Make better decisions by understanding how moral principles shape our thinking
An ethical dilemma results from competing values. It has no right or wrong solution, and coaches should be able to offer a value based defense of their decisions if challenged.
Coaches make hundreds of decisions every day. Most are not very consequential; thus, we make them and move on. Ethical decisions though deal with moral questions, answering which requires knowledge, experience, and a reasoning framework based on moral principles (I wrote about how to make ethical decisions previously). By using a framework to guide the reasoning process most people can reach valid ethical conclusions. But as I also noted in the linked article, while making the decision can be easy, sometimes implementing it is not. In other words it’s often easy to know what the right thing to do is, but it’s not always easy to do it.
For example, if we see someone drop a $10 note on the sidewalk, the right thing to do is to return it to the person who dropped it, but this is not always the easy thing to do, especially if we need money or if it's a $50 note. There is a subtle difference between ethical reasoning and moral action. Putting decisions into play through moral action is where the rubber meets the road.
People often surrender their reasoning autonomy to systems of established moral conduct rather than thinking through issues themselves. Religion and law, for example, prescribe action regarding social mores, but if we make decisions based solely on predetermined or required behaviors then we’re not making ethical decisions at all but merely following cultural or conventional standards.
Even though most of our religious and legal codes are based on moral principles, rules and laws are not always adequate to guide ethical behavior. Situations sometimes require us to make our own decisions, to go our own way, so to speak, and break a rule or law in order to act morally. In cases like this we must consider the possibility that there will be consequences for our actions regardless of whether we are morally correct.
It’s often assumed that ethics are a simple distinction between right and wrong. While this can be coincidentally correct, some situations don’t have right or wrong solutions. Sometimes we must make a choice and pick what we think is the best solution among competing values. This is what ethicists call a dilemma.
Solving an ethical dilemma
Occasionally, a situation won’t have a single solution where one choice is ethically correct and others are not. In a dilemma none of the possible solutions or choices are ethically correct because, by definition, each violates at least one moral principle. Our job in this kind of scenario is to weigh the competing values in light of the specific facts and then choose what we consider the best course of action.
We are guided in this choice by moral principles that along with a sound reasoning framework will lead us to an acceptable solution:
Autonomy addresses the concept of independence. The ethical thinker may seek advice but makes a decision based on elements of the situation and the values involved independently of religion, law, etc.
Non-maleficence is the principle of not causing harm to others.
Beneficence refers to our responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the individual or group.
Justice means that individuals get what they deserve. It's important to understand that justice does not mean that all individuals are treated the same.
Fidelity involves the notions of loyalty, faithfulness, and honoring commitments.
Example: High school, club, or both?
One dilemma that occurs annually in what is now my previous career of coaching swimming, is the conflict created when athletes want to swim on both their high school and club teams during the high school season. Year round club athletes tend to be more accomplished swimmers with a long-term investment in the sport in terms of time and performance. Sometimes high school rules, made by coaches, the high school itself, or the state high school association, require athletes to alter their participation in club activities somewhat during the high school season. The actual details of such a scenario would naturally vary but I'm going to address it from the perspective of a high school coach with an athlete who wants to compete for the high school team but continue to practice with his club team; thus, receiving continued better training with the club and receiving the benefits and recognition of participating in a high school sport.
The actors in this scenario are coaches, the athlete, usually parents, the teams (school and club), and the school (usually the athletic department). All have a claim to consideration in the scenario, though some have a bigger claim than others.
Some assumptions (you may not agree with these, but I'm writing the article):
The club athlete will get better, more consistent training with the year-round club team if he is allowed to attend those practices. High school only swimmers tend to be temporary participants in the sport, less skilled than their club counterparts, and invested in interscholastic sports for reasons different from year-round athletes. Because of this, a high school swimming program may not be as beneficial or challenging to more capable athletes.
The coach has the final say in how the athlete's request is answered. Therefore he should have a defensible ethical response to the athlete's request. (Note that in some real life scenarios the coach has the first say in how this issue is dealt with. It is not always the final say.)
What are the ethical issues?
The normal expectations for being part of a team. Shouldn't all team members be subject to the same rules and team expectations?
The welfare of the athlete making the request. By requiring an athlete to participate in a less challenging training situation, aren't we jeopardizing their long-term goals?
Participation in sport is a choice. Sponsoring organizations (high schools or clubs in this case) have a right to set participation rules for their athletic programs.
The athlete must follow rules of participation for his sport. If he doesn’t want to follow the rules then he may not be permitted to participate.
The high school coach requires athletes to attend a significant percentage of practices that make it impractical for the athlete to participate on both the high school and club teams.
The athlete has requested that he be allowed to practice with his year-round club team and compete with the high school team.
What should the coach do? How will he answer the athlete’s request?
There are two possible alternatives the coach could consider:
DENY THE ATHLETE'S REQUEST and require him to follow the same rules as all other swimmers on the high school team.
PRO - This alternative relies on the moral principle of fidelity by protecting the integrity of the team. Having all athletes subject to the same rules contributes to a positive team culture. Remember, the team is an actual thing, it's not an idea or a concept, it's a physical group of people. The team could be harmed if some of its members were not subject to the same rules as others.
CON - In protecting the team, however, the athlete may be harmed by not allowing him to participate in a more desirable training environment (see the first assumption).
GRANT THE ATHLETE'S REQUEST and allow him to forgo practices with the high school team and participate in competitions only.
PRO - The moral principles addressed by this alternative are beneficence and justice. Beneficence, because it contributes to the welfare of the athlete. Justice, because for beneficence to make sense it must be shown how the decision contributes to the athlete's welfare. The justification is that the athlete needs (deserves) a better training environment to continue improving.
CON - The team may be harmed because in this scenario the team and athlete are in conflict. Either solution results in a zero sum outcome — what's good for one is not good for the other.
These alternatives are stated from the perspective of the high school coach because only the high school coach can make this decision. The club coach, parents, and high school administrators are in secondary positions of power. They may provide input to the high school coach and they hold appellant power following a decision if they are not happy, but the decision itself rests with the high school coach.
Act on the decision and reflect on the outcome
The final steps to solving an ethical dilemma are to act on the decision and then reflect on the outcome. This is easy to say but not always easy to do. One of my favorite TV character quotes is, "The ethical man knows what to do, the moral man does it"; highlighting the easier part of ethics i.e. arriving at a decision versus the hard part, which is putting the decision into action. The high school coach knows that choosing either one of the above alternatives potentially exposes him to arguments and even being overruled by conflict-avoidant high school administrators.
It would not be unheard of for the coach to consider how to avoid possible unpleasantness prior to making a decision but this is outside the ethical reasoning framework. In the best case the coach would resist such thinking. If proper reasoning produced a decision then it should be easily defended. It might still be overruled or argued but that doesn't make it wrong.
In fact, neither of the above alternatives is wrong. Remember, solving an ethical dilemma means choosing the best solution, since in a dilemma, by definition, there is no right or wrong choice. We must decide between competing principles. The coach will favor the team or the athlete, he cannot favor both.
Approaches to ethical reasoning in this scenario
There are three different approaches that can be used in thinking through the choices in this scenario:
The utilitarian approach is the one most people are familiar with. The phrase, “the greatest good for the greatest number” represents utilitarian thinking. If the high school coach is a utilitarian he would tend to favor alternative #1 and deny the athlete’s request. This would result in the greatest good for the team.
A coach using the deontological or duty based approach would also tend to favor alternative #1 but for a different reason from the utilitarian coach. The duty based approach comes from Immanuel Kant, creator of the categorical imperative, which loosely paraphrased says, make a decision such that you would be satisfied if others, given the same facts, would make the same decision.” In other words, if your decision can be arrived at universally then you have made a proper decision. Alternative #1 addresses the duty required of team members and can easily be recognized as a universal decision.
Finally, a coach using the communitarian approach could choose either alternative. This approach looks at duties and responsibilities that individuals have to groups they're members of, but attempts to balance these responsibilities with individual rights (or needs). Communitarians recognize that sometimes individuals have responsibilities to groups they are part of that do not come with associated rights; thus, the athlete has no right to expect the coach to allow him to practice with his club team. But in balancing community duties, individual rights can be considered.
This means that if the athlete wants to be on the high school team it is expected that he will follow the team rules, but it would not be unusual for a communitarian thinker to make some concession to individual needs. The coach might grant the athlete’s request in some form, but not exactly as requested. This solution is the one I see offered most in this scenario, at least in the Facebook discussion forums I frequent.
Understanding ethical reasoning frameworks can help coaches make good decisions that they can confidently defend. When coaches reach a decision without any real understanding of how they got there and cannot explain it if challenged, their credibility suffers and their judgement is questioned. Being able to explain why you made a particular decision will go a long way in defusing possible controversy and actually build support for it.
Recognizing ethical situations and being able to analyze them in terms of moral principles is a skill worth cultivating.