An Ethics App?

Difficult ethical decision? There’s an app for that

I was taken by this interesting development in applying academic research to real world issues. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on a new mobile app intended to help with decision support on those difficult ethical issues:

The disclaimer on Santa Clara University’s new mobile app strikes an ominous tone:

“In no event will we be liable for any loss or damage arising out of, or in connection with, the use of this website/app.”

Then again the Ethical Decision Making app, developed by the university’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, aims for more-consequential uses than, say, Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds. The Santa Clara ethicists hope that people who make decisions that will change lives—business leaders, hospital administrators, and school officials, for instance—will use the app as a guide.

Alternative ethical decision making aids are available

Alternative ethical decision making aids are available

The Ethical Decision Making app is an attempt to bring applied ethics into 21st century. It is not so much a Magic 8-Ball as a pocket Socrates, which is to say the app asks more questions than it answers. The idea is that someone facing a decision can use it to evaluate each possible option.

Once the user gets past the disclaimer, the app asks him or her to list all the stakeholders in the decision. The app then asks the user to consider the implications of the option at hand according to five categories of “good”: utility (“Does this action produce the most good and do the least harm for all who are affected?”), rights (“Does my action best respect the rights of all who have a stake?”), justice (“Does this action treat people equally or proportionally?”), virtue (“Does this option lead me to act as the sort of person I want to be?”), and the common good (“Does this action best serve the community as a whole, not just some members?”).

For each of the five categories, the user rates where the option would fall on a scale of “more good” to “more harm,” and so on. The app also asks the user to assign a weight to each of the five categories that reflects how important it is.

Then the app spits out a number. The number supposedly represents how ethical the option would be on a scale of 1 to 100, according to the values supplied by the user.

Convinced of the value of this? I’m not sure. If you need an app to help you with your ethical positioning you are possibly not ideally placed to reach any kind of decision on an issue.

I was almost tempted to download the app and test it out on some ethical dilemmas. Then I thought I could pretend I had done so (which would be a lot quicker) and make up some absurd results. But then I tossed a coin and it told me to ditch the whole project. Ethics eh?

Students behaving badly

Crimes and misdemeanours at university

I was greatly taken by this list of fineable offences for 18th-century students at Harvard:

Offense #19, “Cutting off the lead,” seems to refer to the lead on the college building’s roof. Lead was once used for roofing material (especially for more expensively-constructed buildings), and such buildings suffered from the depradations of thieves who would steal the lead and sell it. It’s unclear, in this case, whether the students were cutting off lead for profit or for simple mischief.

 

Students have always behaved badly. Not all of them and not all of the time but universities have often felt the need to seek to constrain the worst excesses and this list from Harvard is typical although clearly very much of its time. (See also True Crime on Campus…)

A previous post here looked at regulations in Oxford and Uzbekistan, in the 16th Century and more recently.

In 1584 at Oxford University, statutes were approved to prevent disorder among the student body. These regulations also contain references to specific degree requirements including attendance at lectures on Aristotle and an instruction not to play football. (Sylvester, D (1970), Educational Documents, 800-1816, London: Methuen pp151-153.)

These days universities around the world tend to have more comprehensive requirements (but perhaps more supportive of sporting activity). See for example the University of Nottingham Code of Discipline for Students.

An interesting development of this has been reported by the Chronicle which noted that Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Education issued a ‘code of conduct’ for students, covering such matters as how they should shake hands with professors and the proper time to visit the toilet during classes.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (quoted by the Chronicle) described the code, “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions,” as an attempt by an authoritarian government to keep its youth population in line:

The ministry is requiring that its pedantic “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions” be signed by every university student and professor in the country.

“These rules are being introduced to form and retain, as well as defend, the ethical integrity of members of higher educational institutions,” the document says. It promises to “prevent the decay of students…and defend them from alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as the threats of religious extremism and mass culture.”

(It’s good to see that someone is still fighting that last battle, particularly after Rutgers University paid Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” $32,000 to lecture its students in March 2011. Snooki got $2,000 more than Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author who for $30,000 delivered the keynote address at Rutgers’ commencement ceremony in May 2011.)

 

This is the kind of thing which Harvard used to have to put up with

This is the kind of thing which Harvard used to have to put up with

Notwithstanding the lofty language of the prologue, many of the new guidelines read like a rather poor joke, the work of ministry officials with an acutely sardonic sense of humor. Article 3.8 stipulates that “members of a higher education institution, when moving, should take the right side. It is recommended to greet each other in the following way: students first greet professors; men first greet women; younger students first greet older students. Shaking hands is excluded from this rule, since elders should reach out to shake first.”

And as if that weren’t enough:

“It is prohibited to post on the Internet materials that are not in line with national values or related to the internal problems of higher educational institutions,” the rules say, before going on to note that they “categorically ban publishing, saving, or distribution via computers of different materials not related to a higher education institution.”

And just when you thought things could not get any worse: “Don’t walk around a university campus with no reason,” the rulebook advises.

So, it really does feel like a bit of a homage to Harvard. Unfortunately it is the Harvard of over 200 years ago rather than today.

Student regulations. In Oxford and Uzbekistan

Guess which is from the 16th Century

Students have always behaved badly. Not all of them and not all of the time but universities have often felt the need to seek to constrain the worst excesses. In 1584 at Oxford University, statutes were approved to prevent disorder among the student body. These regulations also contain references to specific degree requirements including attendance at lectures on Aristotle and an instruction not to play football. (Sylvester, D (1970), Educational Documents, 800-1816, London: Methuen pp151-153.)

These days universities around the world tend to have more comprehensive requirements (but perhaps more supportive of sporting activity). A rather striking devlopment of this has been reported by the Chronicle which notes that Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Education has issued a rather thorough ‘code of conduct’ for students, covering such matters as how they should shake hands with professors and the proper time to visit the toilet during classes.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (quoted by the Chronicle) described the code, “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions,” as an attempt by an authoritarian government to keep its youth population in line:

The ministry is requiring that its pedantic “Ethical Rules for Higher Education Institutions” be signed by every university student and professor in the country.

Any idea what kind of book this might be?

“These rules are being introduced to form and retain, as well as defend, the ethical integrity of members of higher educational institutions,” the document says. It promises to “prevent the decay of students…and defend them from alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as the threats of religious extremism and mass culture.”

(It’s good to see that someone is still fighting that last battle, particularly after Rutgers University paid Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” $32,000 to lecture its students in March 2011. Snooki got $2,000 more than Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author who for $30,000 delivered the keynote address at Rutgers’ commencement ceremony in May 2011.)

Notwithstanding the lofty language of the prologue, many of the new guidelines read like a rather poor joke, the work of ministry officials with an acutely sardonic sense of humor. Article 3.8 stipulates that “members of a higher education institution, when moving, should take the right side. It is recommended to greet each other in the following way: students first greet professors; men first greet women; younger students first greet older students. Shaking hands is excluded from this rule, since elders should reach out to shake first.”

And there’s more:

“It is prohibited to post on the Internet materials that are not in line with national values or related to the internal problems of higher educational institutions,” the rules say, before going on to note that they “categorically ban publishing, saving, or distribution via computers of different materials not related to a higher education institution.”

And just when you thought things could not get any worse: “Don’t walk around a university campus with no reason,” the rulebook advises.

Rather harsh and somewhat backward looking (if indeed true – I haven’t been able to locate the original code which is quoted). And suspect it won’t help their international student recruitment either.

LSE and Libya: The Woolf Inquiry

Woolf reports on LSE’s Libyan Links

And it’s a compelling read:

The Woolf Inquiry was set up on 3 March 2011 following criticism of LSE’s links to Libya and the resignation of the Director, Sir Howard Davies. The terms of the Inquiry were as follows:

An independent inquiry to establish the full facts of the School’s links with Libya, whether there have been errors made, and to establish clear guidelines for international donations to and links with the School. Lord Woolf is to make recommendations to the LSE Council as soon as possible. He is to have total discretion as to how he conducts the inquiry, and as to the matters on which he is to report.

At the same time, the academic integrity of Saif Gaddafi’s PhD was referred to the University of London under the Procedure for Consideration of Allegations of Irregularity in Relation to University of London Awards. The Gaddafi PhD was awarded by the UoL before degree awarding powers were transferred to LSE, and had to be assessed carefully in accordance with UoL procedures. In order to ensure that a comprehensive picture was reached, the Council of LSE decided that Lord Woolf’s report and the University of London Panel decision should be released at the same time.

As a result the Council of LSE is now making the full Woolf report public and the full report of the Inquiry can be found here. The University of London’s report on Saif Gaddafi’s PhD has been passed to the LSE but this does not seem to have been made public. There is no suggestion though of any actions being taken in this regard.

Lord Woolf’s chunky 188 page report covers four main areas:

  • Saif Gaddafi as a student at LSE
  • The donation to the LSE
  • Range of links between LSE and Libya
  • The activities of LSE Enterprise

The central conclusion is reported to be shortcomings in institutional governance:

The School established, in an incremental and piecemeal fashion, a relationship with Libya. Before a global company embarks upon a relationship with a foreign partner, a due diligence assessment should be conducted. No similar exercise took place in this case. The links were allowed to grow, unchecked and to a degree unnoticed, until their effect was overwhelming. In October 2009, the LSE’s council resolved that the links should be monitored carefully in future. That monitoring came too late. By October 2009 the relationship with Libya had been well established.

In addition, the history of the developing connection between the LSE and Libya has exposed a disconcerting number of failures in communication and governance within the School. The errors which I detail in the remaining chapters of this report exceed those that should have occurred in an institution of the LSE’s distinction. The pattern is such that I am driven to the central conclusion that there were shortcomings in the governance structure and management at the LSE.

Woolf’s main recommendations, which are not huge in number, cover the following topics:

  • the establishment of a Code of Ethics and a committee to oversee it
  • procedures around PhD admissions and progression
  • rules on donations
  • incidental links with Libya

As Times Higher reported it some weeks ago:

The Woolf report is not wholly critical of the LSE, and it partially exonerates the institution in some areas.

It finds that despite the failings, LSE staff acted in what they believed to be the best interests of the school.

A £2.2 million contract to train Libya’s elite civil servants was “clearly of merit” and went through stricter due diligence than the £1.5 million donation, the report finds.

However, it was brokered by Dr Gaddafi while he was still a doctoral student. To prevent such a situation recurring, Lord Woolf recommends that the LSE expand its policy of not accepting donations from current students to cover transactions such as commercial contracts.

A notorious video-link lecture by Colonel Gaddafi in December 2010 in which a message from Sir Howard told him that he was “most welcome”, and the dictator proceeded to denounce claims that Libya masterminded the 1988 Lockerbie bombing as a “fabrication”, was deemed to be legitimate, as students were free to question him.

There was also no criticism of the decision to allow Dr Gaddafi to give a Ralph Miliband Programme lecture at the LSE in May 2010.

The LSE has accepted all 15 of Lord Woolf’s recommendations and a subcommittee of its council will now look into how it will implement a code of ethics.

It does seem therefore that all of the recommendations will be followed up properly by the LSE. Some of the details around Saif Gaddafi’s PhD are quite striking (not least his ability to function as a full-time student whilst playing the part of an international envoy for Libya). But I think the thing that I find most surprising in the report is that given the very detailed critique of the shortcomings in the various decision making processes leading up to the acceptance of the large donation from Libya, Woolf’s specific recommendations on governance don’t seem to go very far, essentially amounting to the establishment of a new code of ethics and a committee. Having said that, there has already been significant change at the LSE, including the departure of the former Director, so perhaps there is much in train.

Overall  though it really is an extrordinary report and well worth reading.