The Ethical Professor: PDW & Book for our times!

Longtime readers of The Ethicist blog will remember the substantive writings contributed by the founders and inaugural blog hosts, Lorraine Eden, Kathy Book coverLund Dean, and Paul Vaaler. This experienced team has now collected, updated, and edited their work into a new book, The Ethical Professor: A Practical Guide to Research, Teaching and Professional Life. Could it come at a more timely moment?

Luckily for AOM 2018 attendees, the writers will offer a lively PDW about contemporary ethical issues for professors–  in research, teaching and professional life. Upcoming, new and experienced professors will benefit from this opportunity!

The Ethical Professor: Practical Advice For Ethics in Research, Teaching And Professional Life
All Academy PDW

Sunday, Aug 12 2018 4:00PM – 5:30PM
at Hyatt Regency Chicago in Columbus AB

Come join us for an interactive and practical conversation about ethical issues in academic life. The PDW, and the book on which it is based, are the direct result of “The Ethicist” blog, an Ethics Education Committee (EEC) and AOM leadership “Strategic Doing” initiative begun in 2011. Lorraine, Kathy and Paul served as The Ethicist’s inaugural authors, writing about ethical issues in research, teaching and professional life.

The Ethical Professor: A Practical Guide to Research, Teaching and Professional Life (2018, Routledge) began to take form in 2015, when we stepped down from writing posts. We realized that our years of working and writing blog posts together had created a synergy when read together, providing a conceptual flow that we believed could move to book form. We also believed that a book on ethics in academia would fill a hole in the available resources to doctoral students and young faculty members on how to navigate the tricky waters of a successful academic career. So we selected the best and most useful of our blog posts, rewrote, and updated them as book chapters to reflect the most recent thinking (as of October 2017) on each topic. We also added new chapters to the book to fill missing holes on key topic areas.

The key theme in the book – and in this PDW – is that academic career paths appear to be quite standard and transparent. However, we argue that there are many ethical pitfalls along the academic life cycle in all three of the metrics by which we are judged: research, teaching and service. The ethical dilemmas that can plague each of the steps along the academic career path are often not visible, are generally not discussed with or by the thousands of faculty in the Academy, and are generally not addressed with training on how to spot and handle these ethical issues.

Our All-Academy PDW will create a space for conversation about ethical issues in academe, bringing some of the content from the book to the AOM membership in an interactive format.

We hope that the PDW will bring together individuals within AOM who are passionate about ethics, to talk about how together we might lessen the ethical pitfalls that face all members of the Academy.

Join the EEC in Chicago for thought-provoking events!

Reflect on what matters at Ethics Education Committee events in Chicago!The Ethics Education Committee will offer five opportunities for discussion of contemporary ethics and social responsibility issues in the classroom, research, publication, and professional life. Please join us for PDWs, a caucus, two focused discussion forum sessions, and our annual business meeting.

We welcome everyone, including students, scholar-practitioners, new, early career or career-changing members, international members, and experienced academics. Say hello at the new member event in the vendor area!

​​PDW: Behavioral Ethics Research

This post is part of an invited series, in an effort to share ethics-related opportunities, news, and projects lead by AOM Divisions, Committees, and members.
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Session #313, Title: “Behavioral Ethics Research: A Third Annual Pecha Kucha Springboard and Networking Session.”  Saturday, August 11, 2018 10:45 AM – 2:45 PM. Location: Sheraton Grand Chicago, Sheraton Ballroom II & III.

Organizers:
Niki den Nieuwenboer (U of Kansas)
Marie Mitchell (U of Georgia)
Linda K. Treviño (Penn State)

The field of behavioral ethics examines the causes and consequences of ethical and unethical behavior within organizations. Buoyed by the organizational scandals that continue to come to light, the field is attracting ever more research interest and is starting to diversify in its theoretical foundations and methodologies. Thus, the behavioral ethics community attracts individuals from a broad range of backgrounds and divisions within the Academy of Management.

To enable the behavioral ethics research community to continue to grow and prosper, for the third consecutive time, we are organizing a PDW that offers a platform for all those interested in (un-)ethical behavior within organizations to congregate, mingle, and exchange research ideas. The first half of the PDW features eight timed 5-minute Pecha Kucha style presentations by established and more upcoming scholars in the field. These presentations highlight a broad range of ideas that the presenters believe will push the field forward. The presentations will be followed by a stimulating plenary discussion.

The second half of the PDW will feature nine roundtable topical discussions, hosted by two to three behavioral ethics experts per table.

While all are welcome to attend the first part of the PDW, we ask those who are interested in also attending the round table discussions to register ahead of time, as we only have limited space per table. There are still a few spots left; so if you are interested please email us at niki@ku.edu.

Presenters and experts:
Bruce Avolio (U of Washington)
Max Bazerman (Harvard)
Jon Bundy (Arizona State U)
Katy DeCelles (U Toronto)
Rellie Derfler-Rozin (U of Maryland)
Ryan Fehr (U of Washington)
Rob Folger (U of Central Florida)
Michelle Gelfand (U of Maryland)
Maryam Kouchaki (Northwestern)
Celia Moore (Bocconi)
Tyler Okimoto (U of Queensland)
Mike Pfarrer (U of Georgia)
Lamar Pierce (U of Washington St. Louis)
Ann Tenbrunsel (Notre Dame)
Elizabeth E. Umphress (U of Washington)
Abhijeet Vadera (Singapore Management U
Marius Van Dijke (RSM Erasmus U).

 

 

Call for Papers: Journal of Business Ethics on Historic Corporate Responsibility

This post is part of an invited series, in an effort to share ethics-related opportunities, news, and projects lead by AOM Divisions, Committees, and members.
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Sins of the Fathers:
Organizations and Historic Responsibility
by Robert A. Phillips, Judith Schrempf-Stirling and Christian Stutz

What are the responsibilities of current managers and the organizations they lead for the actions of long ago predecessors? When historians found that forebears of the U.S. bank Wachovia owned slaves, Ken Thompson, chairman and chief executive officer in 2005, publicly apologized stating, “On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans and people of African descent“. Wachovia has not been the only company – or even the only bank – to publicly apologize for its history. That same year, J.P. Morgan Chase issued an apology and announced it would provide a $5 million scholarship fund for its role in owning slaves who were used as loan collateral.

In 2011, German fashion company Hugo Boss apologized for its use and harsh treatment of forced labourers during World War II. The company’s public statement stressed “its profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule.”  Nor is this limited to for profit corporations. In 2017, Yale announced it would rename Calhoun College due to John C. Calhoun’s active support of slavery. While history is in the past, it remains very much in the present. Examples like these raise fundamental questions about the historical actions of organizations and the related responsibility in the present.

We share our history in the form of stories and narratives when we talk about the foundation, origins, developments, changes, and goals of our organizations. Those stories form and express identity and legitimize current activities. Our stories co-create our collective organizational memory. However, stories and narratives are substantially subjective. Due to their own past and experiences and current position, individuals will have different takes on historical and current events – that is, history can be contested. Even when we experience the same event, this does not mean that we think or talk about it in the same way. Different narratives can co-exist about the very same historical events. History, as such, can be a powerful tool. These narratives can be, and often are, used strategically. Non-governmental organizations or activists might (mis-)use history for moralizing purposes to receive greater public attention and support. Corporations may manipulate how the public views past events by sharing only part of the story or discrediting other narratives. Often these organizations are also the stewards of the very documents and artefacts needed to inform our readings of history. Of course, some level of interpretation and selectivity is unavoidable. Examining an organization’s past, how that past is interpreted in the present, and how these sometimes contested interpretations influence today’s managers and organizational stakeholders present fascinating scholarly possibilities.

To provoke and promote deeper examination, we have launched a call for papers for a special issue in Journal of Business Ethics on Historic Corporate Responsibility in which we encourage scholars to consider some of the following pressing questions in relation to organizations and their histories:

  • Can organizations be responsible for the actions of prior generations of leaders and members?
  • What, if anything, can current leaders do to recognize, mitigate or limit responsibility today for past actions?
  • What can leaders today do to affect how they and their organizations are seen in the future? What role can concerns for legacy have in influencing current decisions?
  • What, if any, effect do attempts at re-organization (e.g., acquisition, mergers, bankruptcy, re-branding, changes in leadership, etc.) have on responsibility?
  • Is there a limit to how far back the claims of historic responsibility can go?
  • What would adequate restitution look like? To whom and in what form and magnitude? Can an organization be forgiven? Can an organization apologize and who can accept it?
  • What are the boundaries of past and current organizations? Are there affiliational responsibilities from the past?
  • Who can legitimately speak for the past?
  • What is the role of forgetting and selective memory?
  • What, if any, duty do organizations have to be transparent about their past?
  • Should stigma attach to individuals who were participants in past transgressions? How do we define participants?

Many of our colleagues have been hard at work for many decades within the Academy of Management, particularly within the Management History Division. Tremendous potential remains, however, for exploring how the past continues to affect the sorts of questions that have historically (ahem) been considered part of other domains of the Academy.

Yes, we were hacked!

Image result for hackersIn case you were wondering… we did not write that post about casinos! We were hacked! We are trying to diagnose the problem so hopefully you will not see any more oddball posts.

Voice and academia – when do we speak out?

Voice and academia – when do we speak out?

In his classic work, Hirschman (1970) refers to ‘exit, voice and loyalty”, noting that the easier it is to leave an environment of discontent, the lower the voice. Voice, however, is more helpful, in that it explains decline. Of course, exit from AOM is a rather simple task, we do not have a monopoly on scholarly conferences or journals in management. Yet, recently, there was active and serious discussion including members mentioning leaving, boycotting, and resigning their AOM membership.

On Jan.27, President Donald Trump issued the now familiar executive order restricting and/or banning anyone from 7 different countries from visiting the USA. What followed, in addition to the subsequent court order cancelling this directive, was a stream of protests from various organizations, including Academic organizations, such as the APA, ASA, etc.. I have listed many of these responses at the end of this blog for your reference. In most cases, the language is explicit: restricting travel to individuals according to their national origin went against the values of many of these organizations, and their objection was unambiguous.

The ruling also challenged our own Code of Ethics at AOM:

The AOM ensures that attention is paid to the rights and well-being of all organizational stakeholders.

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

Further:

Worldview. Academy members have a duty to consider their responsibilities to the world community.

In their role as educators, members of the Academy can play a vital role in encouraging a broader horizon for decision making by viewing issues from a multiplicity of perspectives, including the perspectives of those who are the least advantaged.

Our own president, Anita M. McGahan, weighed in, but unfortunately, her letter lacked the robust character of many of the academies listed below. Rather, she attempted a ‘work around”, and I quote a few paragraphs as follows:

“First, the AOM is suspending the requirement of attendance as a condition of inclusion in the program at the Annual Meeting for those affected by the travel restrictions.  All scholars whose work is accepted to the conference but are not able to enter the United States from travel-restricted countries will have access to sessions in which they are presenting through virtual means.  Second, we will also share with you, via our website, the best information that we have about Visa application processes for those who want to attend.  We encourage any member from the affected countries who wishes to attend but cannot because of travel restrictions to contact us so that we can work with you toward participation”

“The vision of the AOM is to inspire and enable a better world through our scholarship and teaching about management and organizations.  I encourage AOM members to double down on the scholarly agenda. Let us be more engaged, creative, and committed to scholarship and teaching on the issues of our day.  Let us stand together in Atlanta in solidarity with our diverse membership as the world’s premiere association of management scholars and business-school professors.  Academic integrity is our strength.  Through our scholarly discussions and debate, we can find a way forward together.  This is the AOM’s purpose and this cannot and will not change”.

 

Many of members, including myself, wrote letters of protest to our president. We felt it important that AOM make a stand on this important issue. A healthy dialog subsequently ensued on numerous listservs.  It turned out that Anita was constrained by AOM policies that would not allow AOM to take political stands.

The policy was: “The Academy of Management does not take political stands. Officers and leaders are bound by this policy and may not make publicly stated political views in the name of the AOM or through use of AOM resources.”

As a result, I was very pleased to note that AOM policy has changed – albeit subtly, our policy as follows:

The newly amended policy on political stands is: “The Academy of Management does not take political stands. Officers and leaders are bound by this policy and may not make publicly stated political views in the name of the AOM or through use of AOM resources. However, under exceptional circumstances, and with the consensual support of the Executive Committee and in consultation with the Board of Governors, the President is authorized to issue a statement on behalf of the AOM when a political action threatens the existence, purpose, or functioning of the AOM as an organization.” This policy is under embargo for 90 days.

I wish to thank Anita, the Board of Governors, our members who voiced concerns, and all the other members involved for their work in rapidly addressing this important issue head on, by acknowledging that under certain circumstances, voice is important.

While many of us are fortunately enough to live in a democracy, we also are members of a global community of scholars. We have seen what happens when communities of scholars fail to adequately rise up against measures that limit or constrain academic freedom. We need not look far to see this freedom being denied our colleagues in various places, at this very moment. There are times when making a political stand is necessary to meet challenges attacking the very substance of what we do as scholars. While these will hopefully be few and far between, it is important that we acknowledge our own responsibility for voice, least we have only to exit. If nothing else, modifying our rules has engendered more loyalty.

Statements from various associations follow:

http://www.asanet.org/news-events/asa-news/statement-american-sociological-association-concerning-new-administrations-recent-and-future

https://news.aamc.org/press-releases/article/executive-order-immigration-013017/

The AAG:
http://news.aag.org/2017/01/aag-statement-on-president-trumps-executive-order/

APSA

http://www.politicalsciencenow.com/comment-on-apsa-statement-regarding-president-trumps-executive-order-protecting-the-nation-from-foreign-terrorist-entry-into-the-united-states/

COMPtia

https://www.comptia.org/advocacy/policy-issues/immigration/2017/01/30/comptia-statement-on-president-trump’s-executive-order-on-immigration

CRA

http://cra.org/govaffairs/blog/2017/01/cra-expresses-concern-new-executive-order-suspending-visas/

APLU

http://www.aplu.org/news-and-media/News/aplu-statement-on-trump-administrations-new-order-temporarily-banning-citizens-of-seven-countries-from-entering-us

AAUP

http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2017/01/31/statement-on-immigration-order-from-aauparl/

AAAS

https://www.aaas.org/news/aaas-ceo-responds-trump-immigration-and-visa-order

 

 

Educating the educators: Truth and justice in academic publishing

It seems I can’t visit anywhere without hearing harrowing stories of unethical and abusive editors, reviewers, and scholars. Before starting this blog, I would hear the odd tale or two – but now I seem to be ground zero for the often shocking admissions of disgruntled and abused colleagues the world over!

While it would be nice to view these unfortunate confessions as a biased sample, I am beginning to believe that the entire profession harbors within each of us, numerous examples of blatantly unethical conduct, all simmering and waiting to escape as some sort of neurotic or equally unjust retribution. In short, we may be the walking wounded. All of this has to do with our culture of scholarship – we need to carefully ask ourselves, what kind of culture are we promoting, and what are our overall objectives? How can we improve the cultural landscape that we operate in?

Just a few representative examples:

A junior colleague tells me an anonymous reviewer demands a series of coercive self-citations of their own, only tangentially relevant work. They also disclose, in the review, both who they are, along with insinuations that they know exactly who the jr. scholar is. The editor forwards this review with no comment.

A senior scholar reports presenting a paper with a unique novel analysis of public data during a conference. A few months later, she observes a conference paper written by a member of the audience who had attended the talk – utilizing the exact same methods and data.  There is no mention of her paper, not even an acknowledgement. Despite reminding the author of this sequence of events – by sending a copy of the proceedings as a reminder – the paper is eventually published, without a word of recognition, even though the editor is aware of the circumstances.

Dog eat dog…

Finally, we have the ‘curse’ of the special issue editors. These are often the unregulated wild west. I have heard more horror stories than I can relate in this short blog, but they range from ‘tit for tat’ expectations, to outstanding examples of favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism. Editors taking advantage of writing themselves or their friends into special issues is very common. These may represent closed networks of special subject reviewers who are primed   to support primarily insider work – and reject outsider material. Social expectations trump scientific merit, and the entire effort becomes mired in politics.

While these are but a few examples, one begins to suspect that what is published is often not recognition regarding the high quality of the research, rather, it has to do with the social processes underlying how the work is presented. Rather than rewarding the highest quality work – or the most innovative work – we wind up with a kind of replication of the norm. We pat each other on the back regarding out methodological rigor, without really considering the accuracy or consequences of our efforts. No wonder managers in the ‘real world’ seldom pay attention to anything we do.

All of which suggests that we need more transparency in our publication and review process, as well as more insight into the methodological and philosophical rigour we use to approach our work. The idea of double blind is good – as long as it is truly double blind, and the objective is to enhance the quality of the subsequent product. However, all too often, we’re simply going through a well rehearsed process of convincing the editors and reviewers that our work is normative, while they go through the ritual of telling us how to frame an acceptable ‘story’ that meets their standards, irrespective of the accuracy of the work.

In a very insightful article, Bill Starbuck in the  60 year anniversary issue of ASQ points out the inconsistencies in reviewer evaluations, including the problems of submissions from ‘low status institutions’, convoluted formulas, and ambiguous editorial feedback. He also highlights the problems of signalling inherent in language usage, whereby reviewers can identify the origin of any particular manuscript’s authors.

Next, Bill tackles the issue of our efforts to enhance the importance of our work, irrespective of the actual merit, sometimes leading to corrupt methodologies, HARKing (Hypothesizing after results are known) and p-Hacking (subjecting data to multiple manipulations until some sort of pattern emerges) both of which misrepresent the accuracy of the theories discussed. Bill points out that this leads to “a cynical ethos that treats research as primarily a way to advance careers”.

Bill concludes that cultural changes are needed, but that they happen only slowly. Senior scholars must take a very visible lead – editors and reviewers alike. In the end, it’s really a matter of education.

I fully agree with Bill – we need to start looking at ourselves carefully in the mirror, stop quoting our individual H indexes, and begin the difficult task of educating ourselves regarding how to advance our scientific capabilities.

 

 

 

 

When journal editors are unprofessional

I recently read a NY times article highlighting an obvious conflict, when stock analysts own stock or options in the companies they are evaluating, or retain close ties with  those companies. It’s kind of horrifying to think that what is regarded as objective, unsolicited advice, may really be individuals trying to ‘game’ the system, by pushing up the price of their options for personal gain. Of course, that’s Wall Street, we’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again. But it got me thinking – what about journal editors?

Journal editors make decisions, often with considerable career implications, but their relationships – with the persons they evaluate, or the way they make decisions – is entirely opaque. It’s not like there’s some sort of appeals board one can go to if one thinks they have been slighted by an editor who bears a grudge against an author, their university, or even the theoretical or methodological paradigm they are writing about. This opens up not only questions of abuse of power and self interest, but also of due process.

We all want to think that the blind review process is objective – but what about the reviewer selection?  What about other practices? I don’t have to go far to find a litany of editor’s abusive activities. Just scratching the surface, we find the ‘tit for tat’ exchange – “ I will publish your paper in my journal, with the expectation that you will reciprocate with a publication your journal”. The special issue editor, that always seems to publish good friends and colleagues from their particular sphere of influence. Special issue editors are a particular problem, as they seem to go relatively unregulated. These practices effectively reduce the probability of a general submission being accepted, as there are few slots allocated to the genuine public of scholars. We also have coercive citations abuse, whereby the editor informs the author that they need to cite their journal (to improve the impact factor) in the editor’s R&R letter.  And, of course, we have the form letter rejection, sometimes not even reflecting the contents of the paper submitted, or addressing the material in a way demonstrating that the editor actually read anything.

What I find particularly surprising is that there is virtually no recourse. Many of us have experienced egregious editorial injustice, yet we simply grin and bear it. Students, on the other hand, seem to have figured out a way to vent their frustrations is a way that might, perhaps, temper the worst of academic injustice. Sites like ‘rate my professor’ allow students to voice their anger and frustration at what they view to be unjust or unprofessional activities. While I am the first to acknowledge that the site is relatively un-monitored and subject to potential biases and abuse – at least it provides a forum.

Academy of Management journals maintain a fairly transparent editorial policy, limiting the tenure of editors, and opening up nominations to our membership. This is good practice. Why don’t ALL journals publish a code of editorial ethics? Why don’t they ALL consider grievance procedures? Where is our academic forum? Why is it that we academics, have not devised a site to discuss perceived biases, unprofessional behavior, and irresponsible editing? I know, from talking with colleagues, that most of us have experienced unprofessional and sometimes outright unethical practices. Yet, we sit silently, submitting our papers to yet another journal, hoping for a fair evaluation at another venue. Meanwhile, some editors, even those demonstrating deeply abusive practices, are professionally rewarded.

Is there something we can do?  Does anyone have a suggestion? Or, are we all ‘happy campers”?

What are we professors to do? Are we better than VW?

As members of the Academy, we each hold responsibility in upholding our professional ethics. Once the ‘egg is broken’, it will be very hard to re-establish public confidence. VW, for instance, will undoubtedly have a long road in convincing the public that their organization acts in an ethically responsible way. While the public seemed to quickly forgive GM for their ignoring a faulty ignition problem, they are less willing to forgive systemic premeditated corruption. We have seen the flashback from the American Psychological Association regarding members advising how best to conduct torture having an impact on their community. In short, many of these professional ethical issues have a way of impacting our field for the long run.

In the last posting, Greg Stephens AOM’s onbudperson, outlined a range of issues they examine, with instructions regarding how to proceed should you have a professional ethics dilemma. They do a fantastic job, often behind the scenes, and we should be very appreciative of their hard work.

Of course, these issues are primarily only of relevance to things that happen in and around the Academy of Management. If you observe something at another conference, or at a non AOM sponsored journal, well, there may be few if any options for you to pursue.

A  AOM recent censure ruling, the first I ever recall seeing, included the sanctioning of an academy member. Professor Andreas Hinterhuber had submitted a previously published paper for consideration at the upcoming Annual Meeting. The ruling was as follows:

The final sanctions include disqualification from participation in Academy of Management activities (including but not limited to submission to the conference, participation on the conference program, serving the Academy or any of its Divisions or Interest Groups in an elected or appointed role, or submission to any of the Academy of Management journals) for a period of three (3) years, public notice of the violation through publication in the AcadeMY News; formal notification to the journal where the work was previously published, and ethics counseling by the Ombuds Committee.

Seeing a public and formal sanction is a good professional start, and I applaud our organization for taking the trouble to demonstrate that we have professional limits that should be honored. However, what if  Professor Andreas Hinterhuber were found to have done the same thing at, say, EGOS, or BAM? Of what about someone who submits a paper simultaneously to two different journals for review? Would the consequences be the same? Likely not.

It would seem to me that we would all benefit from a larger professional ‘tent’ whereby public notice of violations and censure were more systematically discussed. I find it very odd that, out of 20,000 members, it is so rare for us to have a public censure (this is the first I am aware of – although there may have been other non-public consequences). Every year I hear of multiple cases of doctors and lawyers getting disbarred.  The odds are presumably the same for our profession, but the consequences far less, and the frequency of public humiliation quite rare. This would only provide incentives to engage in unprofessional conduct.  I am not suggesting we begin a yellow journalistic finger pointing exercise. Only that given the rise in competition, and the important stakes involved in our profession, we should collectively think about professional monitoring, public dialog, and the provision of clear ethical guidelines in our doctoral and professional career development.

Your thoughts on the matter are welcome.

Courage

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”

Hamlet

In the comments to my last post, Andrew quite literally encouraged me to speak my mind. Truth be told, I’ve always been ambivalent about “intellectual courage”. Sometimes the exercise of our ethical obligations seems to require us to be courageous. But is courage itself an ethical obligation?

Courage is, of course, a virtue and it is presumably what is required of us when we “speak truth to power”. In the paradigm case, some form of social power asks us to lie or to remain silent, and when we defy this power we exercise courage. The consequences can be quite serious because, in so far as the power is real, it is also dangerous. If the powerful person or institution we are defying chooses to punish us for speaking the truth, then it has, by definition, the power to do so.

To understand my ambivalence, consider the ethical obligations that follow from being physically strong. “Ought,” they say, “implies can.” If someone is trapped under a car I have an ethical obligation to lift the car off them, but only, of course, if I have the strength to do so. Is courage a kind of “strength” in that sense?

Courage is a virtue and cowardice is a vice. But some part of our everyday moral psychology also sees them as character traits, i.e., as qualities we are either born with or develop through practice but, in any case, simply have a certain amount of at any given time. Suppose I know a “truth” that “power” would have me remain silent about. To speak it is to risk my career. Now, suppose I simply lack the courage to do it. I’m a “coward”, to be sure, but am I violating my ethics? How much courage can be demanded of my ethical behavior?

We are getting to the core of the issue I want to raise. How much courage should it take to speak the truth in an academic environment? Should it take courage to tell someone they are wrong?

On the one hand, we’d think universities would be a premier site of intellectual courage, much like the military should offer regular occasions for valour.* But let’s think this through. Suppose speaking the truth generally takes a great deal of courage. We will then rely on “heroes” to know what is going on. As students, we must assume that learning how the world works will itself require a great deal of courage, not just intelligence and diligence. Worse, the pressures that require truth-tellers to be courageous would also, of course, make cowards of the rest of us, those of us who are disinclined towards heroic acts of speaking truth to power.

In fact, what our academic institutions ought to do is to insulate inquirers from the social pressures that would require them to be courageous. Perhaps we could say an academic should never have to speak truth to power, but always to knowledge, i.e., to something that won’t hurt them, but might correct them. Don’t we want to know truths even if they are discovered by natural born cowards?

From this point of view, it is unfortunate that academics do, throughout the course of their career, amass real, if somewhat parochial, power. They have the power to exploit (and even harass and abuse) their students, for example, or the power to promote ideologies or products, sometimes for something as base as money. Finally, academics have the power to promote or obstruct their colleagues in their careers.

I want here to focus on the cases in which the abuse of power is also the distortion of truth. Sexual harassment, while certainly wrong, and often worse than intellectual dishonesty, does not directly distort our understanding of a given social phenomenon or exaggerate our confidence in a particular theory. (Because of the concomitant lying, to be sure, it does distort the reality experienced by the harassed persons and their colleagues. But this is not a fully or, if you will, a “merely” academic distortion.)

While it seems petty, and certainly unethical, there is really no question about whether academics have an incentive to punish each other for pointing out each other’s mistakes. An academic who is known for making mistakes will be less successful than one who is known for getting things right. So, if I have the power to prevent someone from pointing out my mistakes, I also, whatever else is true, have an incentive to use it. I may simply bribe the would-be truth-teller with promises of advancement, or I may threaten them with unpleasant consequences. This would be unethical.

In an ethical environment, of course, we would trust that I will not be punished for pointing out a mistake. But this will probably require that no one is ever punished for making them (removing the incentive to punish me for pointing it out). That is, I would be able even to be wrong about your mistakes, more or less without consequences. That’s a truly “utopian” situation.

The dystopian situation, however, is one in which it is very dangerous to speak what Al Gore famously called “an inconvenient truth”. Science would only be done by heroes, and, since these are rare, we would have to resign ourselves to the fact that most scientists are intellectual cowards. In my view, ethics is what ensures that only a reasonable, “ordinary” if you will, amount of courage is needed. We would, for the most part, rely on the decency of our colleagues.** And it would also ensure that science, as a social institution, wouldn’t have much need for cowards; wouldn’t encourage them, if you will.

We will, no doubt, always have to speak the truth, if we speak it at all, to some form of power. And so our knowledge will always depend to some extent on our intellectual courage. We can hope, however, that it does not depend on heroic amounts of courage. That same situation is much more likely to make cowards of most of us.
__________
*Movies that construe soldiers as heroes are, of course, very common. But we sometimes forget how rare they make real courage seem, even among soldiers. In most war movies (and novels), most members of the military, often including high-level officers, are “just following orders”, many of them out of lust for reward or fear of punishment. Much of the conflict pits the hero against these mediocrities.

Indeed, it is possible to raise the question of whether the modern army isn’t actually an attempt to wage war without courage or valour. (This is a common critique of drones, but was already an issue in the British navy, I was once told, when missiles were introduced that allowed one ship to sink another it couldn’t see.) Modernity aside, perhaps this has always been the purpose of a standing army; kings and emperors were finding heroes a bit too rare or too capricious (or perhaps even too honourable!) to realize their foreign policies.

**There’s probably an important relationship between courage and decency. I will explore this in a later post.