Friday, January 17, 2014

Ethics and Self-interest


Soon after I assumed my duties at St. Christopher’s nearly 25 years ago, I received a call from the Dean of Admissions at one of the colleges most sought after by our students.  He called with congratulations and a request.  “Can you please do something about that ranking system?” (There may have been an unprintable adjective before “ranking system.”)

“That ranking system” was the way my predecessor calculated class rank, back in the days before many schools stopped officially ranking.  As I recall, he calculated GPA out to two decimal places, deemed any students with GPA’s within .05 as being tied, and did a kind of creative accounting for the first fifteen ranks in the class where if three students were tied for first in the class, the next highest GPA was ranked not #4, but #2.  The great benefit of the ranking system was that it resulted in 75% of seniors being ranked in the top half of the class.

I am not passing judgment on my predecessor, especially because I later discovered that the same ranking system was used by the National French Exam, which explained why so many of my students scored in the top ten in the state.  He was trying to balance accuracy with putting students in the best light for college admission.  Those are treacherous ethical waters to try to navigate, and all of us who work in schools need to be vigilant that we are not focusing on the second at the expense of the first, lest we fall into the same trap that snared colleges misrepresenting admissions statistics.

I thought about that in light of my last post, dealing with schools and school systems changing their grading scale.  The hidden (and perhaps unexamined) assumption is that changing to a ten-point grading scale will put more students in the best light and pay off in better college admissions results.  But is that the case?

Following publication of the last post, I received an interesting e-mail from a colleague who works in a prominent school system which has recently moved to the ten-point grading scale.  Here are some early results from the change:

            --The GPA’s for top of the class students have moved from 4.25 to 4.5;

            --Because of that jump having a 4.0 GPA is not as impressive as parents and students assume.  Some high schools have 30% of seniors with GPA’s above 4.0, and it is now possible to have a weighted 4.0 without a single A on the transcript.  An annual rite of spring is complaints from parents and media reports about students with a 4.0 GPA who are turned down by the leading state public universities;

            --There is a widening GPA gap between AP/IB/Honors students and those in standard level courses;

            --There is a slight increase in the number of students choosing to take an Honors class rather than an AP course when both options are available;

            --There has been no significant change in the numbers of students accepted at most colleges.

The colleague observed that when the school system was considering making the change, none of the school districts it contacted would share how changing the grading scale had impacted either college admission or scholarship results, and yet that was the big public selling point for making the change.

 

Another regular reader/correspondent made the point that those who push for changing grading scales are usually motivated primarily by what will benefit them (or their children).  Acting in your own best interest is an ethical theory known as ethical egoism.  Ethical egoism is based on psychological egoism, the view that humans are capable of acting only out of self-interest, but there are enough examples of altruistic behavior to question whether acting in self-interest is inevitable.  Of course, as I’ll discuss in a minute, there is a larger question to be asked about whether acting in one’s self-interest in consistent with ethical behavior as most of us understand it.

Ethical egoism is a consequentialist theory, in that an individual should determine what the right thing to do is in a given case by calculating the consequences.  The most widely-accepted ethical theory, utilitarianism, is also a consequentialist theory.  Ethical egoism is simpler, in that all you have to calculate what is good for you, whereas utilitarianism tries to calculate what produces the maximum amount of good for everyone.  The problems with consequentialist theories include how you define good.  Many philosophers equate good with happiness, leading to the objection that there are lots of things that make us happy that aren’t good for us.  The other problem with consequentialism is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  We’re not particularly good at anticipating all the consequences of our actions.

The other approach to ethical theory argues that what is right or good is independent of the consequences it produces.  Certainly good acts produce good consequences, but the consequences are good because the act is good, not the other way around.  The best-known advocate of this point of view is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the example he cites is telling the truth.  Kant argues that telling the truth is a moral imperative even if telling the truth produces bad consequences.  That doesn’t mean that you might not choose to lie because another moral imperative (such as saving innocent lives) outweighs telling the truth in a particular case, but telling the truth is morally right independent of the consequences it produces.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors made reference to my “Kantian tendencies,”  tendencies I wasn’t aware of.  One of my favorite quotes about ethics is supposedly from Kant, “Ethics begins where self-interest ends.”  I say “supposedly” because as NACAC President I used that quote several times.  About a year ago I was giving a speech and decided to look up the exact formulation.  When I googled it I found one result—an article quoting not Kant, but me.  Now I’m wondering if I made it up. In any case I think it’s true to Kant and it captures my view about what is ethical.   

1 comment:

  1. I think that most colleges are smarter than a lot of parents and other folks give them credit for. I live in a school district where there are no pluses or minuses on the grades: you get an A, B, C,D,or E (f's are not permitted). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the grades are inflated when 1/3 of the students are on the "honor roll". Sure, the parents and students themselves feel good about the grades on the transcript but colleges see right through it. If the school system resorts to "trickery" to make itself look better than it might be, so be it. Colleges will just figure out other ways to determine who really belongs in its class and who doesn't.

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