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.

Greek and pure human tragedy that it is, there may be a teaching moment in the Penn State University sexual abuse scandal. It can be used to help us understand that walking the moral line involves negotiating the car crashes of conflicting values.

Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is a man of integrity who may have had a serious moral flaw by appearing to put loyalty to the institution above the welfare of children.

However, extrapolating from the Jo Pa saga – including those up and down the chain of responsibility – it isn’t just devotion to institutions or communities that can morally undo us. When the test comes, our sense of duty to our family can also blind us to the demands of justice.

The Bible contains harrowing stories of spiritual trials, but modern life has a way doing the same. For example, during the era of Jim Crow law, there were some 5,000 lynchings, occasionally in the north but on a regular basis in the deep south.

These sometimes literal auto-da-fés were frequently mobbed with spectators, often in the thousands. Of course, there were many southern whites who were sickened by the racial murders, and yet very few ever stepped forward to try to halt the harrowing machine. Why? Because protesting would have surely meant the end of life as they knew it in that town. And if you had a family to take care of?

The same dynamics were at play in Nazi Germany. There were Germans who bravely resisted Hitler, but there were throngs of others who held back, no doubt telling themselves that they also had a family to look after. And what can trump your obligation to your family?

In the Penn State case, on separate occasions, an assistant coach and a janitor reported having witnessed former head defensive coach Jerry Sandusky engaging in sexual activity with young boys. Both the coach and janitor informed their supervisors.

Still, there are many who claim that while these men as well as Mr. Paterno were in compliance with the law, they should have done more and gone directly to the police. Surely, they would have done that had they witnessed the same sort of transgression somewhere else on campus.

Again, it is, I think, reasonable to believe that those involved may have felt that calling in the authorities could have cost them their jobs and of course their ability to take care of their brood.

Ever since the business-ethics scandals of the eighties, there has been a hue and cry for more ethics education. At the risk of seeming pedantic, the maestros of morals ought to help their students to rehearse the possibility and perhaps likelihood that one day a take-home ethics final will come in the form of having to choose between acting justly and doing what is best for themselves or, an even harder dilemma, their families.

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.

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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