Classroom Debate

One of my students posed an interesting question today, and I wanted to talk about it here because it was an interesting debate. She wanted to know why some people can act with complete integrity and others do not. She established that she wasn’t talking about a good/evil situation here but more of a temptation issue. Why some people cannot resist and others are morally stoic.

First, I had the class pose environmental situations that might give people perspective on temptation. We talked a little about religion and decided that people of faith—any faith—doesn’t make them act with any more integrity than those who don’t believe in any particular religion. While they may have more established guidelines on how to behave, it does not necessarily mean that they actually will.And many people either hide behind their religion or use it as a cloak to cover up their own misguided behaviors. The class determined that religion was not a deciding factor.

Next we talked about family upbringing, but the students talked about their own families and found large discrepancies. Growing up in the same house and being subjected to the same rules and similar life situations did not dictate integrity. This one had a brother who was a criminal but he was always an honors student. Another had a sister who was an alcoholic and he was not. So family values were not a complete given, either. Although the class does not have a large sample of socio-economic backgrounds, we have enough to use as a small sample. We found that it was the same fairly across the board through all of the students. They could cite one person being incredibly ethical and morally upright and someone on the other side of the spectrum “dragging the family down,” as one student put it.

Having exhausted those ideas, one student proposed we look at the influence of position, giving an example of a corrupt judge recently in the news. We decided there are many people in charge of upholding the law, and there are those who feel that they are outside of the system of justice. Some people, when given power over others, take advantage of that power and use it for their own gain and not to protect those around them. We expanded on that, determining that it was true in almost all professions and relationships. When given power over someone or something, there is a temptation to create more power for yourself.

The class decided we were on to something. They hypothesized that the more people craved things like reputation, financial gain, or simply notoriety, the easier it would be to consider acting unethically. When your priority is financial gain, for example, it is easier to cut the corners on the things that matter. And once you’ve started doing that, it gets easier to be more flexible in what you consider OK. The end justifying the means. And since some people have a different outlook on these things, it may be easier for those people to act in the right and to carry themselves with a moral fortitude.

I enjoyed the conversations today to the point where I might add it to my lecture series in a more controlled manner.

What do you think? Do you agree with my class’s hypothesis?