching. Time and time again my students tell me this was some of the most self-reflective work of their college careers. I still get contacted years later from students telling me about the latest ethical dilemma they’ve faced and how they used Nash’s Framework to make a decision they thought was best.

Ethics, most people would agree, are an important part of professional and personal life. Unfortunately, ethics are often only paid lip service as we get caught up in the rat race of day-to-day life and the desire to outperform those around us. Ethics, or the lack thereof, are only mentioned as a sound bite or cursory comment as we move onto the next issue. I believe ethics and ethical training need to be incorporated meaningfully into daily life now more than ever.

You have to know what your background beliefs are, how they formed and how they will have an effect on others to make the most informed ethical decisions possible. You have to know yourself before you can even begin to understand or relate to another in the best spirit of the moral conversation. And, again this requires emotional intelligence to seek the spirit of a barn raising in our conversations rather than a boxing match, which is so prevalent in Higher Education and many corporate cultures.

As a faculty member who teaches ethics to undergraduates I see an urgent need for ethics training in professional fields When, I ask a basic question of my students such as “Do you know what underlying values and principles guide your ethical decision making?” I get blank stares. A few students look at the floor or out the window and ultimately someone blurts out an answer to break the uncomfortable silence. Then they get angry that nobody has asked them this question before. Students tell me they are angry because they haven’t had these discussions anywhere in their educational experience. I truly wonder how many people reading this article have experienced this kind of ethics training.

They want to know why they haven’t. I tell them these are good questions to ask. I tell them I was angry too because I didn’t study ethical thought until I was a doctoral student. This is where my motivation to teach ethics originated. I believe we aren’t educating students fully if we don’t equip them with the tools to think ethically to face our complex world rich with ethical dilemmas. I assert that we can’t truly be pluralists or appreciate difference until we develop these skills and self-knowledge.

Students come to the classroom as champion arguers and debaters with a skilled knack for verbally knocking each other out to make their points. They yell. They gesture. They roll their eyes and sigh. They shut down. They do not enter as moral conversationalists, but at the end of the semester, they leave with a foundation of ethical thought and how to converse about difficult topics, which again requires emotional intelligence. Pleasingly, I’ve heard often that this was their favorite class of their undergraduate career. Is it my teaching? Maybe in part, but I believe this was the first and possibly the only opportunity they have had to engage in such deep and meaningful conversation and to recognize their own EQ levels.

They learn that body language matters and that their job in the classroom is to make the other student look good; in doing so, they look good. I take this a step further and say they are doing ‘good’ when they listen more than they speak and are able to draw out stories and meaning from each other that helps them better understand difference and varying points of view. These are essential skills to have in our complex world.

Concluding Thoughts                                                                                                             

Ethics training, including ethical decision making and the ability to engage in the moral conversation are crucial for both undergraduate and student affairs professional practice programs. Current world events and the increasing interconnectedness of cultures around the globe all necessitate that students and professionals know how to talk about difficult topics in a reasoned calm matter. They need to seek to understand the other first searching to find common ground before disagreeing, to know how to use their emotional intelligence wisely. They need to learn to agree to disagree and change the subject if common ground is not found. Given the growing diversity of higher education, including religious pluralism and our more prominent commitment to social justice, I believe it is unacceptable and illogical to neglect the realm of ethics any longer.

Nash, R, J. (2002). Real world ethics: Frameworks for educators and human service professionals. New York: Teachers College Press. 39.
Nash, R. J. (1996) Fostering moral conversations on the college classroom, Journal of Excellence in College Teaching7(1), pp. 83-106.
Nash, R, J. (2002). Real world ethics: Frameworks for educators and human service professionals. New York: Teachers College Press, 39.
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