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  • 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.

Weight of the World

  • Posted on April 11, 2012 at 8:09 AM

Sometimes I wish Rachel had never drawn my attention to the incendiary issue of Autism and Empathy.  It’s not that I actually prefer ignorance.  It’s just that I have enough to grapple with in trying to understand the ludicrous human phenomena known as prejudice in its most general sense.

How can anyone think that the set “people with autism” fits inside the set “people who lack empathy?”  Why should they come in to the arena with this assumption?  Why should they work so hard to try to prove themselves right through science?  Obviously, they never met my son Willy.

He’s thirteen years old and he carries the weight of the world on his bony little shoulders.  The “autists lack empathy” camp would have you believe that because he is atypical in his social and communication development that he lacks empathy.  Yet, he feels so strongly for others that, if anything, his reactions are inappropriately grand.  Willy’s quick to apologize for the slightest wrong he does, even if that “wrong” was not of his doing nor his responsibility to do.

On the other hand, there’s our fifteen-year-old.  It’s not that he’s not empathetic, but he tends toward the irresponsible.  In short, he’s a teenager.  He lives so much in the moment that he doesn’t consider the consequences until they catch up with him.  By the time they do, he’s often at a loss for how problems got so big while he wasn’t paying attention.  We have to lay it out for him.

Easter Sunday, after a week of blowing off his family and his responsibilities in order to spend time with a friend (or complain about being bored when he wasn’t), things came to a head when our fifteen-year-old announced he was going over to the friend’s house—that he had to.  On Easter Sunday.

Mark’s reaction was explosive.  Brandon’s counter-reaction was equally explosive.  I was downstairs with headphones on when Willy came running to tell me, with tears streaming down his face and sobs heaving his chest, that “Daddy and Brandon are fighting.”

So, I go upstairs, assess the situation, and help put things into perspective for Brandon.  Tears and repentance and forgiveness followed.  All’s well that ends well, right?

Except that wasn’t the end.  Not for Willy.  Willy carried that fight with him throughout the long day, bursting into tears any time the memory flitted through his mind.  He took the guilt for what Brandon had left undone on to himself—“If only I had helped Brandon…”

The toxicity of a relatively brief fight stuck itself inside Willy’s mind and heart.  The memory itself was enough for him to feel how badly upset his father and his brother had been as if it were still happening.  And it hurt him and he bore the guilt of it, even though none of what happened had been his doing or his responsibility.

Now, for us, the lesson is that we really need to do better about the fighting.  Beyond that, though, this makes me wonder anew how anyone could claim Willy lacks empathy for any reason, let alone because he’s autistic?  I find the claim completely unfathomable.