Category Archives: Keynote

Practical Ethics in the First Person

Deni ElliotDirector, Practicial Ethics Center, University of Montana

Read at the 2001 Ohio University student conference on applied ethics
April 28, 2001

The problem with practical ethics is that it is all about them.

Books, case studies, and even ethics classes themselves generally focus on people outside the classroom. Often the focus is on people who we don’t know, aren’t likely to run into, and who we have no desire to meet in a dark alley.

Think about it.

The they of ethical analysis include scientists who fabricate data in labs to make experiments come out just so. They include journalists who break promises to their sources.

They are the engineers and managers who decide that the it is okay to release a toxic amount of arsenic and lead into the city’s water supply because the city doesn’t use a test sensitive enough to pick up what the company is doing. They are the engineers and managers who decide that the number of lawsuits resulting from avoidable fatal car crashes costs the company less than replacing a problematic part or issuing a recall. And, they are the CEOs who avoid knowing about the fate of workers in their factories overseas.

They are the elected officials who intentionally serve special interest over the public interest. They are the pedophiles and the Web Masters who target doctors who perform abortions and they are they con men who bilk older citizens out of retirement funds.

Basically, they are the villains. And, of course, the OTHER they who we get to know in practical ethics case scenarios are those who fall victims to these predators.

It’s a wonder that good people want to muck around in this field. Unlike law enforcement, those of us who study and teach and research in practical ethics have no power to curb individual or institutional behavior.

We can talk all we want about justice, but, as moral philosophers or ethicists, we lack the power to take from those who have stolen and make things right again in that Aristotlian sense of proportional justice.

We can talk to rooms full of students and citizens and pre- and mid-career professionals, but we all know that the wolves are out there, in the audience, silently sneering at our arguments for why one should be moral.

So, what’s the point? What’s the goal for the field of practical ethics (and I include in that overall umbrella term, applied and professional ethics as well)?

About 40 years ago, the pioneers in this latest renaissance of the field decided that the point of practical ethics was NOT purely intellectual study. That’s what separated the work that we do from those philosophers who do meta-ethics or history of ethics.

But, my argument today is that as long as our focus is on recognizing the bad guys, the field’s not worth a whole lot. As long as the case studies we use for instruction and illumination are morality of villains and victims, there really is little to recommend the study of practical ethics.

Here are some of my starting assumptions:

  1. Practical ethics needs a change in focus from fraud and fabrication to fluency and facilitation.
  2. The most interesting ethical problems are those that occur when good people are trying hard to do the right thing.
  3. Decision making in the moral sphere is part of everyone’s everyday life, whether we choose to recognize it or not.
  4. The most important opportunity for moral growth and development is the time after one recognizes that she has made a moral mistake.

And, as I am going to do ethics in the first person here today, I’ll talk a great deal about teaching ethics in higher education. That’s what I do.

So, as an attempt to get my starting assumptions clear, here are what I think are defensible teaching goals for courses and programs in practical ethics:

  1. Help students recognize opportunities for their own moral decision making;
  2. Design activities that help them learn and practice the language that articulates their values and beliefs;
  3. Introduce them to other thinkers, classical and contemporary, who can become internal mentors for the students’ own moral decision making process;
  4. Open students eyes to inconsistencies between what they say and what they do;
  5. Provide the loving support necessary for them to take the risk to consider how they might act differently next time.

The only way that it is possible to accomplish these goals is to work every day to make the classroom itself an ethical learning environment. In short, the start of helping people learn to do practical ethics in the first person is to make the teaching and learning of ethics a first person endeavor.

Here’s my last list: five points that are implicit in what I will be talking about today:

  1. Other people’s conduct and motivations can be understood only from the perspective of each of our own moral development.
  2. Ethical analysis and behavior can be learned only within the context of one’s own sense of moral agency.
  3. Ethical analysis and behavior can be authentically taught only within the context of the teacher’s own sense of moral agency.
  4. Practical ethics takes the study of moral philosophy back to its Aristotelian roots: the primary reason for studying the nature of goodness is so that each of us can become better people, so that we can do our best to reach our individual teleos.
  5. Practical ethics teaching and learning makes sense only if it is about us rather than them.

I will use higher education as the primary source for my examples as that is a world that we all share. And, I will be talking specifically about the nature of cheating.

I got interested in cheating a few years ago because The University of Montana was chosen to be part of national survey on academic integrity. I was eager to get UM involved because we have a general education requirement in ethics. All undergraduate students take at least one ethics course to graduate; most of them take two. I recently did a little checking and found that between 15 and 20% of the undergraduate students were taking an ethics course. A full 75% of our fulltime faculty identify ethics as a primary teaching or research area. I was interested in knowing how well this strong curricular focus on ethics translated into faculty and student behavior. We talk a lot about ethics at UM; I wondered how ethical we were in our classrooms.

From the start, it was clear to me that I had different goals from the people creating the survey. They were interested in whether schools with an honors code had less of a problem with cheating than schools without honors codes. They were interested in law enforcement; I was interested in ethics.

The survey folks were interested in whether good enforcement results in less cheating; I am interested in how we all (faculty, students and administrators) can create a learning environment in which students no longer want to cheat.

Focus on enforcement seems an odd way for Universities and colleges to prevent cheating. It is odd for two reasons: first, honor code enforcement is the equivalent of providing a topical “cure” for a systemic illness. The way to prevent cheating is to remove the impetus for cheating. Next, focus on enforcement reinforces the notion that higher education operates in the basement of moral development levels. If we want to raise up morally sophisticated students, we need to appeal to their sense of principle, not their fear of punishment.

Recently, while I was preparing a talk on the nature of cheating, I came across a website called That’s a site that, for $9.85 per page, sells students term papers in ethics. does not explicitly tell students to cheat. In fact, the home page includes the following disclaimer: “Students who use our service are responsible not only for writing their own papers, but also for citing The Paper Store as a source when doing so.”

Yeah, right.

I got curious about whether had term papers on cheating. What wonderful irony: a student turns in as hers a paper on cheating that she bought from Or even better irony, a student WRITES a paper discussing cheating as an ethical problem and THEN turns the paper over to so that other students can use it to cheat.

My search of turned up three papers that sounded relevant to my work on cheating, but I certainly wasn’t going to spend $9.85 per page to get those papers. Then, I noticed that the site had this helpful but grammatically uncertain advice: “If you find yourself experiencing a difficult time deciding between more than one ethics paper, email us with the file names of those papers you’re interested in?and we will send you back a free, one page excerpt from each one!”

I considered the implications of my intended actions for a few minutes and then made a sound moral decision. I sent an email that read as follows: I am finding myself experiencing a difficult time deciding between more than one ethics paper. I look forward to receiving my free, one page excerpt from each of these three:

  • Academic Dishonesty and MacIntyre’s View of Nature;
  • Academic Integrity;
  • Personal Ethics and The Good Life.

I will also admit that I neglected to include my usual ‘signature’ that identified me as University Professor of Ethics and Director, Practical Ethics Center.

While I waited to hear back from, I spent some time wondering if I was cheating. I wasn’t going to buy an ethics paper. In fact, I had problems with the idea that ANYbody would spend $9.85 per page for a five page paper that had 1 (count em ONE) source in its bibliography.

My plan was to use the irony of their service to make a point in two in my lecture on cheating. So, did I cheat the company in having them send me one page excerpts that I knew I would not use as they were intended to be used?

Well, lets start with a definition of cheating. We cheat when we fail to follow rules that we know everyone is expected to follow. Think of what cheating means when you are playing Monopoly or Scrabble. You are cheating if you move your little Scotty dog further than what the dice says. You are cheating at Scrabble if you quickly exchange a few letters when your opponent is out of the room. Basically, you are making an exception of the rules that you know that everyone is expected to follow in those game situations.

By this common use definition, I was cheating by not following the rules that people are reasonably expected to follow when dealing with And, I will argue that my questionable behavior was justified, not for the reason.

Cheating can sometimes be justified, but not on the grounds that we are cheating the bad guys. Justification for cheating includes making it publicly known that it is morally acceptable for anyone to cheat in relevantly similar circumstances.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that there is a hostage-taking situation going on in town. The terrorist, holding the hostages, demands that a camera crew and reporter from CNN come in and let him have his say for broadcast. Now, we reasonably expect people to be who they present themselves to be. It would be cheating, in this case, for law enforcement officers to go in, undercover pretending to be the camera crew and journalist. And, I would say that it is justified in cases like that for law enforcement officers to cheat the terrorist. What makes this exception justified is NOT that law enforcement is cheating the bad guys.

What makes this exception justified is that it is the kind of exception that could and should be publicly known. I would like, very much, for future terrorists to think that when they ask for journalists to come in to hear their demands, the end result may be that undercover agents come in instead. I am hopeful that such uncertainty may make future terrorists want to change major.

In a similar way, I would say that it is justified for all ethics teachers and all ethics students to download free sample pages from because the end result may be that it is not cost effective for the company to offer samples or maybe even offer the service. And, I think that it would be fine for to know that we are all engaging in this effort to cheat the company.

So, how does this connect with higher education? I’m offering an opportunity for each of us to make a little online moral statement, but its more than that. The existence of helps illustrate some real problems in higher education. Some practices of higher education, like, implicitly encourage students to cheat. The behavior that is encouraged is different from that which is requested. Next, some of the rules of the higher education game may seem so arbitrary and disconnected from the goal of higher education that students might well view cheating as a kind of civil disobedience — a way of rebelling against an absurd system, a way of refusing to play what seems to be an unreasonable game.

Higher education has two important primary missions: first, it brings together the resources and talent necessary for the creation of new knowledge. It also exists to transfer knowledge and ways of knowing from one generation of scholars to the next. That second mission, the mission that focuses specifically on teaching, will be the primary consideration here. The job of faculty and administrators is to turn out independent and self-reflective learners who have acquired new knowledge and new ways of learning. Students graduating should look different from students matriculating. Students leaving higher education should have skills and abilities at the end of their college career that they lacked at the beginning. The greater repertoire of skills and abilities means that they should be far less dependent upon others to do their thinking and figuring for them. They should be autonomous, able to notice what they need to know and able to figure out how to gain additional information.

Now, an important question is how students can best get to this point of being autonomous critical thinkers. Aristotle, who quite rightly pointed out that people learn a certain way of being through practice. At the start of Nichomachian Ethics, Aristotle says, “anything that we have to learn to do, we learn by the actual doing of it; people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.”

In 1994, ten years after completing my doctoral work, I decided to re-connect with my students’ experience by learning something entirely foreign to my talents, education and experience. I decided to learn to weave.

A four-foot tall, four-foot wide floor loom, that I had bought years before on a whim, had, until this point, been nothing more than a substantial piece of living room sculpture. But, once I registered for weaving class, I looked at the loom in a whole new way. I saw it as an opportunity to do great things. And, I saw it as an opportunity to fail.

I reflected on my own ambivalence while I waited for the class to begin. I wanted to be successful and I was also scared that my attempts would result in a tangled web of confusion. I realized that I was getting to know something about the psychological state of students who walked into my ethics classes the first day of each semester. They were hopeful; they were scared. And, I routinely did nothing to recognize their ambivalence and anxiety.

When I began my weaving class, I told my own students about my hopes and fears and experiences just to see if I was right in thinking that my experience was something like theirs in higher education. I was right. My students listened closely and with empathy when I told them about a difficult lesson.

As their teacher, I felt embarrassed when I thought about how rarely I, and other professors, provide that much empathy and respect as our students embark on the humbling experience of learning something new. Rather than praise my own students for being willing to take intellectual risk, I was more likely to prod them with statements like, “This is easy.” “Pay attention.” And, “I guess you didn’t do your reading.”

In weaving class, I felt awkward. All of the looms sat in a big open classroom. All student progress was public. Everyone could see how I did.

It turns out that I was much slower than the others. My choices of warp and weft colors and textures seemed different from other students in the class. I’m not sure if I was imagining this or not, but it I thought that the other students averted their eyes from me and my work. I was a tenured full professor, who suddenly felt like a “special” learner.

While I waited for my teacher’s help, I had a lot of time to sit alone in my tangle of embarrassment and thread and ponder what the learning experience was like for students in my own classroom.

I realized that I often put students on the spot, insisting that they respond to some hard question on the spur of the moment. I even purposefully called on students who I thought were NOT ready with an answer, just to make the point that you better be prepared when you come to my class.

I mostly massaged the egos of the students who were the quickest and most accurate at reading my mind and giving me the answer that I anticipated. I got impatient with the contributions of students who were less on MY target. I criticized student comments without concern about how that criticism might affect their learning. I was not patient with students who were less than perfect.

The good news is that my weaving teacher was not like me. No matter how concerned I was about my progress relative to the others, the teacher convinced me that weaving was not a competitive sport. Thank goodness that we didn’t get grades!

As I wove, it became obvious to me that I could not learn without making mistakes, lots of them. And, once I saw a mistake, I had to set my ego aside and really get intimate with the problem. I had to embrace and dissect my mistakes so that I could understand just went wrong and before I could get things consistently right.

But, what was I doing in my own classroom? Like every other teacher I know, from the beginning of the semester to the end, I assigned grades to my students’ attempts. If my weaving teacher had given me the series of “F”s that my weaving PRODUCTIONS rightly deserved, I would have quit.

Yet, I was learning. But, the content of my learning was more often evident in my mistakes than it was in my finished products.

My weaving class also taught me that I was the only person who could really know when I learned something. Sometimes, when my weaving teacher praised for doing something right, both of us were surprised by my unexpected success. In those instances, my success was an accident and not likely to be repeated. When I had really learned something, I knew it. I felt it. I could apply the learning at home, on a loom of my own.

That’s when I saw the lack of connection between my own students’ learning and their grades. How often I had heard a student shout, “Yes!” with surprise and delight upon receiving back a graded paper or test? The “A” in that case was more equivalent to the student winning the lottery than an affirmation of what the student already knew that she knew. Rather than demonstrating their true learning, my students were gambling in their attempts to produce what they thought I wanted to see.

I had been fooling myself when I thought that, as a professor, I was evaluating the quality of my students’ learning. I had no idea what they actually learned.

Instead, I had been judging products that were invariably paint-by-number productions of my own making. . Whether multiple choice, short answer, essay, or 20 page paper, I gave students the required structures and materials. I hardly ever let them color outside the lines.

My actions implicitly told students that my idea of what they should produce was more important then them actually demonstrating what they learned. But, I told them that I was interested in their learning. What an incredible inconsistency between what I said and what I did! No wonder students felt driven to cheat or to avoid turning in their work.

Since that life-changing semester, I’ve worked, in collaboration with my students, to make each class I teach a tapestry that stimulates and supports learning. In a few minutes, I will give some examples of how I think that higher education can better promote that mission and how we can all do ethics in the first person as a way of getting there. But, first, I want to expand on my observation of three practices that get in the way of the mission and that encourage students to cheat.

By the way, I don’t think that I was a bad teacher before I learned to weave. I was just a teacher, like most other teachers. I didn’t question the rules of the game that students are asked to play. Now, I question those rules continually, but it doesn’t mean that I have found all of the answers. Doing ethics in the first person means, for me, that I have an obligation to change as much in my little corner of the world as I can. It also means that I have the responsibility to acknowledge to students when I am failing to act in what I consider to be a morally encouraged way. That means, to some extent, I am still guilty of the inconsistencies that I identify here. It also gives me an opportunity to point out that the goal of doing ethics in the first person is NOT to be a moral saint, but rather to be a self-reflective person who struggles hard when presented with an opportunity to do the right thing.

Here are three major inconsistencies between the mission of higher education and what most instructors do in their classrooms.

Inconsistency #1: Teacher-generated assignments.

  • Students need to show that they have mastered certain content. Teachers are in a good position to help students see if they have learned that particular content. But, it doesn’t follow that teachers must generate assignments.
  • Teacher-generated assignments do more than identify the content that students are supposed to learn. Teacher-generated assignments tell students HOW they are supposed to demonstrate their learning.
  • It is a serious inconsistency in higher education if we say that we want to students to become independent thinkers and then give them assembly line assignments. The stack of student products may have some connection with what a particular student has learned in a particular class in a particular semester; but maybe not.
  • Student products show how well students have been able to produce what their teachers think they should produce at a particular moment in time, regardless of what they have learned or not.
  • When teachers evaluate and reward the quality of a product regardless of student learning, students are reasonably concerned with nothing other than the creation of a certain product. To refer back to Aristotle’s notion that people learn by practice, we will not teach students to be self-reflective and independent if we make them dependent on the teacher to tell them how to demonstrate their learning and if we make them dependent on the teacher to say if they got something right.

Inconsistency # 2) Generally, in higher education, we don’t reward mistakes.

  • How can we expect students to learn anything if they are afraid of making mistakes? Higher education fails to promote true learning when it penalizes students for getting something wrong.
  • If students know that getting the right answer is the primary objective, cheating makes sense. It is a reasonable response to what is implicitly being requested.
  • A third problem that relates both to teacher-generated products and punishing students for making mistakes is

3) Surprise tests.

  • I am not talking about quizzes that students don’t expect, although obviously I find those problematic too. No, what I am talking about is a much more mundane part of student experience.
  • The syllabus says that there is an exam March 16. Students study and study and go over their notes and walk into that exam, having NO idea what questions will be asked. (Unless of course the professor’s exam happens to be in the student’s fraternity’s file). The test questions are a surprise and that strikes me as a little absurd.
  • If the teacher’s goals for what students should achieve are clear, then there should be no problem with delivering the exam questions long enough ahead of time for students to think about the questions, review text and class materials and talk to friends about it.

Pointing out these inconsistencies has made me less than popular with some of my colleagues, and with some students as well.

Students come to college, believing that the only test of their learning that matters is one created and judged by the teacher, by an external authority. I try not to play that role, but, it is hard not to when they so badly want me to take that responsibility for them.

And, even when students understand what I am trying to do, some of them will feel angry with me. Basically, I am not playing the same game that they have been led to believe teachers will play. It may seem to them that I am cheating. If they have been successful at playing the conventional college game, they may not be eager to work with someone who changes the rules.

I’ll end by telling you a little about how making students responsible for their own learning looks in my classes, because these are definitely ideas that you can try at home. But, as the four students from UM who are here with me today can attest, I don’t manage to do all of these things in every classroom every term. So, these are goals and activities that I remind myself to do. Some semesters and some classes I succeed better than others.

I like to start the semester by asking students what they already know (or think they know) about the topic of the class. In the Introduction to Ethics class, it is usually in-class essay or a homework assignment that asks them to identify an ethical problem and then explain what makes it an ethical problem.

In the feminist ethics class, I ask students the first day of class to examine a contemporary ethical problem from a feminist perspective and then explain what makes that view feminist.

For graduate students in the teaching ethics Masters Degree program, I am likely to give them a hard case and ask them to do a systematic moral analysis.

I grade these assignments so that students will know that I value their efforts. No matter what I think, I know that my students have had an academic lifetime of equating valuing with grades. However, my criterion for a good grade on this initial assignment is NOT whether the student “got it right”. Rather, I Iook for signs of student struggle and uncertainty. At this point, I want to reward risk taking and student awareness that she has something to learn.

Here’s an example of an in-class first day essay for the intro to ethics class from a few years ago that got a perfect score. The assignment was to write an essay that identified an ethical problem and said why it is a problem.

“Abortion is an ethical problem. It’s a problem because babies get killed. Well, they’re not really babies, but they’re almost babies. But, then when people get pregnant by accident, they shouldn’t have to spend their whole lives paying for it. Abortion is an ethical problem because a lot of people don’t want abortion to be legal and that makes it immoral for them. But abortion is legal and moral for some people, so I guess that it all depends on who you are. What makes abortion an ethical problem? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not a problem depending on what religion you are. If I had more time I’d pick another problem.”

There’s nothing like honest panic for someone to make a good start in my class. Here’s something that the student realized in writing that essay — we don’t learn anything new until we understand that we have something to learn.

This assignment has a natural role in end of the semester evaluation. Students have the option of critiquing that original essay as one of the ways that they can demonstrate their learning. When I am being my most consistent self, I will also find ways to reward students at the end of the term for their realizations of where they haven’t succeeded and for their honest expressions of confusion. If faculty truly want to develop self-reflective autonomous learners in college, what is most important is how students are able to evaluate their learning.

After a week or so of the class, I like to ask my students to develop a couple of learning goals for themselves. By that point, they know what MY learning goals are for them for the term. I am hopeful that they can see how our class activities and evaluation processes really do give them a chance to accomplish the goals that I set out and demonstrate their accomplishment of those goals. But, in addition, I want students to commit to something that they each want to learn. And, they have to think of a way that they can show that they have accomplished their goal. When they can answer the question, “how will you be able to show that you have learned this?” they have written a good learning goal. And, throughout the term, they reflect on how well they are doing in meeting their goals.

Analytic writing assignments are broken down into parts. Students must be successful in accomplishing the first part of an analytic paper — problem statement and literature review — before they can move on to the second part. Now matter how many rewrites they take, they must do a good (B level) or great (A level) job with it before they can move on. They must also include a paragraph with each rewrite that explains how/why this attempt is better than the last. And, I will work with the students over and over again to help them get it right. They must successfully accomplish the second part (case presentation) before they move on to the third and final analysis section.

A paper from won’t work to fulfill any assignment in my class. In-class essays, homework, papers are specifically designed to say to students, show me what you know, show me what you know now as compared to before, show me that you recognize what you don’t know.

I still give exams, but now my questions are known by everyone well ahead of the test. As I am clear in my own mind about how I will judge student success, there no need for them to try to read my mind. Providing students the test questions ahead of time also provides the opportunity for students to tell me when questions don’t make sense to them. When students walk in to write an exam, they demonstrate something between short term memory of an answer and true mastery of a concept. I am not in a position to know which. But, neither are professors who give surprise tests.

The whole idea of testing, how we do it in higher education, is fairly odd. Consider the fact that teachers develop their own tests to evaluate their own students’ learning. Here’s what’s odd: teachers, as you know, are also researchers. As researchers, we test for validity and reliability before distributing an instrument to a population to measure anything. We do pilot tests, analyze that data and consider variables that we might not have previously identified. In the end, after finally administering an instrument, we state our research conclusions with the utmost caution and uncertainty. We publish the work and can look forward to everyone who reads the article criticizing the instrument or something about the process. We never expect to get our research quite right.

But, then, we put on our teacher hats and assume that we can (sometimes overnight!) construct a test that will measure our students’ learning of subject material. We don’t pilot test the questions. We don’t worry about how the questions might be misperceived. We don’t think about confounding variables. We don’t even worry about the inevitable bias that results when the same person who teaches the material constructs the instrument to assess what has been learned!

But, that is the topic for another speech. My basic point here is that if faculty construct activities and evaluation processes that truly stimulate and reward student learning, both the opportunities and the desire to cheat disappear. Higher education encourages students to cheat when it rewards PRODUCTS rather than student learning. Faculty and administrators have a moral responsibility to take students LEARNING seriously. We must give students practice in the very values they are expected to exhibit in the end. It must be safe for students to think independently, knowing that they are going to make mistakes. The role of faculty is NOT to punish those mistakes, but to help students improve their understanding, over and over and over again. When students get it right, they know it better than the teacher and will be able to tell teachers why it is that this attempt is right and the others were not. In short, faculty and administrators have the moral obligation to create an environment in which students can LEARN rather than just produce.

The delightful double effect of switching from focus on student products to focus on student learning is that the impetus for cheating disappears one classroom at a time.