Some ethical decisions are not that hard: thoughts on Joe Paterno.

Ethical decision-making involves more than having the right gut-feeling and acting on it. Rather, when done right, it involves moving past your gut-feeling to see who else has a stake in what you do (or don't do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to you; to whom you have obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by your action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull you in different directions as you try to make the best decision. Sometimes it's helpful to think of the competing obligations and interests as vectors, since they come with both directions and magnitudes -- which is to say, in some cases where they may be pulling you in opposite directions, it's still obvious which way you should go because the magnitude of one of the obligations is so much bigger than of the others.

The ethical decision-making strategy I teach my students (drawn from Muriel J. Bebeau, "Developing a Well-Reasoned Response to a Moral Problem in Scientific Research") is one I find useful in all sorts of real situations (which is pretty much the point of an ethical decision-making strategy). Occasionally, this means applying it to evaluate whether a decision which someone else describes as "really tough" actually is.

For example, on the downfall of Joe Paterno, I encountered comments on the ethical decision he had to make (and on how well or badly he did with that) like this:

If this guy met his “legal obligations” by reporting the report, not something he saw himself even, then why isn’t that enough? He likely would have preferred to do even less. And he’s not the police, he isn’t charged with investigating and finding out the facts.

and this:

We all have to balance competing ethical obligations all the time, let’s at least do each other the courtesy of admitting that it’s difficult.

Is it difficult?

If you would rather not think about a situation where a responsible adult had to figure out what to do when child rape was reported to him, you probably don't want to read the rest of this post. I don't blame you. However, if you should find yourself in a relevantly similar position as the responsible adult, whether you want to think of it or not, you'll be on the hook to do good ethical decision-making of your own.

Let's have a look at the bare-bones of the JoePa case: A graduate assistant tells the head coach that he has witnessed an emeritus member of the coaching staff in the team's shower facilities performing a sex act on a 10-year-old. The head coach need to figure out what to do.

Who are the interested parties here?

  • The head coach, who needs to make the decision about what to do.
  • The child who was abused, who has an interest in being protected from future abuse.
  • The graduate assistant, who has an interest in being an effective member of the football program, as well as in not being punished for being a whistleblower.
  • The emeritus member of the coaching staff. He has an interest in maintaining his reputation and relationship with the football program, and in being treated fairly. If he didn't actually abuse the child, being treated fairly may amount to something different than if he did commit the abuse.
  • Law enforcement agencies have an interest in getting information about criminal acts so they can investigate them, establish the evidence for a prosecution, and stop criminal acts that are ongoing.
  • The football program, the university, the university community, and the larger society. These communities have a bunch of interests, including continuing a successful football program that lots of people enjoy, keep kids in the community safe from abuse, and upholding the values off the institutions and communities.

The head coach is (I hope) thinking through possible courses of action that include taking the matter to the police or taking the matter to the university's athletic director. He might also be considering what would happen in the case that he does nothing. What are the possible consequences of these various courses of action?

If he takes the matter to the police:

  • The police may act to stop the emeritus matter of the coaching staff from committing further abuse.
  • The police will likely launch an investigation of the allegations to determine whether they are grounded. The police investigation will also collect evidence that may be used in a prosecution.
  • The head coach's relationship with the emeritus matter of the coaching staff may be damaged.
  • The reputation of the emeritus matter of the coaching staff will likely be damaged.
  • The administration of the athletic department and the university might be upset at the unfavorable light cast on them by the incident, if the allegations become public.
  • The reputation of the football program with the university community and the broader community may be tarnished by news of the incident.
  • It may take a bunch of time to cooperate with the police investigation.

If he takes the matter to the university's athletic director:

  • The head coach's relationship with the emeritus matter of the coaching staff may be damaged.
  • The reputation of the emeritus matter of the coaching staff will likely be damaged.
  • The administration of the athletic department and the university might be upset at the unfavorable light cast on them by the incident, if the allegations become public.
  • The reputation of the football program with the university community and the broader community may be tarnished by news of the incident.
  • It may take a bunch of time to cooperate with the police investigation -- if the university's athletic director passes the matter onto the police.
  • The abuse may stop -- if the athletic director passes the matter onto the police.
  • If the athletic director doesn't pass the matter onto the police, the head coach may have to involve the police himself, which may anger the athletic director.
  • Or, if the athletic director doesn't pass the matter onto the police, the head coach may have to spend a lot of time trying to convince him to involve the police. This may anger the athletic director and be emotionally draining to the head coach.
  • If the athletic director doesn't pass the matter onto the police, the head coach may feel guilty that he didn't do more to stop the abuse.

If the head coach decides to do nothing:

  • The abuse may continue, and more kids may be abused.
  • The reputation of the football program and the university may remain intact.
  • In the event that the situation becomes public later, the reputation of the football program and the university may be badly damaged -- as might the reputation of the head coach.
  • The head coach's relationship with the emeritus member of the coaching staff may remain intact. Or, it might not.
  • The head coach's relationship with the graduate assistant may suffer.
  • The reputation of the emeritus member of the coaching staff may remain intact.
  • The head coach's conscience may be troubled.

What are the head coach's obligations here?

  • To protect those who cannot protect themselves.
  • To protect his team.
  • To uphold the values of the athletics program, the university, and the larger community.
  • To protect the reputation of the athletics program, the university, and the larger community.
  • To protect colleagues from unfair treatment (but not from just consequences)
  • To provide the information he has about the child abuse to law enforcement so they can investigate the allegations to determine whether there is evidence to support them.
  • To maintain his own integrity and good conscience

I take it there is no ethical obligation to avoid headaches or awkward moments with one's colleagues.

Looking at these obligations, nearly all seem to pull in the direction of the head coach doing something, rather than doing nothing. Indeed, they strike me as all pulling in the direction of doing something effective, rather than passing the buck to a higher-up and being done with it.

Some might argue that there's a conflict between the obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves and the obligation to protect colleagues from unfair treatment. However, it seems like the head coach should be able to uphold his obligation to protect colleagues from unfair treatment without having to cover up what was reported to him (and without that allegation being buried by an administrator higher up in the hierarchy). Indeed, as a grown-up, the emeritus member of the coaching staff has far more resources to secure fair treatment than does the 10-year-old child.

How people make decisions tells us something about what obligations and interests they take most seriously. Do they care more about the values of their organization or its reputation? Do they care more about vulnerable people or about people they know personally who might be hurting those vulnerable people? Do they choose blissful ignorance over the involvement that might be required to obtain accurate information, or to pass on the information they have (no matter how uncertain it might seem to them) to the people whose job it is to conduct investigations in these sorts of cases?

(I'm not claiming here that police investigations of allegations of child rape are perfect. However, they seem likely to do better by the potential victims and other vulnerable members of the community than not investigating such allegations at all.)

Some ethical decision-making is hard. There are cases where we are bound by strong obligations that pull us in different directions.

But this particular case really isn't that hard. It may require effort to do the right thing, but figuring out what the right thing to do is here is not rocket science.

16 responses so far

  • Isn’t it even easier than that? A coach is under a legal obligation to report suspected sexual assault to the police.

    As a mandated reporter, Paderno’s decision was whether his desire to avoid difficult conversations ethically required him to break the law.

    The laws are there because people tend to want to make this question hard and avoid dealing with it. So we’ve made a global decision: this isn’t up to individuals to get their panties in a twist about. It’s up to the police.

    Or am I missing something?

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Alison, I've been reading that Pennsylvania's Mandated Reporter laws may be ambiguous with respect to whether Paterno was one or not in this case.

    But I think even in the absence of a law saying that he needed to take the information to the police, there's a clear ethical argument that this is what he should have done.

  • Gaythia says:

    I agree with @Alison Cummins that reporting to the police should have been the correct response for this incident (even if not clearly mandated). And certainly, the victim should have been rescued and his parents immediately contacted.

    However, taking things in Janet Stemwedel's "in the direction of doing something effective" requires, I believe, responses that go beyond this individual event.

    I believe that it is quite likely that the graduate assistant may have had a quite real fear that he would be scapegoated if he took his information public. Thus, going first to a trusted adult in order to protect himself, may, sadly, have been wise. Especially when, in hindsight, we view the athletic department, University and even community response. We have a culture that frequently turns a blind eye to athletic department transgressions. PSU is not all that unique in this regard.

    The point of view of Victim 1, and his family seems well described here:
    The victim is quite fortunate in having parents who believed him, and actively sought help once he started to disclose inklings of the problem.

    But along the way, there were such things as school district administrators who apparently dismissed victim 1 from school to be with Sandusky without informing the parents. And school councilors who blew off the parents concerns about the ways in which victim 1 was acting out.

    Victim 1's parents bemoan the ways in which PSU's response to this has not been victim centered. I believe that all of us need to address the ways in which our culture at large needs to provide support. This requires attention to the many smaller, less clear cut ways human needs should be addressed.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I agree with your headline: the decision in this case isn't *hard*. It's *unpleasant*, it's unfortunate, it's terrible that this has happened and it's terrible to be the person responsible for reporting... but I don't see any gray area in reporting this to the police.

  • Gaythia says:

    I think that an ethical obligation extends to notifying both the police AND the parents.

    Many of these sorts of cases (like this one, apparently) depend not only on one instance, but a repeated pattern.

    Even the best of police departments might not see a pattern. Many times the credibility of an unknown witness might be doubted as opposed to someone who seemingly is well known. And sometimes, power, or even perception of power, is more powerful, and the weak are ignored.

  • What about the graduate assistant who was the first-hand witness? Why didn't he report it to the police? As I see it, he did exactly what Paterno did: pass the buck to his superiors and wash his hands. Paterno's situation is slightly more complicated, if anything, because all he has to go by is this other person's allegation (unless I'm missing something in this story).

    But yes, he should have gone to the police when the department failed to act.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    I'm inclined that everyone who knew about it should have taken what they knew to the police *and* their immediate supervisors.

    I've seen more discussion of whether JoePa fell down on his ethical obligations, though -- maybe because he is so well known and well loved, maybe because his firing (after he announced his intention to step down) suggested that the trustees thought he should have done more, maybe because he is reported to have commanded the highest salary at Penn State (not that making less money would make him less responsible to be a decent human being here). That's why I framed it in terms of his ethical decision-making.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    One of the things that saddens me is the power dynamic that allowed janitors to witness an incident and be incredibly upset about it but likely fear for their jobs and livelihoods such that they left it in the hands of a new/temp employee to report an incident by merely telling the person to whom he should speak (essentially isolating the witness into a situation where he would be afraid to speak up). Also, while the graduate student fell seriously short, the behavior of his higher ups basically converted him from a witness to a whistle blower in short time, because their inaction and culpability placed implicit pressure on him to go along with whatever horrible rationalization they might give for inaction. This is why I place the most blame on Paterno and his "higher ups". Spanier showed the most casual cowardice I think. Being more distant from the situation and then letting it proceed. Disgusting.

  • Steve says:

    An analysis of "If the head coach decides to cover the situation up" would be interesting. I think it would hit all but one of the head coaches obligations bullet points.

  • marc says:

    Don't you have to take into consideration who he is? He's the coach of the football team, but he's also easily the most powerful person in that town, probably one of the most in the state. I think that's what has bugged some people, what does Paterno really have to lose by actively looking into this? He's no janitor that may be fired and swept under the rug. You can see by the recent events that people will rally around him no matter what. If he'd taken this on back then, they would have done so. It's hard to see how this situation may work out in a way that doesn't make Paterno look at least, very very cowardly.

  • Gaythia says:

    I believe that overcoming cultures of entitlement will take some mechanisms of outside support, and moral obligation cannot necessarily be considered to be absolved by reporting matters to the local police.

    See for examples:

    "Alison Kiss, the executive director of Security on Campus, a national watchdog organization based in Wayne, Pa., also praised campus police forces for strides made since the law was enacted. But when a university culture demands silence, she added, the campus police come under great pressure to follow suit. "

  • Micah says:

    Don't hate me, please. I think a lot of the people who were defending Paterno heard what I heard at first. I heard that Joe was informed of inappropriate horsing around in the shower. This scenario is still bad, but it changes a lot of those bullet points, especially if you then consider that there was action taken. Sandusky lost his keys and got into trouble... negligible compared to rape, but something when compared to being inappropriate. If the story was inappropriate horsing around, well then the whole story makes a lot more sense because it is easy to imagine yourself making the same decisions. Then when people change it all the way to rape and you try to make sense of it again... well it just plain doesn't make sense. Seriously, I think that those bullet points left out some positives to reporting the crime. Even if they were totally self-interested to the point were McQueary or Joe would have raped the kids themselves if they thought it would benefit them, their gamble still doesn't make sense. I think this story is going to take some time to figure out, but as for now, I think we know enough to say that Paterno deserved to be fired.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that even if Paterno thought it was "just" fondling or naked horseplay in the shower between Sandusky and the 10-year-old, not anal sex, he should still have recognized it as an assault.

      Honestly, the purported gray area here requires a microscope to find it.

      • Ria says:

        Fondling and naked horseplay are still sexual abuse of a minor. Janet is right, Joe should still have responded just as strongly by reporting the abuse to the police because the abuse is still an assault. The damage to the psyche of the child is still severe. I'm amazed that anyone would think that the word "just" even belonged in a discussion of child sexual abuse.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Also, while no one has suggested it here, I have seen comments in other tubes of the Internets suggesting that the whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing means that Paterno should not have made a peep about Sandusky to the authorities until he himself had compelling evidence of the alleged crime, or that due process maybe required leaving Sandusky's emeritus privileges (including access to the athletics facilities) in place until the police and/or the district attorney moved on him.

    This misses, of course, that Paterno had enough evidence (the eye-witness testimony brought to him) to give to the police so that they (who are trained to conduct such investigations) could launch an investigation, and that emeritus privileges can be suspended on much less than beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence.

  • jb says:

    I've only read a few of the articles regarding this story. What I'm puzzled about is that if the grand jury interviews were in March, doesn't that mean the Board knew about these incidents then? I do agree with their firing decisions but I'm wondering if their hands aren't clean either.