Ethics 101

Hello and welcome to Ethics 101. I’m your professor, Mr. Jarvis. My goal in this class is to have each of you see how ethics are behind so much of what we do, and to look at these ethics with a critical lens. Let me start with an easy example, or is it? Let’s find out. Is murder ok? Hands up if you think so. No hands? Hm, must be shy. I guess it is the first day. Well, let’s do a couple of thought exercises to expand your horizons a little and then we can revisit that one. Just remember, ethics class is a judgment free zone, there are no wrong answers here.

So, picture this: there’s a big buffet for a party. All of the attendees are rich and never have to worry about having enough food to eat. There’s more food than they can eat and they are just going to throw it away. A starving person comes by and takes some of the food that they were going to throw away. Is it ok to eat the person, to teach them a lesson about eating other peoples’ food? I’m seeing a lot of heads shaking. I think there’s some groupthink going on here. 

Maybe we need to go back to a classic: the trolley car dilemma. Some of you may know this one already. There’s a trolley going down a track that is heading for five people. You can divert it down a track that has nobody on it and will safely drop the passengers off at the ice cream shop. What do you do? See, ethics aren’t always that cut and dry.

Is it ethical for an ethics professor to picture their students naked? Not in a sexual way, but more because the professor really can’t stand the clothes that the students are wearing. I’m seeing a lot of folded arms over chests and some of you are leaving, so I’ll take that one as a maybe. I see we’re making some progress here.

Let’s say you forgot your lunch and you are hungry. Is it ok to take your coworker’s kale salad from the department fridge? What if you know they have a desk full of snacks? Ah, question in the back. How do I know what’s in their desk? I don’t know, this is all a thought exercise. I guess you could hypothetically rifle through all of your coworkers’ desks to know these things. Another question from you in the front. Oh, I have kale in my teeth? No, that must be swiss chard, you unethical fool. Yes, it is clearly unethical to not know the difference between bits of leafy greens. 

How about this one: a hypothetical teacher offered to give you an A in his course if you would give him your lunch every day for the rest of the year. Would it be unethical to bring this to the attention of the department chair? YES! Extremely unethical, especially when he’s up for tenure. Snitches get stitches, that’s prison ethics 101, which this course is a prerequisite for. 

After all of these examples, you should be noticing a pattern. Ethics can be tricky. You have your personal values, experiences and perspective to draw on, but even those in your own circles may have different ethics. Imagine those who are very different from you. Picture, if you will, a middle aged man. A little rough around the edges, but a good guy, if you get to know him. Balding, but dignified. A little smelly, but still dignified. Kale in his teeth, but pride in his heart. In the middle of an ugly divorce with the meanest bitch this side of the Mississippi. Yes, I realize that here on Nicollet Island we are in the middle of the Mississippi River. That’s not the point. The point is, picture this guy. If you need a name, you can call him Mr. Darvis. This Darvis guy had a rough go at it. Would it be so bad if he faked all of his credentials to become an ethics professor? What if he wasn’t qualified to do anything else? What if he just ended the class now and promised to give everyone a B+? Would he be such a bad guy then?

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