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Another Day, Another Dilemma

December 5, 2005

With the Holocaust issue turned down to a low simmer (I think he’s trying to be provocative), our class moved today to workplace ethics. We served up a nice platter of Lawrence Kohlberg and his famous and delicious “Heinz’s Dilemma”:

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

Should the husband have done this? Why?

Which did a great job of spurring a wonderful discussion with lots of spirited debate and enjoyable exploration of moral reasoning (which is the point of the exercise). Until one student, apparently frustrated by my lack of clear answers, screwed up her courage and challenged me.

Determined Student: So, what’s the answer?
Earnest Professor: …well, there isn’t an answer. Kohlberg’s whole point is that–
DS: (slightly exasperated) — answer the question!
EP: What is the question?
DS: (thoughtfully and deliberately) Is it ethical to be unethical?
EP: (quizzically) What do you mean by that?
DS: Just what I said! Answer the question!
EP: I’m not sure you’re understanding the exercise here…
DS: I’m understanding it just fine. Why don’t you answer the question?
EP: (hesitant) …of whether it’s ethical to be unethical.
DS: (with arms crossing and eyebrows rising) Right.
EP: (taking quiet breath) I think that’s what is meant by the word “dilemma”. Either way a person chooses, they will be ‘unethical’. They would break the law, or leave the wife to die.
DS: OK, so why don’t you just answer the question?
EP: (looking around at the empathetic eyes of a few students) I don’t think the question is fair, so I’d have to answer ‘yes’–
DS: AHA!!
EP: …and no…
DS: (harumph)

Is it me? Am I getting through to anyone?

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8 Responses to “Another Day, Another Dilemma”

  1. sonja says:

    I think you’re not getting through to her. Or, rather, you are and she doesn’t like it!! She would like for there to be an “easy” answer. As it was in the days when she was about 9 years old and the answers were black and white. But now she’s a grown up and they are grey.

    Sucks to be a grown up.

    But there are so many more colors and shades and hues. So there are trade offs.

  2. WMS says:

    oh come on Sonja… have some balls and ANSWER THE QUESTION! hehe

  3. kate says:

    Yep. Shades of gray. (Do they spell things like the British in the Northeast? Just curious.)
    If the majority of your students a) show up and b) stay awake for your entire, what, three-hour class? I’d say you’re definitely getting through. They probably don’t grasp it all right now — who does? — but this is a class they’ll be returning to over and over in years to come, I suspect.

  4. sonja says:

    Oh … oops … that’s my British grammy coming out. Don’t ask me to say “tomato” I get confused. I forget how to spell some words, partly because of her and partly because I grew up so close to Canada. So words such as, colour, humour, grey, etc. I’m ambidextrous with them. And that last sentence, wasn’t really a sentence at all … no verb. Need more coffee.

  5. kate says:

    Much better to drop a verb than to create one, I say! (for instance: “I tasked him to do that.”)
    And much better to drop the grammar lectures on people’s blogs. I like Brit-spelling, actually.

  6. Ryan says:

    If there was spirited debate many were probably learning to think for themselves. Determined student was resistent to the Socratic method. Thankfully, it is not 400 B.C. and you will not be put to death for “corrupting the young”. WAY TO GO PLATO!

  7. P3T3RK3Y5 says:

    i was listening on NPR how the culture in Iraq is not quite what West Point had in mind when they were teaching their (Very black and white) ethics. computers think “well” in terms of binary or quantitative states but have you heard the term “fuzzy logic?” IMO, shades of gray should be taught much earlier in life… i think it leads to wisdom, and our brains are well suited to intuitive kinds of weighting — even if we don’t recognize how we think.

  8. kate says:

    Pete, Pete, Pete. You KNOW they don’t have a way to quantitatively measure that on No Child Left Behind-mandated standardized tests! What a silly notion.
    (YOU ARE SO RIGHT.)
    By the way, is it my imagination, or is your picture fading? I’m getting a Back to the Future flashback here. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you right the timeline.

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