Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Project and the Markkula Center

During summer, 1997, the Santa Clara County Library System engaged the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, as an independent and neutral third-party organization, to research the facts and opinions around these and other questions. Our objective was to provide useful information to the library, the Citizens' Advisory Commission, and the Joint Powers Authority Board as they attempt to reach a thoughtful conclusion on this very important issue.

Project Goals

We undertook this project:

a. to listen carefully to the voices of key stakeholders (i.e., those who tend to favor limited Internet access for minors, those who tend to favor open access, and librarians), and others who wished to add facts and opinions to the report;

b. to explore the range of options that would be acceptable to various groups;

c. to identify any areas of common ground shared by the various positions on this issue;

d. to gather facts about proposed software solutions, including software that already exists or could be developed;

e. to gather other useful written background materials;

f. to seek new ways of thinking about the issue or its possible solutions from, at the least, the key stakeholder groups and business leaders;

g. to develop recommendations about any next steps we saw to move the issue toward resolution in the county; these will be primarily recommendations about process.

Independence, Neutrality, and the Markkula Center

The Center was established in 1985 as a non-advocacy organization whose mission is to raise awareness of ethical issues and to help people on Santa Clara University's campus and in the community at large devise practical strategies to resolve the ethical issues they confront. The Center is comprised of staff with expertise in ethics and technology, health-care, international human rights, business, and various social and public policy areas. Some forty faculty from all of SCU's schools serve as elected Scholars of the Center; a smaller cross-disciplinary group serves as the Center's Steering Committee to set policy, with the help of a diverse community Advisory Board.

Though it is part of a religiously-affiliated institution, the Center has a long-term policy that it does not take positions on issues, except to advocate the importance of ethics. The Center does not tell people what to think; rather it suggests what to think about and how to think it through. (Of course, because the Center is part of a university committed to academic freedom in the pursuit of knowledge, individuals affiliated with the Center are free to hold whatever positions they wish as individuals.)

Though the library hired the Center, its Executive Director, Thomas E. Shanks, S.J., Ph.D., as the principal investigator, had the sole decision making authority on individuals to invite to participate, material to include in the report, and recommendations for next steps. In other words, in every important respect concerning the process of gathering facts and opinion, the Center was free to reach its own conclusions independent of the library or anyone else's position.

Some have raised questions about the appropriateness of involving an ethics center in this issue. Fundamentally, the philosophical discipline of ethics presents a set of moral standards that cut across time and culture; these standards raise questions for us about how we should act and how we should live as individuals of high character.

In short, at the heart of ethics is a concern for human relationships of the highest quality and a challenge to us to be everyday the way we are when we are at our best in relationships. When we find that positive values are in conflict in a particular decision-making situation, as we believe they are in this case, ethics is the only hope we have of reaching a conclusion short of the courts or the ballot box.

Specifically, we refer readers to the method for ethical decision-making contained in An Approach to Ethical Decision-Making and Approaching Ethics (Appendix 3) and Thinking Ethically (Appendix 4). This method begins by focusing on the facts of the case; the interests at stake; and the various available actions. It then asks a set of questions for each option, based on well-grounded ethical standards; presents criteria for weighing the various options; and identifies ways to reflect on any action taken. This report focuses only on the first steps in this model: facts, interests, and available actions. However, at the end of this report we will suggest that the questions for making an ethical decision have particular use in this situation.

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