Penn State Shows Loyalty's Dark Side, Says Ethicist

Nov 18, 2011
Originally published on November 18, 2011 11:53 am
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And now, we'd like to take another look at the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, but through the lens of ethics. As most people probably know by now, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, has been criminally charged for the sexual abuse of minors. Two other university officials have been charged with lying to a grand jury, and failing to report the alleged abuse to the appropriate authorities.

What we're most interested in is the actions of others with knowledge of the alleged events. The Nittany Lions' legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, said he reported what he knew to his superiors. He has not been charged, but he's been forced out of his job. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's attorney general said Paterno met his legal obligations, but not his ethical ones.

We wanted to know what this means. So we've called upon Jack Marshall. He is the president and founder of ProEthics. That's an ethics consultancy group. He's also a former contributor to O magazine's ethics column. And he's with us now from our studios in New York.

Jack Marshall, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

JACK MARSHALL: Hi, Michel. Great to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: And I do, of course, want to mention that this is a very difficult subject. These allegations are very disturbing, so this might not be an appropriate conversation for everybody.

But Jack, the basic question here - when authorities say, you know, what he did was legal but it wasn't right, what exactly are they saying?

MARSHALL: Well, you know, all law does is set rules. In fact, this has some relationship to the discussion you just had with Jack Abramoff. I mean, the fact is that laws can't make people ethical and, in fact, to some extent, they limit what people - or the exact minimum of what people are required to do. And sometimes, the minimum isn't enough. That's why we need ethical values and ethical aspirations that push us beyond that.

And so in this case, there was an ethical duty - a higher ethical duty - that Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary, and the rest of the administrators at Penn State had; the human obligation to protect children that went beyond a legal obligation because this is an area that the law doesn't handle very well. Laws can't really be written properly to make people do the right thing.

MARTIN: Well, how would you know if you're meeting an ethical standard? I mean, you can imagine - well, there are two different people here we're talking about, specifically. We're talking about Joe Paterno who, of course, is a huge figure, but we're also talking about a graduate student assistant and a janitor, two people who allegedly witnessed - directly witnessed assaults and did not stop them; at least, did not physically stop them. And there's some to-ing and fro-ing about the specific details of this, you know, after the fact.

So let's set aside Joe Paterno because, you know, he's a leader. Let's talk about somebody like the graduate student, who's now an assistant coach, Mike McQueary. What was his ethical obligation in that moment? You can easily see where somebody would say, look, this is a guy who's more important than me, more powerful than me. I'll lose my job. People won't believe me.

MARSHALL: Yeah. I think McQueary was in a very difficult situation and the fact is, you are only likely to make the right decision in the kind of crisis he faced. You walk in and see not only a colleague, but a colleague who has high prestige within the university and in fact, is a longtime associate of your boss, doing something that's unimaginable to you.

And everybody who was writing about this topic said oh, I know what I would do. I would have rushed into the shower and physically stopped him. The research and experience says that's not what people do. What happens is, is that people react emotionally and viscerally, and the flight reflex kicks in because they don't really know what to do.

Unless you're trained to know exactly what the right response is under these circumstances - and that means that you're either, you know, a superhero or a Navy SEAL, or someone who has been trained by the university to say listen, if you're in a situation where a crime is being committed in front of you by someone, and you have the power to stop it, you stop it. And you don't think twice.

The problem is, once McQueary started thinking, he started thinking about his career. He started thinking about welfare and jeez, is the shower slippery, and all of those things. And once those things interpose themselves between you and your best ethical instincts, you're likely to do something else.

MARTIN: So did the institution have an ethical instinct to empower everyone to do the right thing? I mean, exactly what is the ethical standard that people should be reaching for, or learning from, in the wake of this terrible story?

MARSHALL: That's a great question. And what I think, and what I've been telling educational institutions is, most of all, you have to gather everybody together and point out what a trap the value of loyalty is. Loyalty is clearly one of the great ethical values and, in fact, the Josephson Institute, which is one of the fine ethics organizations in the country, has what they call the six pillars of character. And loyalty is right under trust and trustworthiness because loyalty is necessary in order to trust somebody.

But loyalty has a dark side. And the dark side, in this case, is people that were so focused on the football program, and so focused on the university, that their loyalty blotted out all other considerations, including a prime directive, which is loyalty to the human race, to our children, to the innocent. That should have been the first duty that should have come to mind, not just to Mike McQueary, but of Joe Sandusky(ph) - I mean, obviously, of Sandusky, but Joe Paterno and everyone down the line. And it did not.

MARTIN: Well, finally, of course we can't know what was in these individuals' minds. We certainly can't know what was in Mike McQueary's mind. And perhaps we will find out as this matter goes forward, if he's called to testify. You know, I don't know.

Finally, Jack, what about Joe Paterno? I mean, as such an important figure in this, it's interesting that people are saying well, he did fulfill his responsibility to tell his superiors, and he assumed they would take care of it. Does someone, by dint of being a leader, by dint of being a public figure - in your view - have some higher ethical duty? And what is it? How do you define it?

MARSHALL: Well, in his case, he had an even higher ethical duty than the average leader. The laws in this area, as I said, are sort of inherently inadequate because it's impossible to write a law that covers all sorts of situations. And Pennsylvania's law is basically aimed at individuals who work with children and - say that a person who is a mandatory reporter needs to at least report up to the person who has the administrative duty of alerting the police.

You could make an argument, in fact, that Paterno did not meet his legal obligations because he was McQueary's supervisor and might have had an independent obligation as well. But it looks like the attorney general isn't going to make that argument.

But in the case of Paterno, which is unusual, he was really the central guy here. He is known for his ethical values. He put Penn State on the map because he stood for values. And that means that in this issue, which was an ethical crisis, I would argue that he had an even higher duty than anyone else in the chain.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I think we'll be talking about this again, something tells me, Jack. Jack Marshall is the president and founder of ProEthics. That's an ethics consultancy group. He's also a former contributor to O magazine's Everyday Ethics column. And he joined us from our studios in New York.

Jack Marshall, thanks. Good to talk to you again.

MARSHALL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.