Category Archives: Cases

Whistle-Blower, Beware

Today’s New York Times has an op-ed on Edward Snowden’s disclosure that “the National Security Agency was collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans.” The author, Mark Hertsgaard, shows that Snowden’s decision was shaped by the experience of Thomas Drake, “a senior N.S.A. official who had also complained, 12 years earlier, about warrantless surveillance.”

Drake’s house was raided by the F.B.I., and he “was forced to resign and was indicted on 10 felony charges arising from an alleged ‘scheme’ to improperly ‘retain and disclose classified information.'”

Snowden “followed the Drake case closely in the news media” and told Al Jazeera, “If there hadn’t been a Thomas Drake, there couldn’t have been an Edward Snowden.”

Hertsgaard opines that Drake’s case convinced Snowden that he

had only two real options: remain silent, or break the law by leaking documents to the press in hopes that would bring scrutiny to the N.S.A.’s surveillance activities.

Were those truly the only options available to Snowden? I’m doubtful. What do you think?

Ken Pimple
May 26, 2016
3:30 pm EST

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Ethics in the era of journalists as “essentially anyone with a cell phone”

Saul Kutinicki

In the flurry of controversy surrounding media coverage and one professor’s attempt to bar journalists from entering the protest space of student athletes at the University of Missouri last week, the question of ethics in journalism couldn’t be more important. Regardless of how these events will continue to unfold and what sort of central issues emerge out of a confrontation, which appears to have been recorded on a cell phone, there are certain aspects worth highlighting. I consider these recent episodes in light of some remarks by IU Bloomington journalism Professor Jim Kelly at the first Future of Professional Ethics workshop organized by the Poynter Center.

Journalism, which is now a part of The Media School at IUB, has traditionally provided a liberal arts education that creates a path for students to enter a variety of journalistic professions. There is no professional licensure required to be a journalist. Instead, Kelly claims, the professionalism of journalists has historically rested squarely in their own standards of practices and code of ethics. As Kelley indicates, the current job market for journalism professionals has been more focused on hiring graduates with skills in public relations and advertising rather than service-type fields, such as investigative journalism, political commentary, and consumer rights reporting. Along with these changing expectations, there have also been changes in the way news is written, recorded, and distributed. Online platforms forego most editorial processes, and more news sources are being driven primarily by diversified forms of PR work than by a mission to provide informational and local reporting. While newsprint has always been driven by advertising revenue, the notions of professionalism within journalism have traditionally helped to maintain the integrity of journalistic education and practice.

The changing media-scape, identified by Kelly, raises concerns about how journalism can continue to be framed as serving a public good. He emphasizes how changes in the media landscape should make the issue of professionalism and ethics central to an education in journalism. He explains how journalism is becoming less recognizable as a distinct profession in the midst of increased online circulation of news, documentary, and photography reportage.

To illustrate the issue, consider the photographer, Tim Tai, who appears in a video circulating this week from the Missouri protests. Tai attempts to approach the protest site, insisting that he is “doing his job” and that barring him from taking photographs is a direct violation of a “free press.”

Countless comments now and in coming weeks will echo the Tai’s sentiments and many will invoke the principles of “free speech.” Yet the question remains, what are the ethical concerns at the heart of such principles as free speech? And what are the ethical stakes of a protest initiated and led by black students and student athletes, who have expressed a desire to limit certain forms of media coverage that they may deem harmful to their cause? Beyond these specific questions, we might also ask: How many amateur “journalists” (essentially anyone with a cell phone) will uphold the ethical practices or raise the ethical challenges that have traditionally been the purview of the professional journalists? Such questions get at some of the overarching concerns that the Poynter Center and the Future Professional Ethics workshops will continue to grapple with in the following year.

November 17, 2015

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Freelance professionals?

It seems like all of the items in the media I come across these days — the ones that make me think about professional ethics anyhow — aren’t about how professionals behave (ethically or otherwise). Rather they concern the broad contexts of labor, management, professions, unions, governments, the economy, and I-don’t-know-what. Every worker is more-or-less tangled in forces beyond her control, including the apparently least tangled workers these days, the freelancers or gig workers.

I don’t know much about the freelance economy, aside from the techies who can work anywhere they can get an Internet connection and any time they feel like working. Sara Horowitz, in her call for “Help for the way we work now”[1], tells us that “there are now 53 million freelance workers nationwide, according to a 2014 study,” and they “make up more than one-third of the American work force.”

Freelancing provides a great deal of autonomy (one of the often mentioned characteristics of a professional) at the cost of job security, retirement and health care benefits, and other difficulties that are part of the cost of working ahead of the rest of the work culture and governmental support.

My earlier posts on finding meaning in work, higher education’s responsibility to graduates seeking jobs, and intense workplace cultures are all about tensions between how people become workers/laborers/professionals and how being workers fails to nurture people (who happen to work).

Is this social justice? Is it professional ethics? What is the future of professional ethics if not the environment of professionals (no matter how defined)? Is the standard concerns of professional ethics – confidentiality, conflicts of interest, fiduciary duties – the past of professional ethics?

Tell me what you think.

Ken Pimple
September 7, 2015
(Labor Day in the United States)
3:30 pm EDT


[1] Horowitz, Sara. 2015. “Help for the way we work now.” New York Times (September 7 online and in print in the New York edition, on page A17). (verified September 7, 2015).

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Finding meaning in work (if you can get it)

George and Ira Gershwin taught us that falling in love is  “nice work if you can get it / And you can get it if you try.” Creators of romantic musical theater are notably optimistic — too few people get love just by trying. However, trying to get love is often pleasurable in itself, even though it’s also often anguishing. As far as I know, there’s hardly any pleasure in looking for any job.

It would be nice if landing a job portended a pleasant future, but, according to Barry Schwartz[1] and the research he cites, working is usually disagreeable. The first citation Schwartz offers is from a 2014 Gallup survey that shows that “almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs.” He goes on:

Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

This jibes with my earlier post, Intense workplace culture, but it has a different focus: Some workplaces (notably online businesses such as Amazon and Facebook) are strenuous or “intense” because the culture valorizes – even demands – long hours and intense pressure. This, they think, is how to succeed.

In contrast, Schwartz is talking about common, everyday, non-glamorous jobs — in short, most jobs, the ones that are generally experienced as meaningless.

As in the “intense” post, there’s reason to believe that the sense of meaningless nurtured by workplace culture in general can be attributed by ignorance as well as the Puritanical[2] belief that people don’t want to work and they will not work productively or efficiently unless they are forced to do so — that labor, in line with its Latin root (labor “toil, trouble”) is inherently unpleasant. Schwartz debunks this attitude several times, including a passage on “the Stanford organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.”

In his 1998 book, The Human Equation, which reviewed numerous studies across dozens of different industries, . . . [Pfeffer] found that workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.

It seems that the evidence shows that in many areas employers and businesses could relatively easily increase profit while improving workers’ satisfaction. It may not be ethically required to do so, but it would clearly be ethically praiseworthy.

Ignorance is not usually considered to be unethical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful

Ken Pimple
September 5, 2015
6:00 pm EDT


[1] Schwartz, Barry. 2015. “Rethinking work.” New York Times (August 28 online; in print in the New York edition on August 30, page SR1). (verified September 5, 2015).

[2] Schwartz blames this attitude on Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations and doesn’t mention the Puritans. I don’t know that my attribution is sound — but it does fit with the popular image of them.

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Higher education’s responsibility to young professionals-to-be

What do lawyers and scientists have in common? There are probably several answers, but the one on my mind is that there are too many of both, and universities are responsible.

Most of my work in professional ethics concerns science, research ethics, and the responsible conduct of research. I’ve read for years (most recently in June 2014) that there are more science graduates in the United States than available jobs. Some people say this is bad, some others think it’s a good thing, and some think it just isn’t true.

A short while ago I learned that law students are in a similar situation; a very recent piece in the New York Times (“Too many law students, too few legal jobs,” August 25, 2015) says the same about law schools. Of the many interesting tidbits offered by the author, Steven J. Harper, I’ll only quote two:

Students now amass law school loans averaging $127,000 for private schools and $88,000 for public ones. …

… 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their total revenues from tuition. The average for all law schools is 69 percent. So law schools have a powerful incentive to maintain or increase enrollment, even if the employment outcomes are dismal for their graduates, especially at marginal schools.

 An argument could be made that law students are responsible for their own choices – caveat emptor – and that an over-supply of lawyers is good because market forces will ensure that the best will be hired or establish their own practices and the worst will not. Tough for them, but good for the rest of us.

Now, I’m content to allow market forces to monkey around with commodities like clothing, automobiles, telephones, gardening tools, and so forth, but people? No.

Some years ago, someone (can’t remember who) opined that graduate schools should cover tuition, fees, books, housing, and a salary for every graduate student. This seems reasonable to me. If there are still too many lawyers, at least the graduates will have no or little debt and they’ll have a law degree, which isn’t nothing.

I think this is an ethical issue. Do you?

Ken Pimple
August 31, 2015
7:45pm EDT

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Intense workplace culture

The workshops on the future of professional ethics that I am organizing this academic year include these three (still in process):

1. Professions and professionals in society: Service first, money second
Professions and other occupations exist because they serve human needs. The degree to which professions strive to meet vital needs vary across professions, within professions and organizations, and across time. There can be no doubt that in the United States today, many vital needs are not met, often because providing those needs is not profitable. Providing pro bono services and taking up specialties that serve underprivileged people or underpopulated areas are not practical for many young professionals who are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. What mechanisms could be created or rehabilitated to fill the niches of need that are currently underserved by professions? How can we identify and overcome stumbling blocks, including those laid down by government, culture, universities, and other powerful forces?

2. Committed professions: Recognizing and overcoming obstacles to service
How can professional corporations, businesses, and organizations uphold the ethical principles that guide their work when regulations and laws, de facto professional norms, or behaviors and beliefs of society at large undermine key ethical responsibilities? What options and obligations do they have to reform ethically dysfunctional forces? What role can individual professionals play in reformation?

3. Navigating professional careers: Challenges in a shifting economy
Young professionals can expect to acquire continually new knowledge and skills, move often between organizations, and acculturate quickly to various professional environments (e.g., the public, private, and non-profit sectors). They will be under pressure to develop a “personal brand” and to map their own career trajectory. How can educators prepare them for logistical challenges as well as the ethical challenges they will meet?

A good deal of professional ethics concentrates on workplace behavior: Do you accept bribes? Do you ignore or break laws or regulations? Does your boss order you to cheat in one way or another? And so on.

The workshops described above are different; they are not so much behavioral as environmental or structure. One might ask, “What is it like to work at Amazon, why does it matter, and can the culture be considered unethical?” If the New York Times piece, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld (August 15, 2015) is more-or-less accurate, I would have to say that there is an ethical problem here. But what is it, exactly?

It might have something to do with inhumane work conditions, but the ready response is that the employees are not slaves; they don’t have to work in those conditions. They are free to leave.

Quitting, of course, means looking for another job, hoping that better, or at least less damaging, jobs are available, and hoping the tattered social safety net isn’t too weak. I’d call this an issue of social justice, which is an ethical issue.

There might also be an ingredient of ignorance, as Dustin Moskovitz argues in his post, “Work Hard, Live Well

The research is clear: beyond ~40–50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative.

Sometimes hard work conditions cannot be avoided, but harming employees is bad, and doing it based on a false premise that the hard conditions are productive seems cruel, stupid, and unethical. Professionals sometimes have to harm people – as when a surgeon cuts into a patient – but ethically they do it only when doing so is expected to have a net positive effect.

Ken Pimple
August 23, 2015
6:30 pm EDT

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What can professional associations do?

The basic questions guiding the Future of Practical and Professional Ethics project are:

  1. What ethical challenges do professionals currently face?
  2. What ethical challenges do you anticipate professionals will face in the 21st Century?
  3. How can a professional association, such as APPE, help address these challenges through research and teaching?

Sadly, we are observing how the American Psychological Association tries to answer question 3. The APA is facing a failure of ethics on the part of some of its members – indeed, some of its leaders – and the Chronicle of Higher Education published online today a snapshot of how APA members are responding to the situation.

I welcome comments on this page sharing your observations, opinions, advice – anything about your reaction. I would particularly appreciate your thoughts about how other associations have dealt with, or have planned to deal with, serious unethical behavior.

The comment box is meant for short remarks; if you have more to say, please get in touch with me and we’ll work out a way for your thoughts to appear on this site.

Ken Pimple
August 10, 2015
11:45 am EDT

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Academic societies, torture, and professional ethics

Most likely you know about the recent revelations about the role of the American Psychological Association (APA) in the torture / “enhanced interrogation” of the G.W. Bush administration. In case you’re in the dark, here are a few sources that have crossed my path:

The collusion of some of the APA’s leaders and members is appalling, but as a scholar who works in professional ethics, I am not only outraged, but also deeply saddened. The APA has a code of ethics and an Ethics Office, and yet this all happened. It’s discouraging.

No doubt there are lessons to learn from this, but I’m pretty sure that the obvious ones (don’t lie; don’t hide what you’re doing from your colleagues; disclose your financial conflicts of interest; don’t work with the military) aren’t very useful. We’ve learned all of those things over and over again.

I guess it provides a degree of job security.

Please: Tell me something encouraging.

Ken Pimple
July 15, 2015
12:52 pm EDT

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