A reponse to a friend: What good are codes of conduct?

A good friend sent me this post:

via Techdirt. by Mike Masnick on 8/21/12

I know that for many universities, where they end up in the various “rankings” lists can make a big difference in terms of the type of students they attract, the money they can bring in and the professors they can get. So it’s almost surprising to me to find out that Emory University’s admission that it effectively fudged the numbers it sent to US News & World Report (the pre-eminent listmaker of university rankings) was really the first of its kind. The article does note a few other questionable uses of data by some universities — such as Baylor paying already admitted students to retake the SATs, hoping they’ll score higher and boost the rankings — but Emory went a bit further. It didn’t quite make up the numbers, but chose to send in the data for all the students they admitted, rather than the students who enrolled. And, of course, many students with higher GPAs and SAT scores may have been admitted to Emory, but chose to go elsewhere.

Of course, what struck me as extra interesting about this, is that we always hear about universities disciplining students based on an “ethics” code or something like that. So I figured Emory probably had something like that as well… and it did. There’s the Emory University Undergraduate Code of Conduct, which includes lines like:

Emory University expects that all students act honorably, demonstrating a keen sense of ethical conduct. The University expects that its students behave respectfully, providing particular consideration for other people and for property. As members of a community, Emory University expects that students act responsibly, being accountable for the safety and wellbeing of themselves and others. University students are expected to be trustworthy, demonstrating honest character upon which others may rely with confidence. That same policy also forbids “intentional misrepresentation,” including “providing false or misleading information to a University official” or “filing a false or misleading report.”

I also found that the school has a Code of Business Ethics and Conduct for employees, which includes this tidbit:

Emory University has adopted an overarching Statement of Guiding Ethical Principles that applies to Emory employees and all other members of the Emory Community. Emory employees should strive to adhere to these principles in carrying out their job responsibilities, and in particular any responsibilities they have in connection with Federal Research/Contract Activities. That pointed me to the Statement of Guiding Ethical Principles(pdf) which, among many other things has lines like the following:

Members of Emory are expected to strive for the highest degree of integrity. All of this has me wondering about these kinds of “ethics” policies and “honor codes” and the like. So many universities have them, but I’m curious if they actually do any good at all. Most of them say things that are basically common sense, and I have trouble believing anyone actually considers “oh, but the ethics policy!” before violating them. So what is the purpose of such policies? It seems that ethics aren’t the kind of thing that you write down in a policy, but that you demonstrate by how you act and what you do.

I replied:

I think I’ll post this reply on my blog (https://philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com/)  since it raises an interesting point:  What use am I, anyway?

Why do I do what I do?  What is the use of teaching people philosophy or ethics, anyway?  The purpose of ethics courses has definitely changed over the centuries.  Today, corporations have ethics training and hospitals have ethics boards and so on primarily to avoid being sued.  That is, there is no real interest in “ethics” in most cases; there’s only interest in covering one’s singular or collective butt.  If I say my company fosters an ethical environment and can point to a two-day ethics retreat I require all my newly hired executives to attend, I can then say in court that the VP who used the threat of termination to force his secretary to sleep with him was in violation of company policy, citing the retreat as “proof,” and therefore argue that the company should not be liable for his behavior.  The fact that he may have exhibited psychopathic traits in his career for years and yet continued to be promoted because he was a rainmaker can be conveniently ignored.  Workplace bullies often get promoted, because companies don’t care enough to demand actual morality; only when it reaches a level where the company may become party to a lawsuit do they take notice.  And that notice will often take the form of instituting some sort of ethics training or sensitivity training for managers—-not in altering hiring and recruitment policies to look for ethical people who can then be given management training.

Similarly, though not as completely hypocritically, hospitals started forming ethics boards to help oversee the allocation of scarce resources (such as organs for transplantation).  In this case there probably was at least some concern to avoid the problems of the recent past, where white males got new livers when women or minorities who were equally or better candidates for transplantation did not.  Having objective and thought-out standards helped ameliorate the worst effects of prejudice regarding who was the most important contributor to society; but it also allows hospitals to argue in court that they were only following policy when they gave the new liver to A rather than B so B’s survivors should not be able to sue.

In short, often the ethicist is called into situations where it is too late to actually make anyone more ethical, and for reasons other than a pure interest in what would actually be ethical.

That seems to be the case in this news story.  These policies are stated, first, as a way for the school to control others.  By having a stated Student Code of Conduct, the college has another club it can use to threaten students:  if you lie to us we have the right to expel you for violating the Code.  Insofar as the college expressed ethical policies regarding its own behavior, they were apparently intended more as a legal shield than as aspirational goals; the evidence for this is that when given the chance to lie where the benefit was great and the chance of legal punishment low, the college lied.    But we really shouldn’t be surprised; in no case were these moral policies actually intended to lead to genuinely moral characters.  They did exactly what they were actually intended to do, and nothing more.

In an earlier age, there were two reasons for moral education:  social harmony and obedience to God.  Most people required only a small amount of moral education, which they received in school.  The goal of this was that everyone should have the same mores and values, and thus a clear idea of what was acceptable to the community and what was not.  I would say that this describes the moral education embedded in our country’s public education system from the earliest days of public education.  Prior to that, moral education (like all other education) primarily came from parents, and was pretty rough-hewn; but as long as everyone understood and followed the same rules it did its job.  Those who weren’t educated by parents were educated by the Church.  This education originated with the monastic schools of the Middle Ages, and even in its Protestant permutations it had the idea that children were to be trained not only to be good community members but also good saints.  Thus, the moral lessons were religiously based.  This could lead to genuine morality where the perception of God was moral; or it could lead to simple obedience to rules.

In these cases, the actual instruction of the people is usually not done by ethical philosophers, but by those who were trained by ethical philosophers. The ethical philosopher or moral theologian determined what is “good” and “evil” using the standards of the religion, with significant influence of communal traditions and personal human judgment as well.  Sometimes these other factors are recognized and admitted.  For example, Paul sometimes distinguishes between when he feels he is writing from his own personal opinion, and when he is writing in the Spirit (example:  1 Cor 7:10-12).  Likewise, Aquinas self-consciously uses both canonical and secular sources, making references to “The Philosopher” (Aristotle) and “The Commentator” (Averroes, a Muslim Aristotelian philosopher).   Too often, though, religious moralists are unaware of how thoroughly they are influenced by cultural and personal forces, and end up presenting everything as the word of God (for example, when Rev. Jerry Falwell and others preached against “the myth of global warming” as if accepting scientific claims were a sin—-claims which, ironically, are now largely accepted by the Southern Baptist Convention http://baptistcreationcare.org/node/1).

In this environment, the professional ethicist has impact primarily by having an impact on the lawyers, judges and clergy who are the interpreters of morality to the rest of the people.  For example, in the Roe v. Wade decision we see that the Court was aware that professional philosophers and theologians had differing opinions of whether or not the fetus is a person; so the judges attempted to sidestep that argument and ruled on other grounds.  In Gregg v. Georgia, both the majority and the dissenters made moral as well as legal/practical arguments, using principles developed by professional, full-time ethicists.  When I teach someone who in turn becomes a religious leader, or a legal or political leader, my philosophizing has some impact.  In a very, very indirect way, the philosophy can work its way into the law and into the sermon and thus into the behavior and values of the community.

But going further back, to the very beginnings of moral philosophy:  what good is ethics?  The first and most primordial ethics did not aim to change society; it arose in a society that already had established norms and laws.  Generally, philosophy becomes most active and visible when the traditional norms are not satisfying to individuals in new circumstances.  In this situation, the individual human asks, “What am I to do with my life?  What is good or valuable, that I should pursue it?  What is evil or bad, that I should avoid it?”  Ethics is first and foremost the attempt to use one’s reason to direct one’s actions, not just towards a particular goal but towards the choosing of goals itself.  We seek to use our brains to decide what is good, to think long-term and globally rather than only seeking immediate personal pleasure.  Because we are social creatures, we are apt to talk about these things with others; and if two people with an inclination to ask questions about value and action should meet, a philosophical circle is born.  Greek ethics was not primarily about pleasing the gods; the gods just wanted their sacrifices and the priests rarely enforced moral codes (taboos and rituals perhaps, but not real morals).  It had more to do with reforming society by training the next generation of leaders.  But primarily, it was about the individual seeking true happiness, true and complete fulfillment.  It was about finding the source of value, what made an object worthy of pursuit or an act worthy of emulation.  The first ethicists engaged in ethics because they were not fully satisfied with their lives, and they wanted lives that were satisfying—-intellectually and rationally satisfying, as well as personally and psychologically satisfying.  I became interested in ethics because I did not think I could be happy just pursuing what society told me was valuable; I wanted to know for myself what I should spend my life on.  Then, when I had some idea, I thought that this activity which was worthwhile to me would be worthwhile to others.  My ultimate hope is to work towards a society where people have chosen the good and the true for themselves.  In that situation, there would be no need for Emory College to have a code of ethics which no one follows; everyone would have a code of ethics and would already know that lying is wrong and injures others as well as the liar.

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