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Penn State scandal sheds light on ethical gray areas

There has been plenty of outrage over the moral failings of Joe Paterno and others who were made aware of Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of children. But ethical dilemmas are often more gray than black and white. Better ethics education can help us do the right thing in spite of the fog.

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A few years back, a friend of mine had such an exam thrown in her lap. As a first-year teacher in a secondary school it became clear that her department chair was making sexually demeaning comments to some of her students. At the time, my friend’s husband was unemployed and they had two young children.

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In a crunch, our immense powers of self-deception usually kick in. This young teacher could easily have convinced herself that the male teacher who had been at the school for decades was only joking, that no real harm had come to the girls, and most importantly, that she had a family to think about.

But instead, she pressed forward and registered an official complaint. At the end of the year, her contract was not renewed even though she had very strong evaluations. (She eventually landed on her feet in another career.)

The gut feelings which many take as absolute authority in their moral life seems to shout that taking care of our families is an obligation of the first order. But that can’t be. It would be pure selfishness for me to put my individual interests above all else and it would be almost the same for me to pretend that the welfare of those with whom I am so deeply identified, namely my children, trumped all other concerns.

During World War II, in occupied France, few were willing to open their backdoors to Jews seeking refuge. After all, those who did and were caught were executed or sent to concentration camps.

And yet, as author Philip Hallie documented: “The French village of Chambon, located in the Cévennes Mountains of southeastern France and with a population of 3,500, saved the lives of about 6,000 people, most of them Jewish children whose parents had been murdered in the killing camps of central Europe.”

The fathers and mothers of Chambon did the right thing. They avoided the temptation of family first. They didn’t hold back their hospitality for fear that they were putting their own families at risk.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela are universally celebrated for their courageous action and moral fiber. And yet as King faced death and Mandela 27 years in prison, they had to eschew the snare of putting worries about their own above the universal causes that they were struggling for.

Though it was not the Holocaust or apartheid, the evil that otherwise responsible adults turned away from in Happy Valley should prod us to ponder the kinds of choices that life can put before us. It should stamp in our conscience the hard fact that the well being of our institutions and families is not the final arbiter of right and wrong.

Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He is editor of “Ethics: The Essential Writings.” You can follow him on Twitter (@GordonMarino).


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