Ethics in the Real World

Jane Fried
Chair of the Ethics Committee, Associate Professor
Central Connecticut State University

The most widely discussed approach to ethics in student affairs is based on the notion that ethical principles can be used to analyze all ethical dilemmas and determine the most appropriate response to ethical dilemmas (Kitchener, 1985). This approach assumes that principles exist objectively, beyond the changing physical and cultural conditions of human life, and that they are stable and unchanging regardless of circumstances. Recent developments in cognitive science and philosophy have revealed that the model of thinking and acting which shapes the principled approach is both incomplete and inadequate to ethical living in a physical, temporal and multicultural world (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). The principled approach was developed in the context of Cartesian philosophy in which the mind and the body were presumed to be separate entities. The mind was considered a nonphysical entity whose sole purpose was to think. In this model, breakfast foods and other physical conditions presumably had no influence on thinking. We now know that this is not accurate. If it were, there would be no need for school breakfast and lunch programs because hunger would not affect thinking.

In the past 25 years, cognitive scientists, using new forms of inquiry ranging from brain scans to language analysis, have determined that thinking is far more complex than Descartes realized and that the brain operates by using embodied metaphors rather than logic (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). In other words, we don’t think the way we think we think. We think in metaphors and all metaphors are based on our experience as human beings who live in physical environments that involve all kinds of relationships. Our images of the ways in which those relationships work shapes the way we think about ethics. Principles do not give us enough guidance in the ethical domain. We also need to think about virtuous behavior and the community context in which the behavior occurs.

Aristotle was the first to discuss the connections between ethics, relationships and community. He wrote that developing virtue or habits of ethical behavior in relationships is the best way for an individual to realize his (sic) full potential and help others to do the same. “Aristotle’s ethics is thus about nurturance, the nurturance necessary to help a person become a well–balanced, temperate, fully actualized human being” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p.322). Ethics, relationships and community are interwoven and dependent on context – the conditions which exist in the community. Discussions of personal, ethical virtues diminished when principles became the major focus of ethical discourse. Principles, which are formal and unchanging, reflect Kant’s idea of thought as pure and disembodied (Johnson1993). Principle–oriented thinking has shaped Western ideas about ethics for more than two centuries. More recently, discussions of virtue have reappeared in the philosophy of the embodied mind and in the ethical discourse of the helping professions (Meara, Day & Schmidt, 1996). Feminist, relational ethics (Gilligan, 1988) as well as Buddhist ethics (Saddhatissa, 2003) also emphasize the role of virtue and the cultivation of habits of compassion. Developing the virtue of compassionate relationships humanizes and pragmatizes the use of principles which are far less flexible than the virtuous habits of thinking and behaving that are required to apply them to actual situations. The recent review of the ACPA statement of ethics was initiated because of our increased awareness of the Eurocentric bias in principle focused ethics as well as changes in the wider ethical discourse. These changes support a more complex, three dimensional, embodied approach to ethics (Fried, 2003; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Because humans think metaphorically and live in an embodied world, ethical thinking must take into account a wide range of variables that characterize our physical and socio–cultural worlds. These variables include time (temporality), personal perspective (phenomenology), cultural values and norms, beliefs about legitimate sources of knowledge and assumptions about the range of choice that we have (or don’t have) when we make decisions (Fried, 2003). It is difficult to sustain the complex thought that this new approach to ethical thinking requires. The following example is an illustration:

As a senior in college, a student supervised the crew that set up equipment for programs in the student center. One such program was a career fair. When the student applied to a graduate program in student affairs, he described himself as being in charge of this career fair. In a reference call, the graduate faculty member asked the professional student center supervisor to evaluate the applicant’s role in the fair. The supervisor explained that the applicant’s role was to set up furniture and supervise a student work crew. He had nothing to do with inviting employers, setting up interview schedules or any of the programmatic elements of the fair. How should the faculty member think about the ethics of using the applicant’s description of his involvement in the career fair as part of his portfolio for admission?

Using the three dimensional model of ethical decision making, the professor considered the following issues: Principles: 1) Doing good/ not doing harm – Was anyone harmed or did anyone benefit from his representation of his work? 2) Fairness – Was his description of his role a fair representation of his actual contribution? If he were admitted on the basis of his perception, would that be fair to another applicant who might not then be admitted? 3) Veracity(Fried, 2003). Was his description of his role corroborated by his supervisor? Did he tell the truth as others might understand the truth? Virtues: 1) Prudence, respect and beneficence – The faculty member wanted to treat the student with respect, give him the benefit of the doubt and keep his best interests in mind. Might the applicant benefit from a conversation with the faculty member about his perception and description of his role? 2) Integrity– The faculty member had to maintain consistent standards in order to be fair to all applicants. Would failure to address the inconsistency in the two descriptions be considered an approach that demonstrated integrity? Context: 1)Phenomenology – What was this applicant’s sincere point of view? Did he really believe that he organized the fair? 2) Temporality: How quickly did the admission decision have to be made? Was there enough time for a conference with the applicant to clarify the issue and the conflicting perspectives about his role? Based on consideration of all these elements, what would be an ethical response to this student’s graduate school application?

Think about an ethical dilemma you have recently faced lately as a student affairs professional or graduate student. Consider the principles that we generally use to make ethical decisions. Now think about your own thought process (metacognition) and look for the reasoning used as you apply those principles to your dilemma. You will probably find that you use an embodied, metaphoric approach. You imagine what the persons involved in your dilemma probably felt. You wonder how you would think and feel and how you would want to be treated in the same situation. If you have a relationship with the persons involved, you consider the impact of any decision you might make on the long term relationship. If the other people come from a different culture, are of a different gender or sexual orientation or a different economic class, you are probably stretching your imagination to put yourself into their place. You are using a three dimensional model to make ethical decisions, but you are probably conscious of only the first dimension since that is the one most often used in Western civilization.

The forthcoming revision of the ACPA code of ethics is based on the approach described above. Because this approach requires a greater awareness of the complexity of our own thought processes in ethical decision–making, using the revised code will probably provoke some complicated discussion in classrooms and staff meetings. That is as it should be. Ethics and ethical decision–making are rarely simple. When we are faced with a choice between a good alternative and a bad alternative, making the choice is simple. Difficult ethical decisions arise when we are faced with a choice of two good alternatives and don’t immediately recognized which one represents the greater good. All professions adopt ethical codes and most have procedures for ethics education and resolution of ethical conflicts. ACPA is fortunate to have had an excellent code and accompanying enforcement procedures since 1993. The forthcoming revision also addresses current campus realities by including descriptions of standards for management of electronic records and acknowledging cultural complexities. This is a code which all ACPA members are expected to use for guidance in addressing ethical dilemmas. I believe that we can all be proud of this document. I would like to thank the committee that revised the code, Dr. Julie Bell Elkins for serving as liaison to the Executive Council and the Executive Council for working together to create a code that can support our profession in facing the incredible complexity of the 21st century on our campuses.


  • Fried, J. (2003). Ethical standards and principles. In S. Komives and D. Woodard. Student services: A handbook for the profession. (4th ed.) (pp. 107– 127), San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Gilligan, C. (1988). Remapping the moral domain: New images of self in relationship. In C. Gilligan, J. Ward & J. Taylor (Eds.) Mapping the moral domain. (3–20) Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kitchener, K. (1985). Ethical Principles and Ethical Decisions in Student Affairs. In H. Canon and R. Brown. (Eds.) Applied Ethics in Student Services. New Directions for Student Services. #30. (17–30) San Francisco: Jossey–Bass.
  • Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. NY: Basic books.
  • Saddhatissa, H. (2003). Buddhist ethics. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.