Ethical Quandaries: What To Do? What Not To Do?
For professionals (and, no doubt, many others as well), ethical quandaries arise all the time. For example, as a teacher and adviser of students who have diverse strengths and needs, I have to decide how much time to devote to each of my students. As a researcher, I have to decide how to credit members of a team, each of whom depends on authorship for professional advancement. The key questions with respect to such dilemmas: 1) Is one aware of the issues?; 2) How does one think about them?; and 3) How does one decide on what to do and then act appropriately?
As it happens, recently, over the course of 48 hours, three ethical issues arose in my work life, broadly construed. Perhaps one day I can write about the details but, alas, not at present. (Ethical quandaries typically involve specific people and situations, and it is unethical to write about them—unless you are a skilled writer of fiction.) What I can do is reflect on the way in which I thought about and then handled each challenge. It turns out that the three issues differed on a major dimension: the degree of freedom I had to discuss them with others.
a. In Case 1, the information involved was completely privileged. If I spoke to anyone about the situation, I would risk doing something very destructive, since there was no way to hide the identities of those involved. I ruminated at length about the issue, but the rumination took place entirely in my own mind. What kept the exercise from being completely solipsistic is that I was able to imagine what others might say. I could react to their imaginary comments, anticipate their reactions, and draw comparisons with other similar issues under analogous circumstances.
b. In Case 2, the issue, while sensitive, was one about which I could speak to others. The problem was that only individuals familiar with the personalities involved, and how they have interacted over time, could provide useful suggestions. And so I was actually restricted to a very few people’s input (though, as in Case 1, I could have imaginary dialogues with anyone whose voice, so to speak, I could conjure up).
c. Case 3 was the easiest one to deal with, with respect to advice from others. It did not involve information that was confidential, nor was it highly technical or context-specific. I was able to consult with a wide range of individuals, including those who knew the issues and personalities as well as those to whom I had to explain the situation from scratch. I did end up giving greater weight to the advice from individuals within my professional circle.
It’s been wisely said that the quickest way to a bad decision is to think about it in isolation and not to solicit a range of opinions. Thus, the most important thing not to do when confronted with a quandary is to assume that you have all the answers, or, equally bad, the right answer. Having time to ruminate is also advisable; and sometimes what appeared to be a complex or intractable situation resolves itself or at least becomes clearer. Whenever possible, however, it is prudent to speak to as many persons as practical and to weigh their input carefully. The crucial variable, then, is to whom to speak, and how much knowledge they should ideally have.
I just used the adjective “wise”—and perhaps the situation I’m describing provides some insight into the nature of wisdom. Once, when I faced an ethical dilemma which was highly sensitive, I thought about my acquaintance (let’s call him Solomon) who knew the most about the general issue without knowing any of the players. We had such a useful conversation, and Solomon’s framing and advice were so “on point,” I felt no need to speak to anyone else. Of course, if he had not been available, I might well have sought advice elsewhere or conducted an extensive imaginary conversation with Solomon before making a decision and acting upon it.
Of what does Solomon’s wisdom consist? On one point I am quite clear: he has encountered many comparable situations over the years. And whether or not he remembers the details of each, he remembers the configuration and the possible solutions well enough so that he can arrive readily at apt advice.
In the end, the buck stops with the person faced with the ethical dilemma—in this case, with me. I might or might not make the wisest decision. Contributing to the wisdom are the number and types of conversations that I can have with others, either directly or in my imagination, and how I weigh and synthesize what I’ve heard and learned.
Whatever decision is made, I should add it to my file of vexing cases; refer to it when possible; be pleased, though not smug, when the decision turns out to have been well-advised. And in the frequent cases where the decision was less than desirable, I should figure out what can be learned from this failure and how to do better the next time Fate hands me a vexing ethical dilemma.