Required Reading!

Andrew Gelman and David Madigan at Columbia recently published an excellent reflection on the similarities between ethical decisions and statistical inferences. (This should be required reading for those of us who are developing content for the Ethics Education Committee’s workshops.) In particular, they point out that when problems (what we often call “dilemmas” in ethics) are either too easy or too hard, it is difficult to learn anything useful from them.

To show this, they begin with a really simple case in statistics, namely, election forecasting. If an election is too close, a statistical inference about the discrete outcome (wether the Democrat or the Republican will win) will not tell us anything about the model we’re testing. Likewise, when the election is a landslide, our statistical model is not really getting tested either. At least not by the discrete outcome. (As Gelman and Madigan point out, the model should be tested, not against the outcome of the election, but against the vote differential.)

They then apply this to ethics cases:

In general … the most informative ethics vignettes are those in which the call is not so close as to seem arbitrary, but not so obvious that the decision can be made without thought. The purpose of discussing the intermediate cases is to explore the way in which careful assessment of goals, motivations, costs, and benefits can help us make better decisions, and also help us understand the decisions of others.

We can take the question of scholarly misconduct, for example. There are really easy cases in which one scholar steals the work of another and publishes it as their own (or the case of student misconduct where a student buys a paper from another and submits it for a grade.) There isn’t really anything to discuss there; it’s wrong and everyone knows it. At the other end of the spectrum there are cases that are too difficult to evaluate: where a dispute over giving proper credit for a limited contribution to a paper arises, and all the facts are a matter of what was said to whom at what time without records being kept. In such cases, a practical settlement may be brokered, but it won’t clarify any principles. The disputing parties are (hopefully) just looking for a way to put it behind them and move forward.

The interesting cases are those where there are judgments to be made and tradeoffs to be considered. In the weeks to come, I’m going to be make an effort to write up some “vignettes”, with the aim of starting a discussion about whether they offer a useful basis for a discussion of ethics. I will be interested both in what is the right way to conduct oneself as a scholar in one’s primary work, and what is the right way to proceed when one encounters a possible ethical violation. As I’ve said before, that second set of problems is as rich an area for ethical reflection as the first.

I should be ready on Tuesday with my first vignette.

Responsibility, Integrity, Respect

I’m going to spend a few posts thinking out loud about the the Academy’s Code of Ethics. I should emphasize that this is not an official statement, but my own personal interpretation. As with everything here at the Ethicist, it’s part of a conversation, not the last word on something. Please let me know what you think. Let’s talk about it.

The word “ethics” derives from the Greek “ethos”, meaning “habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place.” To me, this emphasizes the rather ordinary nature of ethical behavior. Ethical behavior does not usually require any drama; one just does one’s work properly, decently. This underlying ordinariness of ethical action can be seen in the Code’s “General Principles”, which state that Academy members should comport themselves with responsibility, integrity and respect. While this may seem pretty straightforward, adhering to such principles is, of course, as difficult as, well, being alive. That difficulty is what being a human being in a social milieu is all about.

At the core of the Code’s definition of responsibility lies the idea that our work is carried out within relationships that are based on trust. This, in turn, requires us to define our roles and obligations clearly; after all, we have to know who we can trust in what matters. It also requires us to avoid conflicts of interest, which undermine trust, and even to actively help others without being compensated, which builds trust. To draw on etymology again: being responsible means being “answerable”. Ethical people, we might say, are able to account for their actions.

The Code defines integrity as a concern for “accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness”. Basically, we try to ensure that when when people are talking to us, they don’t come to believe things that are untrue. So we don’t lead them to believe we have qualifications we don’t have. We don’t lead to believe that our rivals are less competent than we know they are. We don’t misrepresent the facts, or obscure our sources of the facts. We don’t, in short, claim to know something we don’t understand or to own something that isn’t ours. The commonsense injunctions against lying and stealing capture this principle nicely.

Finally, the Code invokes the principle of respect–specifically for the rights and dignity of others. And here we can begin to see the difficulty that an ethical life implies. After all, treating one person with respect may come into conflict with your responsibilities to another; certainly, being honest with someone is not always the most respectful thing you can do. The Code sorts the concern with confidentiality under “respect”; clearly this sometimes precludes being entirely truthful, which it sorts under “integrity”. (Even to let on that you know something about someone that you are not allowed to say can be a breach of their privacy.) There’s an important ethical tension here.*

There is a lively discussion these days about the importance of being aware of your “privilege”. Do your words and actions carry extra weight because they channel a power that is rooted in history of injustices, whether of race, or class, or gender, or sexuality? If so, these injustices are, importantly, historical. The list will no doubt have to be amended in the future as we become aware of forms marginalization we haven’t seen before. The value of the Code is that it requires us to face these issues explicitly, and then to work through them as our cultural values, personal morals, and actual responsibilities change throughout our careers. Like I say, it’s as difficult as being alive. Doing it well is correspondingly rewarding.

P.S. In a post from 2013, Kathy Lund Dean put this point forcefully: “Ethical and principled behavior is de-stabilizing to important, instrumental relationships in business, and there are costs to that.” I’ll write more about this in my next post.

It’s been great, and THE ETHICIST moves on…….

The Ethicist LogoThanks! It’s been great, and THE ETHICIST moves on…….

 

As Thomas Basboll’s post on THE ETHICIST (February 2, 2015) indicates, it is time for THE ETHICIST to engage in “A Change of Pace,” and take on new bloggers. We are delighted that the Academy of Management is continuing with this important community engagement space, and that Benson Honig and Thomas Basboll are taking on the lead blogging roles. We have a significant sense of ownership over the future of THE ETHICIST and plan to continue to be part of the blog, writing from time to time ourselves, as the blog moves ahead with new authors, editors and topics.

As we look back on the last several years since the inception of THE ETHICIST, it’s interesting to see how blogging itself has evolved. Much of the advice of best blogging practices reinforces what Thomas will change about THE ETHICIST, including shorter and more frequent posts, and expanding the scope of the discussions.  The international diplomacy-building organization DiploFoundation recommends using the “E.K.G.” approach for blogging: Engage with other blogs and your own readers, Keep the material fresh and exciting, and Give people a reason to return. The blog hosting site HubSpot says readers want to see the blogger’s personality come out, and that readers come back to blogs that treat topics in unusual and cross-disciplinary ways. All of this advice mirrors plans for THE ETHICIST and we are looking forward to seeing energetic treatment of ethical issues.

The common advice about blogging — no matter whose advice one takes — revolves around content: compelling, thoughtful and timely content is the make-or-break blog factor. And in this respect, we are confident that THE ETHICIST will broaden its community reach with Thomas and Benson at the helm. There is so much to share about how the Academy is integrating ethical practice into meetings and member resources, and how we as an academic community are grappling with significant ethical questions. All five of us are members of the Ethics Education Committee; we have facilitated lively discussions throughout the Academy in multiple ways and venues: at doctoral consortia, via webinars, through YouTube video discussions, and in myriad annual meeting sessions. We have found our fellow Academy members, particularly doctoral students, to be enormously interested in how to do the right thing, and how to resolve conflicts in ethics in ways that allow them to flourish.

Thank you to everyone who has supported THE ETHICIST so far. We gratefully acknowledge in particular the help of Terese Loncar; our advisory panels for research, teaching and professional life;  members of the Ethics Education Committee and the Board of Governors of the Academy of Management; and our home departments. We look forward to the great new conversations and connections to be made ahead.

Lorraine, Kathy & Paul

Lorraine Eden
Lorraine Eden
Kathy Lund Dean
Kathy Lund Dean
Paul Vaaler
Paul Vaaler

 

A Change of Pace

At the Academy Meeting in Philadelphia this summer the Ethics Education Committee discussed, among other things, a new direction for this blog. Benson and I have been talking about our approach behind the scenes and we’re now ready to begin implementing the changes, so I thought I ‘d take a few moments to explain what we are going to try to do.

First, however, I’d like to thank Lorraine Eden, Kathy Lund Dean, and Paul Vaaler for the great work they’ve done over the past few years, providing thoughtful and informative content about ethical issues to the readers of the blog. We’re building on a solid foundation now, thanks to their efforts, and we will no doubt be dipping into the archives every now then for inspiration for upcoming posts. A blog is ideally the site of an ongoing conversation, and we’re very aware that we’re walking into a room that is already filled with vibrant dialogue. Don’t be surprised to see a guest post by one of them every now and then in the months and years to come. We’ll be drawing on all the expertise we have access to.

Going forward, our plan is to post at least once a week (and at most once a day) on a broad range of issues grounded in the Academy of Management Code of Ethics. As most everyone is aware, ethics is not the domain of easy questions, where a clear right and clear wrong can be straightforwardly determined. Rather, there will always be a need to interpret the Code, and what we will be offering here are attempts at such interpretations. In the end, all Academy members will face their own more or less unique ethical dilemmas, and the difficulty in each case will be one of applying the Code’s general principles and standards to their specific circumstances. We can’t make a determination for you, but we can model ethical reasoning by thinking through particular cases in an open and frank manner.

In this, my first, post, then, I’ll show what this means by beginning with a sentences from the Code’s preamble:

AOM members respect and protect civil and human rights and the central importance of freedom of inquiry and expression in research, teaching, and publication.

It’s an important sentence because it is rooted in the Academy’s mission as a organization of scholars. While its members are also often professionals, their ethical orientation is rooted in their identity as researchers and teachers. What this means in practice is that the value of “freedom of inquiry and expression” occupies a central place in our thinking about right and wrong behavior. This is not a trivial issue; it does not apply in all fields. Intelligence professionals, lawyers and engineers, for example, may value discretion, confidentiality and secrecy above freedom of inquiry. This does not make them unethical, and AOM members do of course keep their promises of confidentiality when they give them. The point is simply that a dilemma may arise for them when they do so, and the specific choices within that dilemma are shaped by the high value that a scholar places on the search for the truth. A scholar is uncomfortable–ethically uncomfortable–with any arrangement that restricts his or her freedom of inquiry and expression. As in all things, this is not an absolute principle, but it is an important concern.

I said earlier that we’re going to endeavor to be open and frank here at the Ethicist. The sentence I quoted from the preamble is my attempt to anchor that ambition in the Code, which it is the mandate of the Ethics Education Committee to disseminate. And this will be how we proceed from week to week. (On Friday I’ll look at our General Principles.) The idea is to use the blog to reflect on the best way to present the issues that the Code addresses. And this means that the blog will also be a site for the development of our contribution to the Professional Development Workshops at the Academy’s meetings. Not only will you be able to get a good sense of what the committee is up to, you’ll be able to influence our thinking.

For that reason the comments are open. We will be moderating them quite closely, but we have not yet developed a specific commenting policy. Basic principles of respect and decency, of course, apply. But we have a sense that the readers of a blog called the Ethicist will be reasonable people. One decision that we have made is not to let this blog become a place to discuss cases that are not already in the public domain. Like any blog, we will no doubt find much material in the news of the day. But we will confine ourselves to commenting on the news, not breaking it. That goes also for the comments.

Finally, a note on the length of the posts. We’ll be posting more often than has been the case in the past, but they will be significantly shorter.  I’ve just hit 830 words, for example, which is right in the ball park of the length of the posts we’re shooting for. Somewhere between 500 and 1000 words. So, with that promise of keeping it brief, I’ll stop. More on Friday.

In Memoriam: John E. Fleming, PhD

Long before the Ethicist Blog and the Ethics of Research and Publishing Video Series, the Academy’s voice of ethics was embodied in John E. Fleming, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California.  John was a long-time member of the AOM Ethics Committee and a regular contributor to the Academy of Management Newsletter. John contributed articles about ethics that translated ethics experiences in academe to include vignettes on research, professional life and teaching, much like the topical areas found on the Ethicist Blog.  He recognized that being able to articulate our core shared professional values further builds our ethical culture.  Sadly, John Fleming passed away on February 2, 2014 and while he leaves behind his loving family and many colleagues and friends, his words and contributions about ethics will remain in the Academy’s memory.  You can read John’s full obituary in the March 2014 edition of AcadeMY News.

In honor of John Fleming’s memory, we’d like to share one of his later contributions to the Ethics Column.

THE NEW CODE OF ETHICS AS A CHALLENGEJohn E Fleming

By John E. Fleming, Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California; Member of the AOM Ethics Committee  (Originally published October 2006 AOM Newsletter)

This column deals with the Introduction, the Preamble, and both the General and Professional Principles in the first part of the Academy’s revised Code of Ethics.  I suspect that you are finding in your reading of the Code that it is a very complete professional document that requires diligent study and thoughtful application.  But there are also a number of important surprises along the way.

The most interesting thing that I have found in my study of this first part of the code is the emphasis that it places on the need for the very highest levels of professional ethics.  If we think of ethics as dealing with relationships between people, the Code requires that such relationships exist at the highest ethical level.  On the first page of the Code in the Introduction this is stated very clearly: “The Preamble, General Principles, and Professional Principles set forth aspirational goals to guide AOM members toward the highest ideals of research, teaching  practice, and service.”

Continue reading “In Memoriam: John E. Fleming, PhD”

Better by the Dozen: The Ethicist Blog Posts July 2011-Feb 2013

With the February 2013 blog post on “Ethics in Research Scenarios: What Would YOU Do?”,  The Ethicist has now published two dozen blogs on three areas of ethics that affect not only AOM members, but all members of the scholarly professions: research, teaching and professional life. Links to each of these posts are provided below, together with a downloadable one-page PDF for printing and circulation. Enjoy!

 

Continue reading “Better by the Dozen: The Ethicist Blog Posts July 2011-Feb 2013”

Job Offers

When Is a Job Offer Really a Job Offer in Academia?

 

It may sound like a silly question.  Or maybe it sounds like a question on the final exam of some first-year law student’s Contracts course –often another forum for silliness.  But it’s not so silly when you receive a phone call, email or letter from some departmental, college or university official asking you to move across the country or across the world to take a new job.  And it’s not so silly when you are on the other end of that transaction doing the asking –some might say wooing— to get a would-be colleague to move across the country or world.

 

Offers and acceptances are part of everyday life, so we tend to think that we know them when hear, read one and or write them.  But it might be a little more complicated when it comes to a job-offer, especially when the job is for a senior faculty position with tenure.  And some of the complications have, I think, substantial ethical dimensions.  Even if the job-offer doesn’t include tenure, there are some less-than-obvious process issues worth thinking about so that academics on both sides of the prospective transaction do the right thing.  So let me start the new calendar year with my own take on some ethical issues associated with job-offers in academia:  what they should include; how they should be conveyed; what contingencies might render a “job offer” moot; and how to respond to contingent and non-contingent offers so that you are fair to both your current and prospective future institution.

Continue reading “Job Offers”

The Thought Leader Series: Michael A. Hitt on Ethics in Research

Michael A. Hitt

KEY INSIGHT:  Michael A. Hitt is one of the world’s most respected and prolific management scholars. In this blog, Professor Hitt discusses the ethics of research based on his many years of working in collaborative groups and with PhD students. This blog posting is the first of a series of interviews of thought leaders in our profession, asking them about their views and experience with ethical issues.

 

Happy Birthday! Taking Stock of THE ETHICIST’s First Year

KEY INSIGHT:  THE ETHICIST has been running as a blog on AOM Connect for a year now so it makes sense for its creators and bloggers to take stock of what the blog has (and has not) accomplished over the past year, and to think creatively about how to move ahead.  We will hold a Caucus session, “THE ETHICIST: THE INFORMAL ECONOMY AND SCHOLARSHIP, TEACHING AND PROFESSIONAL LIFE ETHICS,” to discuss this issue at the Boston AOM annual meetings in August 2012. Please join us!

Continue reading “Happy Birthday! Taking Stock of THE ETHICIST’s First Year”

AOM Videos on “Ethics in Research & Publication”

The Ethics Education Committee of the Academy of Management has developed a series of eight videos of journal editors talking about ethical issues involving research and publication. The videos are posted on AOM’s YouTube channel at: http://www.youtube.com/academyofmanagement.

Please share the videos with individuals you think would be interested in viewing them.  The videos are particularly useful for PhD students and junior faculty who are starting into the research process, but — even for old-timers like me — it was very instructional to watch the videos. Highly recommended! Kudos to Susan Madsen and Jim Davis for heading up this project, and to all the journal editors who participated.