Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility

Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility

Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility

Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility


Rarely discussed in ethics courses is the topic of excuses. McDowell argues convincingly that not only do excuses offer the most illuminating way to understand the true nature of ethical problems, they also suggest ways of solving them. When professionals are accused of acting unethically, when are their excuses valid and when are they not? Professionals know what's ethical, but social and economic pressures create conflicts in compliance. McDowell explores what they are--readably, persuasively, sympathetically, without didacticism. Professionals in all fields, struggling to be both successful and ethical, will find the book challenging, provocative, yet reassuring. It will also be an important resource in graduate courses in business and professional ethics.


The genesis of this book belongs in large measure to discussions with students. In the course of teaching for nearly forty years in five different law schools, I noticed three traits widely held by students.

First, many had difficulty thinking in terms of probabilities. Everything had to be true or false, right or wrong, black or white. Subtleties, uncertainties, and complexities disturbed them mightily. If professional ethics pose difficult, nonstandard, and complex problems, which cannot be dealt with by clear rules or bright line analysis, these students are ill equipped to deal with them.

Second, most students were indifferent about ethical issues, except at the most general level. Their attitude is best described as "amoral," rather than "immoral." Ethical problems are seldom discussed in public arenas or private conversations. Some students were deeply concerned with morality, but their attitudes tended to be held privately and muted in the public forum of professional school.

Finally, there was an almost universal propensity to offer excuses, however implausible, whenever they did not perform properly, whether it was handing in a late paper, being unprepared for class, giving a less than satisfactory answer, or failing an examination. There was a reluctance to take personal responsibility for their failings, or offer apologies.

And yet nearly all these students were above average in intelligence, well educated according to current standards, and appeared to be decent. The contradictions between their behavior in avoiding responsibility and my perception of them as basically decent always puzzled me. The practice . . .

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