Regular readers here are familiar with the “Ick Factor,” the common phenomenon where a situation that causes an emotional response of revulsion, disgust or fear is labelled unethical when there is nothing unethical about it. Many kinds of conduct are icky, but still on the right side of ethics, if only one can put aside the gag reflex. The reverse of the Ick Factor is the less common “Awww!” Factor, where particular conduct seems loving, caring and nice, but is in fact unethical in one or more respects. Such is the case of New York City special needs teacher Debra Fisher.
In October, Fisher was suspended when e-mails were discovered on the school computer system showing that she had been spending school time raising funds for a special project on behalf of Aaron Phillip, a thirteen year old special needs student who is an aspiring animator with his own blog. The project’s goal was to raise $15,000 for a nonprofit devoted to developing Aaron’s talent, an organization called “This Ability Not Disability” founded and administered by Fisher.
The problem was that while her efforts on behalf of the student were supported by the school, Fisher, an occupational therapist at Public School 333 with nine years of service, did not have permission to perform them during school hours. Thus she was suspended for six weeks. Now she is suing the school system for back pay, telling reporters, “I’m just trying to fight for what I believe is right.”
If she believes she is right, then she shouldn’t be working at the school at all, because she is in fact dead wrong.
But awfully nice.
The operation of a non-profit organization to support the extra-curricular activities on one student in no way is a legitimate part of Fisher’s duties that the school should be paying for. Public opinion, which is a reliable sucker for the “Awww!” Factor and is in this case, naturally favors Fisher and opposes the school administrators, who are viewed as cheap meanies. The public is thinking with its hearts, not its brains.
The news media isn’t helping, again reliably, by slanting its coverage and misrepresenting the issues. For example, the Daily News begins its story this way:
“Debra Fisher, from Public School 333, was suspended in October after she made a fundraiser for a special needs student. She is now suing for about $5,000 in back pay and to have a disciplinary letter removed from her file.”
Deceitful: literally true, intentionally misleading. She was suspended “after” raising funds for Aaron’s non-profit, but not because she raised the funds. She was suspended because she used her work day for an activity unrelated to the official activities she was being paid to perform. Te fact that the non-related activity was generous, caring, and helped one of her students is completely irrelevant to the offense. I’m sure Fisher and her lawyer believes that they can win over a jury on emotion and sentimentality rather than fairness and reason, and they may be correct. Nevertheless, Fisher’s conduct was exemplary regarding Aaron but unethical in respect to her duties as a public school employee. She did not have permission to work on Aaron’s project during the school day, and deserved to be suspended.
Fisher and her lawyers are trying to make the case that the school misled her and is hypocritical, since it “supported” her efforts on behalf of the student. Of course it did, just as any school would support a teacher who was an Olympic athlete, or who was developing a cheap, new source of clean energy, or was a best-selling author of children’s books on her own time. But the fact that Aaron happens to be a student at the school doesn’t alter the fact that a project designed to support his special talents is no more a legitimate use of a teacher’s paid time than training a horse for the Kentucky Derby, lobbying for climate change legislation or protesting against police violence.
The indignant, pro-Fisher comments on the Daily News article are predictably devoid of valid ethical analysis and in the grip of an “Awww!” attack:
- “In this Christian country you get arrested for feeding the homeless and get suspended from work for creating a special needs student’s fundraiser,” writes Mickey Mouse, who, to be fair, has an understandable bias in favor of budding animators. He is also using bad information, since he seems to be referring to this incident, where no one was “arrested for feeding the homeless” but the “Awww!” Factor also warped the reporting.
- “I work at a law firm, I organize fundraising and community service activities while I am working here too. If spent all day doing that, it would not be a different story. We need to give back more because that is what life is about,” writes “Awww!” victim Heath Green.
Awww! So it’s wrong to steal all your day’s compensation working on non-work matters, but stealing some of it is virtuous, eh, Heath? (See Rationalization #8. The Trivial Trap (Also known as “The Slippery Slope.”) It’s up to your employers whether they want to give back and how they want to do it: I’d fire you for making that choice for them.
- “Her immediate bosses approved her activities. Besides, the bottom line is that she was helping her student which is also part of her job. Those who say that she should be doing this on her own time don’t get it. All teachers and people in her position put in many hours of their own time without compensation. That fact escapes most of you. Was she in it for her own financial gain? NO! So what is your problem with her helping a student who she gets paid to help?”
We should be grateful to commenter Art Schwartz for providing a veritable cornucopia of rationalizations and flawed arguments:
1. Her immediate bosses supported her activities but did not approve her doing them on school time.
2. Her job did not extend to “helping her student” in matters unrelated to his school work.
3. It’s irrelevant that “all teachers and people in her position put in many hours of their own time without compensation;” the issue is her putting in many compensated hours on a project that wasn’t part of her job. Is Art arguing that because Fisher has put in uncompensated hours teaching students, she has a right to make an adjustment and take compensation for non-work related activity? That’s Rationalization #17, Ethical Vigilantism. Is Art arguing that what Fisher did is ethical because such unethical conduct is engaged in by many teachers? Hello “Everybody does it.” Rationalization #1, the Granddaddy of them all!
4. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t engaged in the unethical activity for her own gain. It’s still unethical. This rationalization—Art is a whiz at them, apparently–is #13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause,” which is usually lurking when the “Awww!” Factor raises its cute little head.
5. Straw man: the teacher wasn’t “helping a student who she gets paid to help” do what she is paid to help him do. Is she paid to help him walk his dog? Is she paid to help him do the dishes? No, no, and she isn’t paid to create and run a non-profit organization for his benefit, either.
I’m certain that Debra Fisher is a compassionate, caring, lovely person, but her self-righteousness is misplaced, and her lawsuit, whether it is successful or not, stands for the proposition that as long as you have a worthy motive, you can make your employer pay for it. That’s wrong, and she’s not doing her students or their future employers any favors by teaching them otherwise.
UPDATE (10/10/16): Fisher’s suspension was declared invalidly based on a flawed investigation, and she was reinstated with back pay. None of that affects the analysis above. None of the rationalizations and justifications for the charges against her involved their accuracy, just the argument that it was all for a good cause. Fisher herself pointed EA to the subsequent developments, and she seems to think I should have been following the case. Of the over 7000 topics covered here (so far), I’d estimate that at least a third have follow-up developments, months and years later, in some instances. When and if I learn of them and they are relevant to ethics, I may choose to write about them. Usually, I don’t. I especially don’t when the developments change nothing in the original post’s analysis. Today, as then, this post is a commentary on the mistaken attitude of many individuals examining a situation, using emotion rather than ethical analysis.
I’m grateful to Debra Fisher for alerting me to what transpired after the post, and congratulations to her on her victory.