Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community
Not everybody agreed with my response to proposals for blogging codes of ethics. Terry Freedman writes, "Downes may be correct in a logical sense, but I don't see how his position actually helps anyone working in schools." I won't infer from this that schools are illogical (though I could!) but will read this more charitably: Freedman is appealing to the utilitarian value of codes of ethics. They can be "both meaningful and useful."

Yes they can, but what is it that distinguishes a code of ethics from, say, instruction from a teacher or parent? It is one thing to tell people what they ought or ought not do - even I do that. And quite another to codify that. When something like ethics is codified, then this gives people room to be 'ethical' by watching for loopholes or playing legal games. It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic rather than the letter, to be ethical by holding your behaviour accountable to your own sense of good and right, not some arbitrary third party construction.

Because the rules will never be complete. Freedman writes, "Surely the starting point is to instil the ethical value of citing sources with permission, before bringing in the obvious exceptions?" But if the rule has exceptions, then the rule, as stated, is wrong. Shall we start listing exceptions? No, because then we could never stop? Another rule, then? No, because it, too, will have exceptions.

There is a reason we leave application of the law to the discretion of judges and not merely to adjudication of fact. The interpretation of referees and umpires rather than electronic sensors. Why we often appeal to the 'spirit of the law' rather than the letter. Why we think sticking to 'the letter of the law' is cheating.

The only 'morality' a person follows is his or her own, a feeling that this or that is right or wrong. Any appeal to an external sourse changes the definition from 'morality' to 'authority'.

Susan van Gelder also comments.

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada
stephen@downes.ca

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Last Updated: Mar 30, 2021 01:22 a.m.