Archive | July, 2008

Ethical stories

21 Jul

(Update: 2011 Aug — This was originally published one of my older blogs. I found that I had to frequently refer back to the ethical stories for activity purposes. Seeing as it’s such a good resource for me, I’d like to share this here for the benefit of all who are interested.)

From Asia-Pacific Conference on Giftedness – topic: Leadership II Ethical leadership

Grades 10~12 had a workshop on ethical leadership. It was hosted by this cool Indian dude called Aaron Maniam. Mr. Maniam made you feel really comfortable as an audience and he had this really good manner of facilitating and pacing the conversation reasonably. I wish we could have him to teach in Taiwan.

Aaron Maniam at Asia Pacific Conference for Giftedness

great speaker

Mr. Maniam introduced us to four major traditions concerning ethics, ordered randomly and not according to preference. They are:

1. Utilitarianism (Consequentialism) – Utilitarian ethics stresses the utility of ethics. Something is right as long as it makes the most people happy. It’s part of a broader movement known as Consequentialism, which is right or wrong based on the consequences an action produces. Question raised: What is happiness? And what defines the majority?

2. Kant’s “Golden Rule” (Kant’s Categorical Imperative) – This goes by the belief that some actions are instrinsically right or wrong. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A categorical imperative is absolute and unconditional – it can be applied under all circumstances. Kant’s Golden Rule basically tells you to act only in ways that can be called universal laws. Ex: Don’t kill, don’t lie, be honest, innocent men should not be found guilty…etc.Question raised: Should we never kill or lie? Should innocent men never be found guilty? Shouldn’t we consider the circumstances? Ex: Don’t kill [Except in self defense (when there is no alternative)]

3. Aristotle’s “Virtue Ethics” – this puts an emphasis on character rather than consequences or rules. Things that are done by a good person is right. Act like a good person if you want to be good. Question raised: What is a good person? Isn’t this circular reasoning?

4. Rights-Based Approach – Don’t contravene the rights of others. In this approach we quote Richard Dworkin, who views rights as “trumps” – rights supercede all other considerations. So rights based ethics basically means something is right as long as it doesn’t intrude on the rights of other. Ex: Rights to life, liberty and the persuit of happiness. Question raised: What others? Number of others? How to define these rights if the other person doesn’t feel encroached upon?

Mr. Maniam also goes into the issue of leadership and polarity. He quotes from his favorite author Peter Koestenbaum of the Koestenbaum Institute:

I believe that the central leadership attribute is the ability to manage polarity. In every aspect of life, polarities are inevitable: We want to live, yet we must die. How can I devote myself fully to both family and career? Am I a boss or a friend? A lover or a judge? How do I reconcile my own needs with those of my team? Those paraoxes are simply part of life. Every business interaction is a form of confrontation – a clash of priorities, a struggle of dignities, a battle of beliefs. That’s not an invitation to wage an epic battle of good versus evil or right versus wrong… My point is, you have to be careful not to bang your head against the wrong door. Polarities are in the nature of things. How we act, how we respond to those polarities – that is where we separate greatness from mediocrity.

Mr. Maniam says that we have to make a choice, and “…tough choices are a daily requirement of leadership…The presence of guilt is not a result of making the wrong choice but of choosing itself. And that is the human condition: You are a being that chooses.”

We were given cases to discuss.

1. The Judge and the Town of Nowhere

You are a judge of the town of Nowhere. A man is accused of a heinious crime and there is a crowd outside the court demanding his death. Now due to a complicated set of evidence you know that the man is innocent, but the townspeople won’t understand this. The town faces unrest if you do not do their will. Should you have the man executed to appease the crowd?

Concepts: Utility or Categorical Imperative? Right to fair trial v.s. right to stability?

2. The Altruistic Gene

An altruistic gene has been invented (however impossible this may seem, this is just a theoretical question) and tested on volunteer adults it immediately transforms them into generous, giving individuals. You are the head of a hospital and someone suggests that you inject all the babies in the nursery with the altruistic gene. Do you do it?

Concepts: Good consenquences v.s. choice? Can we be forced to be/do good?

3. The Drowning Child

Captain John Tang is captain of a swim team. He’s broken his leg moutain climbing and is in a wheelchair. Due to this injury he cannot swim. While he is with two of his team members they see a child who is drowning in a shallow pool. Captain John Tang cannot go rescue them himself, so he tells his team members to do so. They refuse because they have a big match coming up and do not want to risk injury. Should Captain John Tang force them to rescue the child through threat of being kicked off the team? If he does, the team members might resent him.

Concepts: Can we choose whether or not to save a life? Small costs v.s. great benefits?

4. The Politician and the Starving family

You are a politician representing a constituency of mostly well-off middle class people, with a small minority of families whose total wages are below the poverty line.

A poor family comes to your office one day asking for help. The father, previously sole breadwinner, has had both legs amputated. He has no insurance and will probably be unable to work in the future. His wife is attempting to make ends meet by performing odd jobs. Her educational qualifications are too low for more stable employment. Their three children are unable to go to school because they cannot afford books or spending money.

You know that the Ministry of Education will pay for the children’s education, once you write to them explaining the situtation. However, this does not solve the family’s immediate problems: lack of food and money to pay their electricity/water bills, and the possibility of being evicted from their rented home. Your government’s rules state that the poor families should be encouraged to find employment so that they can move out of the poverty trap. You or any of your party volunteers cannot make private donations, as this could make the family dependent on “handouts” and could cause a precedent where other families subsequently make similar requests. However, you also know that in this particular case, there is almost no chance of either parent finding employment that will allow them to take care of their children. a small donation would go a long way to helping the family. The “precedent” problem seems insubstantial since your constituency only has a minority of low income earners.

What do you do? What considerations should guide your decision?

(Update 2011 Aug– I have been intermittently trying to seek other ethical stories suitable for discussion on the internet since this workshop but have failed to do so. Aside from Michael Sandel’s Justice series I have yet to find a larger reservoir of stories with which to use. If anyone is aware of such resources please do share! Would be very grateful!)


10th APCG leadership

20 Jul

Asia-Pacific Conference on Giftedness — Topic: Leadership

I live under the assumption that everyone is rational.

The APCG youth summit this year was about leadership. Dr. Ng Eng Hen, the Singapore Minister of Education, gave the opening speech. I found the whole speech on the internet, how awesome is that?

On closer inspection, that version seems intended for the adult APCG. I’ll just give what I’d jotted down in my notes:

Dr. Ng Eng Hen repeatedly stressed three factors of leadership coupled with three goals –

1. Likeability – beyond studies

2. Availability – beyond self

3. Adaptability – beyond (insert name of your own country)

He also went on to explain these traits. Unfortunately I didn’t jot them all down. But his speech was bereft of the usual bureaucratic wheezliness that I’ve had to get used to and full of practical ideas that made me believe he actually had a clear vision for Singapore. I’d vote for him simply because he didn’t make us suffer during the speech.

Then we had Professor Robert J. Sternberg from Tufts University give us a speech about leadership. He made us laugh occasionally. I didn’t have a lot in my notes so I’ll just give you what I have:

1.  He gave us examples of two kinds of leadership – strong leadership and weak leadership. Nelson Mandela is an example of strong leadership, while Robert Mugabe is an example of weak leadership.

Nelson Mandela Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe

Nelson Mandela of South Africa v.s. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe

By the way, Mr. Mandela just had his 90th birthday on the 18th of July. Happy birthday, Mr. Mandela!

What characterizes bad leadership? Prof. Sternberg said that bad leadership often lives under certain beliefs that distances one from the people:

a. The omnipotent fallacy – you believe you can do anything.

b. The invulnerability fallacy – you believe you are impervious to harm

c. The ethical-disengagement fallacy – you believe you are not bound by normal standards of ethics

d. The omniscience fallacy – you believe you know everything


2.  Leadership is about making decisions – balancing polarity. (This made me think of Levi Eshkol, Prime minister of Israel from 1963 to his death in 1969. He was known for his ability to balance polarities within the cabinet and make sound decisions)


Poor guy, he looks all wrinkly. Painting doesn’t do him justice.

3.  Leadership is a decision. Prof. Sternberg gave an example of his own candidacy for president of the American Psychological Association. He said at first he pretended to run and did everything that candidates are expected to do, it was only later on did he realize that he had become the person he was pretending to be, and ran in earnest because he had a vision for the association.

This was also a process I experienced in the play we did there representing Taiwan. At first I just wanted to write the script since me singlehandedly writing the script on the plane to Singapore was the most efficient way I could think of to have our entire program move forward as quickly as possible. Then I fell in love with the script because I had this vision in my mind of how the characters would act. I didn’t want to say straight out that I wanted to play the leading female in the play, however, because there were many girls in the Taiwan group who wanted to act too and it didn’t seem fair to just take the role like that.

To make a long story short: I did eventually get to play the leading role. And though someone else volunteered to be the director, I was doing a great deal of the directing as well. It is only now that I realized how I went from wanting only to be a passive contributor to an active contributor and even a leadership position. This had to do with a growing anxiety to make the play as much a success as it possibly could be, to fulfill the vision I had of the play, and to showcase Taiwan well. So even though I couldn’t initially understand why Prof. Sternberg said that leadership is a decision contrary to popular belief that there are ‘born leaders’, I can now comprehend why he came to this idea.

4.  Ethical decisions can actually be good for leadership in the long run.

Here Prof. Sternberg gave the example of Merck.

Mectizan – Roy Vagelos

  In the 1980s Merck’s CEO C. Roy Vagelos was presented with a dilemma – they’d created a drug called Mectizan, which could help cure River Blindness, a debilitating disease that caused blindness in Africans regardless of age or gender and was crippling to society. However, they were unable to make a profit off the target population of this drug because neither the people nor the government of the patients could afford it. Mr. Vagelos was faced with the tough decision of letting the drug go because it wouldn’t be profitable to manufacture it. Instead, he decided to manufacture the drug and give it out for free. Though they lost millions in research and production, Merck gained publicity that could not have been bought for the same amount of money and stocks went up!

More here about Merck’s Mectizan project:

Vioxx – Ray Gilmartin

  Then there’s this other anti-example from Merck. In the year 1999 Vioxx came on the market. Vioxx was an extremely potent anti-inflammatory drug useful against arthritis. Unfortunately, studies by Merck showed that it could also increase risk of heart attack. The then CEO, Ray Gilmartin, was faced with the decision of letting the drug go (and millions of research dollars to boot) or putting it on the market. He decided to go ahead and put the product on the market. This had devastating results and by the year 2004 Merck was faced with lawsuits and had to pay large settlements. This was, of course, a hard blow to the industry.

I believe that ethical leadership in this age is a wiser choice because communication has become so much easier and government actions so much more transparent. You cannot easily silence or deceive the population. Machiavelli will probably have to revise his book.

5. Believe in your own capabilities.

Prof. Sternberg used his own example. For years he had believed that he was very bad with roads and would always have his wife read the map for him. One time he went had to go to a conference somewhere without his wife. The route from his abode to the conference was very complicated and passed through a very bad neighborhood. Prof. Sternberg was scared that he wouldn’t be able to remember the way back at night. On the way to the conference he tried very hard to remember the route. When it was time to get back he was nervous that he couldn’t find the way – but he did. So he said maybe he had been telling himself that he was bad with roads, but he wasn’t. (I wonder if it also had something to do with sharpened memory due to nervousness.)

Sometimes we set limits for ourselves, and believe we couldn’t achieve something – that actually impedes our capabilities. So we should believe in ourselves and not have preconceived notions of what we aren’t capable of.


7 Jul

Imagine a set of stairs leading to heaven. Have you got that in you mind already? A set of stairs that leads to heaven. Hold that image in your mind. Now think about it, what does it look like? Don’t scroll down just yet, think about it.






















I would bet that your stairs are narrow and either go up at more than a sixty degree angle, or spiral upwards. The steps are not wide – at most as wide as a man’s foot, and two people across. It might be made of transparent material, something that makes it appear ethereal and impossible…

Now why is that? Why would the first image that comes to our minds be steps that are narrow instead of wide? Going up at sharp angles instead of in gradual inclines? Because our minds are economical machines – we naturally calculate what is most efficient. What would be most efficient are stairs that do not take up too much air space over earth and do not use too much material. Uncomfortable climbing, yes, but who said the path to heaven is easy?