Warning Unheeded

Ethics is not some highfalutin’ subject that is limited to the classroom or philosophical discussion. I try to show my students how it applies to everyday life. Most situations they encounter have an ethical dimension. It is eye-opening at first, but soon they come to see the issues on their own. I asked them recently to read the newspaper and find articles that are examples of potential ethical debate. You could go on and on about current politics and the crisis situations that are arising in the world. Debate can be intense when it comes to issues of race, war-provoking actions, and the economy. It can be just as hot about an ordinary problem.

When they brought in their articles, there was quite a range to peruse. I asked them to pass them out and have the group select the most unlikely topic. We would judge as a whole whether ethics applies. There was disagreement, as there always is in my class, but we finally came to a consensus. Product warning labels were to become the issue of the day. How is this a matter of ethics, they asked? Here is why, I said, and proceeded to explain. If product labels are inaccurate, there can be serious harm if the item is misused. It could be about the ingredients of an over-the-counter medication or diet pill, or a weak warning that a vacuum cleaner can catch on fire or an attachment can pinch a child’s feet. People don’t always read the label and the print is super tiny.

It is the user’s fault if warnings go unheeded, they said. I asked what happens if the labels are not clear and fully explanatory. An injured person can certain sue the manufacturer if they can prove fault. Ethics go into a court decision about who is right. I remembered a story about a fellow who fell off a regulation size trampoline because he was too large for the unit to accommodate. He was okay for a while until one of the tethers broke, tossing him onto the floor where he hit his head. He got a concussion and wanted to sue for damages. It was proven that he had not read the height and weight limits. He said that they were not visible. It turns out that there is a sign posted next to the trampoline that covers men, women, and children. There are also plenty of great resources on the internet to help with this too, like this: https://www.trampolinechoice.com/quick-guide-height-weight-limits-trampolines/. He argued that a regulation piece of gym equipment should accommodate all sizes. He did not know that by law, such is not the case.

Of course, he lost and it was time for the students to discuss if this was a fair outcome. The argument went back and forth and I was pleased to see that there was enough to take sides. It wasn’t a foregone conclusions. Most ethical problems aren’t. It was a great case study and the students learned a lot. We ended the classroom session with a broad definition of ethics and how they apply to modern everday life.