Another Paper Worth Preserving

Hi readers. Before I get to the subject of my entry, I should mention that the last entry I wrote about milestones for a Disability Blog Carnival is a carnival you can participate in as well. I apologize for not posting the link to participate in this carnival sooner. Part of the reason was that I have noticed a lot of you readers seem to prefer more private blogging to the public environment of blog carnivals. But at the time I submitted my entry, the host of this carnival was concerned because my post was the only entry so far. So she suggested that I see if any of you readers might be interested in participating. I apologize for the short notice: the carnival goes up on March 25 and I think she wanted entries by March 23 or 24. The last couple weeks before spring break have just been so busy I never had a chance to get the link posted. But if any of you have entries about milestones related to your disability that you would like to share with a wider audience, or if you would like to write one despite the short notice, here is the link.

     Remember when I posted a research paper about September 11 that I wrote for a politics class last semester? (By the way, I didn’t know what I received for my grade on that paper since I turned in the paper at the end of the semester and never saw the teacher again to find out my grade. But on Wednesday, I e-mailed him to ask this because I am thinking about using that paper for an internship with the governor’s office that I am applying for, and he said I earned a 95 percent on it!) Anyway, this semester produced another paper I wrote that I want to preserve beyond burial in the landfill. This paper is for a Communication ethics class, and the assignment was to do an ethical analysis of a situation that we were either personally involved in, or had a connection to because it involved people we know. (In other words, no headache inducing, blood pressure spiking and often futile searching of the library databases was required!)

     I actually turned in the paper two and a half weeks ago but was debating whether I wanted to post it because while I was proud of it, this class is a very abstract kind of class where I am learning that ethics isn’t as black and white as I always thought. So I decided not to post it until I knew how I did on it, and had my paper been figuratively ripped to shreds, I would have spared myself the embarrassment of posting it here. But I am thrilled to report that I can post it with pride because I earned a 93 percent on it!

     What’s even better is that most teachers I have had in the past have either put print comments on my paper for my parents to read to me or sent comments via e-mail. I rarely ask my parents to read comments to me because for one thing, I forget about it amidst all the other assignments I have to do. But also on the few occasions I have asked my parents to read comments, my parents say they cannot read the professor’s writing, or the comment will be written in such a way that neither my parents or I are sure what they mean. E-mail comments are better because I can read them for myself, and electronic comments allow more room for detail than handwritten margin notes. They have all been the kind of teachers where if I asked them, I am sure they would have been happy to sit down with me and go over their comments in person, but often both of us have other classes we have to get to right away after their class ends, and my grades have always been high enough on these papers that I didn’t think it was worth the hassle of going to their offices which are located in old difficult to navigate buildings apart from the main campus. So I generally tell professors to just e-mail me their feedback. But my teacher for this ethics class believes in a more personal approach, so last Thursday, he actually stayed an hour after class, a class which ends at 7:50 at night to go over the paper with me. And to my amazement, he did not rip it to shreds, but praised it, saying that usually by the end of the second page, he has several critiques, but by that point in my paper, he only thought one sentence could be improved.

     Furthermore, there were a couple places where my analysis was flawed, like when I applied my analysis on lying to all lies in general when it really only applies to lies of silence. But most of the time was spent on finer, what he called more advanced advice on my writing for how to make sentences sound more polished and less lengthy at times. I am also a little embarrassed that he caught me on several instances of subject pronoun disagreement. If you are like me and forgot middle school English lessons, this means saying something like “if a student is allowed to break rules, THEY will think it is acceptable” when the proper grammar for this is to say he/she, or that student because I am referring to a singular person. But other than these small criticisms, he loved my paper, and maybe you will too.

To Snitch or Not to Snitch

Allison Nastoff

     In my junior year of high school, I took a Spanish class with an absolutely wonderful teacher. I had never taken a Spanish class, and wasn’t sure if I would have a negative experience since a lot of the methods for teaching foreign languages are visual. But this teacher put me at ease the moment I met her. She would always adapt visual activities so that I wouldn’t feel left out, and I was doing so well and enjoyed the class so much that she nominated me for a school student of the month award, an award which I won. Thus, I suppose one could say I was the “teacher’s pet” of this class.

     Then one day when I got to class, the teacher gave us an assignment to work on individually and said she had some very important work she needed to do and therefore needed us to be quiet. Anyone caught talking she said would get an after-school detention.

     So I got to work on the assignment and was vaguely aware of the teacher yelling at students for talking, but didn’t pay attention to who was being yelled at figuring it was none of my business. In my next class, a science class, I was listening to the teacher lecture having totally forgotten about Spanish when I heard a teacher walk in and whisper to the science teacher, and then I was called out in to the hall.

     The teacher was my Spanish teacher. Having never been called out in to the hall to speak to a teacher in the middle of class, especially a teacher who admired me as much as this teacher, I started to sweat wondering if I had done something wrong and didn’t realize it. But it turned out I wasn’t called out in to the hall because I had done something wrong, but because this teacher wanted me to reveal other students who had been talking in class.

     “Today, I told three students they were getting detentions for talking in class. I know Kathy was one, but forgot to write down the names of the others,” she said, “do you remember who the other students were?”

     The truth was that I was so focused on my work I tuned out the names of students she had yelled at, and this is what I told her. But what I didn’t tell her was that the thought flashed through my mind that there is an unwritten rule among students that you don’t tattle on other students, so even if I had remembered who she had yelled at, I wouldn’t have told her. However now that I am in an ethics course that has forced me to examine values and principles more closely, I would think differently if a similar situation presents itself today.

     Growing up, my parents and teachers instilled in me values of honesty, and doing the right thing, even if it isn’t the most popular. I always thought I lived by those values, but this situation with my Spanish teacher was the first time I questioned whether these values were as firmly instilled as I always thought they were. It is relatively easy to be honest with a teacher who asks if you did your homework, or stay home and study while your friends go to a party. These decisions after all only affect me personally.. But what about situations where the decision you make will have a negative effect for another student? Should my loyalties lie with the teacher whom I respect, or with the student body which I am a part of and want to stay on good terms with? In other words, if a high school student were asked to report on the rule-violating conduct of another student, what would be the most ethical communication from the student being asked? To answer this question, I will apply this situation to five ethical principles.

     Aristotle’s golden mean principle says that, “Moral virtue is appropriate location between two extremes.” One of these virtues is courage, which lies between the extremes of cowardice and foolishness. This virtue is very relevant for my case. According to this principle, one could argue that the ethical communication from the student which would have best demonstrated the virtue of courage would have been to tell the teacher the names of the students who were talking. Not doing so could fall under the extreme of cowardice in that keeping silent demonstrates fear of doing what is unpopular. Telling the teacher who was talking in the presence of the whole class could be considered foolish since everyone would know that you were the one who told on the student which would lead to unnecessary resentment. But in the case illustrated above in which the student is whispering to the teacher alone in the hall, telling the teacher who was talking would have been the most ethical communication in terms of demonstrating the virtue of courage. After all, this action wouldn’t have been foolish since presumably, the teacher would not reveal to the class, or even the rule-violating student, the name of the student who reported them. Most importantly though, it would have avoided the extreme of cowardice by doing what is honorable, even if it is unpopular.

     But this case becomes more complicated when applied to Immanuel Kant’s principles. Kant’s categorical imperative says that one should “Act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law.” In other words, live by rules you believe the whole world ought to live by. Such a principle might be difficult to apply to the exact case outlined above since reporting students talking in class is a minor scenario with only short-term and relatively minor consequences. Even so, the ethical communication decided upon in this case is also applicable for more serious rule violations like cheating on a test.

     Let’s say that the Spanish teacher had asked me to report students I observed cheating on a test. On the one hand, if I placed myself in the shoes of a student cheating on a test, I would want this action to go unreported. On the other hand, as a student who earns As honestly, I would not want silence on such a matter to be a universal maxim. For one thing, it would not be fair for someone to get As through cheating while everyone else earns As honestly. But more importantly, if silence on such a matter was a universal maxim, more students would be inspired to cheat if they knew no one would report them, not just in high school, but in college or graduate school as well. Such a maxim would have serious long-term consequences for society as a whole. For one thing, if they earned a medical degree through cheating, they might not be equipped to practice out in the field since test scores were the focus, not real learning. For another, if students got away with cheating in school, this maxim would persist in to adulthood with cheating on other matters like taxes. The cheating scenario is easily relatable to the original case in that if a student is uncomfortable with reporting a minor infraction like talking in class, they will certainly be equally if not more uncomfortable reporting a more serious infraction like cheating on a test which would have negative consequences long after high school. Therefore, I would want reporting of rule-violating conduct of other students to be the universal maxim.

     But when examined using Kant’s maxim which says, “never lie”, this particular case is more complicated, since this principle doesn’t refer to all lies as one might think, but to contractual agreements. When the Spanish teacher asked me which students were talking, it was simply a question, not a contractual agreement. The honest answer was that I hadn’t been paying attention to who she had yelled at, but she never raised the question “would you have told me if you knew who was talking?” Thus, since she never raised this question, I was under no contractual agreement to reveal that I wouldn’t have reported the students. So while to the outside observer, it may seem as though withholding this information was a lie of omission, my decision not to reveal my thinking to the teacher was perfectly justifiable according to this maxim.

     Determining the most ethical communication for this case is easy however when examined using Mills’s Principle of Utility which says to “seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. In other words, the most ethical conduct is conduct that is best for the well-being of humanity. When applying this principle to the above case, it is clear that the most ethical conduct for the welfare of humanity is to report rule-violating students to the teacher. The reasoning used when discussing how this case relates to the maxim I would want to be universal law is also applicable to the utilitarian principle. After all, not reporting infractions, be they minor infractions like talking in class, or major infractions like cheating on a test will ultimately have a negative effect on the well-being of humanity since people will see nothing wrong with breaking rules in every area of life if there are no consequences for such behavior. Therefore, when the principle of utility is applied to this case, it would be most ethical to report the rule-violating student not only because it is unfair to the majority of students who do follow the rules if rule-violating students don’t face consequences, but also because while the rule-violating student may resent the fact that they were punished in the short-term, learning that it is not acceptable to violate rules as students will save them a lot of hardship in the future. Thus, reporting rule-violating students is the best course of action according to the principle of utility because from a long-term perspective, reporting rule-violating students will result in the greatest happiness for all of humanity.

     Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance principle which says, “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations”, is also applicable to this case, and it too favors reporting the rule-violating student. As a high school student, it is difficult to ignore social differentiations because of the subtle peer pressure that comes with your identity as a student. But when Rawls’s veil of ignorance is applied, the most ethical course of action would be to do what is right and be indifferent to the expectations associated with identity as a student.

     Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Judea-Christian principle which says, “love your neighbor as yourself”, or put another way, “do unto others what you would want them to do unto you”, is also applicable to this situation. The caveat of this principle of course as that individuals don’t always treat themselves with love. So on one level, a student could argue that they wouldn’t report a rule-violating student because they wouldn’t want another student to report them if they were to violate a rule. But once again, while a student might resent being reported because of the short-term punishment, on a deeper level, they might come to realize that reporting them was an act of love by teaching them a valuable lesson that will make life better in the long-term, and that they want to be treated in a way that will bring them long-term happiness, even if they cannot admit this right away.

     Of course, when a real life situation presents itself, students often panic and cannot give ethical principles and values a thorough analysis before responding to the situation. For this reason, I cannot promise that if a similar situation presented itself after taking this course, that I would not revert to my high school way of thinking, and feel a stronger need to place my loyalties with student short-term interests. But overwhelmingly, this analysis of ethical principles indicates that reporting the rule-violating conduct of another student is the most ethical communication. I hope that if a similar situation presents itself in the future, that I could recall these principles and respond in an ethical manner.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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