Friday, August 10, 2007

The Day One All-Unifying Case Study

In keeping with Michael's recognition that the semester is about to begin, and also to pick up on something David mentioned in a reply about Robin Hood, let's present what we use as our course-unifying 'case study' on day one of an ethics course (if you use one). What I mean is this: do you have a case study that you use that does a good job of allowing you to distinguish (in a general way obviously) the differences between virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism? Personally, I'm tired of mine (I'll present it later in discussion), and I'd like to trade it in for a new one!

Type the rest of your post here.


  1. I use the following case that comes from a business ethics anthology, and I have students evaluate Kahn's actions from the 3 moral perspectives mentioned. I think it works well for this, but it could also be used on day one to illustrate the differences.

    Borland’s Brave Beginnings

    Philippe Kahn, the colorful former CEO and current chairman of Borland International, built a powerful software company from the ground up with a series of brilliant business moves including the 1991 acquisition of Ashton-Tate, one of the software industry’s biggest companies, for $400 million. Until recently, the company was extremely successful, culminating in a palatial headquarters complex costing nearly $100 million. At one point, Kahn even entertained thoughts of challenging Microsoft as the world’s top software manufacturer. Although the company has recently fallen on hard times, its beginning is one that some would consider morally questionable, while others would say that it was nothing more than smart moves within the game of business.

    In an interview with Inc. magazine in 1989, Kahn told the story of Borland’s humble beginnings. Operating out of two small rooms and strapped for cash, he couldn’t afford to place an ad in Byte magazine, the best forum to reach his target market. In order to convince the ad salesperson to extend credit terms, Kahn hired “extra people” to scurry around and made sure that the phones were ringing in order to look busy. He prepared a media plan on a chart on which Byte was crossed out but made sure the salesperson “accidentally” saw the chart. When the salesperson asked if he wanted to advertise in Byte, Kahn replied that it was not the right audience and that he couldn’t afford it. The salesperson pleaded and eventually gave Kahn good credit terms. The ad ran once and sold $150,000 worth of software, launching the upstart venture on the path to success.

  2. Chris - after a long summer, working in a tropical country, without air-conditioning, and windows that cannot be opened, I finally have a couple of weeks without classes: all this 'Well, back to work' is depressing when my free-time is less than half-way through!

    I do have a day-one Ethics example for you though. Jean Valjean's dilemma in Les Miserables. For those who don't know, here's the plot. Jean Valjean is a convict who breaks parole, and adopts a false identity so as to find work. He develops a new industrial process and becomes the owner of a successful factory and mayor of a town. One day, he hears that a man has been arrested on suspicion of theft. Evidence against the man is slender, but he has been identified as notorious ex-convict Jean Valjean. So, should Valjean live as mayor, or announce his true identity and face imprisonment? Hugo presents him as passing through four approaches to ethics as he considers the dilemma.

    (1) Self-centred behaviour: now I'm off the hook with nothing to worry about. The Thrasymychus option.

    (2) Kantian: I must tell the truth. Do my duty.

    But (3) the Utilitarian option: if I am imprisoned, there is nobody else capable of running the factory, and the prosperity of the town will be ruined. (Hugo makes it clear that this is not arrogance on Valjean's part). The greater good demands that I remain and look after the town, but

    (4) What kind of person will I be? (Aristotelian) Everyone will look up to me as a paragon of virtue, but I will know that this is all a false show, and that I am not worthy of the admiration that people will give me.

    As the musical version goes 'My sould belongs to God I know, I made that bargain long ago, he gave me hope when hope was gone, he gave me strength to journey on. Who am I? I'm Jean Valjean. And so Javert you see it's true that man bears no more guilt than you. Who am I? Two four six oh one.' (In case you like to use music in your class).

  3. Well I used to use the lifeboat example which I think is the standard option.

    I switched to the Robinhood example mainly because it draws out intuitions regarding virtue ethics, which otherwise I find it hard to get out with these case studies. Weirdly I can't find in written out in my notes, but it is an example I borrowed from someone else. So I will give a version here, it will be slightly unpolished, and you will need to insert salacious winks, pauses for timing and so on. It helps if you are willing to do voices and actions...

    Maid Marion, and Robinhood are betrothed lovers, sworn to be faithful. One day Robin is captured by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and thrown into the dungeon. Upon hearing the terrible news the fair maid Marian goes to the sheriff and says: "Is there anything I can do that will convince you to let Robinhood go? You wicked, wicked man." (It helps if you can simper at this point)
    The sheriff twirls his moustache quite wickedly (I usually twirl my imaginary moustache at this point) and says: "well my dear, there is but one thing, if you would consent to spend the night in my tent, I will let Robin go".
    Maid Marion thinks about this briefly and says "Alright then"

    We will draw a veil over the events of that night since this is a GA (General Audience rated) rated classroom, but I think you can guess what happened.

    The next day Robin is released and rides back out into Sherwood forest. He finds Maid Marion and says: "Wow, the sheriff just released me, I thought I was doomed for sure, why on earth would he do that?" And Marion, bless her honest soul, tells him.
    Robin accuses her of cheating on him, and storms off never to be seen again.

    I then ask the students to think about each character and try to identify the morally relevant aspects of those characters and their actions with the person next to them.

    On the board I draw up a grid, with each character, and three categories, consequences, duties, character. As they suggest things I categorise them on the board.

    What I like about it is that it gets out discussions about character, its also light, fun and more related to their lives than a lifeboat is likely to be. It also demonstrates moral complexity, I ask them if anyone has anything nice to say about the sheriff, almost always someone picks up on that he at least keeps his promise to Maid Marion, the truly wicked thing to do would have been to not released Robin, twirl his moustache, go "Mwahhahaahaha" and then say to Marion, "now if you spend another night with me, I might set him free

  4. I don't know if this fits what we're looking for here, but near the beginning of the semester I ask students to group-up and develop a chart with 3 columns. In 1 column is 'actions or character traits that you think most people would think are obviously wrong or bad', in another is right or good actions or character traits and the middle column is left for 'controversial' or in dispute items.

    We come up with with some good sized lists, strike some candidates that don't fit what we're looking for and then I ask them, e.g., what it is about the labeled-as-wrong actions that make them wrong, and the same with the right/good ones.

    The explanations they give are typically simple versions of the common moral theories. We're off and running then.

    I do this to, among other things, illustrate that philosophy is doing they can do themselves (i.e., philosophy isn't consulting with some guru or something), that they can think up the same basic ideas that lots of famous philosophers thought up (and then developed, defended, worked the bugs out, etc.), and that we'll be learning more about and applying many of these ideas that they just developed throughout the rest of the class.

  5. Thanks for all these great ideas! It's time for me to trade my story in, I've been using it for too many years. Here it is, in all of its non-glory...

    You are a recruit to be a field agent for the Department of Homeland Ethics. Your job: to walk around the country and simply note where ethical situations exist, and then to note, when appropriate, when "goodness" or "badness" comes into existence.

    Training exercise: you are at the top of a cliff, looking down at the beach below. You see drowning children. A person is walking by.

    Ethical situation? (yes, hopefully)

    1. Situation A: The person goes in and pulls the children out.

    Goodness occur? If you say yes, then would this change your mind?

    2. Situation B: You are told that the person is doing this because they know there's a tv camera trained on the scene, and they want to get on the news.

    Goodness occur? How about in this one...

    3. Situation C: It's Hitler, and the children are Jewish. He hates children, and wants them to die, but suddenly he has a change of heart and saves them.

    Goodness occur?

    I try to pull apart the different intuitions here. Clearly, "A" relies only on behavior and consequences. So it is 'act' oriented and possibly consequentialist. Those who said "no" to "B" may be deontologists. They are looking for a certain type of motive as a necessary condition for goodness. They are suspicious that consequences are not enough. Those who argue that Hitler's saving the children lacks goodness (few take this route) have virtue ethical intuitions, suspecting that motive and character must be linked, and in this case Hitler's character is not good, since this would be his first good action (at least with respect to the particulars here).

    Oddly enough, most people choose "A", and least choose "C". By the end of the course, most are virtue ethicists, and few like consequentialism.

    There are some extra situations I usually toss in there, but those three are the major ones!

  6. I like the real-life case of hospitals using routine surgery on women to teach medical students how to give a gynecological exam. They typically do this without the woman's permission and while she's under general anesthesia for something completely unrelated. Consequentialists point out that it saves money and time, since you don't have to send these students to gynecological practices to do this training, and it doesn't hurt anyone in any way anyone could find out about. Deontologists typically take it to be a violation of consent by performing actions that require consent to be performed. Virtue ethicists focus on which character traits might lead someone to do it or not do it, and there are some that favor doing it, although there are probably more (or more significant ones) that favor not doing it.


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