Bystander morality and the discussion sparked by Penn State

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By Julia Hotz

“Okay class, today we’re gonna talk about ethics, a.k.a. morality: the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior,” Professor Leo Zaibert announced in my philosophy seminar last Monday. Little did I know that on that same day, the nation would be talking about ethics when the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal came to be the subject of news reports, Tweets, Facebook rants and rioting.

For those of you who don’t know, this scandal outlines the actions of Jerry Sandusky, longtime defensive coordinator of the Penn State football team, who was arrested on 40 counts of molesting eight young boys over a 15-year period. The scandal also entails the actions of his associates, athletic director Tim Curley and university Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, who resigned after being charged with failing to report the incident to police and lying to a grand jury regarding what they knew about the incident. Head football coach Joe Paterno and University President Graham Spanier were not charged, but are continuously receiving criticism for attempting to uphold Penn State’s reputation instead of a protecting the welfare of young child.

This scandal has lead to many questions within the field of both metaethics, the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments, and normative ethics, which investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. I should hope that everyone reading this article would think of child molestation as a universally and morally wrong action. But how could that be so if Jerry Sandusky committed the act dozens of times? Does he not consider molestation to be morally wrong, or did he possess this same sense of universal wrongness regarding the matter but committed the crime anyway?

Why does anyone ever do anything morally questionable in the first place and could it be that we get pleasure from committing acts we know are wrong? The answers to these questions have been debated amongst philosophers, psychologists, and political scientists for centuries, and yet there is still no definitive answer.

Other questions arise regarding how to evaluate the actions of Sandusky’s associates who did not immediately report the incident, which some say was to protect the school’s name. Are they also morally corrupt?

[pullquote] Does [Sandusky] not consider molestation to be morally wrong, or did he possess this same sense of universal wrongness [that we all have] regarding the matter but committed the crime anyway? [/pullquote]

Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said that though some may have fulfilled their legal obligation to report suspected abuse, “somebody has to question… the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child… You have the moral responsibility… whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”

Specifically, ex-head coach Joe Paterno has been the object of criticism within the media. Sports reporter Kim Jones, a Penn State alumn, stated that, “I can’t believe [Paterno’s] heart is that black, where he simply never thought about [Sandusky’s 2002 incident] again and never thought about those poor kids who were looking for a male mentor, a strong man in their life.” Paterno was fired to contain media outrage.

Others attribute blame to university president Graham Spainer who was also fired as a result of the scandal. Nearly 10,000 people gathered and rioted near the Penn State campus  in response to Paterno’s ouster. For Paterno’s fans the fact that he is an incredible football coach outweighs the reality that he knowing let Sandusky’s immoral actions slide. However, unlike those fans rioting outside the Penn State grounds, the majority of the media attention toward both Spainer and Paterno has been negative. If someone knows of a morally wrong action but does not report it is he as immorral as the wrongdoer himself?

It fascinates me that everyone has a different perspective on morality especially when frontpage news asks us to examine our own moral beliefs and make judgements.

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