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Professional ethics checklist an instant classic

Ten-point checklist for dealing with an authoritarian government

Photo of Rachel Barney -- close up head shot

Rachel Barney is a professor of both philosophy and classics in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

As the rhetoric flew during the recent American presidential campaign, Professor Rachel Barney, a dual-citizen, began wondering what it would be like working as an academic in the United States under the incoming administration.

The result? Barney, a professor of both philosophy and classics in the Faculty of Arts & Science, created a professional ethics checklist: 10 behaviours that would allow her to operate with a clear conscience under an authoritarian government. It includes, for example, a promise not to inform on others or to engage in government surveillance, as well as a pledge not to “aid in the registering, rounding up or internment of students and colleagues on the basis of their religious beliefs.”

Not an anti-Trump manifesto — meant to be personal

“This isn’t meant to be an anti-Trump manifesto,” Barney, who was recently named the Canada Research Chair in Classical Philosophy, said. “It’s not meant to be adopted by an institution; it’s meant to be personal.

“I am a big believer in checklists. Hospitals and airline pilots use them to keep us safe and I always thought they could work for ethical problem solving, too.”

Although it was the political situation in the United States that first prompted her to consider professional ethics under an authoritarian regime, Barney attempted to make the checklist politically neutral so “it could be used in any bad situation where your values might be challenged.”

The point is to prompt people to consider how they should act before any situation becomes dire enough to warrant action.

“I want to jolt people into thinking ahead”

“I want to jolt people into thinking ahead,” Barney said. “When you’re taken by surprise, it’s easy for others to scare you into doing what they want. People freeze. For example, if you see bullying, you might be caught off guard, because you haven’t thought ahead about what to do.”

Academics are accustomed “to operating in a pretty benign environment and aren’t used to thinking about hard moral choices,” she said. “There are two things we need to worry about:

  • What if the government becomes lawless and tries to coopt us; and
  • What if the government leads an attack on academic values and tries to crash the university system in some way?

Barney said it’s too early to tell whether academia is at risk south of the border, but she isn’t heartened by the appointment of an education secretary who has a history of supporting charter schools or by his choice of Stephen Bannon as his senior advisor.

“For me, the most frightening person is Bannon, because he is a propagandist for people who are really very close to being Nazis,” she said. “He knows how to manipulate people and I think he has big plans.”

Barney fears that anti-education sentiment will take the form of privatization in the sector “while the real universities are left to die.”

“The state has a lot of levers to reward and punish academics. However, it’s hard to wreck a university system, or convert it to an authoritarian tool, without some collaboration from academics, so it’s important we not do that.”

Checklist politically neutral

Meanwhile, her attempt to make the checklist politically neutral has apparently worked, since “the first person to say he was signing on when I put it online was my most conservative friend. In addition, I’ve had a lot of feedback from conservatives worrying about harassment on campus.”

Barney is pleased by the widespread attention the checklist received once she posted it online. It’s a lesson she learned from a parody of Aristotle she previously posted on Facebook.

“Within a week it had been on major blogs and was linked via The Financial Times,” Barney said. “That’s pretty viral for an Aristotle joke.”

When Barney isn’t challenging her colleagues to think ahead, she’s challenging her students to think differently. Next year, she is planning to teach a First-Year Seminar (199) course about dystopia.

“It’ll will be a mix of contemporary thought and ancient theory. They’ve all read The Hunger Games — what would Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics have to say about it?”

Meanwhile, Barney will be hoping that neither she nor her colleagues will find the need to put her professional ethics checklist into practice.