Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Five Ethical Choices You Will Have to Make in College

You've already selected your classes for the fall quarter. You know who will be your roommate. You may even know what you will wear on the first day.

But are you ready to make the ethical choices that are sure to pop up in college? The following list reflects some of the big news stories that have come out of American universities in the past year. You may not think of the items on this list as ethical issues, but when you're deciding how to treat other people or what kind of person you want to be, you're in ethics territory, and the more you've thought about these issues, the better choices you'll make when the time comes:

What is college worth to me?

Probably the top concern at universities this year was cost. When you're paying $100,000 and up to go to college (and taking on debt for years to come), you have to ask some basic questions about what an education is worth. But how do you calculate that worth? Do you measure it by the return you will get in salary when you graduate? Many people do view a college education as an entry ticket to a profession, and they may therefore choose to major in some practical field like engineering or business.

But another approach to college is to embrace the idea of a liberal arts education. Historically, the liberal arts were subjects considered essential for anyone who wanted to participate in public life and to enjoy personal life to the fullest. As a liberal arts student you might major in Latin or anthropology or math, not expecting that your education will necessarily prepare you for a specific career but trusting that you will learn the critical thinking skills you will need in all areas of your life. What approach will you take? What is the value of your education?

How can I live with someone I don't like?

In the past academic year, Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi showed us what can happen when roommates don't get along. Ravi used a webcam to record his roommate Tyler Clementi making out with a male date and then broadcast the footage to other students. Clementi killed himself. Ravi went to jail.

You don't have to love the people you live with, but there are boundaries to how you treat another person. What will you do if your roommate (or your floormate or your classmate) annoys you? How can you get along with someone you can't stand?

How far will I go to be accepted?

Would you swim in a kiddie pool filled with vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products? Would you run a gauntlet where your fellow band members were punching you or striking you with drumsticks and musical instruments? As you read this today, I assume your response is, "Are you crazy?"

But the swimming incident is a recent fraternity hazing ritual described by a Dartmouth University student, and the gauntlet, a hazing ritual of the band at Florida A&M University, resulted in the death of a drum major last year. While most fraternities, sororities, teams and clubs do not engage in such extreme behavior, hazing remains a problem you may have to confront. In a 2005 study of NCAA Division I female athletes, 50% reported being hazed. What price are you willing to pay to be part of a group? What would you inflict on another human being who wanted to join your organization?

Should I tell on someone who is doing something I think is wrong?

Pennsylvania State University taught us a lot about ethics this year. We saw a football program, whose motto was "Success with Honor," lose respect, not to mention scholarships, post-season opportunities and money, when a long history of child abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was revealed.

One of the saddest things about the situation was imagining how the worst of the tragedy could have been averted by a simple ethical act: speaking up. If one of the coaches or janitors or student assistants who reportedly knew that Sandusky was molesting children had spoken up (and kept speaking up until Sandusky was stopped), much of the abuse would have been avoided and the school would not be facing the unprecedented NCAA sanctions recently imposed on it.

Sometime in your college career, you will see something that isn't right. Hopefully, it won't be as awful as child molestation, but you may well witness cheating or racist behavior or drunk driving. Will you have the courage to speak up?

Is casual sex going to be part of my life?

Everyone in college engages in casual sex, right? If you answered yes, you're in good company. In a recent study from University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 90% of college students thought their classmates were hooking up at least twice a year. The truth: Only 37% in the same study reported having two or more hookups during the school year.

In general, "everyone is doing it" is a poor reason to make any choice. In an area as intimate as sex, your own personal values should guide what you do, not what you imagine other students are up to. What role do you want sexuality to have in your life?

These questions and other everyday ethical issues for students form the core of a project called The Big Q, sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Join the conversation.

Miriam Schulman is assistant director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
This article originally appeared on August 22 in USA Today College.

September 2012


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