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September/October 2018

How Not to Teach Ethics

Susan S. Silbey

I write this month about stories and ethics, more specifically about the stories we tell about ethics. There is increasing talk lately, coming from unexpected and unaligned voices, about the importance of stories for understanding what we do, and what we should do. For example, Gary Saul Morson and Morton O. Schapiro write in their book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities, that "to understand people one must tell stories about them" and, while we can learn much from economics, culture and ethics cannot be reduced to economic equations.

In the popular press, New York Times columnist David Brooks recently recalled philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's argument that you can't know what is the right thing to do unless you know what story you are a part of, that the story we tell about what we do can be more powerful than the specific details of programs and policies. Yet, in the intensifying calls for the teaching of ethics as part of both undergraduate and professional education, here at MIT and across the nation, the story being told about ethics is disturbingly banal and wrong-headed.

We might begin by noting that crises of corporate and professional responsibility have been endemic to American society, at least since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. With each chapter of professional misconduct – from the robber barons and the Teapot Dome scandals, through the progressive era up through Watergate, Iran Contra, the financial crisis of 2008, and to the recent epidemic of research scandals in political science and psychology – the response has been the same: calls for education in ethical responsibilities, and specifically training in ethics as part of professional education.

For example, a 2017 article about bridge failures recommended that "engineering schools should do more to prepare students for the ethical challenges they'll face as individual workers – and as an industry." Another 2017 Atlantic article by Irina Raicu addressed the ethics of Silicon Valley directly, also recommending ethics education. "A growing chorus has argued that we need a code of ethics for technologists. That's a start, but we need more than that. If technology can mold us, and technologists are the ones who shape that technology, we should demand some level of ethics training for technologists. . . . Such training . . . would prepare them to make more thoughtful decisions when confronted, say, with ethical dilemmas that involve conflicts between competing goods. It would help them make choices that better reflect their own values (my emphasis)." Natasha Singer wrote in the New York Times in February 2018 about new efforts needed, and forthcoming, to incorporate ethics into computer science education. Most of these courses focus on getting students to reflect on their personal choices. Singer recounts how such courses are emerging at a moment when big tech companies have also been struggling to handle the side effects of Silicon Valley's build-it-first mindset. The message is clear: universities should embrace, not shun, teaching about values in the classroom.

Models for Teaching

This cycle of scandal and responsive calls for better training has been so often repeated that one can be surprised only by the paucity of models for providing that education. The standard model – required in law and medical schools now leaking into engineering and computer science programs with minor variations – teaches ethics as problems in individual decision-making, personal values, and choices. Training focuses on formalized rules of professional conduct, punctuated by appeals for social responsibility. It has not proved to be a successful regimen, if the repeated cycles of corporate and professional misconduct are any gauge.

Such standard models fail because the diagnosis and cure share a basic misconception: that corporate and professional misconduct are problems caused by rotten apples; some few weak, uninformed, or misguided individuals making independently poor choices.

What is the source of this misconception? A great deal of education propagates this misunderstanding by focusing exclusively on two forms of causality familiar to engineers and scientists: physical forces or atomic structure and human will or intention. Although processes of aggregation and ecology for matter and mechanical systems are well understood, many seem unable to recognize patterns of aggregation when it comes to human action. Thus, when asked to interpret or explain social phenomena, including professional misconduct or inattention to competing interests, historical examples and possible precedents, the well-educated technologist as well as the popular pundit will more often than not offer accounts that rely on individual agency, choice, and personality. Unable to recognize or describe forms of social organization, many adopt a rationalist, often reductionist model of social action that in effect constitutes a powerful and unreflexive orthodoxy.

Consider an alternative account produced nearly 70 years ago when sociologist Edwin Sutherland published his now canonical work, White Collar Crime, in which he documented that American corporations constituted the most numerous population of criminal recidivists. This counter-intuitive observation flowed from Sutherland's earlier work outlining a theory of criminal behavior as normal behavior in situations publicly defined as undesirable, illegal, or unethical. Sutherland described criminal behavior as normal learned behavior in situations and transactions where there is an excess of circulating definitions favorable to violation of norms or law over definitions unfavorable to the violation of law. He called this the principle of "differential association."

Although Sutherland's work focused on criminal behavior, the insights merit our attention when considering what stories to tell about ethical and unethical professional behavior. Sutherland's principal account describes all behavior, deviant as well as normative, as habits learned in interaction with others, most often within intimate personal settings and organized groups. That learning includes the motivations, drives, and rationalizations for the action as well as the techniques of committing the act, which can be complex, especially in white collar crime, financial, scientific, or computer-based fraud.

If we understand both ethical as well as criminal misconduct as consequences of normal learning, we might offer different kinds of ethics education, as well as different kinds of experiences, telling different stories than ones about individual, rational, and isolated decision-making. First, we would, of course, attend to the content of what is learned, which includes both motives and techniques. This would include in our local domain, scientific theories and engineering methods, but also various modes of collegiality, status hierarchies, gender performances, and appropriate degrees of ambition as well. Second, we would focus on pedagogy and the process of learning. Although Sutherland, following George Herbert Mead, focused on interpersonal and symbolic interaction, I might put as much emphasis in twenty-first century learning on mediated communication as on intimate personal transactions. Engineers learn to become engineers not only by doing problem sets and working in laboratories, but by mimicking what they observe as conventional, accepted and rewarded demeanors, conversational practices, and career expectations, whether observed face to face or through public media. The third, and most important lesson for ethics education is Sutherland's emphasis on context and social organization as an antidote to an exclusive focus on individual choice-making activity. In other words, while we might want to acknowledge human agency and decision-making at the heart of ethical action, which cannot be avoided for sure, nonetheless, we blind ourselves to the structure of those choices – incentives, content, and pattern – if we focus too closely on the individual and ignore the larger pattern of opportunities and motives that channel the actions we call ethics or occupation we call career.

Ethical Lapses

Perhaps the simplest way to think about how attention to context and social organization might challenge the individualist story of ethics is to consider the popular American narrative of ethical lapses. For example, the stories of Enron, drug trials for Actonel, the Schon affair at Bell Labs, and the Cambridge Analytica debacle at Facebook are usually narrated as the story of a few rotten apples giving the barrel a bad name. In other words, such bad apple narratives tell us that we need not worry about increasing evidence of financial misconduct, student cheating, scientific fraud, or the digitized threats to liberal democracy, because the grand narrative of well-functioning institutions (the market, meritocratic higher education, peer review, or digital connectivity through anonymous participation) remains in place, unsullied by the random bad apple.

Each of these examples is reported and interpreted as an anecdote.  As separate accounts, anecdotes claim particularity, not typicality, and as such, anecdotes obscure the links connecting one event to another. The social organization that arranges the individual cases into a structure of action we might call professional or market failure, or digital warfare or social disintegration is suppressed and thus overwhelmed by the exclusive focus on personal motive, action, and fault.

How is this relevant for teaching ethics? Rather than thinking about ethics as a series of anecdotal instances of problematic choice-making, we might think about ethics as participation in a moral culture, and then ask how that culture supports or challenges ethical behavior. Or, in Sutherland's terms, what are the transactions among the cultural members, what are the communicated messages, how often and for how long, and thus how is that culture learned? How is the system of incentives and rewards organized, what is the structure of resources and rewards? More particularly, what do we describe as a good life?

Influences on Social Structures

Although studying culture is the adopted subject of many disciplines, sociology and anthropology specifically attempt to trace the links between the particular and the general to identify the mechanisms for aggregating individual actions or persons into collectivities and collective action, and as practices of a circulating culture. From this perspective, we might think of the task of ethics education as socio-cultural analysis, and preparation for a career as a scientist or engineer as requiring lessons in history, organization, cultural exploration, and management. Ethics education needs to be, following MacIntyre, historically contextualized, including analyses of what happens in particular situations to identify the logics operating in that historically located situation. Preparation for a career in science, for example, might include attention to the organization of laboratories (including perhaps how they have changed over time), the incentives and pitfalls of different forms of funding (including the differences between grants and contracts), as well as the role of gender in both local group and external professional activities. Preparation for a career in computer science, for example, might pay special attention to historical examples of technological catastrophes and the transformation of technologies into systems of social control. In some of our research, we refer to these kinds of accounts, which I am suggesting ought to be the subject of ethics education, as subversive stories: narratives that subvert or undermine claims of individualist causality by revealing how social structures link the general and the particular. Subversive stories reveal the patterns of aggregation through systems of opportunity and reward as well as structure and constraint.

For a moment, let's imagine repairing the conventional individualist narrative of ethical lapses by adopting the usual modifications: suppose we change the story of a few bad apples, to one about many bad apples, or one about all bad apples. This will not suffice, however. As long as we are describing the apples, we have preserved a system, a set of practices, idealizations, and cultural resources that support misconduct. We have helped to tell what we call a hegemonic tale, a story that buries the social organization of action and power, and thus absolves us all of a deeper responsibility.

If we talk about ethics as individual decision-making without history, context, social structure and culture, we have not explained how the organization of apples in the barrel is part of why we see only an occasional bad apple and how those bad apples can infect the other apples. What are the mechanisms of infection and spread? This is the missing structural element that conventional accounts of ethics as bad apples usually miss, and an alternative approach to ethical education and responsibility might offer.

When a curriculum lacks a solid grounding in organizational and institutional analysis, it encourages the hyper-individualism characteristic of American culture, media, and politics generally. Rather than provide students with subversive stories and the tools for critical inquiry, the curriculum, inadvertently perhaps, becomes a vehicle reinforcing popular ideologies.  As Karen Levy, Professor of Information Science at Cornell recently noted, ". . . if data science ethics training focuses entirely on the individual responsibility of the data scientist, it risks overlooking the role of the broader enterprise, . . . ." which is also making choices about its products and policies.

Too often, history, arts, corporate behavior, public affairs are understood as merely a series of individual actions, the product of human decision, utility, invention, malfeasance, avarice, or creativity: a series of particularly special and delicious apples with perhaps some attention to which trees grow better apples, but little attention to the organization of the orchard, especially the cultivation, resources, and weather that sustains the orchard. The culture writ large is understood, implicitly if at all, as an aggregation of individual preferences and attitudes. Too often, stories are framed primarily as tools for obtaining desired ends (normally power – i.e., tell a good story and you can convince others of what you want, successfully market yourself or your product). The mechanisms and processes of aggregation that provide intervening conditions that influence, channel, and organize human action are the subject of only a few elective, easily overlooked courses. It is common for students to complete degrees without any notice, no less concerted attention, to the processes and structures organizing human action, and accumulating power. And then, when crises of public confidence and professional irresponsibility erupt, we hear calls for training in (personal) ethics.  

To the degree that this neglect of institutional analyses is a result of the way degree requirements are specified, as well as the way course offerings are organized, named, and announced, we fail to provide students who will soon be professionals with the tools they will need to recognize the social structures through which individual action is channeled, skills they need to make their way in the world.

Should students leave college and professional training believing that their individual will and personal resources are the major opportunities and limits determining success and failure, they will find themselves frustrated when they butt up against those very powerful, yet invisible social structures. This naïveté, or ignorance, is one crevice in which unethical behavior germinates.  Should students, however, have an understanding of the constraints and resources of organizational structures and institutionalized cultures as well as worthy individual attributes, they will be more effective, perhaps more ethical professionals and citizens.

What story of ethics do we tell MIT students? Is it the familiar story of great men and a few women individually overcoming great obstacles and ignorance to push back the frontiers of knowledge? Is it the reductionist and one-dimensional story of initiative and creativity working to disrupt conventional modes of production? Let's stop telling this one hegemonic tale and ask instead what stories (plural) we should be using to help us interpret our world with greater precision and complexity. We might then, for example, demonstrate alternative modes of organizing technological and scientific production. For example, how might we organize to limit winner-take-all dynamics? What would happen if our intellectual property regime became more consistent with actual creative practices? Let's tell stories that interpret the world with greater nuance and empirical validity, and expose us to multiple voices that push us out of our habitual ways by seeing the world through the subjectivity – eyes and voices – of others. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari makes a very similar claim as does the Nigerian novelist Chimanda Ngozi Adichie when she writes, "Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity."

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXXI No. 1, September/October 2018