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Ethical work in a bottom-line time

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2001

A good job well done.

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It's a goal most people hope to achieve when they head off to work each day. But what exactly does it take to produce work that is both excellent in quality and that benefits society, particularly in today's market-driven times?

It's a question Harvard education professor Howard Gardner addresses in the new book "Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet." Professor Gardner, known for his multiple-intelligences theory that defines distinct ways individuals perceive the world, wrote the book along with Stanford University education professor William Damon and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California.

They interviewed hundreds of people at different stages in their careers. All were asked to discuss their aspirations, decisions, and the ethical dilemmas they have faced at work.

The survey's twist: All of those interviewed worked in either journalism or genetics. Genetics, the professors found, seems to have entered a sort of "golden age." Scientists, the public, and genetics firms all have similar goals.

Journalism, on the other hand, was found to be facing a crisis: Media moguls, reporters, and the public frequently want very different things, often forcing journalists to make tough ethical choices.

On top of that, both professions have come under sharp ethical scrutiny. Already-intense cloning debates have gotten more heated with the human embryo cloning in Worcester, Mass. recently, and journalists have been the subject of both high praise and critical questioning for their post-Sept. 11 coverage.

The professors are now studying several other professions and are adding to the study variables such as cultural background and age. In a recent interview, Mr. Gardner discussed some of the group's findings so far:

On why the project interests him:

Work is central to everybody's life, and nobody wants to do bad work, but it's often very hard to unclutter your mind and say what's really important, what you're really trying to do, and what are the consequences, positive and negative.... How do you do good work when the market is so powerful? My absolute conviction, shared by my other colleagues, is that there are all sorts of spheres of society that are ruinous when they're governed by markets.

On some surprises from the first study:

We had no idea that journalism and genetics would turn out to be so different from each other - the fact that journalists were mostly depressed and were looking back to a golden age when they could do more what they wanted and they weren't always feeling they had to work very fast and get the stuff that was more sensational. Nor did we anticipate geneticists would be so euphoric....

We're all surprised at how blasé the geneticists we talked to were about ethical dilemmas. Things like patenting - nobody gave it a second thought. When Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine against polio, and someone said, 'Are you going to patent it?' he said that would be like patenting the sun.... It was a totally different attitude.

On changes within journalism: