Ethics Assignment: What Would You Do?
What makes some actions right and others wrong? Are there situations when it is okay to lie? To answer these questions, we look to the philosophy of ethics. The study of ethics is often divided into four subfields: metaethics, normative ethics, value theory, and applied ethics. Metaethics examines the metaphysical status of morality, the meaning of moral language, and how we acquire moral knowledge. Normative ethics examines what ultimately makes an action right or wrong. It also looks at moral character: what are the virtues that make someone a good person and how do we acquire those? Value theory investigates the nature of value and tries to identify those things that are most valuable in our lives. Applied ethics examines moral issues that come up in private and public life. The story of The Bad Parent is an exercise in applied ethics. Evans and Macmillan (2014) define applied ethics “as theories of ethics concerned with the application of normative ethics to particular ethical issues” (p. 27).
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The word ethics generally frames how we look at and understand life’s various situations in terms of good and evil or right versus wrong. Moral theories serve as the parameters used to clarify and justify positions or actions when we say to ourselves “What choice would I make in this situation? What is right and what is wrong?” Moral theories abound, yet none is completely fitting for every ethical dilemma. The theories overlap and often borrow from one another. The theory of virtue ethics dates back to Aristotle. It’s also known as character or agent-based ethics. It judges a person “by his character rather than by an action that may deviate from his normal behavior” (Alavudeen, 2008). Another moral theory is utilitarianism of which Jeremy Bentham was its most influential advocate: “The dominant consequentialist position a utilitarian believes in is the greatest happiness for the greatest number; the choice that yields the greatest benefit to the most people is the choice that is ethically correct” (IEP, 2019). Deontology is an obligation-based theory espoused by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. It emphasizes the type of action rather than the consequences of that action (Sangalong, 2013). Kant believed that “moral decisions should be made based on one’s duties and should always refer to the rights of others. According to Kant, morality is based on pure reason as people have the innate ability to act rationally” (SEP, 2018). Therefore, they should act morally despite or even regardless of their own desires. Stated another way, one should act morally, regardless of the consequences.
In addition yet congruent to the ethical theories, four main ethical principles exist: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. Autonomy can be thought of as self-rule. It is the capability of people to decide, think, and/or act based on their own thoughts and decisions, with independence and freedom. Autonomy is a person’s right to decide their own fate. In order for us to respect autonomy, we must permit others to come to their own conclusions. Whether or not we agree with such decisions, they should still be respected. Beneficence is to do what is best for the other person. It means to actively do what is in their best interests and is based upon an objective assessment of a person and what is best for them, even if it’s in conflict with their views and therefore clashes with their autonomy. Non-maleficence or least harm means to do no harm to others when we act; we do what’s most beneficial for others, always and in all circumstances. Justice is the ethical principle that everyone experiencing like circumstances should receive both equal and fairest. This maxim presents a key driver of service allocation by justifying the provision of increasing services to the most needed cases; a kind of ethical triage. Ethics involves the fine balancing act of weighing of each of these core principles.
Our exercise first requires me to put myself in the role of the teacher for one of Jane’s oldest children, having noticed that the child is exhibiting the signs of being raised in a neglectful household. As a mandated reporter, I would be professionally obligated to act in this situation as I am required by law to make a report to the authorities if I suspect child abuse. Anyone who is in a profession where they regularly come in contact with children is considered to be a mandated reporter. Some of the most common professions for such reporters include teachers, doctors, childcare providers, police officers, social workers, nurses, foster parents, and even bus drivers. Section 19-7-5 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to reporting of child abuse, designates several categories of individuals as mandated reporters, who “having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abused shall report or cause reports of that abuse to be made” (GADOE, 2019). Most of the reports received (69% as of 2010) are for neglect. The procedures for reporting suspected abuse or neglect would involve contacting a local Child Protective Services agency (CPS). It is not a mandated reporter’s job to prove there is abuse or neglect, only to report it. If I, as a mandated reporter, fail to report suspected abuse or neglect, the state of Georgia could hold me accountable with penalties such as fines and even jail time. In this case, because I suspect neglect, I would contact CPS and let them proceed from there. It’s a deontological premise as there is an obligation that must be fulfilled. In a way, being the child’s teacher is the easiest position to be in as I am given no choice but to act. The moral decision arises should CPS fail to address or to remedy the situation. From that point, am I obligated to pursue the case? Deontology states that I’m obligated to the authorities, but what of my obligation to my students, to their health and well-being? To this, the principle of beneficence should rule. In doing what is best for this child, in this case, pursuing the authorities to follow-up on my suspicions of potential neglect, I would be upholding a personal principle of justice. To that end, I would also speak to the child, one-on one or possibly in the presence of a school counselor or school social worker to find out if there was an immediate need that I could address, and to let them know that I am a resource to reach out to. I would hope to find myself doing the same for any of the other children in my class should they ever face similar struggles or circumstances. Yet professional constraints would keep me from becoming too involved, to the point where the intervention becomes personal. Sometimes outsiders, such as I, need to let go and “trust the system” as it exists. As stated by educational author Richard Rothstein in a commencement speech to future educators, “You will often have to decide whether you can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk, perhaps just a small one, sometimes a large one, with your security and career” (Strauss, 2015). Kantian notions of duty say that we have an ethical responsibility to ourselves as well as to others and this leads to his Categorical Imperative, which states that “’I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.’ This is the principle which motivates a good will, and which Kant holds to be the fundamental principle of all of morality” (Johnson & Cureton, 2016). I would argue that the Categorical Imperative compels us to help children in the most practical way possible when their primary caregivers cannot adequately meet even their most basic needs.
The decision whether to intervene becomes much more difficult were I to be Jane’s personal friend. Aristotle stressed the importance of friendships in that “No one would choose to live a friendless existence, even on the condition of having all other good things.” What is my obligation to act when a relationship is based solely on friendship, which involves a level of reciprocal personal trust, be it spoken or unspoken? If Jane knew that I had reported her to CPS, she would undoubtedly see it as a breach of confidence, if not an outright act of betrayal. In some states, those who report abuse or neglect can choose to remain anonymous. Thankfully, Georgia is one of those states. The Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) is also very clear on what constitutes neglect:
- The failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs, including safety from harm or danger (failure to protect)
- Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision this also includes the failure to protect a child from harm/danger)
- Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
- Educational (e.g. failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
- Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
Before I reported Jane to authorities, I would ask myself if I had done everything that I could to assist her in her struggles to raise her children. My hope would be that, with intervention, DFCS could put her in touch with resources to assist her in obtaining housing and food for her and her kids. Yet I would also be aware that DFCS could, in theory, remove her children from her care and put them in foster care. This would be devastating to Jane as she loves them very much. There is also a stigma attached to CPS intervention. Despite CPS efforts to keep cases confidential, people talk. The embarrassment that results from social services involvement can be especially acute in smaller, rural communities. It often causes people to retreat even further into their own isolation, or to simply skip town. Surely Jane would feel that such intervention would be an affront to her personal autonomy. Are friends, even close friends, not obligated to respect it as such? Were Jane without children, my philosophical obligation would likely end with her, out of a respect for her independence and autonomy. But she has five kids, two of whom are quite young and unable to care for themselves. This mitigating factor has me obligated to act in the spirit of beneficence. But, as a true friend, in the full Aristotelian sense of one based on virtue and goodness, my intervention runs the risk of the loss of that profound friendship. Is that a risk I am willing to take? When I think of the potential outcome were I to not intervene, I believe I would risk that loss, personally devastating though it might be.
Absent the normal expectation of trust by not necessarily being a personal friend, Jane’s neighbor is pulled into the situation by virtue of proximity. Does that change her obligation to intervene? Are we neglectful when we fail to render help when we are merely bystanders? I would argue that my children’s friendship with Jane’s children puts me on a level of more personal involvement than mere observer. That Jane’s children are known to sneak and steal food is more than enough cause for alarm and would serve as my impetus to act. Add to that the fact that the kids are dressed poorly and the family is facing eviction. Food, clothing and shelter are basic needs, ones that are obviously not being met. As a neighbor, I would reason that I would be in the unique position of witnessing, first hand, the impact of the current situation in a way that a friend or family member cannot. But how to help? Being so close by, I might be in a better position to anonymously provide gifts of food and clothing. I might also be able to help the family indirectly through the children, particularly the older ones, by offering them meals and work doing yard maintenance, babysitting, and other such chores. Again, the ethical principle of beneficence comes into play; as a fellow parent and human being, as well as a member of the community, I am personally obligated to act in some way as to bring about a positive change. Yet given what seems to be the ever increasingly alarming nature of the situation, I too would likely consider placing an anonymous call to social services. Yet, unlike a personal friend, I would probably feel that my duty at that point was done, particularly if I had seen CPS personnel visiting the home. Sometimes one has to trust the system to work as intended.
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In what is probably an unpopular stance, I do not feel that Jane’s close relative has an ethical obligation to Jane beyond that of a friend or acquaintance, especially if help has been repeatedly offered and refused. Thoughts on filial obligations tend to vary by culture and by the individual. As a person raised in a fairly loose family structure, I do not place a great deal of weight on ethical obligations, be they real or perceived, to my parents or siblings. And notions of an obligation to aunts, uncles and cousins is negligible, bordering on non-existent. As my children age and grow more independent, my duty to them lessens. Both my husband and I were on our own by the age of eighteen and that has probably influenced our thoughts on the subject. I know it has mine. But neither of us would dream of turning our children out on the street right after high school, though we have told them that they will be responsible for rent and car insurance should they choose to not attend college or a trade school. Perhaps in stating so we are hoping to foster responsibility, if not preparedness. Yet I also have no expectation that they will care for us in our old age, despite a societal expectation (enforced by law, to varying degrees, in most U.S. states) that they should. Echoing this, writers such as Jeske (1998) deny that there is anything distinctive about familial relationships insofar as they do not generate special obligations beyond those fostered by other types of intimate relationships, such as close friendships (p. 554).
Yet this is not a stance that everyone feels comfortable with and familial ties compel many to act when reason or practicality dictate otherwise. This may very well be the case that I might find myself in as Jane’s close relative. Had I offered help and saw those offers repeatedly refused, I would likely respect Jane’s autonomy and leave it at that. But, again, the presence of children, especially young ones, is a mitigating factor. Be they grandchildren or nieces and nephews, beneficence would compel me to act, regardless of Jane’s repeated refusals. I would very much hope that such action would not include the intervention of the authorities but understand that may be a last resort should Jane and her children find themselves homeless. I might even attempt to appeal to Jane’s sense of duty to accept help from a family member, emphasizing her obligation to swallow her pride for the sake of her children. I would also encourage her to seek recourse for child support payments, going so far as to pay for representation in the matter, as the father(s) of her children have a legal obligation to help pay for their children’s upbringing. If Jane is receiving public assistance, such action can be undertaken by the state with or without her consent. Raising a large family on one person’s income is simply impractical, if not impossible, in this modern age.
Fresh out of college at the age of twenty-three, my first job was that of a child protective services caseworker in a small, rural county in Georgia. I will never forget what my supervisor told me on my first day: “Don’t try to force your own middle-class standards on your clients.” I could have viewed such a statement defensively: Why shouldn’t I try to improve their lives? But I soon came to realize that children can thrive in most environments, rich or poor, so long as they have a responsible and loving caregiver who can meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Given the presence of those factors, it was my duty to try to keep families together. As a teacher, friend, neighbor, or relative to a struggling family, I would hope that my helpful actions would be pursued in the same selfless, measured, and practical vein.
- Alavudeen, A., Rahman, R. K., & Jayakumaran, M. (2008). Professional Ethics and Human Values. Firewall Media; New Delhi, India.
- Aristotle, & Ross, W. D. (1959). The Nichomachean Ethics. London: Oxford University Press.
- Evans, D.R. & MacMillan, C.S. (2014). Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice and Public Safety (4th ed). Edmond Montgomery Publications; Toronto, CN.
- GADOE.org. (2019). [online] Available at: https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Curriculum-and-Instruction/Documents/Child%20Abuse%20Prevention%20Handouts.pdf
- IEP: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2019). Jeremy Bentham. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/bentham/
- Jeske, D. (1998). Families, Friends, and Special Obligations. Canadian Journal of Philosophy. 28(4), p.527-555.
- Johnson, R., & Cureton, A. (2016). Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/
- Sangalong, S. (2013). Computer Ethics Chapter 1. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/l23cywkbgr-r/computer-ethics-chapter-1/
- SEP: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2018). Kant and Hume on Morality. Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-hume-morality/
- Strauss, V. (2015). The hard ethical challenges that confront teachers today. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/06/04/the-hard-ethical-challenges-that-confront-teachers-today/?utm_term=.2f2cfaf69f2e
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