Ethics! (part 2)

Last week in class we discussed our readings on ethics, as well as going over the form and planning of a one-shot workshop in preparation for our workshops tomorrow. For the moment, I want to stay with this discussion of ethics.

In my last blog post, I brought up reasons for and “against” professional codes of ethics, such as the ALA Code of Ethics. I want to give another important reason for each.

First, the positive: in my discussions of this topic, I keep using the phrase “professional codes of ethics” without even realizing how this is pointing to one of the most important reasons to have a code such as this: it brings us together as, and legitimizes our discussions as, a profession. What is the difference between a profession and a job? There are, of course, a number of ways we could approach this issue, but I think an important difference is that a profession is something that you feel engaged and invested in enough to feel the need to make ethical decisions on a daily basis. Having a “professional code of ethics” is one way to acknowledge this engagement, and to get other professions (and our patrons) to see us a “legitimate profession.”

I also want to discuss a reason we shouldn’t have statements like the ALA Code of Ethics. Again, let’s go back to Simone de Beauvoir and The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948). In the conclusion to the work, de Beauvoir is discussing whether or not an “existential” ethics could be considered “individualistic.” She says, “Yes, if one means by that that it accords to the individual alone an absolute value and recognizes in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence.”(p. 156). In other words, an individualistic ethics need not simply be an ethics that accords the most importance to the individual, or lets the individual’s whims run free. An individualistic ethics can be any that have the individual as their basis.

While it may be important to have professional codes of ethics for all the reasons I’ve given in this post and last, isn’t it more important to make sure that we are getting new professionals ready through their professional education for the kinds of ethical decisions they will need to make in their future jobs? I know I argued last blog post for some more education in ethics for LIS students and others, but I want to seriously reiterate the point here. After a week of many discussion of ethics in classes, with colleagues, and on si.all.open (what serendipity!), I have come to the conclusion that the lip service we pay to ethical thought in some of our classes and in our lives is coming up short. I’ve seen future professionals with little to no ethical reasoning abilities, or the ability to only make ethical judgments using one sort of ethical framework (utilitarianism is popular). Yet, at the same time, there was apparently a great turnout for the MIX Forum on the topic “Is this app racist?” and there are significant email threads every time an ethical issues comes up on si.all.open. Clearly there is a hunger for the kind of ethical discussions that we are missing in some of our classes and jobs – it seems to me to be an ethical issue, how we are going to handle this. In jobs, it seems clear that is important to bring up questions of ethics in meetings, discussions, or on listservs (depending on the appropriateness of the question for the venue). In classes, it seems appropriate to ask a professor to include more ethical discussions in class, and, if this fails, attempt to bring up ethical issues whenever you can work them properly into the class discussion. Ethical issues pervade every sort of issue that can come in class or on the job, so it should not be too hard to make these moments as teachable as possible.

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About rclement643

I am currently a graduate student at University of Michigan's School of Information. This blog is being kept as a place for reflections on the readings for the class
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6 Responses to Ethics! (part 2)

  1. Kristin says:

    Hmmm … I read your post with interest, because things sometimes look different on the other side of the podium. Sometimes, ethics is considered as less-interesting by students who hunger for practicality over abstractions. Maybe the tides are turning?

    • rclement643 says:

      In response to your points, Kristin (as well as Ashley’s point in the comment below this), I don’t know necessarily that the “tides are turning.” I think my enthusiasm for the study and discussion of ethics is a bit of an anomaly, and is, in part, grounded in my background in philosophy and religious studies. An interesting point I remember discussing before is that ethics are often unpopular because of people’s self-evaluation bias. Very few people think learning about ethics is important to their personal or professional lives because they “aren’t going to become unethical.” After all, our image of an “unethical” person is closer to a sleazy lawyer or used-car salesman than to anything that resembles our own personalities. Also, ethics education is often avoided, I think, because of how uncomfortable thinking through such situations can make people. This last point brings me back to one of the reasons I think a “code of ethics” can hurt a profession – because truly tricky ethical decisions can bring up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings and cognitive dissonance, people often just fall back on “well, I’m following the code” rather than making an effective ethical decision as an individual. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a code of ethics, just that we need to think about what it means for the ethical education of members of our profession.

  2. Ashley Clark says:

    I agree that it is a little difficult to discuss ethics in one class session, or even part of a class session, but I also agree with Kristin, I know I wouldn’t give up practical classes for a class that discusses only ethics simply because we don’t have enough time at SI to take all the classes that look interesting. I know that this week really made me think about how I feel about the code of ethics but honestly I haven’t really run into the code in any of my jobs, it simply isn’t discussed or brought up that often. I wonder why they don’t make us read the code of ethics in our trainings.

    • rclement643 says:

      Ashley – (first, see my reply to Kristin’s post above for some other points) – you say that you wouldn’t give up “practical classes for a class that discusses only ethics.” What about a class on “practical ethics”? Peter Singer’s classic book is titled just that! (http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Ethics-Peter-Singer/dp/052143971X)

      While I don’t agree with all of Singer’s viewpoints, and haven’t read the book cover-to-cover, it is a very readable, and well-argued work on ethics in everyday life. I think one of the reasons ethics is often thought of in opposition to “practical skills” or classes is that, as I was saying above, people often don’t think they have problems with making ethical decisions. For instance, I *know* that I don’t how to use Perl for data manipulation, so of course I’d like to take a class on this. But I’m not an unethical sleazeball, so why would I need to take a class on ethics? I know what’s right and wrong, right? The problem, as I see it, is that I can teach myself practical skills, such as programming languages or how to make a screencast, with only limited input from others to help correct me when I get off the path. However, I think the *only* good way to learn about ethics, and ethical frameworks, and making ethical decisions, is to discuss the issues with others.

  3. Kelly says:

    “Clearly there is a hunger for the kind of ethical discussions that we are missing in some of our classes and jobs – it seems to me to be an ethical issue, how we are going to handle this.”

    Totally agree. I’ve been really energized by the discussions these past few weeks surrounding ethical considerations, though I love talking about this stuff anyway! And even beyond talking about ethics, the benefit for me is just a mental exercise in constantly reviewing and adapting my ideas and values about our work as professionals, and how it informs my personal behavior, as well. The Buddhist concept applicable here is that of Right Livelihood, and it’s one I think about a lot — because the tricky part is to find the “right” (read: humane, ethical) action in difficult and complex circumstances.

    I’ve enjoyed your thoughtful posts on this topic!

    • ryabbc says:

      Kelly, I had copied the *exact* same passage to respond to… only to scroll down and see that sentence struck a chord with you as well!

      I think that the listserv discussions that Ryan highlights certainly point to an overall interest to discuss ethics (esp. when riffing off practical examples). Whether it’s a “homeless hotspot” or an app that might be racist, these topics get people talking, even if a class entitled “ethics” might strike some people as a snooze.

      Although reading about ethics in the abstract can leave me feeling kind of unsure and a little frustrated, I think talking about specific ethical concerns in classes and small groups, and just watching discussions unfold over email is really interesting and helpful for me.

      Ryan, you mention that we think of a sleazy used car salesman as the example of someone who isn’t ethical — and since we don’t often (like to?) see ourselves that way, it’s easy to shrug and say — well, that’s not me, I don’t need to talk about this. But if we look at Milgram or the Stanford Prison Experiment (yes, I know these are a bit dramatic, but I’m trying to use them to make a larger point), then we see that even people who perceive themselves as “good” can certainly be influenced into not-so-great behavior.

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