Ethics is a Process

“Do the right thing.”  Somewhere along the way, this was inculcated into my conscious streams of thought. My parents, Sesame Street, Boy Scout – probably all of the above and many more, were instances where an impressionable child learned to differentiate between right and wrong.

By no means would I consider myself altruistic, but I can say that effort, reflection, and intention are things that I continue to strive for and learn about. I remember a particular instance when my ethics were tested during a rehearsal rotation of Mahler Symphony No. 2.  My good friend, Ben Finley, and I had to regularly move 2 sets of timpani back and forth between the rehearsal rooms and concert halls.  Amazing music, but schlepping is about as much fun as doing your taxes.

Upon finishing a Friday afternoon rehearsal, which was to be followed by an early Saturday morning rehearsal, I suggested we save ourselves some time and energy, and just line the timpani backstage against the wall.  Ben, in his usual wisdom, countered and suggested we just suck it up, and load the timpani on the carts and move them back, because it was the right thing to do.  I remember how it struck me that Ben chose “the right thing” over being lazy, and I tucked that little nugget of “life lessons” away in my pocket.

We moved the drums, and sure enough, that evening there was a recital in the hall.  The recital required a grand piano, one that lived backstage and would have been blocked by 8 timpani if we had not moved the timpani back to the rehearsal hall.  Funnily enough, the following morning we ended up having to move the piano back offstage in order to set up our timpani.

So isn’t it obvious?

Ethics can be simply defined as the morals and principles that define what is good and bad.  It is defined by the social and cultural values of a community, and what is appropriate for one may not be for another.  The previous scenario demonstrates where the work ethic was the compass for “doing the right thing,”  and how something small, although innocent, may lead to a bigger problem for yourself and the people around you.  It was also an example of how Ben’s positive work ethic influenced me, and elevated the overall level of professionalism and consideration shown to my fellow musician colleagues.

Do the right thing.  It seems simple, as demonstrated by John Wooden’s poster below:


The rules above are very simple and true.  But, what about in sticky situations where there may not be a clear “right” or “wrong”?  For example, if a school that doesn’t have the budget to purchase a particular piece of music, cold they ask to borrow music from another school’s music library?  Does loaning the music to another school infringe on the profits of the publisher and royalties of the composer?  Or, does the premise of a library as a collection of resources available for people to borrow materials make it acceptable to make that learning opportunity available to the students?

I specifically mention this scenario because it was one case study where many educators were found to disagree on the right answer.  In a presentation on ethics last night at USC by Dr. Joelle Lien, a variety of case studies were presented where the answers were not simply black and white.  Through a model of evaluating situations in an ethical manner, we discussed our views and perspectives on how we might arrive at a “right answer” for many of these difficult questions:


  • Define the Dilemma
  • Inquiry to Obtain Information
  • Sort out Various Stakeholders
  • Options/Outcomes
  • Rights of Stakeholders/Rules
  • Determination/Decisions
  • Evaluate the Effects
  • Review, Reconsideration

The take-away from the evening is that an ethical decision is not always black and white, and that it’s the process of thoughtful reflection and consideration that should inform our judgement.  In our professional and even our day to day lives, we encounter ethical dilemmas that should cause us to pause, and reflect on what’s right.  Perhaps the lack of pausing and reflecting cause people to drive into the potholes that could otherwise be avoided.

Furthermore, we all have the incredible power of influencing, and even more importantly, elevating the ethics of those around us – directly, through conversation, or indirectly, interacting with others and setting a good example.  As musicians, teachers, admired colleagues – let’s help each other.  Take it from Ben, do the right thing!

For more reading on ethics in music education, consider Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, the journal publication refereed by the MayDay Group.


Lien, J. (2012). Ethical dilemmas of in-service music educators. Action, criticism, & theory for music education (1545-4517), 11(1), p. 81.

2 thoughts on “Ethics is a Process

  1. Hi, Huei-Yuan.
    was so pleased to come across your blog entry from February 25, 2014. Thank you for summing up our discussion so eloquently. 🙂 I so enjoyed meeting you and your classmates, and I appreciated your active participation in our discussion. I want to make sure to give appropriate credit to the author of the “DISORDER” method of ethical problem-solving that we practiced in your class that evening. She is Lisa Newton, and those ideas come from her introductory manual on ethics, “Doing Good and Avoiding Evil,” which is available online at . Again, my thanks for your work! Best regards,
    Joelle Lien


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