The Ethical Obligations of Scholar-Teachers and Coaches

November 21, 2011

In a recent post I voiced some skepticism about the readiness of faculty to deal in a fair, timely and effective manner with ethical lapses.  I was commenting on a recent NYT op ed piece by Michael Berube, a Penn State Professor, in which he argued that, had PSU faculty been more involved in the governance of the institution, perhaps harm could have been prevented in the sexual assault scandal unfolding at the university.

This morning we learn that the American Anthropological Association is working on updating its ethics code.  The good news here is that the AAA does have an ethics code that enjoins anthropologists to do no harm.  The draft revision would go further.  The new draft says:

Anthropologists share a primary ethical obligation to avoid doing harm to the lives, communities or environments they study or that may be impacted by their work. This includes not only the avoidance of direct and immediate harm but implies an obligation to weigh carefully the future consequences and impacts of an anthropologist’s work on others. This primary obligation can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a project. Avoidance of harm is a primary ethical obligation, but determining harms and their avoidance in any given situation may be complex.

Complex, yes:  that could lead to a great deal of discussion.  The further bad news is that the AAA ethics code has no enforcement mechanism.

The hottest issues around ethics among anthropologists concern whether and when anthropologists should work with the U.S. military.  The American Political Science Association has a statement on professional ethics, but it doesn’t even take up the question of cooperation with the military.  The APSA mostly points to the American Association of University Professors Statement of Professional Ethics, which states that scholars’ “primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it.”  As teachers, “professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students,” and “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students.”

The Modern Language Association has a Statement of Professional Ethics, which, while different from the AAUP’s, covers much of the same ground.  The American Historical Association has a Statement on Standards of Historical Conduct.  It also has a Professional Division that considers cases of breaches of ethics, but the last report on such a case I could find dates from the mid-1990s.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) has complex rulebooks stating the playing rules and terms of competition in its various sports, and also has important and useful statements about sportsmanship, though these are behind a password on their website.

If the NCAA has a statement of professional ethics for coaches, I could not find it.  Is there a code of professional ethics for coaches?  Is there an enforcement mechanism?

A tentative conclusion: where the continuing employment of members of the profession are in question, faculty can speak strongly on professional obligations — meaning largely the obligations of the institutions that employ them.  But faculty are less prepared to speak to, or do anything about, the ethical lapses of their members.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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