By Logan Watts, PhD
My colleagues and I have been working on putting together a book proposal on the topic of ethics training in organizations. Yesterday I received some helpful feedback on the outline that made me question the way I have been thinking about ethical dilemmas.
I use the term ethical dilemma all the time in my work. For example, learning about real-life examples of ethical dilemmas and responding to hypothetical ethical dilemmas (e.g., case studies) are both frequent delivery methods used in ethics training. In fact, the goal of ethics training is to help trainees be better prepared for future dilemmas.
Traditionally, ethical dilemmas have been described as gray, high-stakes situations in which there is no single, clear-cut, “right” answer. This is the definition I have relied upon for years in my research and practice. But if this is our definition, then the number of ethical dilemmas people experience in their lives must be fairly small.
In thinking back over the last five or so years, I can only recall three personal events that stand out as gray, high-stakes ethical dilemmas. For example, in starting an ethics consulting company, my colleagues and I spent months thinking about how to manage potential conflicts of interest that might emerge given our dual roles as consultants and professors. We knew the dilemma was serious, because if managed poorly, conflicts of interest can compromise the integrity of researchers and their work. Worst of all, conflicts of interest in research can lead to the dissemination of biased findings that influence people’s health and well-being (e.g., Andrew Wakefield’s fabricated data on vaccines and autism). We addressed this dilemma by soliciting feedback from several trusted colleagues and putting together a document that outlined our personal strategy for managing potential conflict of interest.
Serious ethical dilemmas require lots of time and resources to navigate. However, they are few and far between. This got me thinking about the hundreds of smaller, more black and white ethical issues that I make decisions about routinely.
Every time I grade student papers and put effort into making unbiased evaluations of their work, I am engaging in ethical decision making. Every time I go out of my way to make sure a customer is getting a better experience than they expected, I am engaging in ethical decision making. And every time I work to promote greater transparency in my research, I am engaging in ethical decision making.
In sum, we as ethics trainers may be doing our trainees a disservice by only preparing them for gray dilemmas. Black and white dilemmas are common and should also be a focus of trainings. And what we teach in training must align with reality if we expect the learning to influence behavior on the job.
The Ethics Advantage Team