Ethics at the Right Angle

Joan Elise Dubinsky, Fellow, Rutland Institute of Ethics
Clemson University, August 2019

You might be wondering why conversations about ethics surround us. You can’t open a newspaper or listen to a newscast—regardless of the source, channel or publisher—without hearing about ethics. Is this a sign of our times? Are we merely reflecting the human nature? 

The impact of news about ethics is much more simple. We start to ask discerning questions about the nature of ethics, and how we use ethics to guide our decision-making. We drill down into one topic or another, to figure out what we think about that topic and, more importantly, what we should do about it. 

Think about some of the tough issues that students encounter, like dealing with a bully, questioning the fairness of a school’s admission process, or taking advantage of a loophole or two to get ahead in school without quite doing all the work first.  These can be tough ethical challenges. Not everyone feels that they are up to these kinds of decisions. 

Sometimes to really understand a tough set of ethical challenges, we have to walk away from the immediate question in order to see the problem from a distance. Not all problems can be resolved the first time we think about them. Immediacy itself can prevent us from seeing all of the nuances and attributes that matter. 

How can we get some distance? This is when a new habit is called for. I call it “looking at a problem from the right angle.”  Rather than tackle an ethical challenge directly, I think about it differently. I might set aside linear thinking, or insisting upon strict definitions. I might search for an analogy. I might abandon ethical analysis, initially, and focus on another aspect of the problem that is staring at me. 

Let’s say that you are looking at a perfectly round circle. If you turn the page or screen by 90 degrees, that perfect circle still looks like a perfect circle. Now, look at an arrow. Notice where it starts and where the arrow’s tip is. If you turn that drawing by 90 degrees, notice just how much will change. Your eye may be drawn away from the arrow tip, and instead you look at the size of the arrow, the colors you used to draw your arrow, or even the white space around the arrow. 

OK, you might say. Nice idea, if we are talking about arrows or sign painting. How does this work when we have a truly tough problem to consider? Show me how to use this technique when I think about the recent controversy over admissions policies at universities. 

Since early spring 2019, several leading and highly selective universities have encountered significant ethical challenges to their admissions policies and systems. (And we will leave for another day a conversation about the criminal actions of those who engaged in this conspiracy.) Certain students gained coveted positions in an entering class—not based on their academic achievements, their life stories, or their aptitude. These students opened university acceptance letters because their parents bought a place in the freshmen class for their child, gave a substantial gift to an administrator or sports coach, or bribed a testing official to change their child’s test scores. 

Automatically we say, “this isn’t right.” Admissions processes should be fair and orderly, so that everyone who qualifies gets a solid and equal chance to be considered. We quickly conclude that buying a place for a child at a university just cannot be supported. We find fault with these universities for not detecting these abuses earlier.

Instead, let’s start by looking at this ethical scandal from the right angle. What other questions might we ask? I begin with the impact on the student. If you found out that your parents had bribed a school official to alter your grades to guarantee a place at Clemson University for you, how would you feel about your own college career? Would you question whether you belonged at this school?  Would you feel like an imposter? Would you wonder if you could trust your parents? Would you start to question the value of a university education? Would you worry about how your peers might regard you? Would you think that your professors would treat you differently, if they knew? Would you work harder? Would you even stay in school? 

When we ask these questions, we think deeply about the impact of the decisions made by others on a very key stakeholder. When it comes to university admissions, the actions of parents, athletic coaches, school counselors, and university administrators are combined. All four groups have a stake in how these decisions are made. However, the impact of those decisions falls predominantly on only one stakeholder—and that is the student. 

If we look at this problem from the right angle, we gain a perspective that we would not necessarily see. If we first tackled this problem directly, we would focus on the criminal actions of certain parents, sports coaches, admissions personnel, and testing officials. We might have conversations about the obligations of parents towards their children. We might have explored the respect that children have for their parents or the duty of parents to play by the rules. We might have thought about the role of role models.  We might have asked whether the unethical behavior of these parents could ever be justified. We might also have asked what factors induced so many individuals to engage in criminal actions. 

However, the one sure way for compassion and caring to enter our ethical analysis is to look at the problem from the right angle. Here, we see how the unethical choices of several participants in a complex process result in unanticipated ethical dilemmas for the beneficiaries of that process. Ultimately, it is the students who are harmed by these decisions. When we use the right angle technique, we permit empathy to enter into our analysis and invite compassion to flavor our resolution. 

What would have happened if the decision makers had first asked about the possible impact on students?  Would this scandal have happened in the first place? 

What do you think? I’m eager to hear your views.