Several years ago, during yet another state budget crunch, there was a proposal to trim academic departments in some barbaric way at my college. My colleagues raised a hue and cry, fuss and muss, and gloomily predicted the downfall of civilization should the humanities be cut, STEM, or STEAM, or STREAM be damned. At the time I remembered something Kurt Vonnegut wrote about someone questioning why people take a moral stand. Vonnegut wrote that person said we might as well write strongly worded letters to the editor condemning icebergs for all the good our concerns do in changing the minds of movers, shakers and general powers-that-be.
I think of Kurt when I see well-meaning resolutions from my University Faculty Senate colleagues on a host of national issues outside the immediate concerns of budgets and pedagogy. At first, I have an inner debate with myself: Resolved, that the work of the Faculty Senate should concentrate on New York state higher education issues. But I always lose the debate because I soon realize that most issues are moral issues, that we are a core of people who believe human rights are sacred and important. Simply put, morality and ethics have value and significance in our daily lives and in our work-a-day lives professing our individual specialties.
Let me talk about my own area for a paragraph or three and focus on the History of Media Ethics 101 (FYI: My approach is a quasi-Marxist School of History POV, with perhaps a dash of der Freudian repression thrown in.) Advertising revenue began to steadily drop in the bad old days of Yellow Journalism because of the competing outlandish news coverage of Hearst, Pulitzer and their toady imitators. The health of a news organization is measured by ad revenue and the theory of declining ad revenue was this: Why should people buy a newspaper if they can’t trust the news it prints? Content wasn’t king then, if the news wasn’t sensationalized, it was likely subjectified or just outright lies. Oh my!
So as subscriptions and newsstand sales dropped, advertisers were reluctant to buy ads or pay more money to put an ad in the paper. (BTW, news aggregators of our current century also ponder about (more accurately, a bot) content that leans too far right or left and potentially drives off less media-savvy consumers. This is different from the partisan press of the early 19th century, or the CNN-MSNBC-Fox-Sinclair Broadcasting of our day because we already know the hermeneutics of those networks, but a news aggregator mixes in a wee bit o’objectivity with its subjectivity to occasionally throw off the unsavvy news consumers.)
All right, back to the media point. (’Bout time, eh?) Revenue was dropping so a solution was needed. As the (perhaps not too) fictional Gov. Lepetomane says in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” “We have to protect our phony baloney jobs here.” And, voila, ethical codes were born! Is that a cynical view of the history of media ethics? Perhaps. There might even be a hint of revisionism in the ol’ exegesis, but the fact is that now there are ethical codes galore (gestalt).
OK, what about those UFS resolutions I started talking about waaaay back when? As far as our own morality as professors goes, our main questions must be, “What should we inspire our students to believe and work toward, regardless of aspirational professions?” and “How do we know that our values are true/adequate for them and us?” Further, some introspection as to are we, or should we be, teleologists and/or prescribtivists (where morality depends on a desired outcome)? Or are we, should be, deontologists (where morality depends on pointing out and/or following duties)? Indeed, what is—and who decides—good or bad?
I don’t mean to wallow in a slough of philosophical mumble-jumble so I’ll just give a wisp of a personal answer. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country and the common public perception of profs is that we are egghead liberals who blatantly ignore community standards we don’t agree with. Our response needs to be that we indeed do care about morality and feel a duty to speak up and offer resolutions we feel are in the common good. That’s a basic meta-ethics approach.
Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) teleological approach would say the moral goodness of our resolutions is based on the utility of the good it will produce.
Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) deontological approach is that we can remind people through our resolutions that all of us can use reason to justify morality and determine our duties.
So, then, some final provocations:
Write for the University Faculty Senate!!