Initial Publication Date: November 3, 2014

GeoEthics and Self

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, based in part on material developed by participants at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics Across the Curriculum workshop.

I know right from wrong
I know right from wrong
If I die and my soul gets lost
It's nobody's fault but mine.

--David Bromberg, Legendary Folk/Blues Artist

How do students learn right from wrong in their pre-professional training in the geosciences? Personal value systems are developed in the context of the values and expectations of the profession, but ultimately individuals are responsible for their own value systems and behaviors. Goals of training geoscientists in GeoEthics include 1) developing the ability of to recognize ethical dilemmas and their implications, and 2) providing a "toolkit" of strategies and practices to employ ethical decision-making to address these issues. Part of this essential training lies in:

  • Self-monitoring and self-regulating behavior: as in development of Metacognition (students must be aware of their own learning), GeoEthics requires that students must be aware of ethical issues that arise, and adopt behaviors to appropriately respond to these situations. This is particularly important as students prepare to conduct their Science and interact with scientists.These lessons cannot be learned in a single exposure, but must be practiced regularly throughout the curriculum from many perspectives; and
  • Addressing Controversial Issues: this is an important aspect of the Affective Domain, and addresses values in conflict that may be based upon pre-held beliefs, biases, stereotypes, judgments, and complex issues that are not easily reduced to "black or white" representations. Students need to be aware of, and comfortable with, their own value systems (e.g. clear and accurate presentation of evidence, acknowledgement of limits of understanding, addressing uncertainty) as they are called upon to address controversial issues such as evolution and climate change as they interact with the public.
  • Critical Thinking: there is a close correspondence between the tenets of ethical thinking and critical thinking (see resources from the The Foundation for Critical Thinking. The Elements of Thought presented in The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, 7th edition, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder (see page 3), track well with the elements of Ethical Decision-Making presented on the following webpage.
    • Question at issue--what is the problem or issue?
    • Information--data, facts, reasons, observations experiences, evidence
    • Interpretation and inference--conclusions, solutions
    • Concepts--theories definitions, laws, principles, models
    • Assumptions--presuppositions, axioms, taking for granted
    • Implications and Consequences
    • Point of View--frames of reference perspectives, orientations
    • Purpose--goals, objectives.
  • See also the presentations at the 2015 Fall AGU meeting on Geoethics and Critical Thinking in Undergraduate Geoscience Courses.

Personal Values that May be Addressed in Ethics Training

There are some guiding ethical principles that can inform the development of personal value systems for young geoscientists: Shaun Taylor provided this list of values that could be part of ethical training (from 2014 workshop):

  • Autonomy- personal freedom
  • Beneficence- do good for individual and community
  • Utility- the most good for the most people
  • Non-maleficence- do no harm
  • Justice- equal access
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Sustainability--Provide for the needs of today without compromising future generations
  • Geoheritage--Preservation of Nature for future generations
  • Principles- diversity, foresight, integration, expansion of options, reversibility

There is a rich literature that his investigated the moral development of individuals. Here are a few examples:

  • Kohlberg, L. (1977). Implications of moral stages for adult education. Religious Education, 72(2), 183–201.
  • Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages. In Essays on moral development (Vol. 2). San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

See also:

Some Reflections on Ethics and Self

Take some time and access the following short videos, discussion questions and case studies, from the McCombs School of Business, "Ethics Unwrapped", University of Texas-Austin:

An Example:

Allan McDonald, an engineer for Morton Thiokol, refused to approve the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger prior to the 1986 disaster, and exposed the following related cover-up (see the remembrance of his passing in this report from NPR). Despite considerable political pressure, and consequences for his career, he did the right thing. His two personal mottos provide guidance about ethics and self:

  •  "Always do the right thing for the right reason at the right time with the right people. [And] you will have no regrets for the rest of your life."
  • "Regret for things we did is tempered by time. But regret for things we did not do is inconsolable."

Words to live by.

Stop and Think!

"Know thyself" was inscribed on the portal of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, was adopted as a maxim by the 7 Greek sages, and provides an important part of the foundation of western philosophy. Socrates amplified this dictum by stating "The unexamined life is not worth living". Even in our modern times, perhaps it's still good advice to slow down, reflect on true self knowledge, and come to terms with our own personal value systems. Each of us should ask: What are the foundations of my personal ethics? Will I recognize the "red flags" when ethical issues arise, will I hear that "inner voice" that will alert me of trouble ahead? How will I respond when confronted with ethical challenges? Will I have the courage to respond and be a moral agent?

With humanity's increasing technology, the ability to harness energy and attempt to control nature, it is often the case that geoscientists are often in the position to say: "We can do that". But perhaps our inner voice should speak up and ask, "But should we? Do we have the wisdom to go down that path?"

In recognizing conflicts with personal value systems, our goal is to help students (and indeed all citizens) to recognize ethical dilemmas as they emerge, hopefully in time to prevent the situation, and if necessary, mitigate the circumstances and consequences. Being aware and recognizing the existence of ethical dilemmas is the first step.

The next section provides some guidance on ethical decision-making.