An interesting and irksome article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, the original is gated) caught my eye this week. Phillip Sullivan (a pseudonym) writes about the ethical conflict he faced when, after formally accepting a tenure-track job offer from what he thought was his dream school, he got an even dreamier offer from another university.
The irksomeness is twofold: first, there is a little bit of nose-rubbing to all the thousands of degree-laden folks who can’t find a single tenure-track job, not to mention two. Most readers of the Chronicle probably wished they had such a difficult ethical dilemma to untangle.
But, petty jealousies aside, the truly irksome part of the article was that it gave no guidance whatsoever on how to deal with the dilemma in an ethical way. He ultimately rejects the original suitor and concludes that:
- “Ethics on the academic job market seems to mean different things to different people at different times.” True enough, though this just speaks to the obvious fact that ethical behavior is challenging; if it weren’t, no one would study it!
- “…the ethical decision is situation-dependent.” Possibly, tell me more.
- “The right choice is the best one for you.” Say what?!
Is not the root of ethical decision-making, regardless of one’s ethical framework, the idea that our behavior affects other people and other people matter? Sullivan imposed real consequences on real people. I’m only an amateur, but I cannot pin down the ethical theory that says the right choice is simply the one that is best for me. To my mind, that is just a way of saying, “I don’t care what the ethical demands are; I’m doing what I want.”
Sullivan was clearly troubled by having to back out of his original commitment, and he went into great detail about how upset the people giving the first offer were at his backing out, especially after they had “built the Fall schedule around him.” He was “very sorry,” he kept repeating. Is that enough?
I am not sure Sullivan’s behavior was unethical. I think of the case in Sense and Sensibility where Edward is fully committed to entering into a marriage with Lucy that he does not want, thereby abandoning Elanor, the woman he loves, just because he had entered into a secret engagement years before. In the world of Jane Austen, this was a credit to his character, but I’m not so sure. Certainly entering into a loveless marriage just to keep one’s word is an ethically problematic (to say the least) behavior. Perhaps Sullivan’s situation is comparable.
Sullivan might have at least explored other options. Perhaps he could have kept his commitment for a year, allowing the small college that was depending on him to cover their classes. This loveless marriage would be painful, yet temporary. I am not close enough to the case to know what might have been possible.
But I am sure that ethical behavior usually requires some pain, some discomfort, some personal sacrifice. Otherwise it is just pure self-interest. In the end, an ethical analysis might have concluded that he was justified in his decision. But why? And how might others in similar situations resolve their dilemmas? Instead, we just get vague arguments about how people are different and ethics are contextually dependent. What a cop out.
So, do what you want to. Just don’t try to tell us that you care about ethics.