The Loon is neither philosopher nor trained ethicist. This puts her at some disadvantage when faced with the challenges of imparting a reliable, pragmatic sense of ethics to her students, be they future librarians, future technologists, or just plain old future people. She had to think hard about where her own sense of ethics comes from, in fact. The answer appears to be that the Loon, when she was young and impressionable, was fortunate enough to meet several people who wore their ethics on their sleeves as well as clearly living them. She was drawn to such people—continues to be, truthfully—and patterns her life on theirs both consciously and un-. Of course she does not claim this is the only road to a more ethical life; it just happens to be her own.
As might be imagined, the Loon has been watching the current discourse on ethicking up technology industries and technology education with considerable interest. She agrees that Chief Ethicist positions are a bandaid solution doomed to failure. This is Coordinator Syndrome crossed with innovation shielding. It will end quickly but not well; indeed, it already has at least once. Paradoxically, after a few more Chief Ethicists get burned, the only people willing to take such a position are liable to be the less-than-ethical.
The most substantial challenge the Loon faces in her teaching is that so many of her students, if they have encountered the word “ethics” at all (and many have not!), view the matter as decontextualized unlikely algebraic word problems (the Loon is heartily sick of the trolley problem and would delight in a moratorium on its discussion) with zero relationship to anything they themselves have ever or will ever encounter. Another, much smaller, group treats ethics as an unrestrained exercise in point-scoring debate performance, equally divorced from real-world decisionmaking.
Doubtless credentialed ethicists and philosophers would be aghast at the Loon’s methods, but they do seem to work, so for the little they are no doubt worth:
- Explain that work and life will provide both opportunities and inducement to do wrong, and to refrain from doing right.
- Some people, including people with power over us, will demand wrongdoing of us.
- Some situations will make wrongdoing far easier than its opposite. Courage and strength are required to walk the harder road.
- Doing right can cost us. It is rarely a consequence-free path. If it were, we wouldn’t need to bother with ethics as an intellectual pursuit or pragmatic practice, would we, now?
- Not a few situations involve competing wrongs and rights. Disentangling them to find the best (or least-worst) way to proceed is rarely straightforward.
- Our heuristics-driven brains betray us here. (The Loon flatly refuses to use the wretched trolley problem as her illustration.)
- Explain that one can only do good, never intrinsically be good. (It is frankly shocking how many of the Loon’s students this surprises.)
- Say, clearly and without hedging and as soon as reasonable, “this is wrong” or “this should never have happened” when it is or it shouldn’t. Students respect that, not least because it appears to be unfortunately rare in their educational experience, and they need it. Of course back the statement up with reasoning and evidence, but the Loon has seen too many classes and instructors floundering in the evidence-and-reasoning weeds without ever making an unequivocal statement about wrongness. At its worst, this tendency can lead to the abovementioned point-scoring debates over whether some people even exist. Do not ever let a classroom decay that far!
- Explain that ethics and its professional apparatus (codes, code explications and interpretations, and so on) are meant as a general toolbox to help resolve murky and/or unforeseen situations. They are not a cut-and-dried decision tree, because they can’t be.
- Use recent (ideally local) real-world examples to illustrate the need for ethics generally, and ethical dilemmas particularly. Never, ever use homogenized, regurgitated, decontextualized “case studies.” Make students work through what they could have done in a given participant’s shoes, encouraging lateral thinking, root-cause analysis, and constraint/opportunity analysis over tiresomely performative “well, of course I would have put on my cape and superheroed!” posturing.
The overarching idea is instilling a sense of personal ethical responsibility, and preparing them to act on its nudges. If that foundation is there, the Loon finds that the rest tends to work itself out… but for those who prefer a more decision-treelike approach, the Loon rather likes this comparison of ethics schools, their virtues and flaws, and how to use each of them in decisionmaking.
She hopes she is paying forward the good examples she learned from.