|Photo by SnowBrains|
When you are backcountry skiing the decisions that you make in avalanche terrain are mostly ethical choices as they often determine whether you or others will live or die that day. This is because avalanche terrain is inherently dangerous and when a decision could cost you or someone else’s life, it falls into the “ethical decision-making" category. Ethical decision-making as someone working in the media is no different than someone skiing in avalanche terrain. As a reporter in the newsroom, you are just like the backcountry skier on a slope above 30° (the slope angle where avalanches can happen ).
So how can I formulate an ethical-decision making model based on the readings/teachings presented to us in Dr. Vergobbi’s media ethics class and relate it to skiing? Well, I’ll show you. It all involves an ethical scholar named John Stuart Mill, a little ethical thought process called the Golden Rule, decision-making practices in avalanche terrain, and a couple of scholarly articles dealing with this very question: how can we justify our decisions as ethical, without deceiving ourselves?
First of all, ethics is all about considering others — Dr. Vergobbi taught me this . And, sometimes, within ethics, a true ethical dilemma will arise. A true ethical dilemma is when two or more moral values are in conflict . This must be understood before we can dive in head-first into my ethical-decision making process. Once you understand what a true ethical dilemma is then you can follow my three-step process of ethical decision-making. It begins by recognizing all the consequences at hand and weighing out what the best decision is — which is much easier said than done.
A man by the name of John Stuart Mill graciously gifted us the ethical theory of utilitarianism, which states that in order to act ethically, you must consider what the greatest good — or best decision — is for the greatest number of people, including yourself . His theory prioritizes the most ethical decision as the one that is the best for the most people affected. To Mill, the most ethical decision is one that has the greatest utility .
So, picture this: You’re on top of a beautiful ski run in the backcountry. You just spent hours climbing to the top of this beast. You’re beyond excited to ski it. However, this slope you are now on top of is one that is prone to avalanches and the potential for a fatal slide is present. Right before you drop in, you look down at the bottom of the slope and see another group of unknowing skiers sitting at the bottom of it, stopped for lunch. They are right in the path of a potential avalanche if it were to happen. It does not look like the group is going anywhere anytime soon, either. It also just so happens that you don’t have all day to wait for them to finish eating. So, you must decide: do I ski this line — this line that I oh-so-much would like to ski but would potentially expose this group of sitting ducks below to an avalanche that would surely bury them if triggered? OR do I bite the bullet and travel to another part of the mountain to ski a different line where no other skiers besides myself would be put in harm’s way? Even if it means a lot of added time and effort for myself?
Well, if you were John Stuart Mill (but on ice) and favored utilitarianism — the first prong of my ethical decision-making process — you would realize that the greatest good for the greatest number of people would be for you travel to another slope and let these guys enjoy their poorly-located picnic. You'd ski down elsewhere despite the reality that you could still maybe get away with skiing your originally intended line and having everyone walk away just fine by not triggering an avalanche. Because at the end of the day, this is still not worth it, and the headache they've just caused you in selecting a new descent route doesn't outweigh jeopardizing the group's wellbeing, as utilitarianism suggests. Mill would be proud of you.
This brings me to the second prong of my ethical decision-making process dealing with the Golden Rule aka the Rule of Reciprocity. Most everyone knows this rule as it goes by many names, is practiced by virtually all major religions, and is taught to us from an early age. It states, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” basically saying that you shouldn’t do anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with someone else doing to you .
So, jump back to the previous scenario with you clicked into your ski bindings at the top of the mountain ready to shred the GNAR before spotting a group of silly skiers situated right in the line of fire of a potential avalanche. Now, place yourself in the group's ski boots. Sure, they may have not made the smartest decision of where to plop down in the snow for lunch, right beneath an avalanche path. But maybe they just don’t know any better. And if you were one of these skiers, and you didn’t know any better, how would you feel if someone showed complete disregard for your life by skiing a line that could trigger an avalanche which could kill you? I mean, sure, that person above has all the reason to be frustrated with you. But if you were the one in danger, wouldn’t you want that skier above to show some mercy and ski somewhere else, thus possibly saving your life and the lives of your unprepared ski partners? Sure, you would!
Therefore, putting yourself back in the boots of the person at the top of the slide path with the Golden Rule in mind, you probably wouldn’t ski that line. You probably wouldn't ski it after going over all the potential consequences with a utilitarian frame of mind and thinking about how you would feel if you were one of the people below. At least, you shouldn’t, if you were still trying to be ethical here.
This brings me to the third and final portion of this three-part, ethical-decision making process of mine — debriefing and reflecting upon the decisions you made and asking yourself if any self-deception was exercised in part of your decision-making process. Part of a truly good backcountry skier’s day consists of debriefing or going over all the decisions which they made that day from the moment they left the parking lot to the moment they returned . Backcountry skiers do this to evaluate how their decision-making was on a given day. It allows them to realize where they could have improved their decisions and what can be learned from them. It's a part of the ethical process of skiing in the backcountry and should always be the last thing a skier does before they go home from the mountain .
Ethical decision-making is no different. After making a decision in a true ethical dilemma, you must always think back and reflect upon the decision made and ask similar questions like the skier. Did I really make the best decision possible? Are there or could there be consequences from my decision? Is there any way I could have made a better decision? Is there something from this decision I’ve learned that I can apply when making future ones? These are all questions you must ask yourself in the final part of this process.
If you are fairly satisfied with your decision, then it is extremely important to be honest with yourself and consider if you are deceiving yourself in any way whatsoever. Self-deception is an easy thing to fall into as I’ve learned from "Dursley Duplicity: Morality & Psychology of Self-Deception," which said that it is often a habitual method of avoiding painful truths . If you rationalize and say that you probably made the right decision or that it was fine because the consequences were low this time — like skiing the avalanche-prone slope with the people below and not triggering anything — then you may be deceiving yourself. This would ultimately cause you to fail in implementing this ethical decision-making process I have just explained and would most likely impede on your ability to effectively carry out the first two parts of it as well.
1.) “Ethical Issues and Opportunities in Journalism,” page 15 – The Josephson Institute
2.) “Ethical Issues and Opportunities in Journalism,” page 16 – The Josephson Institute
3.) "Dursley Duplicity: Morality & Psychology of Self-Deception" – Diana Mertz Heish
5.) Tremper, Bruce. Avalanche Essentials: A Step-by-Step System for Safety and Survival. Mountaineers Books, 2013.