Santa Clara University

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Ethical Dilemmas for Undergraduates: What Parents Should Know

Every college student faces certain predictable ethical dilemmas. After collecting "ethical decision points" from 130 young people at universities across the country, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics staff and student workers distilled these typical quandaries into the ten categories below. For each category, we have selected one representative case to allow parents to see some of the choices their children face in college. This work is part of a larger, ongoing effort to create a casebook for students offering useful information, student and parent commentaries, and ethical analysis. For more information about this project, contact us at


How do I balance studying with socializing?


Starting the first week of Will's freshman year at a large state university, there was always a party going on. There were frat parties, tailgates, theme parties, and dances. Even within Will's dorm, some group was always having a good time-playing poker, watching movies, or just hanging out.

At first, Will enjoyed the social scene and getting to know people; he didn't see a problem with adjusting to the social atmosphere before really getting into the academics. But two months into college, he found himself behind in a couple of classes, and handing in work that he wasn't very proud of. He would promise himself to study, but then get sidetracked when one of his buddies dropped by his room and asked him to go out.

Will had come to college to prepare himself for a career in law, and he knew he needed to perform reasonably well to get into law school. But he also figured that college was supposed to the best time in his life, which it certainly wasn't going to be if all he did was study. What was the right balance?

Can my parents still tell me what to do?

A Major Decision

Megha was excited to start college. During her summer orientation she started learning about all the possible majors at her university. She decided on history because it was something she was truly passionate about. In high school, she had been so inspired by her American history class that she was now reading books on the founding fathers just for pleasure.

When she announces her decision to her parents, she is stunned at their reaction. They insist that she major in engineering. Megha has been a good all-around student, so she can certainly handle the engineering curriculum, but the subject just isn't something she can see herself pursuing for four years-let alone for an entire career. In her parents' minds, however, engineering is practical and will guarantee her a job when she graduates, while history will not.

Should Megha go against her parents' wishes and declare a history major?

How can I get along with my roommate?

Poster Wars

Mary lives in a college dorm and displays a poster on her door with the text of California Proposition 8: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." She had supported the successful "Yes on 8" campaign in the 2008 election and was working to promote similar efforts in other states. James, her dorm neighbor, finds this poster offensive and demands Mary take it down. He worked to defeat the measure, which he feels is homophobic and discriminatory. To Mary, the poster is an expression of her beliefs and identity, and she does not think she should have to remove it.

Should Mary take the poster down? Should the dorm director force her to take it down?

What do I owe my friends?

Not Hungry

Jaya has always been thin, but recently she has started to look emaciated. Jaya used to meet her roommate, Naomi, and some of their mutual friends for dinner, but lately, she tells Naomi she is "just going to grab something on the way to the library." Also, Jaya works out like a fiend, running twice a day and doing endless crunches.

Naomi has heard that this pattern is common in people with the eating disorder anorexia. She has tried to broach the subject with Jaya, but Jaya angrily denied that she had a problem. Last week, though, Jaya passed out after doing her evening sit-ups. She's also cold all the time, no matter the temperature in the room. Naomi is truly worried.

Does Naomi have a right to call Jaya's parents? Does she have that responsibility?

What does sex mean to me?

I Want to Remain a Virgin

Katherine entered college with a very high standard for herself regarding sex. She is proud of her choice to remain a virgin until marriage. Now she has met the most amazing guy during the fall term of her freshman year. Max, her boyfriend, believes physical affection and even sex are important ways of showing how much two people care for each other. He has pressed Katherine to express their growing romance sexually, but so far she has said no.

Should Katherine revise her beliefs about sex because someone she respects and wants to have a deep relationship with believes differently? His views are probably the mainstream views among their friends, she realizes.

Should Max keep pressing her for sex? Is his bringing it up often a legitimate part of his wanting to express his love for her? Or do his frequent suggestions show a lack of respect for her beliefs?

What is cheating?

I Can't Get a C

Maya is a pre-med student at a large university. She prefers taking classes that relate directly to her emphasis. However, Maya knows that she has to take general education requirements to graduate. She decides to take "An Introduction to Art History," an easy class, to balance out the hard science classes she must take this quarter.

It turns out that Art History has weekly homework assignments-nothing difficult, but Maya never seems to have time to do them. She reasons that she shouldn't waste her energy on class content that she will never use. Still, she cannot afford do poorly in the class because medical schools will care about her GPA. She ends up copying a classmate's homework on a weekly basis. Does Maya really need to spend time on this gen-ed when she has more important classes to worry about?

What about alcohol and drugs?

A New Study Buddy

It has been a hectic fall quarter. Jack was looking over his finals schedule: two finals on Tuesday (back to back) and two on Wednesday. How was he going to possibly do all of this studying? As he sat looking over his notes a fellow classmate sat next to him and started talking about the amount of studying he was going to have to do.

She suggested Jack take a pill to help him concentrate and study better: Adderall. He really didn't know what Adderall was and had never heard of it before college. She said it would be okay because it was her prescription (a prescription a lot of kids take for attention deficit disorder to help them focus), and he could trust her. She mentioned that many college kids take Adderall to help them study during finals week.

Does Jack take the pill, believing his classmate and hoping that this will really help? Or does he decide that maybe it's not such a good idea to be taking pills to study especially if it's someone else's prescription?

How do I relate to faculty and staff?

Oh, the Cleaners Will Get That

Mike is new to the Bike Club on campus and the first meeting just finished. As members start shuffling out of the room, Mike notices no one picks up the trash. Mike starts to gather plates, cups, and napkins and throw them away. The president of the Bike Club, Tom, says, "Oh, the cleaners will get that."

Do students have a responsibility to clean up after themselves? Or is it not that important since the University pays people to clean?

What am I even doing in college?

Making the Grade

Alejandro is a sophomore economics major who wants to go on to an MBA program. He's interested in "Mathematical Economics and Optimization," but it has the reputation of being a killer course. Instead, maybe he should take a class in Spanish, his native language. That would certainly help his GPA.

Should Alejandro challenge himself with the mathematical economics class knowing he will learn a lot? Or is he better off just taking the Spanish class, knowing he will get an A, which will help him toward his eventual goal of grad school in business?

Do I have a responsibility to the world beyond the campus?

Forced to Do Good

Brian is a junior English major at a small liberal arts college. He has taken eight of his required English classes so far, and he is quite sure that he wants to remain an English major throughout college, as his intention is to become a journalist for the New York Times.

One of his journalism classes requires students to participate in a service-learning program in order to get credit for the course. Brian cannot see how some of the placements-daycare centers, vocational programs for the mentally ill, migrant education-have anything to do with his goals. While he has volunteered on his own time as a tutor, he objects to the forced do-goodism he believes is behind the requirement. He settles on a placement at the nearby homeless shelter, but the first week's sandwich making strikes him as a total waste of his time. He's not learning anything.

Should Brian approach his teacher with a proposal to substitute some more useful project for the required volunteer work?