I am currently teaching an online medical ethics course, and one of my students in that course has fallen on a bit of bad luck. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in circumstances which make it exceedingly difficult for her to complete the course, and we now find ourselves discussing various options for dealing with this problem. As I work through these issues, I find myself torn about what set of obligations should take precedent for me. I am pulled in different directions by what I think would be right, and what I think would be good.
On the side of the Right, I find myself worrying about the other students in the course. Many of them may have experienced life circumstances which negatively affected their performance in the course, yet they were still able to get their work done on time. Wouldn’t it be unfair to make special concessions for one student, without at least offering something to the others in the way of compensation? How can I justify giving one student what amounts to extra time to do the same amount of work?
On the side of the Good, this student has just experienced one of the worst months a person could possibly live through. By trying to accommodate her, am I not giving her something to feel better about in the face of so much unrest and difficulty? None of my other students will know that they have been slighted, so it won’t seem to them like they are being treated unfairly. If I can make this person’s life just a bit better, without causing much harm to anyone else, why not do it?
There are, of course, other considerations here, such as the possibility that she is lying about her circumstances, or the question of what sorts of professional obligations might apply. But the point is just that the question of what to do in this case, from an ethical point-of-view, is not obvious. These sorts of situations are why I write about ethics in our everyday lives–often these are the cases that are most interesting, pertinent, and challenging for the broadest spectrum of people. They are also the cases that truly make a difference in the quality of our lives.
If you’ve got any thoughts on this case, feel free to share them in the comments!
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.