Moral Schemas - Tacitly Activated

Keynote on decision-making and ethical reasoning

Robyn Dean’s keynote laid out some structures for our field to move from a descriptive ethics to normative ethics.  She began her talk hoisting her 271 page thesis which she will defend in 3 weeks at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  She argued that our field can benefit from more structured teaching and thinking about ethics and moral reasoning.  It is not enough to just describe what actions interpreters take (and their consequences) but we need to also compare

In her talk, Dean used three characters from Les Miserables to help illustrate the moral heirarchy that has been identified by other scholars.  She talked about three tacit moral schema developed by James Rest that underlie ethical decision-making.

  • Personal Interest Schema  – justification for actions come from what is best for an individual
  • Maintaining Norms Schema – justification for action comes from following the rules of the status quo
  • Post-Conventional Schema – justification for action comes with a focus on the ideals and the impacts on not only oneself but also on others.

These three schemes are exemplified by Thenardier, Javert, and Jean Valjean.

Thenardier represents Personal Interest Schema.  He is best known as “The Master of the House,” was willing to cheat, lie, steal and kill to get whatever was in his own self-interest.

Javert, the police detective who was a guard in the prison and then hunted Jean Valjean, represents the Maintaining Norms Schema.  Javert is guided by the rules in which he functions.  Robyn conveyed that it is important to not judge Javert too harshly.  He is not a bad character.  He is functioning under the reasonable premise that the rules are designed to create just results.  (I would be curious to see more of James Rest work to see how he takes into account the injustice that is also built into rules and system.  I personally think about the rules of segregation and apartheid that were designed to create a certain justice for people with white skin, but what people of color sometimes referred to as “just us.”) The point, however, to be open to the value of rules is still an important one.

Finally, the protagonist of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, served as an example of post-conventional schema, as someone who ended up leaving his life by ideals.  She points out that there are moral reasons why people identify with Valjean as the hero of the story.  His life’s actions help transform the story (situation) into a world that is closer to the ideal.

Robyn Dean at the podiumIn Dean’s research for her Ph.D., she found that in the way that interpreters talked about their rational for decisions, interpreters were predominantly demonstrating Maintaining Norms schema.  Second, was Personal Interest Schema.  The third schema that was demonstrated was the Post-Conventional Schema.

Supporting interpreters to move to Post-Conventional Schema is an important part of our next step as a profession. Here is one of Robyn’s favorite’s quotes:

A central part of the task of professional education …[is] to formulate ‘what we already know,’ that is to capture in explicit form the insights, values, and strategies of action that competent practitioners bring to situations they encounter in practice…”  Argyris & Schon (1974)

In this process, reflective practice in its many forms provide avenues for us to make these moves.  She argues quite persuasively that it is in our best interest to look at how other practice professions use reflective practice.  For example, she shared that in medical professions, they use terms like “supervision” and “clinical supervision” differently than we do, so it contributes to a misunderstanding.  As an example, she suggests that we change from talking about “mentoring” and to “preceptoring.”

The goal of all this is for us to develop the ability to first reflect on our actions and then move into reflection-in-action.  That we develop the neural pathways to have this happen in a more timely manner in our work.  And more than this, as Hartwell suggests, “Change is a process of self-revelation and need the goal of self-knowledge.”

Much more to share here.  (Remember that 271  page thesis that I mentioned in the beginning.)  Definitely worth the time spent in the session, but more so time reflecting and trying to put some of these ideas into action in our own reflection and action.