ETHICAL CASE STUDIES
Founded in 1990, the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) is an independent, nonsectarian, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting ethical action in a global context. Their challenge is to explore the global common ground of values, elevate awareness of ethics, provide practical tools for making ethical decisions, and encourage moral actions based on those decisions. These three real-life ethical dilemmas from IGE come to you without resolutions. How you might resolve them? Select one of the case studies in this presentation. Your selection will serve as the subject of your persuasive argument for your Ethical Assignment Portfolio Piece D.
CASE 1: CHEATING YOURSELF
As a professor of mathematics and computer science at a large regional university in the south, Al regularly teaches a remedial algebra course. The course typically enrolls students who have done very poorly in high-school math—a number of whom feel they were hopelessly incompetent in math and are frightened of failing yet again.
Al’s course, which has 90 students, has five exams during the semester. After grading the first one, he makes a mental note to pay close attention to a few students—this year including Sarah, a sophomore who does particularly badly on the exam. She confesses to him that she has never understood math at all but needs this course for her major. So Al is surprised to see that she is not in the room during the second exam. He does, however, think he sees a young man whom he hasn’t seen before. When the young man turns in his test paper, Al puts it aside to look at later. Sure enough, when he turns it over, it has Sarah’s name on it.
On this point, Al knows, the rules of the university are particularly clear: he could initiate action that will surely lead to the immediate and dishonorable dismissal of both Sarah and her friend. But he knows that such a dismissal would become a permanent part of their records. As such, it could forever warp their futures. To be sure, they did something terribly wrong. And certainly, given the well-known levels of cheating in the university system, the faculty has to send strong messages that such cheating will not be tolerated.
But do these two deserve to be singled out and academically destroyed? Is it fair to punish two individuals for the increased cheating statistics of their generation—especially when Sarah seems to have been driven into temptation through an almost helpless sense of fear? Al finds himself in a right-versus-right dilemma, with his strong sense of justice pitted against his powerful sense of mercy. So he calls them in to see him. The young man, it turns out, is Sarah’s boyfriend and a senior engineering major. Al lets them know the serious trouble they are in, and sends them away for a week while he considers what to do.
CASE 2: HONOR WHO TO PROTECT?
Don Riles, insurance claims adjuster, has the day off. He is playing with his 4-year-old daughter Erica when the telephone rings. At the other end of the line, Don’s supervisor, apologizing for interrupting his time off, pleads for his help. Will Don please visit a woman in his neighborhood who has made claims for bodily and mental injury resulting from a car crash with a person insured by Don’s company? The woman has consented to a visit from their adjuster to assess the injuries to her nose and mental state. (Apparently the crash has caused her to relapse into a condition of paranoia and manic depression, previously stabilized.)
The claims adjuster in charge of the case has called in sick—scheduling the appointment has been difficult. Will Don please fill in? Don agrees readily, but asks if he could bring his daughter—it is their day together while his wife worked. Don’s supervisor gratefully assures him that bringing the little girl along is no problem.
When Don arrives at the woman’s house, he discovers no one at home, so he and his daughter wait in the car. Eventually, the woman arrives, parks, and emerges from her car, at which point Erica cries happily, “It’s Miss Anderson!”
“Who is Miss Anderson?” asks her father with surprise. Miss Anderson turns out to be Erica’s daycare teacher. Don conducts a short interview with the woman on the front steps of her home, satisfying himself that she does indeed have some facial injuries and that she is taking prescription medicine for her mental problems.
Following the interview, Don realizes that he has a real dilemma. Insurance ethics mandates that claims investigations are completely confidential. An insurance professional with knowledge of a claims case is expected to keep silent and to refrain from using the knowledge for personal benefit. On one hand, to uphold his industry’s code of ethics, he is not to discuss or act on the information he has received about Miss Anderson’s situation. On the other hand, he does not want his daughter under the care of a person who is undergoing treatment for mental illness and who might be dangerous. Don’s wife is also an insurance claims adjuster, working for a separate company. Still, even if Don tells her, she is bound by the same professional code of ethics.
What should Don do?
CASE 3: LOST IN TRANSLATION?
Brian McNally is a part-time faculty member at a mid-sized university located in Boston, Massachusetts. He has worked for the University in his current capacity for less than five years, but is well versed in the university’s policies he has agreed to uphold.
In McNally’s survey course on American History, an international student turns in her first term paper. During the grading process, McNally discovers that the student’s work is a textbook case of plagiarism. The majority of the paper is copied directly and without attribution from the references listed at the back of the student’s paper, and little of the work is the student’s own.
The university has a strong policy about plagiarism, which is outlined in the course syllabus that McNally knows this student received. When confronted about plagiarizing her paper, she claims that she did not realize what she was doing was plagiarism, since the academic culture in her own country is very tolerant of such copying. McNally explains to her that the policy, as outlined, requires that he fail her, but that he would consider her explanation over the weekend.
In this justice-versus-mercy decision, McNally thinks that on one hand it is right to fail her and myabe even eject her from the class, because there would be no chance for her to pass the course after failing this assignment. He would be just in his decision because the rules were clear. On the other hand, it is right to show mercy and ask her to rewrite her paper. If she truly did not understand the rule, it would seem unfair to penalize her so harshly, expecially if this was just a case of cultural mistranslation.
What should McNally do?
- Institute for Global Ethics: Promoting Ethical Action in a Global Context. (n.d.). Institute for Global Ethics: Promoting Ethical Action in a Global Context. Retrieved January 5, 2011, from http://www.globalethics.org/
Subject Matter Expert:
Nancy Longo, PhD
Laura Badaracco Amend