A Philosopher's Blog

Penn State & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2011
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Patern...

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Before writing about the situation involving Penn State it is important to note that the facts of the matter have not been settled in a court of law. As such, what follows will be based, in part, on assumptions about what might (or might not) have happened.

While the incidents involving Sandusky and Penn State have gotten a great deal of media attention, it is not uncommon for institutions (especially powerful institutions) to conceal the misdeeds of members so as to protect them and, of course, the institution. My pointing out that this practice is a common one is not intended as a defense. Rather, it is intended to indicate that this is not an isolated problem.

While the matter might seem complicated, the ethics of the matter are actually quite straightforward.

McQueary alleges that he witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy. If this is true, then he was morally obligated to, at the very least call the police. Apparently, he now alleges that this is what he did. However, the original narrative was that he had spoken with his father who told him to talk to the head coach Paterno. Nothing came of this 2002 event until now.

At this point, the evidence seems to indicate that the incident was concealed by officials at Penn State. These officials, including Paterno and the university president, were fired. Interestingly, these firings occurred (obviously) before the relevant cases have been addressed in court. This does raise a moral question of whether these firings were morally justified-after all, it remains to be seen if, in fact, a crime was concealed. However, it can be argued that while the matter has yet to be settled in a court of law, the evidence of misdeeds on the part of the officials is adequate to justify their firing.

People who hold power in institutions, as might be imagined, have a tendency to believe that they have the right and the authority to handle situations they see as relevant to their interests. There is also, as Socrates noted, a tendency on the part of people to desire to conceal misdeeds. These two factors tend to lead to such (alleged) acts of concealment. People who work in such institutions are also often pressured into accepting the idea that almost everything must go through the “chain of command.” To use a a minor example, when I first started teaching I found that the lights did not work in the room in which I taught my night class. I, as I recall, made the mistake of trying to contact the physical plant folks directly (as I had been able to do at Ohio State). The result was that I was chastised by a university official for violating the “chain of command.” While that was a surreal experience, it does illustrate the sort of mindset that can exist in institutions.

In the abstract, one key moral issue is the extent to which an institution such as Penn State has the moral right to claim the authority to resolve a situation. In many cases, an institution does have that authority. For example, if a grade dispute arises in one of my classes, the university officials have the authority to resolve the issue. This is because grade disputes fall under the legitimate domain of the institution-namely that of education and related matters.

In other cases, the institution would exceed its legitimate authority and thus potentially act in an immoral way by such an infringement. This would be especially likely in cases in which the intervention of the institution’s “authority” would result in a denial of access to the legitimate authority by those involved in the situation. This can occur in cases in which those who are denied such access are victims (for example, students who are victims of sex crimes that are “resolved” by a university rather than by the police) as well as cases in which the perpetrators are denied (or protected from) the legitimate authority (such as perpetrators of sexual harassment being shielded by the institution).

Judging the extent of authority can involve considering the legal authority of the institution as well as the moral aspects of the matter. To be specific, a core aspect of this matter is determining this legitimate authority.

In the Penn State case, if it is assumed that such an assault took place and was reported to the university officials (and not police), then it would seem rather clear that the university officials acted beyond their legitimate authority. After all, a football coach and some college administrators do not have the moral authority to resolve an alleged rape. A coach does have the authority to, for example, bench players for poor grades. A university official can, for example, legitimately have the authority to resolve a grade dispute. However, rape is not a sports or academic matter-it is a matter for law enforcement, a matter for the police.

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16 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on November 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    “To use a a minor example, when I first started teaching I found that the lights did not work in the room in which I taught my night class. I, as I recall, made the mistake of trying to contact the physical plant folks directly (as I had been able to do at Ohio State). The result was that I was chastised by a university official for violating the “chain of command.” While that was a surreal experience, it does illustrate the sort of mindset that can exist in institutions.”

    Sounds like the military. It’s like the people at the top want as many chances as possible for the people under them to sweep the problem under the rug and if it never makes it to the top, they can claim ignorance.

    • wtp said, on November 17, 2011 at 7:30 am

      It’s a gubbamint problem. In the real world such foolishness does not last long or the business ceases to be a business…unless said gubbamint comes riding in with a bail out.

      • magus71 said, on November 17, 2011 at 9:36 am

        The only way to deal with problems in a gubbamint bureaucracy is to have someone at the top who’s ruthlessly willing to fire incompetant hacks. But that would require the moral courage so lacking in today’s world.

        • anon said, on November 17, 2011 at 10:07 am

          How is this delt with at a non-“gubbamint” bureaucracy?

          • magus71 said, on November 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

            Well, the US gubbamint is the biggest bureaucracy in the history of the world. And thus, any issues inherrant with bureaucracies are magnified to the nth degree in the gubbamint.

            Size matters. And not just to Barnie Frank’s boyfriend. I’ve worked in gubbamint bureaucracies big and small (city and the military). I’ve also worked in the private sector. Most of the problems I’ve had in the military I never had in those other organizations. Don’t get me wrong–I understand the need for bureacracy, but it has some drawbacks. As Max Weber stated: “The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization”— Max Weber

            The drawbacks hurt the individual in order to help the central planners. Ibn other words, it sucks to be you or me in the bureacracy. My first three years in the Army have primarily been spent learning the bureaucracy–it is a titanic structure. As Weber also stated: “Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge.” Once you know the system, you hold a massive advantage over other people who know less. There are people in the military who use their years of gained knowledge to wield the bureaucracy against newer Soldiers. Essentially, it’s like being a good lawyer who can find loopholes for anything to get exactly what he wants. Plus, in government, there tends to be much less advancement based on performance, though I do admit that the military tends to be better there than most bureaucracies.

            Of course, good leadership can help in any arrangement.

            • anon said, on November 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm

              So instead of saying “The only way to deal with problems in a gubbamint bureaucracy is to have someone at the top who’s ruthlessly willing to fire incompetant hacks.”

              you really mean

              “The only way to deal with problems in a bureaucracy is to have someone at the top who’s ruthlessly willing to fire incompetant hacks.”

              The remaining problem is how to determine what an “incompetant hack” is compared to somebody they don’t like or somebody who was purposely sabotauged by another in the organization. Not necessarily an easy thing to do.

            • magus71 said, on November 18, 2011 at 1:06 am

              “The remaining problem is how to determine what an “incompetant hack” is compared to somebody they don’t like or somebody who was purposely sabotauged by another in the organization. Not necessarily an easy thing to do.”

              Gubbamint bureaucracies seem to have a more difficult time figuring this out than bureaucracies.

            • magus71 said, on November 18, 2011 at 1:23 am

              Anon,

              No, gubbamint bureaucracies seem to be worse. They have a tendency to grow out of control, because they have the deep pockets of taxpayers to feed them. So, whereas non-gubbamint entities must try to find ways to increase production and reduce waste, the gubbamint is not nearly so motivated. Now I admit it does TRY to do it. Part of being a soldier is taking care of the Army’s equipment. We are charged with this. But again, see my size rant. Many things slip through the cracks.

              I’m not anti-government by the way. As I’ve said I’m not a libertarian. But I think the government is way too big right now. Too many useless entities.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2011 at 1:59 pm

          And also fire the competent corrupt.

      • anon said, on November 17, 2011 at 10:06 am

        How it it a “gubbamint” problem? Why isn’t it a structual issue or a managment issue?

        • T. J. Babson said, on November 17, 2011 at 10:21 am

          Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) — Pennsylvania State University, after years of skirting public-school rules, may claim protection from liability under commonwealth laws that shield government entities, if it faces suits related to a child-sex scandal.

          Moody’s Investors Service is examining the school’s relationship with the state to see whether claims of sovereign immunity apply, analysts said yesterday. Fallout from abuse charges against an assistant football coach and perjury accusations against two administrators led to the dismissal of Joe Paterno, the head coach, and Penn State’s president.

          The commonwealth’s flagship state-supported school has successfully claimed to be exempt from freedom-of-information laws that apply to most public institutions, including competitors such as Ohio State University and the University of Texas. Penn State’s unusual position has for years shielded the school and its football program from public scrutiny.

          Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2011/11/16/bloomberg_articlesLURXB21A74E9.DTL#ixzz1dyM5gytC

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm

        Badly run businesses can go on for years and years. In some cases, this is do to bailouts. In some cases, this is due to effective monopolies.

  2. WTP said, on November 17, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I’m saying it’s specific to government, not caused by it. Inefficiencies as extreme as these can only last long in a protected environment.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I was hoping you might address the man-boy love-sex issue as it relates to the ancient Greek academy.

    “As we have seen, the traditional image of pedagogical pederasty is simply mistaken, so what is its origin? The answer is the philosophy of the Athenian Plato. He has painted a very remarkable picture of his teacher Socrates, who is shown – in Plato’s own words – as boy crazy. When Socrates was in the company of beautiful boys, he lost his senses. Some sort of mania (divine madness) took possession of him and he was almost unable to resist it. He often complained about the fact that he was helpless towards adolescents, and said that he could only cope with the situation by asking difficult questions to these beautiful boys and teaching them philosophy. So, according to Plato, Socrates sublimated his passion.

    In 399 BCE, Socrates was executed on a charge of corrupting the Athenian youth. This is a bit mysterious, because there was no Athenian law that said that people who taught bad ideas to young people ought to be killed. Socrates can not have been guilty of breaking any written law. However, his fellow-citizens have interpreted this “corruption of the youth” as a sexual corruption: they took literally Socrates’ metaphor that he loved boys, and this was indeed breaking the old law of 450 (above) that forbade young citizens to sell themselves. Correctly or not, Socrates was held responsible for inducing boys to prostitution.” Source: http://www.livius.org/ho-hz/homosexuality/homosexuality.html

    A good source for information about the systemic, criminal child abuse in our country, especially in Washington, which dare not be spoken about in the mainstream media, can be found at: http://aangirfan.blogspot.com/2011/11/penn-state-child-sex-rings-drugs-cia.html

  4. magus71 said, on November 18, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Truth is stranger than fiction: Sandusky’s book entitled, “Touched”.

    http://www.amazon.com/Touched-Jerry-Sandusky-Story/product-reviews/1582613575/ref=cm_cr_dp_hist_5?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addFiveStar


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