The Ethicist at the New York Times: Priorities on Tattling

In the Sunday, November 5, 2017 “The Ethicist” feature of the New York Times, writer Anthony Appiah revealed a bias that afflicts society: the unwillingness to tell those in charge about bad acts or dangerous activity. A mother of a college student, who did not join a rowdy “football” fraternity, learned from her wise-beyond-his-years son that a friend of her son had been seriously injured as a result of his hazing at the football fraternity. Her son told her that his friend had asked that he tell no one about the events. The mother was writing to ask if she should let college administrators know about the injury and hazing.

The Ethicist stewed and fretted about keeping quiet, noting “there’re considerations in favor of keeping quiet.” Actually, no there are not. In this post-Weinstein, Spacey, Hoffman era of “we all knew and said nothing” even as the parade of horribles continued, this analysis is troubling. One of the basic questions of ethical analysis is to ask ourselves: Whom could my actions or, in this case, inactions be injured a result of my decision? Try a host of plebes coming in for initiation. Try thinking about the deaths of too many young men during the indignity of hazing. Try thinking of the mother of a young man, somewhere down the line, who would have to deal with the loss of a son or see her son through a permanent disability? Since when is tattling worse than these consequences? From Wells Fargo to Penn State, think of what could have been avoided if those involved had demanded that the conduct stop.

The Ethicist fretted that the injured young man could be identified as the tattletale if mom reports the fraternity. Let’s see. Was no one else present at the hazing? Did no one notice that he was injured? Did no one realize he quit the fraternity and the football team because of his injury? Such a report could come from anyone, anyone with a sense of responsibility.

The Ethicist added that the mother should discuss her need to let university administrators know with her son before making the disclosure so that her son could let his feelings be known. The Barometer would discuss it with her son first too. However, our discussion would vary slightly. Departing from the helicopter-parent syndrome, the Barometer would tell her son to talk with his friend and explain how important it is for others to be told. If the injured young man will not report his experience, then the son should report the fraternity himself. The Barometer would explain the harm that could come, the need to protect others, and offer reassurance that disclosure of bad acts is not the end of the world nor the worst thing that he could do. It’s not exactly the stuff of laying down one’s life. In fact, it can be anonymous. But, this mom needs to understand the need for inculcating the ethical value of taking the heat in order to stop bad actors and afford others the protection the son’s friend should have had. A simple, “Yo, you have hazing injuries going on over at the frat houses,” will get a rise out of any university administrator.

One more thought — Does this mother believe that no one is going to be able to pull together facts and self-identify the university from the details she has furnished to a national newspaper? Then again, maybe hazing injuries are so pervasive that the young man and his injury could be at any football fraternity across the land. Ah, all the more reason to play a small role in stopping the madness.

UPDATE: The New York Times reports this morning that a 20-year-old pledge to the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at Florida State, Andrew Coffey, 20, majoring in civil engineering, was found dead on Friday morning (11/03). Tallahassee police believe alcohol might have been a factor in his death. Florida State has halted all chapter meetings, social events, and philanthropy of the sororities and fraternities. The rules were announced after a member of another fraternity member, at Phi Delta Theta, was arrested for cocaine trafficking. Just keep debating whether to tell.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD.

The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards.

Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader’s Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio.

She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News.

In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles.

Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.

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