The Good Project and COVID-19

by Howard Gardner, Shelby Clark, and Kirsten McHugh

At this time—unprecedented for almost everyone—it is important for those of us who have so far remained healthy to consider what we might do that is constructive for others. And for those of us who curate this website, the following question arises and looms large: After over two decades of research, can The Good Project offer anything that might address current challenges?  To be sure, in no way can we be as timely and as helpful as researchers who are investigating the disease and/or attempting to find a treatment or vaccine. But we believe that the conceptual toolkit that we have created might be helpful.

On the project we speak about the ethics of roles—the thoughts and behaviors that are appropriate for the role of ‘professional’ or ‘worker’ as well as for the role of citizen.

Take the role of scientific researcher: We believe that the researcher should be well informed—or excellent; given the stakes, we assume that the researcher would be deeply engaged. But it is crucial as well that the researcher be ethical—continuously pondering what’s the better course of action in the current environment.

To list just two issues:

  1. Should preliminary promising results be published and promulgated, or should one hold back until proper analyses have been carried out and necessary controls have been implemented?

  2. Should one share all of one’s findings with other research laboratories, including ones with which one usually competes; or should one hold back, so that the credit (or the blame) remains squarely within one’s own laboratory?

Turn, next, to the role of citizen—for convenience, let’s assume that you are a citizen of the United States. We hope that you know and obey the laws that govern our form of government. We hope that you also are engaged as a citizen—keeping up with the news, discussing what you are learning, writing letters, voting, perhaps volunteering to help with ongoing restorative efforts in your community. But it’s also important that you confront the ethical dilemmas of a citizen:

For example, should you support efforts to vote by absentee ballot (safe but open to tampering or delays); or, instead, should you push for voting that can occur in a neighborhood but without risking the health of anyone else in the precinct?

In thinking about these issues, it is also useful to consider what we have termed the rings of responsibility. As you ponder “to whom or what do you feel responsible,” try to think beyond yourself and your family. In addition, consider more broadly your trade, the community in which you live, and even the broader geographic regions of our planet.

In addition to the ethics of roles, COVID also raises issues of neighborly morality—the range of situations addressed in the Ten Commandments and in the Golden Rule. We have all observed individuals who wear face masks and maintain social distance, as well as individuals who flaunt one or both of these norms. One does not require professional training or courses in citizenship to understand that by such flaunting, one is putting at risk not only oneself but also all those with whom one comes in contact. Not only does a mask-less mien violate the Golden Rule—it foregrounds particular disrespect to those who are older or have medical conditions and, accordingly, are more vulnerable.

Returning to the area of work, we raise one more timely issue. In our professional roles, each of us faces a personal dilemma: Should we devote all of our efforts to addressing the challenges posed by COVID19? Should we, instead, continue doing our customary work as best we can—noting that our ability to draw on our expertise in this situation is strictly limited? Or should we try to strike some kind of balance?

In recent Good Project blogs. we have taken up these questions and tensions. For example, in “The Financial Fallout of COVID-19: Business as Usual?” our colleague Daniel Mucinskas takes up the tension between a local Boston tenant who has lost his job due to COVID-19 and who has appealed to his apartment landlord for an extension on his rent. In this case, the landlord has to consider both his ethics of roles as a landlord, but also his role as a citizen during these difficult pandemic times.

In another COVID19-related blog entitled, “Remotely Polite and Professional,” Kirsten McHugh discussed how communicating online via Zoom can raise new ethical dilemmas. This blog describes how private chat transcripts between two other colleagues were released after a Zoom call. The transcripts reveal that a woman’s colleagues had ridiculed her weight. The woman then must pit consideration of neighborly morality versus the ethics of roles. To be specific,  she debates whether to approach her colleagues directly about their insensitivity—or instead to put her professional ethics first and report her colleagues directly to the relevant officer of HR (Human Resources). Such situations highlight how the “new normal” of COVID can foreground issues of neighborly morality, ethics of roles, and the role of a citizen.

On The Good Project, we regularly employ a tool—the 5Ds—designed to help individuals or teams determine which course of action to follow. When faced with a difficult decision, we work as a team to:

  1. Define the Dilemma: Through conversation (over email, in person, or remote), we explain the overview of the situation and what we currently see as the possible options.

  2. Discuss the Dilemma: In as much detail as possible, group members consider alternative viewpoints and scenarios.

  3. Debate the Dilemma: We think through the pros and cons of each course of action, including whatever new options emerge. We each try to determine the optimal approach.

  4. Deciding: We make a final decision on the best next steps, considering all we have discussed.

  5.   Debriefing: No matter what the outcome, after a reasonable amount of time has played out and events unfold following out decision and action, we re-examine our process. We reflect on what we did right and what we could have done better. This step is key in making better decisions in the future.

Once one uses the 5Ds regularly, it becomes second nature to apply this procedure to matters big and small. As an example, we recently heard from a publisher interested in using our materials but concerned about a decades-old funder listed in the acknowledgements of the original work. First, a team member flagged the email and request as a matter that should be considered carefully and shared the communication with the rest of the team. Second, the group met online to discuss the problem space and what we saw as possible next steps. Third, we debated the merits and downfalls of each available option, trying our best to think of any short- and long-term repercussions (both positive and negative). Should we delete the funders name, leave the document “as is”, add an explanation of our termination of the funding relationship, or is there some other alternative scenario? Next, we came back together as a group and agreed upon the appropriate course of action. We reached out to the requester with our final decision. Ultimately, once enough time has passed, we will revisit this scenario and examine how our decisions played out—good or bad.

This is but one recent example—the 5Ds can be applied to any of the dilemmas outlined here.

In Howard’s case as a teacher, researcher, and writer in psychology and education, his own capacity to address COVID is limited; also, as an individual in the second half of his eighth decade, he is more vulnerable to the life-threatening aspects of the disease than most of his colleagues and most other citizens. That said, Howard is redoubling his efforts to carry out his own work in as excellent, engaging, and ethical a way as possible And whenever he feels that he can be helpful to anyone who comes across his path—by mail, over the phone, or in the course of carrying out their challenging responsibilities —he makes an extra effort to serve, and serve well.



Howard Gardner is the long-time senior director of The Good Project. Shelby Clark and Kirsten McHugh are project managers at Harvard Project Zero.

© Howard Gardner, Shelby Clark, Kirsten McHugh 2020


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