Right. Wrong. No question.

Posted by Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D. on 11.21.11 in Accountability, Integrity, Social Responsibility

In the first few weeks of the fall 2010 semester, I was compelled to speak out in the name of tolerance, civility, and respect. It was in the days following the tragic death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after he was the victim of cyber bullying.

I urged everyone to think about our responsibilities to others, and to ourselves, to be vigilant and to have the courage to stand up and speak out against intolerant behavior. I asked that we all listen for signs of distress, and respond accordingly, that we should be watchful for disrespectful behavior, and call it out.

In the wake of recent events at Pennsylvania State University, there is much talk of “moral obligation.” Most of the clamor amounts to so many talking heads asking questions that miss the real point entirely. The question is not, who should be morally obligated in which circumstance. The real question is, aren’t we all, as a society, morally obligated to simply do the right thing?

In a strange coincidence, The New York Times reported that, a student taking the SAT exam recognized how recent headlines were reflected in the following essay prompt and question:

“All communities and groups have reliable rules of right and wrong in the form of laws, values, and social standards. It is therefore generally assumed that most people know the difference between right and wrong and that they usually know the right thing to do. This view is simplistic, however. People often find themselves in complex situations for which no rule provides adequate guidance and the right course of action is unclear. Is it often difficult for people to determine what is the right thing to do?

I argue that this view is not simplistic. I argue that the rules of right and wrong hold true.

If it is difficult for people to determine what is the right thing to do, it is because we have become too good at justifying. We lose sight of justice, and we remain silent. We have given in to fear. Individuals believe they may act with impunity because so many act with impunity while we remain silent.

A piece of America has lost its soul. Too many times we witness power and wealth winning out over justice. We may wish to help others and speak out against harmful and criminal acts. Perhaps it is self preservation that stands in our way. Why does it come down to the choice of “him or me”? And what do we become when we make that choice?

I admit that this is no small request, to have the moral courage to stand up against those with power, despite the personal cost. We do not have to do it alone. We are all responsible for creating an environment where no one has to do it alone.

Remember that our history is populated with individuals who have stood up against those with power. Our founding fathers. Abolitionists. Civil Rights activists. It starts with one person.

It starts with you. Accept responsibility. Be accountable. Inspire others to do the same. Make it possible for others to have the courage to do the same. Let us not miss this opportunity to affect meaningful change.

Let us talk. What are our values, and how do we stand up for them? How do we stand up for ourselves and for others?

I suggest that it is time for a new brand of intolerance.

Be intolerant of inequitable treatment.

Be intolerant of abuse.

Be intolerant of violence and the exploitation of violence.

Be intolerant of silence.

About the Author: Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D.

Please visit www.becker.edu/about/president.

View all posts by Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D.

2 Responses to Right. Wrong. No question.

  1. The fact that some people are not aware of their ethical behavior is why it is essential that Becker embraces a set of core values that provides everyone with a compass to chart their course, as a student, and in their chosen profession. These values can be ingrained into the social and intellectual psyche of our students and campus culture.

  2. Jay Lacke says:

    I certainly agree with most of these points. One thing I would reflect on is a recent study that showed that students who are given assignments to write about values that are important to them have more pro-social behavior than students asked to write just about values (or not asked to write about values at all). I believe that there are curricular things that we can do — active learning experiences, not only lecturing — to help students develop, embody, and act upon good values. However, though I do not agree that rationalization and self-justification alone are the reasons why it is difficult to determine what is the right thing to do. We struggle with what psychologists, including those who focus on the disciplines of business and management (e.g., Max Bazerman), label “bounded ethicality.” Helping people to see the ways in which we don’t see the ethical challenges, how we are not even aware that we may be behaving unethically, is another opportunity and challenge for higher education.

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