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!)


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