When a store clerk returns too much change, the customer has a small ethical dilemma. When the spouse of a best friend is involved in an affair, to tell them or not is a tougher choice.
You are given stolen secret documents that reveal what seems to be illegal or immoral government actions. Making them public endangers the security of the nation and people's lives. What to do is one of the serious ethical dilemmas that students, community leaders and business professionals tackled at the Ethics Day on May 17.
"I believe a well-educated person is one who possesses more than skills and content knowledge. They also possess a strong moral compass that guides them in making decisions and forms the basis of their character," said Rami Muth, superintendent of the Martinez Unified School District.
Muth challenged the audience to "have the courage to face the truth, listen to understand and to suspend judgment" as they wrestled with complex issues.
Eighty high school students from the Martinez, Mt. Diablo, Acalanes and San Ramon school districts joined 40 adult business and community volunteers as guest speaker Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson shared his view of how poor ethical choices are at the root of events that propel people into the court and correction systems.
In breakout sessions, students and community participants discussed methods for making better decisions. Peterson offered listeners a shortcut: "Don't
Peterson reminded listeners that one ethical lapse leads to another and wrong decisions affect other people, citing the Schwarzenegger split-up, Barry Bonds case, Diablo Valley College grade tampering and DUI cases as examples.
"You will be criticized for doing the right thing," Peterson said, but added, "ethics is doing the right thing when you think no one is looking."
He related the time when he was berated for supporting restaurant food content disclosure. He told the story of how a critic claimed that if nutrition ratings are required on menus, then political candidates should list their IQ scores next to their names on ballots. With a quick smile, Peterson quipped, "Maybe that's not such a bad idea."
In closing, he quoted Mark Twain, "Always do right. You will gratify some and astonish the rest."
The parallels between school and workplace issues and potential long-term effects of certain decisions were part of the group discussions. Alhambra High School senior Brian Lott said, "We are always so busy with essays, math and science, it is nice to have serious discourse about the real world."
Alhambra English teacher and former paramedic Tom Murray shared a real world dilemma.
"When you are in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, what you do when someone asks you if they are going to live or die, and it looks like they will die?"
The groups used a series of questions, blending ethics and critical thinking to address that issue and others: What is the real problem? What are assumptions and what are facts? What are the possible solutions? What is the downside of each solution?
The group consensus was to tell the patient, "You are going to live." They may have been influenced by Murray's statement that if you tell a patient they will die, that is what they do. The group reasoning was that if the person lived it was true to say they would live, and if they died, it did not matter.
Murray pointed out that he still had doubts because the person might have a right to know what he believed to be the truth, and the patient may want to do or say something before they died. "I would say it was 50-50," Murray said, still appearing to doubt the wisdom of it.
The Martinez Unified School District and Martinez Chamber of Commerce co-sponsored the event with support from local businesses.
"Ethics is such an important topic. Ethical choices are an everyday part of business," said Cynthia Murdough, chamber president and CEO.
Muth said, "We give lip service to educating the whole child. This is not lip service. We are teaching the core values of the district. What good is it if we teach students to go out and go to work and they rob a bank?"
Muth credits Harriette Heibel of H2 Solutions, Vicente Martinez High School and Briones School Principal Carol Adams and the chamber for producing a unique and successful educational event.
Contact Dana Guzzetti at email@example.com.