The article is titled Good Work: On professional norms and the treacherous temptation of “moral freedom”, by David B. Wilkins (Harvard Magazine, May-June 2004: Volume 106, Number 5, Page 21), which reviews the recently released book Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work, by Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan, and Howard Gardner (Harvard Univeristy Press, Feb. 2004); and
The ABC News special, Primetime Thursday: Caught Cheating - A Crisis in America’s Schools — How It’s Done and Why It’s Happening, was shown at 10 PM last night, with Charles Gibson hosting (April 29, 2004). The webpage contains much of the material and stats from the show.
Flatulent Elders have been decrying the downfall of civilization and relative decline in morals ever since the first generation of human children started disappointing their clueless parents. Nonetheless, as the Former Editor of this site liked to point out, ignoring important trends can be even more dangerous for society’s future and individual fulfillment than risking overly general statements or overly defensive reactions.
The Primetime special shows so much cheating, by so many high school and college students, using so many methods, and making so many excuses, that adults have to seriously ask ourselves what the heck we’ve been doing so wrong. The show ends asking whether we’ve reached a tipping point, where cheating is so “normal” that there’s no turning back — or, can we “teach integrity” and its importance in a way that is likely to tip the trend back toward a society where honesty counts more than grades?
I first scratched my head over this subject in the late 1980s, when representing kids in Family Court. What seemed very different from my own childhood in the ’50s and ’60s was the fact that many young teens would not acknowledge that parents had any right at all to tell them they could not stay out all night, or they had to attend school and stay out of fights, or they could not have sex after school rather than doing homework. Of course, some kids in my generation did all those things while in high school, but a lot fewer than now — and one basic reason is that we knew (felt, agreed) the rules were legitimate, and we knew there would be very real consequences for misdeeds — and that adult hypocrisy did not make the rules any less legitimate.
the “Clinton Did It” and the “Look at Enron” excuses for lying and cheating
the Dork Defense — you can’t expect me to work all the time, like some dork, so of course I plagiarized, cut corners, etc.
the I’ll Only Do It Until I Get My Degree Promise
Every worker has both the right and the responsibility to be a “professional” who produces work that is “good,” both in the technical sense of being performed with skill and in the moral sense of responding to the needs of society. Individuals are most likely to be able to do so, the researchers contend, if the field in which they work is “well aligned” in that all stakeholders (for example, employers, workers, and those who receive or are affected by the work) want more or less the same thing (for example, curing disease or fairly and accurately reporting the news).
“$key small” But alignment is threatened when stakeholders become motivated by things other than achieving these core professional ideals. Given the extent to which market forces have come to dominate journalism, science, and the arts—and much of the rest of our lives—it is not surprising that the authors devote most of their time to studying how young workers understand and respond to the potentially corrupting influence of money.
The review states that “young workers in all three domains tend to personalize ethical problems and their solutions — wherever possible participants in the study framed their choices in terms of whether they were living up to their own ideals.”
In what many are sure to find their most disturbing finding, the authors report that time and time again young workers felt justified in exempting themselves from established ethical restrictions . . . to accomplish ends that they believed justified the means. Some ends were truly altruistic . . . Far too often, however, the end in question was simply self-promotion . . .
What are the Stakes?
[Dishonesty is] a recipe for disaster. When the values of [a line of] work change, then the people attracted to it change. Fifty years ago geneticists weren’t expecting to be rich and famous. Now, if you attract people to run huge biotech companies to make millions of dollars, genetics becomes less about scientific curiosity. Broadcast journalism, with few exceptions, is not journalism anymore – it’s entertainment and ratings.
A domain could also disappear. If accounting, for example, continues to be as fraudulent as it looks now, it won’t exist in 20 years. Something new will replace it. Government surveillance? Private detectives? Professions are generated by a moral center in the first place, and if that gets too infirm the profession ceases to exist.
There are no simple, easy or quick solutions. The discussion at this website recently on The Silent Associate seems to show a generational split on when ethics rules and principles can or should be ignored. The answers won’t be found if parents, schools, professional overseers, students, or career novices make excuses for the “cheating” done by the younger members of our society, or by the adults. Elders must live up to their stated principles and see to it there are consequences for lapses and violations. [Please stop calling them mistakes!]
The researchers at the Good Work Project conclude that six factors play a pivotal role in whether young professionals succumb to pressures to cut ethical corners:
an individual’s long-standing beliefs and values,
access to positive role models and mentors,
values held by one’s peers,
pivotal experiences that teach about or reward good conduct,
institutional structures and policies, and
periodic reinforcement of the idea of good work.
For some useful perspectives on this topic, listen to an interview with Howard Gardner on the Diane Rehm Show (03-04-04), and see this page from a Salon.com book review, by Laura Miller (02-23-04) on Making Good and The Cheating Culture.
Book reviewer David Wilkins is the director of Harvard Law School’s new Program on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry. It will be interesting to see how his notions of professional ethics play out within the Law Industry program.
s/ sincerely (and way too seriously), Prof. Yabut