The hardest part of handling an ethical dilemma is knowing that you’re having one. Harry Canon, former Chair, ACPA Ethics Committee
This past summer as I sat on my patio watching the hummingbirds dive bomb their feeder, I began to wonder how so many of them lived in the woods near my home without being visible. After looking carefully into the foliage, I was able to pick out a few of the most obvious hummingbirds lining up for a drink, but I was also amazed at how quickly they disappeared into the background once they were satisfied. Shortly afterward, we experienced two overwhelming, mind-boggling hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. The contrast between hurricanes and hummingbirds moved into my awareness. Nobody in the country could escape the information about the hurricanes, the human and physical catastrophe, the confusion, the suffering and the muddled attempts to address an issue that was apparently bigger than all of our human service agencies could have imagined. Hummingbirds are easy to miss and hard to see. Hurricanes knock us over and keep us down for a long time. The size of most ethical dilemmas seems closer to a hummingbird than a hurricane. The question for student affairs practitioners becomes “How do we learn to notice the hummingbirds?”
We are used to thinking about the five ethical principles first articulated by Kitchener (1985), but less familiar with the ethical virtues of our profession (Meara, Schmidt & Day, 1996). We need to know about these ethical principles when we become aware of an ethical dilemma. We need to use the ethical virtues every day of our lives. The development of those virtues allows us to see less visible but equally significant dilemmas.
Virtues are habits of behavior and thought. They represent our default approach to handling whatever issues face us in the course of our work, the attitudes and personality characteristics that we typically use in addressing professional issues. For helping professionals there are four primary virtues which serve as the foundation for our work with others – prudence, integrity, respectfulness and benevolence. Prudence and integrity are considered “self-regarding” virtues; respectfulness and benevolence are “other” regarding virtues.
Self-regarding virtues: Prudence, the first self-regarding virtue, suggests that we should develop the habit of moving slowly and thinking carefully when dealing with difficult ethical situations. Anyone in student affairs who is called upon to help resolve student or staff conflicts can easily see the power of prudence in carrying out this responsibility. A conflict that only has two sides is generally a simple conflict. Most conflicts have as many sides to them as there are stakeholders. When the student center staff holds its scheduling meeting to consider conflicting requests for major events requiring large amounts of time, space and student support, a great deal of information must be considered prudently before decisions are made. When a student charges another student with assault and nobody observed the incident, but both students are bruised, prudence is required when deciding appropriate penalties. Prudence, when managing conflicts, generally involves careful examination of evidence, awareness of various perspectives on any issue, exploration of values and principles that may be involved and refusal to be pressured into an expedient but unfair resolution.
Prudence, used over an extended period of time, leads the way toward personal integrity, a sense that the ethics and judgment of the decision-maker are consistent. Integrity also implies that the decision-maker has an internal anchor, a set of principles and standards by which judgments and actions are evaluated. A person with integrity can be trusted by the students who work with her or him because they will not experience drastic differences in value criteria from one situation to another. A person with integrity treats everyone with fairness and thoughtfulness even when circumstances differ and the details vary. If a person behaves with integrity, the reasons for different judgments under different circumstances are clear and transparent.
Other regarding virtues: Respectfulness and benevolence are the two “other regarding” virtues. Other regarding virtues are oriented toward creating good for people in the community or client population which the professional person serves. Learning to treat other people with respect has become challenging because ideas about respect vary from culture to culture. On our campuses we have students and staff from all over the world. Behavior which is respectful in one culture can be construed as disrespectful by people from another culture. Male/female handshaking as a form of greeting is respectful in the US, but is considered rude and unacceptable to people who are observant Muslims. For Americans it is respectful to begin a meeting promptly (when the time on the clock conforms with the time announced for the meeting), to conduct business with little personal conversation, even though attendees are often addressed by first names. In other cultures, particularly those where relationships are very important and age is a mark of rank, meetings may begin later than the announced time, with inquiries about family and the welfare of the participants. People may expect to be addressed by title or family name. It is not unusual to have people with differing sets of expectations about respect in the same meeting trying to move toward a common goal. Even when the virtue of respect is shared, the details of cross-cultural respect must be learned.
The Golden Rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, now has a corollary, Do unto others as they would be done unto. In other words, we have all had to learn to treat others in the way that they consider respectful, not necessarily in the way that we consider respectful. This particularly extends to the issue of including family and accepting many definitions of family. US law defines an adult as a person over the age of 18 but in many cultures that distinction is meaningless as long as the student is not married. For those students, there is an ethical issue to be untangled when it comes to deciding whether or not to include parents in some conversations. Another issue of respect is generational. Students who live in an IM, text message world, may not have the same idea of how to approach a receptionist or speak to an administrator who grew up in a face to face, complete sentence, “Hello, how can I help you?” world. Students may act in a manner that seems appropriate to them and yet be perceived as disrespectful by those whose services they are seeking. There is certainly a large amount of overlap between cultures and generations when it comes to respect, but it is prudent not to take anything for granted.
Benevolence is intertwined with respect. Benevolence involves taking the other person’s wellbeing into account. Benevolence suggests “opening ourselves to many others, to family, to friends and even to strangers, forming genuine and deep bonds based on our common humanity” (Dalai Lama, 1998, p.84). When we are able to find our common humanity, regardless of perceived rudeness or communication difficulties, we can develop benevolence. We can begin to realize that a remark that might hurt another person, if aimed toward us, would also be hurtful. Cultivating the virtue of benevolence leads inevitably to the development of respect. If I care about a person’s well-being and I unintentionally act in a disrespectful manner, I will be able to apologize and change my behavior out of consideration for the other person. Their welfare becomes more important than my loss of “face.”
Virtues are formed after a great deal of practice. In the midst of a crisis a person’s character comes to the fore, and their behavior reflects their habitual responses and thought processes. The cultivation of the ethical virtues allows us to “see” the hummingbird sized dilemmas and to respond appropriately. A prudent person does not worry about jumping to conclusions in a difficult situation and then making the wrong choice. A person with integrity is fairly predictable and students and colleagues know that he or she can be trusted. A benevolent person doesn’t take advantage of another person or humiliate others even if they have done something wrong or offensive, or broken a rule. A benevolent person habitually treats others with respect. The cultivation of virtues takes a long time, and the road is filled with missteps. Nevertheless, it’s the virtues that let us know when a hummingbird is in the area. If we take care of the hummingbirds, we’ll be able to figure out what to do about the hurricanes when the need arises.
- Dalai Lama & Cutler, H. (1998). The art of happiness. NY: Riverhead Books.
- Fried, J. (2004). Ethical standards and principles. In S. Komives & D. Woodard (Eds.) Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 107-127). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
- Kitchener, K. (1985) Ethical principles and ethical decision-making in student affairs. In H. Canon and R.D. Brown (Eds.), Applied ethics in student services. New Directions for Student Services, 30, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
- Meara, N., Schmidt, L., & Day, J. (1996). Principles and virtues: A foundation for ethical decisions, policies and character. Counseling Psychologist, 24, 4-77.