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Top Ten Ethical Issues for College Freshmen

Friday, Jun. 10, 2011

You're off to college. You've filled out your roommate survey and ordered your "dorm in a bag" set, joined the Class of 2015 Facebook group from your school and maybe even thought about what classes to take. But there’s another way to be prepared: Imagine what you will do when you face “The Top Ten Ethical Questions for College Freshmen.”

What am I doing here? Let's be honest: A lot of kids are headed for college because it's the thing you do after high school. But you'll get more out of the experience if you think about why you're doing it: To train for a job? To be exposed to great ideas? To party? A bit of each? Your answers to these questions will form the kind of person you become in college.

Do my parents belong at college? Should your parents have a say in your choice of major? Do they have a right to see your grades? Can you ask them to call a teacher when you’re having trouble in a class or contact a dean if you have a disciplinary problem? Many parents want to be involved (especially when they’re paying the bill), but when is that reasonable guidance and when is it an intrusion? Now that you’re 18, aren’t you an adult with adult responsibilities?

Do I want to rush a fraternity or sorority? If you’ve been thinking about this question in terms of how to improve your social life, you may want to add an ethical dimension to your internal debate. By its nature, the Greek system is exclusive; some people don’t get in. Do you want to belong to that kind of group? What are the kinds of activities, social and philanthropic, that the different sororities and fraternities on your campus support. Do these match your values?

How will I interact with people who are different from me? Your decisions about how you will deal with diversity may start before you even get to campus, when you must decide whether to live in a racially or ethnically themed dorm. Or they may arise when you're invited to a "Ghetto" or "Fresh Off the Boat" or "South of the Border" theme party. How will you treat people from other backgrounds? How much do you want to move outside your own group?

My roommate is anorexic, a drug dealer, a World of Warcraft addict, an aggressive vegan …. You’ve heard the roommate horror stories. While you’re trying to figure out how to handle a difficult roommate, considering the ethical side of things may help. What kind of obligations do friends have to each other? What is the fair thing to do when two people have to share a space? What behaviors are so dangerous that you have to kick the problem up to the next level?

What about cheating? Okay, this is an oldie, but you may be surprised by the new variations it comes in once you’re in college. Your calculus teacher may encourage you to work collaboratively with your classmates on problem sets, but your chemistry teacher does not. Is it cheating to study with a partner in chemistry? When you’re assigned a group project the same month as you have to play in three away baseball games, is it cheating if you don’t do as much work as the other members of your group? You’re pre-med but you have to take an art history course; how bad is it to copy the homework for a class you’ll never use in your professional life?

Should I call the EMTs? More than 70 college students have died from alcohol poisoning since 2004, according to media reports compiled by In some instances, their friends had hesitated to call emergency personnel because they didn’t want to get their drunk friend in trouble or because they themselves were underage and had been drinking. If one of your friends is in danger, will you call the EMTs no matter what the consequences may be?

Facebook posting or cyberbullying? In a recent study from Indiana State University, almost 22 percent of college students reported that they had been cyberbullied and 25 percent said they had been harassed through a social networking site. Is that comment you’re posting for all the world to see harmless gossip or are you going to be making someone else’s freshman year a living hell? And what does it really mean to be a Facebook "friend"?

Sex!!!??? Ethics is about how we treat other people. Nowhere is that concern more complicated than in the realm of sex. Of course many high school students are already sexually active (62 percent of seniors in a 2003 study by the Center’s for Disease Control). But college, where you live your everyday life out of the view of most people over 21, is different. Before you come to campus, think about the place you want sex to have in your relationships. And then get ready for the ways your resolution may be challenged by alcohol, loneliness, and what everybody else is doing.

How do I treat the people who work for me? In college, a host of people keep your campus functioning. There’s a guy who trims the roses, and a woman who cleans the common areas of your dorm, and a secretary who works for the bursar. Do you even acknowledge these workers when you pass them? Do you make the effort to get rid of the pizza boxes after the dorm meeting or separate your dishes from your silverware on the lunchroom conveyor belt? If you don’t, what does that say about the respect you have for the people who work for you?


A version of this article first appeared on The Huffington Post, May 3, 2011.

Comments Comments

lisabwalton said on Jul 15, 2011
As a parent and administrator, I really like these questions and concept of helping young adults grow into ethical citizens. However, I take issue with the wording of the last question (although I approve of the import of the question). "The guy who trims the roses" et al do not "work for" the students. They have bosses they report to. They work for the good of the institution. Perhaps a different way to phrase it would be "How do I treat the people who keep my university running smoothly?" - Like - 9 people like this.
PhilProf said on Jul 15, 2011
Many years ago when I was teaching Plato's "Crito," I had the students vote at the end on two questions. First was whether Socrates was right to stay and suffer execution; my students overwhelmingly voted "no." Second was whether Socrates had made the decision in the right way, by thinking the question through and engaging in a dialogue and only deciding what to do when he had considered all the arguments on the other side. On this, my students surprised themselves as well as me by voting that Socrates' method was the right one. Kudos to Santa Clara University for encouraging students to think deeply and critically about their ethical choices. - Like - 2 people like this.
John said on Jul 18, 2011
While offered with best intentions, the list fails (like the vast majority of people in the US and beyond) to understand that ethics is far more complex--and requires far greater attention--than any Top Ten list can provide. Not acknowledging this is what drives faculty members crazy--the assumption that conventional wisdom about a complex subject makes anyone with an opinion an expert on that subject. The list simply makes it too easy to ignore the differences among the examples cited in the list. More specifically, the example of the calculus instructor who encourages group work versus the chemistry instructor who prohibits it lends an ethical backdrop to a relatable issue for students--well done. But the author of the list is guilty of at least one of the traps college students are warned against: a specific example is in equating anorexia and (aggressive) veganism with cheating and other behaviors that violate congruent ethics. A person with anorexia engages in self-destructive behavior, which indirectly affects others. To cheat on an exam comes at the expense of others' capacity to succeed in relation to the overall performance of a class, so the behavior does harm more directly to others. Stated differently, we all have a right to harm ourselves, if we so choose, by being anorexic. None of us has the right to cheat on an exam. Further, I'm vegetarian, though not an aggressive one. I am, however, an aggressive (and amateur) ethicist who takes offense at the perpetuation of stereotypes, especially when those stereotypes are used to illustrate the necessity of overcoming stereotypes in order to be more ethically congruent. - Like
Miriam Schulman said on Jul 18, 2011
John, Appreciated your comment. Just wanted to clarify that we are not putting anorexics in the same category as cheaters. The case related to anorexia (Not Hungry) asks what responsibility a student has when a friend or roommate is engaged in behavior that harms them, not whether the person with anorexia is doing something wrong. Also, no intention of taking a swipe at vegetarians. We also have a case that we will be posting in the fall that asks whether someone who has strongly held beliefs has the right or responsibility to proselytize. You are clearly right that a Top Ten list cannot capture the complexities, which is why we're posting weekly on individual ethical issues. We would welcome hearing more from you. - Like - 1 person likes this.
The Milf said on Nov 15, 2011
Go here to test your ethics! - Like - 1 person likes this.
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