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Drew Puroway, University of St. Thomas

Drew Puroway.jpgWhether or not we are aware of it, advisors face a myriad of ethical dilemmas in our daily work.  For example, what distinguishes a “reality check” from “dream killing” as we work with students to realistically pursue majors and careers that match their skill sets?  Should we “friend” our students on Facebook© or does this cross a boundary of professionalism?  When and what should advisors disclose to parents when even the information allowed to be disclosed by FERPA may not be in the students’ best interest to disclose, or vice versa?  These questions just scratch the surface of the complicated issues advisors face, and it is important to remember that these are choices that ought to involve ethical reasoning.  Too often, we attempt ethical reasoning only when we perceive a crisis situation.  We use our own feelings about the situation to guide our decisions, and while this may work on occasion, it is not wise to simply go with our gut instincts in every situation.  To raise consciousness about these everyday dilemmas, it may be helpful to think about different ways of approaching dilemmas.

In the book Mountains and Passes (Lampkin & Gibson, 1999), three approaches to ethical problem solving are described: virtues-based, principle-based, and case-based.  Let us explore these approaches through the following case study:

Harold is a 20-year-old transfer student, about to enter his second semester at our institution.  When he first met with his advisor as a newly admitted student, Janice, his mother, sat in on the appointment during which the advisor discussed the curricular requirements and assisted him with registration.  While it is common for a traditional-aged transfer student to bring a parent to their initial appointment, the advisor is a bit shocked when Janice arrives with Harold for his next appointment.  The advisor remembers from their first interaction that Janice dominated the conversation and was very judgmental of Harold’s potential major interests.  The advisor is concerned that Janice may be impeding Harold’s development and undermining his autonomy.

A person who prefers the principle-based approach would be most concerned with the application of an established principle from a source of authority that would guide (if not outright prescribe) actions.  A principle-based approach would focus on the “problem” of the case study and the actions themselves more than on the actors and consequences.  This might be the advisor’s ethical style if he has a tendency toward deductive reasoning, perhaps applying the following rationale to this situation: It is unethical to stifle autonomy; Janice infringes on Harold’s autonomy; therefore Janice should wait in the lobby rather than participate in the appointment.  Toward a different end, one might reason that the departmental policy welcomes parents with the student’s consent.  Harold gave his consent, so Janice should be allowed to participate in Harold’s advising appointment.  The advantages of the principle-based approach are: 1) it is relatively concrete; 2) it is flexible to the extent that moral norms are flexible; and 3) our profession and our institutions readily provide us with ethical principles to inform our reasoning. The challenges to this approach:  1) the advisor is required to subscribe to the authority from which the principles are established; 2) the advisor must decide how to respond when principles conflict; 3) the advisor must decide how to best balance individual versus community interests (the approach tends to favor the individual); and 4) it may be perceived as too rigid by colleagues who prefer to use other approaches.

An individual who prefers a case-based approach may read Harold’s case study and immediately have numerous questions about the situation.  She would seek to understand the unique features of the case and to place it in the context of similar situations.  While a person using this approach may be informed by principles, the individual is generally more focused on paradigm.  In the case of Harold, an advisor using the case-based approach could reason that it is important to respect Harold’s autonomy, but based on past experience, students similar to Harold were not developmentally ready to assume all of that autonomy, so Janice should be allowed to participate in the appointment.   The strengths of this approach: 1) one’s reasoning is easy to revise when future cases show different outcomes; 2) this approach recognizes that humans are not machines that mechanistically apply principles; and 3) it avoids the criticism of rigidity.  The challenges to case-based reasoning include: 1) its relativistic nature; 2) its focus on the individual over the community; 3) it may tend to be overly concerned with anticipating consequences; and 4) sometimes the source of its moral authority is ambiguous.

Finally, an individual applying a virtues-based approach would consider which virtue to embody in the situation.  The focus here is on a particular application of a virtue such as kindness, temperance, or loyalty, rather than on a specific action.  Here are possible applications to Harold’s case:

  • It doesn’t matter if I allow Janice to participate in the appointment or not – I will treat both Harold and Janice with kindness.
  • I will act with loyalty to Harold and allow Janice to participate, if that is his wish.
  • I will act out of care for Harold’s well-being and will not admit Janice into the appointment.

The advantage of this virtues-based approach is that it may be more communally based than the others, as virtues can be embodied by a community.  The disadvantages lie in the task of learning virtues, the need for moral wisdom to apply virtues, and the challenges of evaluating the internal motivation behind actions (a right act done for the wrong reason is not considered virtuous).

Hopefully, consideration of Lampkin and Gibson’s (1999) approaches will raise our level of awareness of everyday advising dilemmas.  We may discover our own style is a combination of one or more of these approaches.  When faced with daily advising dilemmas, our instincts might be better guided after we attempt to reason through the lens of each approach.

Drew Puroway
Academic Counselor
University of St. Thomas


Lampkin, P.M., & Gibson, E.M. (1999). Mountains and passes: Traversing the landscape of student affairs administration. Washington DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Cite this article using APA style as: Puroway, D. (2012, March). Three approaches to everyday dilemmas. Academic Advising Today, 35(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2012 March 35:1


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