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What’s Your Stage?

  • Posted on March 21, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Lawrence Kohlberg researched cognitive moral development across fifty or so countries in an attempt to discern the different ways people think about ethical issues. Based on this research, Kohlberg created a six-stage model of human moral development:

  1. Stage 1: Obedience and punishments are the main determinants of behavior.
  2. Stage 2: Satisfying one’s own needs regardless of the cost are the main determinants of behavior.
  3. Stage 3: Gaining social approval are the main determinants of behavior.
  4. Stage 4: Following established rules and supporting established authority are the main determinants of behavior.
  5. Stage 5: Principled thinking that transcends rules, authority figures, punishment, rewards, and social approval to seek after the welfare of your society are the main determinants of behavior.
  6. Stage 6: Principled thinking that transcends rules, authority figures, punishment, rewards, and social approval to seek after the welfare of all people are the main determinants of behavior.

I wanted to know if there was a test to assess your cognitive moral development. I found one, but I found that most of their choices were inconsistent with my reasoning, even if they reflected a portion of the action I would take. For example, one scenario involved stealing or not stealing a life-saving medicine; using creative problem-solving to create an ethical alternative means of accessing the medicine wasn’t an option. If you want to take the test, you do so at your own risk. Personally, I don’t put much stock in it.

Ethical Autonomy

  • Posted on March 19, 2014 at 10:00 AM

It’s spring break from my classes, so I wanted to use this time to share a few of the things I’ve learned in my ethics class last week. In administrative ethics, the dual focus is organizational ethics and individual ethics. Ethical autonomy is where this dual focus collides.

Apparently, there are a variety of theories that try to explain how organizations erode the individual ethic of their members. We see the results of this erosion in our government sectors, our business sectors, our nonprofit sectors, and even in our advocacy groups. I find the theories, as I understand them, of Alberto Guerreiro Ramos most compelling, because of all the theories covered in Terry L. Cooper’s The Responsible Administrator it is the only one that seems to see this tendency in the larger culture, instead of restricting it to within the organizational environment.

Essentially, human beings become compartmentalized in order to fit into society by placing themselves in one of society’s defining boxes. In order to combat this tendency, we need to emphasize our whole personhood and hold onto that, which will allow us to make individual ethical judgments, even when they go against the assertions of the organization(s) we participate in. In more loaded words, we have to remember that we are individual people—whole people—in order to keep ourselves from unwittingly selling our souls to the organizations we choose to work for/with.

Last week’s studies made me think of some of my previous employment experiences and the effort trainers and managers made to bring me into the fold. Cooper, citing Milgram (1974), describes this process as the agentic shift, which involves diminishing one’s conscience in order to conform to an organization’s hierarchal structure. I realized, quite readily, that I was never any good at this. I may “buy in” to an organization’s message, but as soon as it involves compromising my own ethical standards I disengage, reexamine, and reassert my sense of self.

I don’t know how extensive this is, but I’ve found a similar tendency among many people on the autism spectrum, and it’s one of the autistic “traits” I tend to admire most. Perhaps part of the social “deficiencies” associated with autism is an inability or an unwillingness to submit oneself to a collective conscience or ethic. Being neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, I wouldn’t know how to test this theory and I’m not even sure I would know what to look for to see if someone else had already done so. What I do know, however, is that, from my point of view, if this is true of all or part of people on the spectrum, then I must say it’s a good thing and may even be an adaptive measure to correct some of the corruption rampant in our societies.

I am conscious of my individual responsibility: It doesn’t matter who tells me to do something, if I think it’s wrong and I were to do it, then I know I would be responsible for having done it. So, I don’t do it. Apparently, this consciousness is unusual. Ethics researchers are actually investing resources in discovering how to make people conscious of their own culpability. They talk about building an ethic of awareness, which means that people need to be aware of ethical situations in order to choose ethical action. They also talk about limiting organizational loyalty, meaning they’re looking into ways to prevent people from submitting themselves completely to their organization(s).

These are things I do naturally. I haven’t always had the courage to stand up for what I knew was right, nor have I always known how to go about it, but I’ve always felt it. What does it mean for our societies that ethical autonomy is abnormal? I think the answer goes far to explain the rampant corruption in our politics, our governance, our businesses, and our culture. Perhaps the real question is this: Why, in such a society, would anyone want to be normal?

Nothing About Us Without Us: A Presentation

  • Posted on March 17, 2014 at 9:39 AM

In the World

  • Posted on March 7, 2014 at 10:00 AM

If being “of the world” means giving into worldly temptations to behave unethically, than being “in the world” means living in and interacting with the world. If you’re familiar with autism, then you can see how this might be a problem for children with autism.

When Alex was little he didn’t live in the world. Sure, he shared the same physical space we did. But he was rather unobservant of the things and people around him. He assigned such a different sense of importance to the things around him that it was very, very difficult for others to relate with him and to interact with him in a way that he would appreciate.

Even now, after extensive therapy, my boys assign different senses of importance to the things and people around them than “normal” people do. This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. However, this tendency to perceive and interpret the world differently makes it hard for my children to relate with others. It makes it hard for them to interact with the world around them. It makes it hard for them to tolerate (from a sensory perspective) the world around them. In short, it makes it hard for them to live “in the world.”

When I first started delving into the autism community there was a rather large and seemingly significant group of self-advocates with autism who said they felt like aliens from another planet. This metaphor seems to have died down, in part because it tends to justify exclusion tactics and reinforces the idea that people with autism aren’t “human enough.” Yet, it did help, in some small way, for me to better understand “where” Alex “was,” or perhaps, “where he was coming from.”

People with autism aren’t aliens. They are human beings and part of the range of normal human divergence. That means they have every one of them has the right to live “in the world” just as much as anyone else. To achieve this goal, one thing “we” do is devise and utilize therapeutic services that help people with autism better acclimate themselves to the world. We devote a lot of energy and resources to this strategy. A less recognized and less well-resourced strategy, however, is adapting the world to be more inclusive and accessible to people with autism.

As far as I can tell, people who are mostly “of the world” tend to expect their fellow human beings to adapt to the world and the societies we’ve collectively created, either not knowing or not caring that the world and the societies we’ve collectively created are preconditioned to serve the “majority” or the “norm” as determined by those who are good at getting power in society. People who are “in the world” see the world we’ve created as being flexible and changeable, recognizing that we can and should adapt the world and our societies to be more inclusive and accessible to all people, regardless of the nature of their differences. This is the way I choose. This is the work I strive to do.

No Title

  • Posted on January 31, 2014 at 10:00 AM

As I start my second semester of public administration studies, I embark on a study of administrative ethics. Ethics has always been of great interest to me, because I feel it is very important, even essential, to do what is right as much as possible. If I am to increase the opportunities for me to do what is right, then I have to better understand what the right thing to do is. Ethics helps in that goal by helping me construct a framework to use when making decisions.

In my recent reading, I learned something new, something rather unexpected, and I’d like to share it with you. The text I’m reading now is The Responsible Administrator by Terry L. Cooper. According to Cooper, responsibility is a relatively new term coined after the American and French revolutions in response to the need of a new way to define “a common set of values among people of divergent cultures and traditions.”

Apparently, the change of political and governing structures did so much damage to our ideas of roles, structures, and obligations that we had to create a new framework for understanding and expressing our expectations for ethical behavior. Responsibility asserts obligations on individuals in order to describe and attribute obligations for achieving what is right.

In this sense, the idea of responsibility is evolving and adaptable as we learn more and more about what the consequences of behaviors and values can be, thereby bringing us—as a society and as individuals—closer to what is right.

Cooper asks, “What does it mean to be a responsible parent in the first decade of the twenty-first century? Or a responsible spouse, responsible citizen, responsible politician, or responsible public administrator?”

As a partial answer to this question, Cooper proposes, “Responsible administrators must be ethically sophisticated enough to reason with others about the ways in which their conduct serves the public interest and have sufficient clarity about their own professional ethical commitments to maintain integrity and a sense of self-esteem.”

Remembering that I am studying public administration with the intention of learning what I need to know to found my own nonprofit organization, which will serve people with neurological differences, I cannot help but apply these questions and this answer to my own areas of interest.

What does it mean to be a responsible parent of a child with autism? What does it mean to be a responsible citizen in a society with people with neurological differences? What does it mean to be a responsible founder of an organization intending to serve the needs and interests of people with neurological differences?

It is not enough to simply do what you believe is right. You need to be able to explain, articulate, and justify why it is right, because then you can apply the ethical standard more generally. For example, a responsible parent of a child with autism will not pursue treatments that endanger the life of their child, because the life of their child is more important than the outcome of the treatment. Projecting this value further, a responsible parent of a child with autism will not kill their child because the child’s autism is incurable, because the life of their child is more important than whether or not the child is autistic. By understanding and articulating our reasons and our justifications, we clarify our ethical standards and reveal lapses in ethical judgment.

Science and Ethics

  • Posted on October 18, 2013 at 10:00 AM

This post is a continuation or expansion of last Friday’s post, A Scientific Link. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

If you’re a consumer of science fiction, then you’re familiar with the way writers ask “what if” questions in order to explore possible consequences of scientific endeavors. To get a big dose of this, you can watch Fringe.

Basically, science is amoral—not immoral, meaning in violation of moral principles or wrong, but amoral, meaning without morality or not concerned with right or wrong. Legally, we try to assert morality into scientific endeavors by limiting what scientists are allowed to do. Individual scientists may bring their own morality to bear on their work. However, science as a discipline is amoral. It’s about curiosity and testing theories, not about whether or not something should occur.

Therefore, we can look to science to answer “how” questions, like “how does this work” or “how do we do this;” but, we cannot look to science for the answer for “what” questions, like “what should we do” and “what shouldn’t we do.”

When it comes to autism and science, we’ve reached the point where we need to focus less on “How does this work?” and “How do we do this?” Instead, I propose that the primary question we should ask is, “What should society/scientists be allowed to do to peoples’ brains?”

In scientific terms, the brain is the storehouse of memory, thought process, and other components that make up personhood, like personality and emotions. We know that people with brain injuries, stroke, and Alzheimer’s, for example, can undergo significant changes in how they express who they are, because these conditions impact their brain.

Yet, when it comes to autism and other neurological disorders, there are many people in our society who claim the right to seek a cure due to the disruptiveness of the behaviors people (i.e. children) with autism exhibit. They seem to ignore the implications of messing with a child’s brain. By curing someone of autism, for example, you will need to fundamentally change how their brain works, which involves fundamentally changing their brain, which involves fundamentally changing who they are—or, at the very least, how they are able to express who they are.

On the surface, when you’re talking about people profoundly limited by their autism, this may seem like a good thing. I know how it feels to want your child to talk. I know how it feels to want your child to be able to be “more himself,” by taking away the frustrations that make him act out. So, yeah, I get it.

At the same time, I don’t. Because the kind of cure that could impact autism isn’t going to function at the surface of things, it’s going to have a dramatic impact on a person’s brain—if it works at all. In other words, it’s not going to make a child “more himself;” it’s going to change who that child is. It’s going to change the way he (or she) processes information. It’s going to change the way he (or she) experiences the world. It’s going to change the way he (or she) thinks, and probably what he (or she) thinks about and remembers, what those thoughts and memories mean to him (or her), and who knows what else.

Basically, one of the working theories is that autism occurs because of a combination of overabundant and underabundant neural pathways. If you start to mess with those pathways, then you are going to change who the person is, just like a stroke will change who someone is or at least how he or she is able to express who his or her own personhood.

I’ve read enough about tiger moms and other dysfunctional families to know there are parents out there who would love to be able to forcibly re-write their child’s brain to make their child who they want their child to be. I don’t see the potential “cure” for autism as being any different. The question then is: Should parents (or doctors or guardians or anyone) have that right? Does society have the right to rewire someone’s brain to make them more socially acceptable?