What I learned about ethics from Sherlock Holmes

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Scoring ethics tests we gave to tribal members from reservations throughout the Great Plains states reminded me a lot of grading math homework.... but, it's probably not in the way you are thinking Actually, I have no idea what you are thinking. I don't even know you.

Here's what I do know - I have looked at hundreds of ethics surveys/ tests in preparation for the talk Erich and I are giving next week for the North Dakota State Supreme Court and what I have found is - a lot of nothing. I mean that very literally. Like Sherlock Holmes in Silver Blaze, when he noted the curious incident of the dog doing nothing, I have found this "nothing" to be very intriguing.

Here is the first reason why, and as much as it pains me to admit it, it comes about in one of those times when I thought Dr. Longie was wrong and probably crazy to boot, but he has lived on the reservation his whole life, not me, so I went along with him and he turned out to be right.

We had a few case studies that we asked people to read and give their answers to one multiple choice question and a few short answer questions. I thought the answers to the questions were so obvious that everyone would answer the same way and, in fact, people would be insulted that we asked such obvious questions. Let me give you an example. Here is a very abbreviated version of the case study:

"The school board members overlooked drug abuse and poor attendance and falsified school records of students who were exceptional athletes. They hired their relatives and fired anyone who disagreed with them. One of the board members was jailed for assault. Other board members mocked and threatened Alan, the one board member who disagreed with them and wanted to enforce school policies and hire the best qualified people, regardless of their relatives. Phyllis was elected to the board but had been off the reservation for months due to medical issues. When she returned she told Alan she didn't see what the problem was, the other board members were just promoting sports because they wanted to see the reservation be known for a success and what is wrong with good publicity for the reservation?"

The multiple choice question was, "Do you agree with Phyllis?"
a) Yes
b) Not Sure
c) No

I thought there should be an option, "Are you #$%^ing  KIDDING me? Of course I don't agree with Phyllis!"

By far, the most common answer was,

"Not sure"

What do you mean you're not sure? They committed fraud, overlooked drug abuse, hired unqualified people, one the board members was thrown in jail for beating someone so bad he was put in the hospital and you're NOT SURE there is a problem? Some people wrote in helpfully, "I would need more information." Like WHAT? Like whether the star quarterback died of a drug overdose? I just don't get it.

The next question was,

"Please explain why you agree, disagree or are not sure."

Most people left this question blank. In fact, most people left ALL of the case study questions blank, although they answered the multiple choice questions. Those who did answer gave very short answers and sometimes it was hard (for me) to understand how what they wrote was relevant to the question. For example, one person wrote,

"Well, what is her motive?"

Another simply said,

"Yes, a little."

How is this like math? I've taught math for a great many years at every level from middle school through doctoral students. I've found that when people are uncomfortable with the subject, unsure of their knowledge, they don't volunteer information because they're afraid of being wrong. Usually, the less people know about a topic, they less sure they are, the less they write and the more vague they are in their answers, hoping that they might be interpreted as being correct.

I don't really know WHY the responses are like this. One reason I think is that people just have not thought about ethical issues very much. This, too, is like math. Especially with graduate students, I teach a lot of people who haven't thought about math since they took Algebra twenty years ago.

Erich thinks the reason people are uncomfortable is not because they are ignorant about ethics but because they don't WANT to think about issues. To me, that is the same thing, being ignorant by choice.

He gives the analogy of alcoholics who go to treatment. They may still be drinking after  that, but they can no longer lie to themselves that their drinking is not dysfunctional. Erich thinks this may be one of the reasons that people on some reservations don't want to think about ethics, because then they might feel as if they should do something about the ethical problems, starting with themselves, and that makes people really uncomfortable.

I think he might be right.

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