One of the things that makes it tricky to have effective ethical judgment is that every ethical dilemma is different. Academics who study ethics have come up with the term “ethical intensity” as a way to describe the various dimensions along which dilemmas can differ; each one will affect what type of judgment a person makes. The bigger the consequences, for example, or how much consensus a person has to support an action, will determine the intensity surrounding a judgment. How much that intensity increases or decreases can change the type of judgment made.
One way to gauge ethical intensity is by considering if the harm or benefit predicted will result if a decision is implemented. A consequence with a low probability of happening is less intense. Whether the consequences will occur immediately or in the future will also effect how much intensity is involved—we tend to discount future events as somehow less real, decreasing the intensity.
Proximity plays a big role in how intense a dilemma is. A decision that will affect our family is more intense than one that will affect strangers. And finally, how many people will be affected by a decision can change the intensity of a situation. A judgment that could benefit many people is more intense than one that has fewer beneficiaries.
Creating an Ethical Online Environment
One growing area where the intensity of situations can escalate very quickly is in the online environment. From discussion forums, social media feeds, to comment boards, people use the perceived anonymity of being online to hurt, discredit, and disparage others. Because the intensity of the platform or the dialogue has not been properly considered, messages are sometimes exchanged or posted with little regard to the anxiety, distress or harm a person can cause, and our judgment in how to respond can become blurred and difficult to resolve as well.
“Flaming” or “Trolling” are terms given for hostile and insulting interaction between internet users. It frequently results from discussions about polarizing issues, but can it also be provoked by seemingly trivial differences. Deliberate flaming or trolling involves posting inflammatory messages in an online community with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response that disrupts productive, on-topic, discussion.
Unfortunately, this is not relegated to social media or online environments outside of the university. Online learning opportunities are expanding rapidly in higher education, and learning management systems are widely utilized to deliver class content, and foster the exchange of ideas through discussion boards and e-mail. The “appropriateness” of interactions found on discussion boards and e-mail exchanges between students and faculty, and students with other students can be quite subjective, and if not monitored, can easily escalate the intensity of the environment. This is made more difficult in classes where the content may include provocative or controversial topics.
Although we may all strive to behave ethically, a gap often exists between the ideal outcome and what can realistically be accomplished. We acknowledge up front that ethical perfection lies beyond reach for virtually all of us humans, even if we could completely agree on the ethically correct response in every situation. And, unfortunately, good intentions may prove insufficient to ensure that wrongs will not occur. An effective response requires developed skills, planned resources, the right information, and a keen ethical and self-awareness.
It seems fitting to quickly review underlying values and virtues that should guide ethical judgment and the issues we raised in this chapter:
• Do No Harm: We should work to ensure that the potential for damage is eliminated or at least minimized to the greatest extent possible.
• Respect: Individuals have the right to decide how to live their lives so long as their actions do not interfere with the rights and welfare of others.
• Dignity: We must strive to understand cultural, gender, economic diversity and other ways that people differ from ourselves and endeavor to eliminate biases that might influence our judgment.
• Excellence: Maintaining competence, doing our best, and taking pride in our work form the foundation of academia.
• Be Courageous: The truth is that it often takes a strong backbone to actively uphold ethical principles, especially when one observes unethical actions perpetrated by others.