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Proceedings of the University of Houston - Downtown

Practical Ethics for the Classroom In-house Conference

Organized by

Dr. Karina Stokes (UHD Professional Writing Program)
Dr. Jeffrey Jackson (UHD Philosophy Program)
February 8, 2008

Many thanks to
the University of Houston - Downtown
Quality Enhancement Program Office
for providing funding for this conference.

Proceedings were edited and prepared for online publication
by Karina Stokes, Ph.D.
University of Houston - Downtown
Department of English

Given the recent ethical scandals at Enron and other corporations, some are asking if educational institutions, like UHD, are doing enough to instill an ethical sense in college graduates. This conference was a forum for sharing ideas among colleagues at UHD. Panel One began with a discussion of the obstacles to teaching ethics in the classroom. Panel Two uncovered some of the strategies that are currently being used to overcome obstacles and motivate students toward ethical thinking and acting. Panel Three examined how educators might help students to meet the ethical challenges of the future. Lively discussion followed each of the sessions. For those who were not able to attend, or those who want a reminder of the topics covered, a summary of the presentations, provided by the presenters, follows.

Panel 1. The problem of teaching ethics as a practice and not just a theory

Sharin Elkholy – Is it possible to teach ethics to students as other than history of thought?

Is Teaching Ethics Possible?

Sharin N. Elkholy

University of Houston-Downtown, Department of Philosophy

I question whether it is possible to teach ethics to University students in other than a history of thought manner. Clearly by the time that students arrive at University many of their manners and morals are established and set. These they learn early from a variety of sources. In teaching ethics, I have found myself sharing and discussing ideas with students that belong to the cannon of writings on ethics; however, I have not observed that these lessons have had any impact with respect to ethical learning. Instead, I have been told that the study of ethics is valuable as an intellectual and cultural pursuit. I discuss this conclusion, in addition to other points of views, regarding teaching ethics that I have learned from my students in teaching ethics.

Andrew Pavelich – In presenting moral issues in class, is objectivity or fairness possible?

Ethics and Fairness in Presenting Moral Issues

Andrew Pavelich

University of Houston-Downtown, Department of Social Sciences

Most of us try to generate thoughtful moral decision-makers by presenting our students with multiple views on a given topic, and letting our students decide for themselves which, if any, they agree with. Thus we try to give students a sense of fairness and respect for all sides of an issue, along with a sense of openness about which views may have merit. In my Moral Issues class, when I talk about the ethics of abortion (as an example), I choose essays from writers across the moral spectrum: one who thinks that fetuses are all persons and abortion is murder; one who thinks that fetuses are not persons and abortion is morally fine; one who thinks that fetuses are not persons; but that abortion is still immoral; and one who thinks that even if fetuses are persons, then abortion is still acceptable. I present these arguments, and tell my students that there is no obviously correct answer, and that they must decide for themselves. This approach, I tell myself, will instill in my students a sense of the value of fairness and objectivity, and make them better moral reasoners.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, presenting the essays described about seems to do an injustice to the true nature of the debate. Specifically, the first position described above, that all fetuses are persons and abortion is murder, is really only argued for by one person, and the argument is a notoriously bad one. It is, however, in almost all of the textbooks on abortion, just because the editors of those textbooks think that fairness requires presenting all sides of an issue. In truth, it flies in face of fairness to present this position in conjunction with other, stronger arguments in a way that makes them all seem equally valid. Of course, I can say to myself that the weakness of the argument will be clear to students once the read the essay, but experience shows that this rarely happens.

The second (and related) problem with the “cover all sides” approach to moral education is that it gives the impression that every position is equally valid, which often, for students at least, amounts to the same thing as saying that there is no correct answer. We want out students to objectively look at all sides of things and decide for themselves which side is best, but when we present them with so many positions and counter-positions, they often conclude that there is no answer at all. Surely the last thing we want to be doing is covertly teaching a kind of moral nihilism while overtly trying to teach good moral decision-making.

The alternative to the “teach all sides” approach is to present only those positions which seem to actually be correct. The problem here is that this kind of advocacy sounds uncomfortably like indoctrination, and academics have been accused of cultishly indoctrinating students often enough to justifiably cautious.

I don’t have a truly adequate answer to this dilemma, but a few things seem clear: first, there really is no way to be fair to an issue, or to be objective about it. We always choose our classroom topics/readings, and we always leave something out. Secondly, given the impossibility of fairness as normally understood, there must be a way to be a responsible advocate in the classroom. After all, the very notion that we can set out to make our students into better moral decision-makers implies that we know what a moral life is. Bringing the issue of morality into the classroom is, from the beginning, a matter of advocacy.

Nick Rangel – Political correctness vs. prejudice – how to privilege argument over opinion

In Defense of Political Correctness: Ethically Addressing Prejudice in the Classroom

Nicolas Rangel Jr.

University of Houston-Downtown, Department of Arts and Humanities

What is “political correctness”? I ask less for my own edification than I do to demonstrate how and why the answer to that question may be fraught with peril. In the Fall 2007, a student I will henceforth identify as George, in the midst of my course in Political Communication, asked if the assigned papers could reflect how the students “really felt” or if they would have to be “politically correct.” To be perfectly honest, I have always bristled at the use of that term, as when it has been used, it often serves as a preface to some nonsensical rambling in justification of truly abhorrent discourse, usually targeted at those whose existence challenges our current hegemonic socio-political order. Nonetheless, my curiosity piqued, I assumed that here was a truly teachable moment. So onward I ventured, “What do you mean?”

George’s response? “I mean do you want us to be politically correct…It means that some people don’t want their feelings hurt.” So here’s where the teachable moment goes out of the nearest available window. His answer should not have been unexpected. But I allowed genuine anger to govern my emotions. Although I did indicate that I was really more interested in what he meant by political correctness, I really petered out with reference to the writing requirement. “Your papers are supposed to offer reasoned arguments in support of your claims…Simply asserting, ‘this is my opinion’ is insufficient for the sort of evidence based writing that I expect.” And that was that. No extended pontification on my strong objections to the framing suggested by “politically correct,” no didactic oration on the perils of labeling. In my initial arrogance, I forgot how truly human I was.

In retrospect, however, I would conclude that what I actually did in the classroom was correct. And these issues did continue throughout the semester. To whit:

  • George frequently wrote papers describing political figures that he disagreed with as un-American.
  • Although the course focused on how political communication was employed by political figures to attain political ends, for example, why Pope Benedict might want to apologize for remarks that offended Muslims as it undermined his larger efforts to ally with Islamic leaders against global economic injustice, George scoffed at such a preposterous notion, saying, “he’s the Pope, why would he give a ______ about what them Muslims think?”
  • When one class discussion suggested that nothing was being gained by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, George suggested, after otherwise defending the occupation that “we should drop a bomb and kill them all” but too many “un-American” people think that would be “politically incorrect.”

I have never seriously entertained the restriction of student expression, beyond that which was physically disruptive in the classroom, until that moment. I now had a student stridently defending genocide. And I should also note that before doing so, he remarked, “Look, you have your opinion, and I have mine.”

George’s perspective on political correctness, once a prevalent part of the American political dialogue, has made a contemporary resurgence. Note the following description of the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s January 7 comment that, “Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act” from conservative commentator George F. Will:

For decades, liberals, believing that "self-esteem" is a universal entitlement that is endangered by nearly universal insensitivity, have striven to make everybody exquisitely sensitive to slights. Liberals have become industrialists as an indignation industry has burgeoned. It writes campus speech codes, infests corporations with "sensitivity training" workshops and "consciousness-raising" retreats, and generally enforces the new right to pass through this vale of tears without tears or even being peeved. (1)

Will’s assumptions, and those of George before him, is that the central concerns of that which they would identify as political correctness are bound in one of the great straw men arguments of the past quarter century: Concerns about “offensive” language constitute an explicit violation of free expression in defense of overly sensitive feelings. This straw man is problematic for a number of reasons, none the least of which is its implicit advocacy for an ahistorical perspective on social injustice, one decontextualizing current struggles to rectify that injustice, and marginalizing concerns about historical system of oppression as “hurt feelings.” As historian Joan Wallach Scott has argued, it functions as a defense of orthodoxy masquerading as nonconformity.

The central conundrum that I seek to address is this: Is limiting student expression a legitimate response to arguments that I find troubling? The response is complicated. By virtue of the liberal arts tradition, a central objective of education to prepare students for active citizenship. Successful citizenship requires rhetorical skill. As no less a figure than Aristotle noted in Book 1 of Ars Rhetorica,

…it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs but not of being able to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs. (2)

In this task, Aristotle remarks that the personal character of the speaker is a critical component of rhetoric as “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is spoken so as to make us think him credible.” (3).

As educators, our job is in many ways an assimilative one. We are to indoctrinate our students into the culture of the educated elite, hardly a monolithic group, but rather one composed of distinct fields of experience and inquiry. My use of the term indoctrination is less ideological than such a description suggests. We call less for the adaptation of elite reason than an understanding of how it constrains reason across the previously described fields.

Philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who may be best described as the father of contemporary argumentation, offers us a non-ideologically oriented description of how this task is accomplished, in his lecture on Logic and the Criticism of Arguments, noting

The substantive analysis of practical argumentation is worthwhile only if it is
collaborative, with philosophers and practitioners working to establish, firstly how reasons function in all different fields of work, secondly what are the accepted procedures and forums for the resulting arguments and, lastly, what standards are available for judging the “success” and “failure” of work in one field or another. (4)

In other words, our task is to help our students understand how arguments function in different contexts, discovering how and where those arguments may be employed, and to determine what criteria are employed in assessing those arguments.

In some ways, I address this with a new rule governing student discussion: I don’t care about your opinion, I tell them. I don’t want to hear about what you believe, or what you think. I care about what you know, what you can reasonably prove, and a justification for why such reason ought to be compelling.

Argument has been the recipient of much needed criticism. As often manifested in what we refer to as debate, it often embraces the false dilemma of binary reasoning, and can generate controversy where none should exist. Good argument practice, however, recognizes the value inherent in exploring alternatives not as real advocacy but as a part of critical consumption within the marketplace of ideas, and will capably determine how and why certain arguments are frequently judged, across fields, as failing arguments. 

George was not representative of my students overall performance, although I am often certain that he wrote of my criticisms as the product of political bias. But in explaining how and why arguments operate as they do in a particular field and the attendant audience expectations within those fields, it is my hope that students will come to understand not only how speech may be employed to particular ends, but why some audiences are prone to accept some forms of reasoning over others, and what the implications of that reasoning are.


1. Will, George F. “Misstep in a Liberal Minefield.” Washington Post. 17 January 2008:Para. 2. 7 February 2008. <>.

2.Aristotle. “Rhetoric” in Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classic Times to the Present, p. 151-193 (Boston, Bedford St. Martins Press, 1990): 153.

3. Aristotle, 153.

4. Toulmin, Stephen. “Logic and the Criticism of Arguments” in Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classic Times to the Present, p. 151-193 (Boston, Bedford St. Martins Press, 1990): 153.

Panel 2. Strategies, activities, or materials used to motivate students to think and act ethically in the classroom and beyond

Christine Bachman – Respect Forms Values / Create a Community of Learners

Creating a Community of Learners

Christine Bachman

University of Houston-Downtown, Psychology Program

Plato believed that “good education creates good ‘men’ and good ‘men’ act nobly (Bennett, 1993). Yet, what makes us good ‘men’, and why do we need ethics if we have laws? Given our position of power and the potential influence we have on our students, we have concomitant responsibility for our students’ moral development. As we create and plan our courses, we need to not only think of the knowledge and skills that we want our students to acquire, but also the values, beliefs and attitudes that we want them to develop. Students will often treat others in ways they have been treated; consequently, we need to comport ourselves and treat students with respect, fairness, honesty, and trust.

Asking undergraduate students to discuss how we know what is “right and wrong,” and to define morality and conscience allows for interesting exchanges in the classroom and online.
Given the complexity of these questions, several psychological theories can be used to examine our thinking processes relating to knowledge acquisition and reasoning, the moral feelings we develop over time, action and behavior given a specific situations, and the role of the environment.

Theories: One approach that has played a pivotal role in psychology is the psychoanalytic theory, especially the superego which focuses mostly on moral feelings of anxiety, shame and guilt, but disregards the cognitive and behavioral component (Freud, 1924). Social learning theory and behaviorism put emphasis on behaviors, the stimuli preceding the behavior and the consequences associated with the behavior, but leave out thoughts and feelings (e.g., Bandura, 1977). Cognitive developmental theories consider thoughts associated with moral development but neglect feelings and actions (e.g., Piaget, 1932; Kohlberg, 1969). Lastly, evolutionary theorists view morality as an inherited trait that becomes apparent given specific social conditions and experiences.

Guidelines to follow to reach ethical judgments (Ruggiero,2003).

  • Be conscious of your first impressions (often influenced by experiences, biases, stereotypes).
  • Look for all pertinent information before making a decision (what do experts say?).
  • Reflex on other people’s opinions and how to support your opinion.
  • Be flexible.
  • Explain the basis for your reasoning.

Using the theories outlined above and Ruggiero’s (2003) guidelines, we can use the classroom to discuss ethical issues without raising criticism from students and others. One thing to keep in mind is whose values are to be taught and when is teaching ethics considered indoctrination? To address this, my teaching strategy includes activities that help students to assess how their own values, beliefs and actions differ from and affect others. Allowing students to exchange ideas and to disagree with others help them to be more empathic and respectful, and expand their ability to interpret the theories and psychological concepts covered during the semester. The other component I consider very important is to establish a classroom environment that contributes to a free exchange of ideas while maintaining a healthy environment. bell hooks proposes that making the “classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute is a central goal” (p. 39). As such I try to build a ‘community of learners’ by creating a climate of openness and intellectual rigor and recognizing the value of each individual voice (bell hooks, 2006, p. 40).

For instance, a human and growth development class can be used as a laboratory to free write and then discuss the various developmental stages of morality. Students need to provide examples of how at the most elementary level, rules are external to the child and behavioral conformity is ensured through discipline and self-interest. Students then write examples of how adolescents at the next level learn rules embodied in social groups, and comply with the rules to gain acceptance within that group. Lastly, students relate the developmental process of interpreting morality in terms of self-chosen principles. Using this perspective allows students to examine moral problems differently, using developmental age and education (e.g., Kohlberg, 1984). Another approach I use is to ask students to look carefully at their values and use their experiences to integrate the psychological theories and concepts to their own life. When students explicitly apply knowledge and skills to their personal morality, they are more likely to develop a good foundation for understanding ethical issues and to connect what they are learning in the classroom to current and future experiences. Students also become more cognizant of cultural differences especially when western societies’ views clash with eastern views.

Other activities are used such as asking students to engage in weekly online discussions. They read an excerpt posted on Blackboard Vista, and discuss their views and beliefs using their textbook. They are allowed to use other textbooks (Literature, polisci, etc.). As the discussions topics often focus on social justice, students often bring their own moral conundrums to the classroom or online discussions. Because of the diversity of experiences that students bring to the classroom, what is normal for one student introduces new challenges for others. Another strategy uses “Taking Sides” which forces students to think carefully about the positions they hold and why they hold them as opposed to merely defending their opinions without much thought. Using this environment provides a way for students to learn how to treat and respect each other and prepare them to live in a community of educated and diverse people.

Carolyn Ashe – Shared values / no one right decision or core of understanding in a team

Shared Values: A Team Activity Designed to Encourage Practical Ethical Decision Making

Carolyn Ashe

University of Houston-Downtown, Department of Management, Marketing, & Business Administration


The 21st century will emulate and yet transcend the prior century with profound economic, social, political, and cultural changes. Human and natural occurrences such as the Enron crisis, WorldCom scandal, war in Iraq, BP issues, and natural disasters such as Katrina, Rita, and recent tornadoes in Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky easily support redefining the educational approach to the study of ethics in the classroom.

Shared Values is a team activity designed to promote practical ethical decision making. This activity encourages trust and bonding as a team, determination of objectives and individual values, and establishment of a different set of values that are appropriate to business situations.


  • To challenge/stimulate the analytical processes of students
  • To develop shared values rather than focusing on one right decision


Students are assigned to teams to develop a core of understandings (shared values). This assignment can certainly be problematic at best given the virtual as well as face-to-face class environment is comprised of a population of global students. Historically, “a shortage” of meeting times has been cited by students as a reason for their lack of participation in team projects. Therefore, it is mandatory that face-to face or virtual meetings (online class), with submission of performance reports to the professor, are required to develop cooperative skills.

Assignment Example

Background: A survey conducted by the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) was submitted to 330 global business leaders and released October 25, 2007 at their annual conference in San Francisco. Acknowledging the growing influence of emerging economies, a majority of respondents, 69%, said China is the country that will most influence the evolution of corporate responsibility in the next five years. For the first time in the Business for Social Responsibility Conference 15-year history, more than 1,350 leaders from nearly 50 countries participated in the Conference. This unprecedented attendance emphasizes the present and future global focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues (

Assignment (

  • Define corporate social responsibility and other key words or phrases related to the statement above.
  • Why is China considered the country that will most influence the evolution of corporate social responsibility in the next five years?
  • What will or has initiated the expectation of China’s influence?
  • What affect, if any, will this influence have on other countries and the United States in particular?
  • Discuss with your group and present your in depth analysis regarding China and it influence on the world.


Business for Social Responsibility, Sustainable Business Growing in Importance, Global Leaders Say at BSR Conference,, Retrieved October 30, 2007.

Press Release from: Business for Social Responsibility., Retrieved October 30, 2007.

Chynette Nealy – 2 focus exercises – document on an ethical dilemma – resume fictions

The Role of Student Responsibility in the Ethical Process

Chynette Nealy

University of Houston-Downtown, College of Business

In light of media coverage focusing on unethical conduct in the business community, a clear need exists for business communication teachers to continue “warning” students about the consequences of fabricating credentials. Incidents such as these can be used to enhance students’ understanding and preparation for employment opportunities. With so many workplace barriers: ethical dilemmas, social responsibility, diversity, globalization, emerging technology and flattening organizational hierarchy, students must be aware of “career terminators” and methods to “avoid” them. So, how do you get students to understand that ethical reasoning is an integral process of business communication?

My theoretical basis is drawn from a practical approach that learning occurs when students focus their attention, energies and abilities on solving real world problems and reflecting on their experiences (Dewey,1997; Kolb,1984). This process involves a four stage cycle (concrete → reflection→ abstract conceptualization → active experimentation). I use this technique while considering my audience when designing course material for improvement of learner outcomes related to identifying and applying techniques in planning and preparing spoken and written documents that reflect a behavioral change. I envision my undergraduate business students: traditional and non-traditional, multiply corporate level employees and non-work experience, and diversity challenges (cultural, language, gender, age, etc.). By doing so, it helps me to understand and experience how to develop and/or enhance students’ “you attitudes” with respect to analysis inclusive of other points of view. 

We all want to be heard. This premise is one purpose of communication, helping people feel good about themselves in order to achieve objectives. In this regard, one can posit that people will be more inclined to utilize ethical reasoning when challenged with right verses wrong decisions. For example, corporate competition and/or shortage of human capital in specific employment environments are cited as reasons that applicants lie or enhance resumes (Cascio, 2000; McGarvey, 2003). Students using the “you attitude” may be less inclined to misrepresent qualifications on their resumes. The “you attitude” involves focusing on the receiver’s needs by using concise language with objective facts that builds and protects goodwill (Locker, 2001). Thus, it is plausible that the receiver’s attention to the document’s details, specific skills needed by candidates, improves and/or can result in employment. It is also reasonable to suggest students, candidates, applying this approach and aware of unethical consequences will assume responsibility for detailing qualifications without embellishment. The following assignment is an example of how to apply this instructional strategy for improvement of learner outcomes (student responsibility).


Learner Outcomes: Upon satisfactory completion of this assignment students will be able to demonstrate the following competencies:

  • Apply business communication skills (verbal, nonverbal, listening, feedback and interpersonal) to demonstrate written and oral competency.
  • Apply ethical reasoning while servicing various stakeholders.

Assignment: Students select a written document (letter, memo, email) from their business or organization focusing on an ethical dilemma (a situation that arises when all alternative choices or behavior have been deemed undesirable because of potential negative ethical consequence, making it difficult to distinguish right from wrong). If they cannot find a document one is provided. I have collected samples that include: facts left out of reports, unauthorized payments of bonuses and payments of bribes dues to local customs. The page length usually is about one and/or two pages.

We discuss techniques for adapting messages to the audience. This involves discussion of communicating ethically and responsibly given the purpose of the message and audience characteristics (needs, concerns, age, culture, etc.). During discussion documents are used to explain concepts in order to introduce the process for planning and preparing spoken and written messages. I like to use resumes as the first document. We discuss the ethics of embellishing or exaggerating to get a position along with other legal and ethical constraints. Students then write their analysis and rationale for revision. Rationale for revisions must include principles of communicating ethically and responsibly that they are studying. This assignment is always memorable and/or realistic because we use prior and present student resumes. I use frequent findings in the form of “your picture here” from students’ resumes to jumpstart our conversation about “their responsibility” with respect to fabricating credentials. I realize the ideas shared are not all encompassing but hopefully a starter for planning your successful approach and learner outcomes. 


A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for.
W. C. Fields

University of Houston Downtown
Expected Graduation Date
Fictitious Honors
Volunteer/Service Learning Projects

University of Houston
Earned Degree
Elected to plan guest speakers
Vague description of organization/activities


Cascio, W. (2000). Costing Human Resources: The Financial Impact Behavior in Organizations. Cincinnati, OH: South –Western College Publishing.

Dewey, J. (1939/1997). Experiences and education. Macmilliam.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J..

Locker, K. (2001). Business and Administrative Communication. The McGraw-Hill Companies.

McGarvey, R. (2003, April 15). Lies, dammed lies and resumes: Background checks get more vigilant. Electronic Business, 29 (5), 17.

Kurt Stanberry – Laws codify ethics to remedy public harm from personal ethical failure

An Examination of the Sarbanes Oxley Act and Its Effect on the College of Business Curriculum

Kurt Stanberry
Gail Evans
Lee Usnick

University of Houston-Downtown, College of Business


The most significant piece of corporate reform legislation of the past 20 years is the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 (1), (hereinafter SOX). The law is infused with important new legal and ethical requirements, with implications not only practicing professionals but also those of us who are Business School professors. SOX has been an impetus to evaluate how and what we teach our BBA and MBA students in legal studies and ethics classes, as well as others. This paper will give a brief overview of some of the effects of SOX, and relate them to areas commonly taught in the business curriculum such as accounting, law, computer information systems, banking, and finance.


Historically many of the changes implemented in corporate governance by legislation have focused on publicly traded companies. As a result of this approach, much of the reform has occurred through change aimed at the public accounting industry. For example, when Congress wanted to stem the tide of corporate bribery in international transactions, it did so by passing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as an amendment to the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, and the primary enforcement mechanism was through public accounting firms and the audit process.

That is once again the case with SOX where many of the reforms relate to the accounting industry. As has been widely reported, reforms included three major areas:

  • Strengthening of auditor independence,
  • Changes in financial accounting reporting standards, and
  • Creation of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.


Venture capitalists are finding they too must grapple with the effects of SOX, as well as its increased costs. In short, the law is changing the way investors look at companies. “IPOs are not looking as enticing as they did before,” according to Audrey Roth at Sullivan and Worcester. (2) The problem is that VCs will have to spend more time doing due diligence on their investments and concentrate more on building bigger companies with more robust infrastructures. VC-backed companies must be very, very sound so they can go public and absorb the extra costs or be acquired at a greater cost in an M&A. The end result is that companies need to be stronger, bigger and more prepared when they launch an IPO than they did before S/O. Not only do they need deeper pockets to cover the costs of increased regulation, they also need to be large enough to attract the attention of analysts, and that group has become much less prevalent at investment banks in the post-SOX era. (3) In fact, the number of companies “going private” increased 63% in the year after passage of SOX. (4)


“In Congress’ passion to do something about Enron-like situations, once again small businesses got financially hammered”, says Jack Wynn, President of the National Small Business Company leadership Council, “and they are overburdened by regulation.” (5) How has SOX affected small business? For example, if a small or mid-sized business has to comply with the independence-mandated requirements for board members, it would be costly and difficult. Director’s fees have doubled, as has the cost of director’s liability insurance. Another change possibly affecting small business is in the area of audit and legal fees, which have doubled as well. The minimum cost of just being public, no matter how small, has gone from about $1.3 million to $2.5 million. (6) It is also unlikely that small businesses can afford the type of expensive, comprehensive compliance software discussed elsewhere in this paper.

When asked if he planned to introduce any changes to the law to give relief to small businesses, Oxley responded negatively, indicating, “If you’re a small company or large, you are going to have to achieve certain accounting standards and those for corporate governance. The investors need to be assured”. (7) 

Computer Information Systems:

As most expected, there were complaints from the very first about the complexity and cost of compliance before the law even went into effect. As soon as the law became effective, companies were working on products to aid in compliance. Auditors of a typical large company face the daunting task of standardizing and reporting compliance with the law related to an average of over 1000 control objectives, each with at least 5 sub-controls that must be carried out several times each year, so there could be 25,000 opportunities to violate the law each year. (8) As reported by Thomas Hoffman, IT and business manager, addressing the requirements of the act, “buy vs. build” assessments showed that it would be faster and less expensive to buy off-the-shelf-software and have the vendor customize and maintain it for them.” (9) The software industry knew that SOX was a golden opportunity. If it could figure out a way to make compliance easier and cheaper, and help keep executives out of trouble with the SEC and DOJ, there was a built-in market for new products. Two examples of companies who came out with cutting-edge integrated software S/O compliance products are IDS Scheer and Movaris. Essentially what these software producers are providing is systems that address the basic issue of public disclosure reporting that might be summarized thusly, “It’s no longer just the numbers reported, but how one got to those numbers,” according to John Hagerty, spokesperson for Movaris. “It will allow the CEO and CFO to sleep better at night, not to mention the auditors.” (10) 

Information Technology:

The chief information officer function has a key role in compliance, not just through management of compliance software as discussed above, but also because of responsibility for web communication, e-mail management, and records management and retention. As noted by Parkinson and Bloom, SOX “may be financial legislation, but its designed to ensure that the creation and documentation of financial systems is tracked by internal controls. . . CIOs can be held responsible for inaccurate data. Although you may not be making the types of decisions whose ethics may be questioned, you are creating systems whose data is relied upon to make those decisions. If the systems generate inaccurate data, the onus could be on you.” (11) One need look no further than the most recent issues of Computerworld, one of the leading trade publications, to get a quick measure of this awareness and concern on the part of those in the information management function. 

As long-term custodian of the corporate data, the CIO must be cognizant of the significant legal and financial consequences related to the storage and transmission of electronic documents, including whether or not they have been deleted. (12) The severity of the criminal proscriptions and penalties in SOX related to documents (13) make it essential that public companies seriously examine their document retention/destruction policies, implement them if they don’t have one, and take steps to insure that the policies are applied uniformly across the company. (14) E-mail presents a particularly thorny problem for the CIO. Companies need a policy that not only addresses access but also archiving, not only from e-mail servers but also individual employee computers, mobile devices and even the web. It can’t be driven just by the need to conserve server space but first must be structured to meet regulatory compliance. And it must be done in consultation with legal counsel, not something that has generally been part of the normal routine of a CIO. (15)

Human Resource Management:

SOX has immediate implications related to HR functions such as:

  • Structure of executive compensation systems
  • Compliance training

Creative use of loans, bonuses and stock options as compensation tools had become industry standard by the late 1990’s as a means of attracting and keeping top executive talent. But these same tools, or “schemes” as the more cynical might refer to them, became the subject of abuse and were viewed as major contributors to the scandals associated with companies such as Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing. While S/O contains outright bans on personal loans from public corporations that are not insured depository institutions, the challenge for those responsible for designing compensation packages is that the language of the act is so broad that it may imperil or significantly restrict a number of compensation tools. (16) Examples of such compensation forms include cashless stock options, split-dollar life insurance policies, tax-deferred retirement accounts, relocation assistance, corporate credit cards and signing bonuses.

A key element of the concept of compliance is training, also a function generally the responsibility of Human Resources. One of the ways that compliance is demonstrated is by showing that employees are aware of the law and the company’s policies and procedures related to it. Comprehensive systematically applied training programs demonstrate the good faith of the company in fulfilling that requirement. Some of these programs may only apply to specific functions such as accounting or financial reporting. Others, such as records retention including e-mail management cover a broader range of employees.

Legal Studies:

SOX provides a number of opportunities for the professor teaching legal studies courses designed to meet the curriculum expectations in the AACSB accreditation standards related to law and ethics. (17) The example of companies such as Enron, and others, provides a framework for discussions of how SOX demonstrates the use of structured laws to codify ethical principles in an effort to remedy public harm caused by personal ethical failure.

The act provides an excellent springboard for discussions of the interrelatedness of corporate functions and the role each plays in compliance. And it also provides the opportunity to discuss the role of legal counsel as proactive part of the management team rather than the “counsel of last resort” after the problem has already occurred.

Classroom Activities:

We have found useful classroom methodologies to include debates, case analyses, mock trials, court observations, and other similar active learning techniques.


In the COB, we take a multi-faceted approach to teaching ethics and law. We have specific courses which focus on those topics. We also teach these concepts across the curriculum, infusing them into many different courses.

Of course the ultimate question for all of us revolves around whether one can “teach” ethics and whether students can “learn” ethical behavior.


1. Pub. L. No. 107-204, 116 Stat. 745.

2. Nat Worden, “VCs Wrestle With Sarbanes Oxley”, 2004 (March 1) Venture Capital Journal 1.

3. Id, at 2.

4. John Berlau, “Sarbanes Oxley is a Business Disaster”, 2004 (Feb. 16) Insight 24.

5. Id. at 27.

6. Id.

7. Id.

8. “Movaris Launches Certainty”, 2003 (Sept. 9) Business Wire 1.

9. Thomas Hoffman, “Big Companies Turn to Packaged Sarb-Ox Apps,” 2004 (March 1) Computerworld 1. 

10. Id.

11. John Parkinson and Stewart Bloom, “Surviving Sarbanes-Oxley” 2003 (June) Optimize 1.

12. Northbut Kubilus, “Sarbanes-Oxley: Where IT and Finance Meet,” 2003 (June 30) Computerworld.

13. 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1512 (c).

14. “Document Retention/Destruction Policies in Response to Sections 802 and 1102 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, O’Melveny & Myers LLP,, 2003.

15. Chris Burry and Meredith Carroll, “Save or Toss? Key Considerations When Archiving E-mail,” 2004 (Feb. 20) Computerworld.

16. Kathryn Lehman, “Executive Compensation Following the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002,” 81NCLR 2115, 2003.

17. AASCB Eligibility Procedures and Standards for Business Accreditation, Revised January 1, 2003, P.18; Standard 15. (Normally, the curriculum management process will result in undergraduate and master’s level general management degree programs that will include learning experiences in such management-specific knowledge and skills areas as: ethical and legal responsibilities in organizations and society.).

Cherylynn MacGregor – 2 exercises – first-hand perspectives on euthanasia and conducting “Moral Mafia” groups to discuss various ethical dilemmas in health care

Practical Applications of Ethics in the Classroom

Cherylynn MacGregor

University of Houston-Downtown, Anthropology Program

I teach “Cultural Anthropology,” “Medical Anthropology,” and “Death and Dying.” There is an “ethics” component in all three of my classes. I will be talking about only a few of the exercises today.

In the “Death and Dying” class, I give out a sheet where the student is asked to assess responsibility for the Holocaust. Sometimes, people only blame Hitler for the Holocaust. This barely touches the surface. This assessment ranges from Hitler to the Nazi officers who were “only doing their job” to the conductors with the railroad who took the people to the concentration camps to the surrounding townspeople who smelled burning flesh from the crematoriums. Some on the list were actively involved….. others stood silent and did nothing. This exercise points out how many people had to participate for something of this magnitude to occur. We also take a field trip to the Holocaust Museum to further illustrate the consequences of one’s decisions. Everyone has a choice: to stand up or stand down when unethical behaviors occur.

In the “Death and Dying” class, I also give a “Life-Threatening Illness” assignment. They choose their illness (it’s the only time they get to pick it). Then they have to take me through the whole process of what it would be like from a first-hand perspective: symptoms, treatments, side effects, how they would pay for it, etc. Then the students have to address the emotional aspects such as how it would affect relationships, what they would want to do more of, what wouldn’t they be able to do, and when they would want life support terminated. It is a requirement to present the material in first person. This can be in the form of a diary, a letter to someone important to them, or any other creative means. By doing the assignment in this way, it gives the students a better understanding of what someone may be going through, rather than an emotionally detached research paper.

In the “Medical Anthropology” class, I break the students into groups called “Moral Mafias.” Each group is given a scenario to discuss. There are no grades for this exercise. The groups don’t have to agree on their answer. They are allowed to discuss these issues in a safe, non-threatening environment. Some of the scenarios are as follows:

  1. You’ve just received the results of your amniocentesis. Something is wrong with the baby. The doctor predicts a 20% chance that the baby could lead a normal life. What would you do?
  2. You’re a physician. The pharmaceutical representatives want to give you samples for your patients. If you give these samples, you can get incentives like trips, money, etc. Do you accept these gifts? What if you don’t feel the medicine provides the best care? As a patient, would you accept these free samples, knowing you’re part of this dynamic?
  3. You’re in charge of organizing a conference for mental health professionals. One of the pharmaceutical companies will supply major funding if they are allowed to advertise their drugs at the conference. What do you do?
  4. You have cancer. Studies have shown that smoking marijuana lessens the side effects of chemotherapy. Because it’s illegal, you run the risk of being arrested. What do you do?
  5. You go to the grocery store. There is only one available spot, but it’s for the disabled. You’re only going in for a couple of items. What do you do?

These exercises allow the students to realize that REAL life gets messy. Something may look really great on paper, but when ordinary people are put in extraordinary circumstances, things get more complicated.

Panel 3. What possible future steps may be needed based on our analysis of the current situation

Tony Chiaviello – Benefits of new casuistry method of ethical decision making

Teaching Ethics in the Classrooom, Outside the Box: Cases, Circumstances, and “The Tyranny of Principles”

Anthony R. S. Chiaviello

University of Houston-Downtown, Department of English

Ethics, by its nature, tends to lead to fuzzy discussions, as ethics remains more of an art than a science. I don’t promise to eliminate that fuzziness. What I do hope to accomplish is to make a plausible case that reliance on modern ethical theories, with their axioms and foundational moral principles, is no basis for a practical practice of ethics, especially when we try to resolve hard cases (those that resist easy resolution).

Today I want to ask the audience to consider that teaching ethics might better be approached on a case-analysis basis rather than from any particular theory, like utilitarianism, for example. Rather, familiarity with a range of ethical approaches – including maxims and proverbs -- allows us to choose the applicable principles in a particular case to reach a solution. That is the practice of casuistry: case-based ethics. The practice has something of a disreputable reputation, one that is being rehabilitated, however, beginning with the field of bioethics.

What do I mean by “outside the box”? The standard in-box approach to ethics begins with a review of the major theories and pretty soon the implicit choice of a genial theory, and its basic principles. Then we try to regularize the method by studying a sample of cases, applying the theory’s principles to arrive at ethical solutions. Finally, we evaluate how well a particular theory solves sample cases, based on how well it works in the kinds of situations in which we find ourselves, whether we be technical writers, business employees or employers, students, or teachers. Unfortunately we usually find that any particular theory just doesn’t work in all cases.

The theories we can choose from hardly seem equal to the task of solving all manner of ethical questions by applying its principles to specific cases. When we try to apply such principles to the widening range of practical problems, we find the field littered with exceptions. Thus, the field of “applied ethics,” or the top-down application of ethical principles to specific cases, generally breaks down when we try to apply given ethical principles to a given case when its specifics are stretched by unforeseen circumstances: we make endless speculation, but very little in the way of reliable solution. Stanley Fish complained of such difficulty in his book, The Trouble with Principle, whose title echoes that of Stephen Toulmin’s foundational essay, The Tyranny of Principles, which pretty much articulated the need -- and laid the groundwork for -- “a new casuistry,” using the abortion debate as an example.

When, as writing educators, we identify a situation that calls for ethical judgment, we generally don’t reach for the ethics textbook to see what theory has the best principles to resolve a case satisfactorily, although that seems to be what we do when we try to teach practical ethics. When we seek to apply principles in a top-down fashion, the unique circumstances of a situation forces us to consider case specifics, then to go casting about for appropriate principles. Inevitably, it becomes impossible to satisfactorily deal with all ethical questions from the perspective of one ethical theory. In fact, what we actually do in such cases is exercise our intuitive ethical judgment, and “do what’s right.” In fact, the preponderance of research evidence today seems to show that “our [ethical] behavior is determined to a surprising extend by the situation” (Bloom, NYT Book Review, 2/3/08, 22).

Trying to select and settle on a useful ethics theory to apply to practical ethics is frustrating, mainly because most of us tend to reason out or intuit our solutions to ethical cases without explicit reference to any particular ethics theory. Even if we could settle on an amiable ethical theory that could offer guidelines for our daily working lives, such top-down approaches fall short when we encounter a “hard case.” We are then forced to make exceptions and rely on our intuitive ethical sense, casting theory into the dustbin.

The man who wrote the book on argument -- Stephen Toulmin -- offers an example of such a situation when he recounts his experiences while serving on the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, trying to recommend an ethical policy for human experimentation. He found that Commission members had no problems identifying the relevant circumstances of particular cases, and agreeing on solutions. The problems came when they tried to agree on the applicable principles. They agreed upon solutions, but arrived at them from widely varying directions.

This brings us to “the tyranny of principles,” the title of Toulmin’s 1981 Hastings Center Report in which he first articulates the need for a practical method in ethics for solving hard cases without being ruled by one or another theory’s principles. “Abstract generalizations of theoretical ethics are . . . no substitute for a sound tradition in practical ethics,” he says.

Public issues often engender dead-end debates, like those of abortion and social-welfare benefits, for example. In such areas, there are those who seek temperance and discrimination, to acknowledge that “conflicting considerations are involved and that a just, if sometimes painful, balance has to be struck between different rights and claims, interests, and responsibilities” (32). Yet these debates often come “to turn on ‘matters of principle,’” and break down, he says, becoming “less temperate, less discriminating, and above all less resolvable” (32). Dealing with such issues “at the level of high theory guarantee[s] that the only possible practical outcome is deadlock” (32).

Resolution by judge, rather than by mediator, also makes it far more difficult for the two sides to continue working together after the immediate problem has been solved. In his legal essay, “Problems with Rules,” Cass Sunstein complains that standard rules imposed on judges have come to displace judicial discretion. In fact, my own cousin, John S. Martin, publicly resigned his federal judgeship in 2006 for just that reason. In Toulmin’s words, “[P]eople have come to value uniformity above responsiveness, to focus on law at the expense of equity, and to confuse ‘the rule of law’ with a law of rules” (34).

Now we see that even the Supreme Court succumbs to the temptation to muddle through a case with reference only to incoherent principles. It may be high time we get over the modernist, scientistic fixation that certainty can be achieved in every case. Instead, we might get further along in resolving our ethical quandaries if we recognize that “[E]quity requires not the imposition of uniformity or equality, but rather reasonableness or responsiveness (rhetorical epieikeia) in applying general rules to individual cases.” As Toulmin puts it,

…Moral wisdom is exercised by those who understand that, in the long run, no principle – however absolute – can avoid running up against another equally absolute principle; and by those who have the experience and discrimination needed to balance conflicting considerations in the most humane way. (34)

“Practical reasoning in ethics, as elsewhere, is a matter of judgment,” says Toulmin, “of weighing different considerations against one another, never a matter of formal theoretical deduction from strict or self-evident axioms” (37). Over the past 20 years, the field of bioethics has shown itself to be a wellspring of such hard cases. In situations in which there are only probabilities, and no certainty to be found, a number of practical medical ethicists have resurrected the practice of Casuistry, defined by Jonsen as 

The interpretation of moral issues, using procedures of reasoning based on paradigms and analogies, leading to the formulation of expert opinion about the existence and stringency of particular moral obligations, framed in terms of rules or maxims that are general but not universal or invariable, since they hold good with certainty only in the typical conditions of the agent and circumstances of actions. (297)

The casuistic method asks us to reason out solutions to hard cases by 1) analogizing their circumstances to other cases that have been resolved, 2) considering their similarities and differences, 3) referring to accepted maxims of ethical behavior, and 4) rejecting set rules in favor of creative solutions.

 “The new casuistry” (Jonsen and Toulmin 1988, Jonsen 1991, and Miller 1996, among several others) in practical ethics is seen as an open-hearted and honestly seeking approach to the settling of hard cases in ethics by 1) referring primarily to the relevant circumstances of the case, 2) privileging those circumstances ahead of abstruse principles, and 3) selecting the relevant and applicable moral or ethics principles by evaluating how well the circumstances fit long-held or newly-emerging principles. The application of the method results in a resolution that considers all sides of a conflict. In the 1990s, the new casuistry was extended to cases that had innate conflicts of principles in law (Sunstein), journalism (Boeyink), feminism (Peach), bioethics (Arras, Tallmon), animal rights (Sanders), ecology (Chiaviello), and engineering (Volpe). Scholarly journals are just waiting for another teacher to interrogate her praxis, and conduct and present a set of classroom experiments and analyses that show how the teaching of ethics can be fruitfully addressed by the new casuistry.

Leonard Bachman – Socially based ethics for making choices of status vs. service

Socially Based Ethics in Architecture Education for Making Choices of Status vs. Service

Leonard Bachman

University of Houston, College of Architecture

Architecture has long been taught as if it were an art meant only for consumption by those who could afford an architect. In his book, The Favored Circle, Garry Stevens (1998) conducts just such a social analysis of the profession of architecture and portrays it as producing “buildings of power and taste made for people of power and taste, buildings for society’ heroes. And their creators, the great architects, stride like colossi through the history books, fighting to actualize their singular visions.” He goes on to point out that many “star” architects owe their success to an expensive education, and a circle of well-to-do and well-connected family and friends who get their careers started with a few lavish commissions… followed by good public relations with lots of glossy photographs. And Stevens is hardly alone in this critique (Gutman 1997, Kostof 2000, Cuff 1991).

This predicament is fairly well supported by evidence and numerous examples that Stevens presents, and despite protests here and there, few architects would deny that there is at least some truth to the Favored Circle characterization. The problem that this presents for education is that there are so many architecture students today; and most of them seem to hold a positive and strong belief that they can make the world a better place by becoming an architect and improving the quality of our built environment. As the number of minor architects around the world continues to rise, however, the number of great “starchitects” remains stubbornly constant and generally quite low. Are we merely preparing the architectural graduate for a career of work under more privileged classes of elite practitioners? Or will they even have a chance to enter the profession? In the United States today for example, less than one out of four graduates completing a professional degree in architecture will ever become a registered architect. Meanwhile, architecture firm employment and architecture school graduation rates both remain flat.

On a positive note, there are changes in the works that may upset the current equation. Issues of globalization, social equity, global warming, population growth, emerging national economies, and shrinking natural resources are focusing the world’s attention more firmly on social grounds of our shared infrastructure and resources and less often on our cultural grounds of shared experiences. This promotes a new kind of architecture, and hence, a new kind of architect and architectural education. It clearly involves a return to socially based ethics.

Globally, we are going to build more buildings and more floor area in the next fifty years than we have in all the previous human history combined. Meanwhile, Houston will double in population along with corresponding needs for housing and businesses, traffic and energy, and all related resources in less time, probably about thirty years. Now then is the time to start preparing students as candidate architects for the ethical challenges they will face when confronted with choices like those between catering to the status of high culture versus service to social responsibility.

Fortunately, there are many good architects who provide sound models for such practice and who could lead us to an “architecture of decency” as Samuel Mockbee so eloquently proposed and demonstrated in his Rural Studio work and teaching at Auburn University, or as the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1973) so generously gifted us with in Architecture for the Poor; an Experiment in Rural Egypt.

Given this set of predicaments and opportunities, the teaching of architecture is poised to transform the profession. This requires that students be invited into a second order experience of thinking metacognitively in regards to their aspirations as an architect. They should be given some frameworks for considering their ethical obligations, some example positions within the framework, and some ethical dilemmas on which they are asked to take sides.

In my own teaching I find that the final step of taking sides and engaging in discourse is best done in teams where the discussion is among peers. In our research class for example, teams meet on Friday mornings to frame their joint research project within a controversial aspect of design practice. They begin individually with a ten minute free-write and then try to articulate how their separate views differ and align in critical ways. Finally, they are asked to write a paragraph summarizing the team’s reconciled range of attitudes and ideas about the controversy.

I also use dilemmas and controversial issues to provoke on-line team discussions with WebCT. Using the research class example again, each team has a private discussion page for collaboration on their projects and for general interaction. Every couple of weeks they are asked to post a 250 word reaction to a specific current issue in the profession. The issue is selected by the instructor and framed by excerpts from scholarly writings, hopefully a couple of antagonistic ones. After each student has posted their reaction, they are asked to respond to at least two of the reaction of their team mates, and to engage the group in general with some level of critical discourse about their differences.

At a more applied and advanced level, case study investigations are also useful for capturing the true complexity of practice, and thus for revealing the frequent dilemmas that architects encounter. Having students role-play as the architect of successful buildings illustrates to them the difficulties of conflicting stakeholders, design compromises, practical constraints, and decision resolution in general. Many of these conflicts can be framed as ethical ones.

If architecture is going to close gaps between service to society and service to culture, if it is going to be transformed by its evolving global context, then it is essential that students leave the academy realizing that they will be faced with such dilemmas. The world demands, and our duty requires, that students consider their roles in this… and that they go into their chosen career equipped to do so.

Aimee Roundtree – Representing visual data accurately & humanely – What a student survey of learning reveals

Successes and Failures Teaching Visual Ethics: A Class Study

Aimee Roundtree

University of Houston-Downtown, Department of English

As the saying goes, it’s one thing to know what's right, and another thing to do it—so was the case when I taught ethical implications of visual design to graduate students. I incorporated readings and activities that I learned during several workshops organized by the professional writing program at University of Houston-Downtown and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We used the NEH grant to design and add ethics components to the core courses of the graduate curriculum, among which ENG 5330 Visual Design Theory is one. The workshops equipped participants with readings and case studies specific to Houston’s primary industries: business (the collapse of Enron), energy (the 2005 explosion at the British Petroleum plant in Texas City), space (the destruction of the Columbia and the Challenger space shuttles), and medicine (stem-cell research at Baylor). In Spring 2007—the first semester I attempted to implement the case studies—I found that, while it was clear that students increased their knowledge and awareness of the ethical implications of visual design, it was not as apparent that they had matured as ethical actors. 

I scheduled the ethics modules so as to highlight the underlying visual principles and theories that caused the dilemma. In visual design, it is important to consider the ethics of manipulating visual elements (in such a way that they represent data accurately and humanely). Therefore, coverage of the design theories and principles that conspire to create ethical dilemmas complemented each ethics unit I added. I broached ethical perspectives implicit in different visual media and from different vantages of visual theory. And we replicated many of the discussions and case studies from the NEH workshops. We started with a reading that gave an overview of the different schools of ethics and how they are typically applied to visual design, complemented by a discussion of color, a visual element the manipulation of which students could intuitively understand could potentially be unethical. Next, we covered two notions—Plato’s Ring of Gyges (e.g., humans act out of selfishness) and Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance (e.g., humans should make ethical rules without prejudice or self-interest)—that conceptualize ethical motivation for doing what’s right, coupled with a discussion of the visuals meant to report (or misreport) earnings in Enron’s annual report. Here, we discussed proportion and manipulation of axes in information graphics. We used a reenactment of the BP explosion to discuss Dragga’s idea of humane graphics (that clearly depict human loss and casualty), coupled with a discussion of icons and pictures.

I gathered many evidences of students’ absorption of the ethical lessons during the semester. Students kept a learning record where they were asked to track their progress in the course’s learning goals in design, professionalism, collaboration and research in weekly observations and in midterm and final self-evaluations; they often commented about their ethical awareness in these observations. I asked students to consider the ethics of their final projects—a poster rendering of research they completed the semester before—in rationales about the poster projects. I also surveyed students about their ethical competency at the end of the semester. The five-item survey was designed to measure students’ grasp of ethics from the readings, the activities, the cases, in application, and in general ethical awareness / knowledge.

The survey revealed slight trends indicative of the observations, self-assessments, and rationales—namely, it was clearer that students had learned terms and concepts more so than it was clear that students were ready to apply the ethical lessons learned to their lives or their careers. The survey revealed that students usually strongly agreed that the cases (4.5 out of 5) and readings (4.625 out of 5) were helpful. They also usually strongly agreed that they improved their general knowledge (4.375 out of 5) of ethical implications of visual design. They were not as convinced that having to write a rationale helped them acquire and use the ethical lessons they learned (4.125). They were also not as likely to agree that they would use what they learned on the job or in other courses (4.25) or of the importance of visual ethics (4.375). Overall, students were not as likely to agree that they would apply the lessons they learned, nor were they likely to agree that it helped having to justify their own ethical decisions in rationales.

Bar chart showing student engagement with ethical lessons - highest levels are 
seen with cases (4.625) and readings (4.5), followed by general knowledge (4.375) and application (4.25); 
activities provides the lowest level of engagement (4.125).

Student narratives affirmed the numerical data represented in the survey. Their weekly discussion posting and their mid-term and final exams showed that students clearly understood the ethical readings and concepts therein. Most students demonstrated at least a basic understanding of how to identify ethical dilemmas in design. Take, for example, this student who identified correctly that, since a map of a disaster area didn’t somehow represent the human loss or casualty, it was not ethical, per the Dragga reading: “Because the map does not bear any sign of the human toll, its silence misleads viewers. The physical aspects of the storm are only a part of the story, and the map does not reveal the monumental nature of the human story. It is therefore a false representation of the storm because it tells only a portion of the story, completely ignoring the human aspects.”

However, in rationales, only two students actually made ethical judgments of their work. One student whose research covered sensationalism in the news media questioned his/her selection of visuals to represent the sensationalism: “The biggest ethical dilemma I had when creating the poster was trying not to pick the most ‘over the top’ visuals for inclusion in the poster. I tried to be ‘fair’ in my representation and not throw out any image because it was not ‘sensational enough.’” Another student whose research project discussed dishonest medical visuals questioned the integrity of his/her poster’s own display of those dishonest visuals: 

I…realized that my poster, while visually entertaining, was in fact unethical…I chose to display an array of images (of cells) in a circle around an oval with the word ‘truth?’ The images I chose were for aesthetic reasons only…I did not provide an explanation for the images nor did I provide any images that were digitally altered. My…design let the viewer, who is not a visual design[er] or science expert, decide if the presented images are truthful…[My] design was unethical because it violated Kant’s master rule of categorical imperative. This poster would have potentially transmitted incorrect knowledge and the viewer would have walked away with a false impression of the information. In a learning situation, it would be unfair let all students draw their own conclusions about the given material. 

In both cases, students turned the ethical lessons learned in class on themselves and used the information to assess their own behavior. However, the majority of students merely applied ethical terms, rather than evaluated their design and methodology for its ethical value. In this exemplary case, for instance, the student applies Dragga’s ideas for making numerical data displays more “humane” by adding human figures to his/her poster: “After reading Dragga’s articles, I thought about ways to incorporate humanity into my poster…I wanted to ensure that when my audience read my poster, they kept the human element of the problem in mind. In order to accomplish this, I included human characters on both sides of the bridge, since these two sections of information detailed the problems that both technical communicators and end users face.” Every other student used the readings in the same way as this student—rather than using the readings to evaluate the ethics of their design decisions, they used the readings to prescribe what design actions to take.

In weekly observations, students rarely reflected on their personal or professional ethics. Instead, they thought about their mastery of ethical terms or how they would apply those terms in class assignments. On whole, students reported gaining understanding of the concepts thanks to class discussions: “I have a different understanding of the Kienzler’s article and how it fits with the Rose [reading about visual design theories] and well as with the Kosteinick’s and Roberts’ [reading about visual design principles and elements].” Or, they commented how preparing for class acquainted them with new concepts: “I enjoyed giving this presentation because this is a topic that I’m very interested in and because I gained a different perspective from the questions and comments that the class gave. In compiling my information, I became more familiar with some of the ethical theories that we’ve read about.” While these cases demonstrate that students grasp the ethical concepts, they are not evidence that students have internalized the lessons—they do not prove that students will use the information in their professional or personal lives. Only two students’ observations show some semblance of internalization. One student commented that s/he “…believe that all visuals are designed to elicit certain responses (even stop signs and yellow lights). We must be conscious of the purposes of visuals and images we see every day and be aware that we react to persuasion in all our actions/reactions.” Another said that class discussion “…really made me think about the use of manipulation by advertisers, and the ethical considerations inherent in designing a visual image intended to persuade an audience.” In both cases, students moved beyond reporting concept comprehension and turned ethical lessons learned outwards, evaluating their consumption of media at large.

Finally, in mid-term and final self-evaluations, students were more likely to report mastering terms than they were to reflect on their own ethical decision-making. For example, students were quick to report that they discussed ethical concepts accurately or with confidence:

In a post-class reflection…, I mentioned that we debated about visual ethics and whether the intention of the designer matters over the outcome of the image. Now that we are at the end of the semester, I would expand on this statement by including which theory, consequentialist or nonsequentialist, seems more applicable to the image or situation we were discussing. I remember debating with confidence that the site of the audience gave the image its meaning and that the outcome was more important than the intention.

This case is representative of the majority of instances in mid-term and final self-evaluations where students report a clear understanding of ethics for completing course work. Only one student gestured toward internalizing those lessons for application beyond the classroom. S/he asked, “When as technical writers can we not consider all of these obligations in any of our work?” Since the implied answer to this rhetorical question is “never,” the comment suggests that this student might use the lessons learned in situations beyond the classroom.

James R. Rest’s Four-Component Model of ethical behavior can help explain my findings beyond the colloquial saying that it’s one thing to know what’s right and another to do it. According to Rest, four inner psychological processes work together to manifest outwardly observable ethical behavior:

1. Moral sensitivity (interpreting the situation, role taking how various actions would affect the parties concerned, imagining cause-effect chains of events, and being aware that there is a moral problem when it exists). 2. Moral judgment (judging which action would be most justifiable in a moral sense—purportedly DIT research has something to say about this component). 3. Moral motivation (the degree of commitment to taking the moral course of action, valuing moral values over other values, and taking personal responsibility for moral outcomes). 4. Moral character (persisting in a moral task, having courage, overcoming fatigue and temptations, and implementing subroutines that serve a moral goal). (Rest 1999, p. 101).

Ultimately, in terms of Rest’s Four-Component Model of ethical behavior, integrating the readings and activities helped heighten moral sensitivity (i.e., identifying the visual principles and elements that led to moral problems in visual design) and moral judgment (i.e., evaluating the ethical value of a visual design), but failed to yield measurable evidence of moral motivation (i.e., the degree of students’ commitment to take moral action in their professional or personal lives) or character / behavior (i.e., fortitude to follow through on moral goals in their professional and personal lives).

Other research also reports similar failings of ethical education to actually motivate right action in lived experience. Studies indicate that ethical education is often limited to practicing ethical judgments and prescriptive reasoning processes (Armstrong et al. 2003, Izzo 2000). Others show that moral sensitivity does not always increase moral behavior (Fulmer & Cargile 1987). Some have employed (with mixed results) more sophisticated pedagogies—simulation, service learning, multimedia reinforcements—to motivate behavioral changes (Hanson et al. 1997, Ziv et al. 2003). Weber (1990) found that students' ethical awareness shows short-lived with formal training; he found studies showing that students’ ethical awareness regresses four years post-training. And de Rond (1996) found that case studies often present ethical dilemmas that can only be resolved at high-levels of management (rather than entry- or mid-level), thereby making it harder for students to visualize their part in the ethical decision making (p. 55); he also criticizes the pedantic, “preachy” nature in which professors often present ethical lessons (p. 56).

I believe that improving my course, activity and assessment design can help facilitate development of moral motivation and behavior. To be fair, the survey I designed might not have allowed students to report the full scope of their absorption. I could have worded the questions to ask to what extent students’ intend to use the lessons learned in their professions and in their personal lives. I also did not make ethical awareness an explicit goal of the course (for students to track in their learning record). Had I done so, they might have been compelled to do the deeper self-reflection that might have precipitated their judging their own ethical behavior. And, while I encouraged more personal, ethical self-reflection during face-to-face discussions, I could add to the case studies and writing response prompts an invitation for students to write about their own anecdotes and experience dealing with ethical dilemmas similar to the ones covered in class. Furthermore, I can be sure to make clear in each case where mid- and entry-level employees might play a part in the ethical decision-making (by, perhaps, creating personae for students to assume as we read and interact with the case). While these improvements might not actually train up more ethical-acting technical communicators and grad students, it will yield the kind of evidence that shows that (at least during the course) students were, indeed, involved in the deliberation indicative of moral motivation and behavior.


Armstrong M, Ketzb JE, Owsenc D (2003) Ethics education in accounting: moving toward ethical motivation and ethical behavior. Journal of Accounting Education. 21:1–16.

de Rond M (1996) Business ethics, where do we stand? Towards a new inquiry. Management Decision. 34 (4): 54–61.

Fulmer WE, Cargile BR (1987) Ethical perceptions of accounting students: does exposure to a code of professional ethics help? Issues in Accounting Education. Fall:207–219.

Hanson LC, Tulsky JA, Marion D (1997) Can clinical interventions change care at the end of life? Annals of Internal Medicine. 126 (5): 381-388.

Izzo G (2000) Compulsory ethics education and the cognitive moral development of salespeople: A quasi-experimental assessment. Journal of Business Ethics. 28: 223–241.

Rest JR (1999) Postconventional Moral Thinking: A Neo-Kohlbergian Approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Weber (1990) Measuring the impact of teaching ethics to future managers: A review, assessment, and recommendations. Journal of Business Ethics. 9 (3): 183-190.

Ziv A, Wolpe PR, Small SD, Glick S (2003) Simulation-based medical education: An ethical imperative. Academic Medicine. 78 (8): 783-788.

This conference was inspired by the 2006 NEH sponsored Ethics Workshop at UHD.

Let the Learning Continue . . .

Website (c) 2008 Karina Stokes, Ph.D.

CHSS Web Tech.

Last updated or reviewed on 4/7/10

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