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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