"Inner Circle" by jronaldlee via Flickr

It was hard to organize my thoughts this week in response to our readings on the values and standards of librarianship, and how to approach ethical dilemmas that challenge those values.

I kept picturing those Russian nesting dolls, where concepts lead to other concepts and questions: ethics relates to professional identity relates to institutional identity relates to politics relates to activism relates to personal identity.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to puzzle through these relationships, though, and I found the Lenker article on “dangerous questions” at the reference desk a useful model for unpacking the ways in which librarians might approach the range of loyalties and stakeholders to which they are beholden.

I want to highlight a few key questions and concepts from the Lenker article as I work to figure out some of those overlapping spheres that seem to me to also play into the question of ethical dilemmas in librarianship.

First of all, I appreciated Lenker’s succinct definition of an ethical dilemma — a case where “one set of directives conflicts with another” (p. 49). It’s an important complication he raises here, which is that the ways in which a professional responds to a situation is influenced by both personal and professional frameworks for values and ethics. Added to those influences may be religious or moral beliefs, and political beliefs.

We discussed the ALA code of ethics in another class this semester, and talked about whether it was prescriptive in a strict sense. While I do believe strongly in the values it lays out, I also think it’s not meant to provide a step-by-step guide or ethical framework that can be applied to individual situations (or at least not all individual situations).

Instead, Lenker’s virtue ethics model is meant to be that kind of framework. What is most challenging and most useful to me with this model is that it doesn’t reduce scenarios to their core but asks us to consider all the stakeholders (whether they be people, institutions, values, laws, or society). Lenker writes, “There is a temptation in philosophical ethics to employ modes of thinking that attempt to resolve complicated decisions by selecting one factor as most significant (as “the real issue”), then ignoring other factors as less important or somehow illusory” (p. 50).

When I was teaching, one of the hardest parts of the job was setting boundaries and upholding them. While I am a pretty flexible person in my personal life, I felt like I needed to be stricter as a teacher in order to be respected and to set ground rules that would provide a model for good behavior in a classroom setting. I wonder about how the characteristics and expectations that become socially associated with a particular profession complicate a professional’s sense of their ethical obligations.

For instance, if we expect that teachers ought to be strict enough to be respected and to uphold their integrity, does that make it harder for them to fully weigh all the stakes in a scenario that challenges the rules?

Similarly, if librarians are viewed (and view themselves) as having a central mission of gracious service, does that make it harder to go against the grain when it’s morally right to do so?

One last question we might consider in our discussion this week: How are we influenced by both personal and professional identity, and is there a framework that will help us balance these when confronting ethical dilemmas?