This week our class readings were on the ethics of librarianship. We took a look at the ALA Code of Ethics as well as “Dangerous Questions,” by Mark Lenker (2008). Coming from a background in philosophy, with a focus on ethics and aesthetics, this is one of my favorite topics. I tend, however, to be more interested in what people say and how they say it, on these topics, than in actually trying to make ethical arguments myself. “Life in itself is neither good nor evil. It is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it,” said Montaigne (the man who brought us the essay and Skepticism). In this vein, I’m fascinated to see what others have to say on the subject of their personal or theoretical ethics, as well as observing what they actually do in the day-to-day practice of their ethics. In the everyday world, where thinking and biology and self and others come into conflict time and time again, it is telling to see what peoples’ actions are when compared to their stated ethics.
In her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir makes the observation that the more people master the world, “the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces” (p. 9, 1948). She gives the example of the atomic bomb – though it represents a more thorough mastery and control over the physical world, it opens man up a whole host of new, unheard of issues related to the actual forces such knowledge entails. I think this an important point to keep in mind as we enter deeper and deeper into the “Information Age” – the more we teach people to find and master the information available in the world, the more we will have to address problems of “dangerous questions” and “dangerous information.” Harkening back to the Montaigne quote above, it is clear that information itself is neither good nor bad, it is simply what we make of it that determines our ethics.
With the above in mind, I’m led to quandary. Clearly, if ethics is a place of extremely personal (yet very global) decisions, it is a place of “character” – it’s not something that can be strictly prescribed. The decisions that must be made when weighing ethical considerations are decisions we make multiple times everyday. While we would like to have an easy formula or set of rules for making these decisions, this is not actually helpful in seeking to create ethical individuals, as Lenker points out quite well in his choice to use virtue ethics over other more formulaic ethical models (2008). At the same time, I value statements like the ALA Code of Ethics, if only for the fact that, in our fragmented (as well as legalistic) world, these professional codes of ethics provide a framework (as stated in the ALA Code itself) for those without the proper ethical training to make such decisions without a framework. They also (this gets back to the “legalistic” issue) provide a framework of defense for those who would challenge a professional in the pursuit of her ethical duties. A statement of ethics, even it is only as brief as “we value integrity” can provide the security individuals need to feel in order to make ethical decisions on their own. So the ALA Code provides both the framework for those who may not be able to make their own decisions, as well as the defense/security net for those who do want to make ethical decisions, but may feel insecure in our current legal/social system.
Finally, though, I think an ethical education is the most important thing we can do to create ethical professionals. So many professions (I’m thinking particularly of the sciences and computer sciences here) involve ethical decisions on a daily basis, and yet provide very little ethical training (and sometimes even no statement of ethics) for their members! Even library science, with the long history of its code of ethics, and medicine with its even longer history, provide very little any more in the way of training in ethics for its future members. While it may seem like a daunting task to teach ethics, it is actually sometimes only a matter of presenting case studies and letting groups of diverse viewpoints ferret out the ethical dilemmas, as Lenker (2008) points out. Sometimes just the awareness (and the awareness of different viewpoints) is all it takes to get people thinking about their personal ethics.