Ethics not just for heroes

Posted on April 23, 2009


jicklingI’m organising a session on professionalism in computing for the upcoming NACCQ conference.    I was talking about this a function at work last night and quickly the conversation turned to ethics in the workplace – how much home photocopying is acceptable? is skimming acceptable if there is demonstrably no harm?  how come the hospital board systems (and auditors) overlooked a $17M fraud in the IT department? and so on.    I went home and re-read Environmental Education, Ethics and Action: A Workbook to Get Started.     Bob Jickling and colleagues have pulled together some really nice examples that are intended for teaching, but also are really good messages for anyone.   They lift ethics above the financial and legal aspects we talked about at work:

People around the world want better relationships between themselves, within communities, between communities, and between nations. And they know that this includes relationships between humans and the more-than-human world, or, for others, between humans and the rest of Creation1. In using the term ‘more-than-human world’ we suggest that exploring new relationships with Earth not only benefits human beings and their needs (although we recognise how important these are), but also the needs and well-being of forests, fields, rivers, animals, creatures in the sea, and the atmosphere.


This book recognises that ethics is about relationships between individual and group interests—human or otherwise—around some idea about the common good. People know that we need to pay more attention to these relationships; there are signs everywhere.

This is my quote of the week :

Exercising our ethical abilities is part of being human. It is an ability that should be built into our lives such that it becomes ‘simply normal behaviour’. Ethics should not be an exotic activity performed by heroes, saints, and experts that reside elsewhere—it is a matter for everyone. It is the stuff of everyday activity.

Maybe the NZCS should read this bit:

For us, ethics is a process of inquiry and critical thinking; it is not about ‘preaching’, ‘indoctrinating’, or ‘inducting’ learners into ‘rules of behaviour’ or ‘codes of conduct’.

The definitions here are more inspiring than the Hippocratic “do no harm” indeed the word “harm” is not to be found in the book (except as the root for harmonious).   Instead there are words like “noble”: 

Louise Profeit-Leblanc who asks ‘What makes us noble?’

Chapters in the workbook include:

Being critical:  looking beneath the surface and investigating unquestioned assumptions.  Uses Eisner’s three curricula (explicit, implicit  and null) as framework.

Self validating reductionism:  what happens when we reduce (eg through language) the potential of people, communities, places or landscapes.  Self fulfilling prophecies. 

Complex questions:   A dilemma describes a difficult judgment between two choices.   But having only two clear choices is seldom the case.  Instead we face quandaries that more often complex, multifaceted, and reflect multiple perspectives:

situations that are perplexing and have no easy answers

Ethics in action:  Encourages us to explore ethics as an everyday activity.

Re-imagining Possibilities:   Beyond being critical, we need to “take it as our task to actually re-imagine social possibilities”.   We are encouraged to ‘think outside the box’ and to creatively re-imagine the future with new possibilities.   They focus on: language, eg water as a “resource” or as “karnangkul” (“living water”);   on social practices (eg considering a goal of permeability rather than barriers in our built and social structures);  and imagery (what would be new metaphors to overcome the self validating reductionism? – eg instead of “Third World”, how about “Majority World”?).