Ethics in Higher Education
Ethics are moral principles that outline what is right and wrong and govern one’s behavior (Plante & McCreadie, 2019a). In higher education, ethics often entail academic ethics, which generally refer to the standards and behavior required in the academic setting to promote integrity in educational practices (Asamoah, 2019). Researchers have studied academic ethics from a variety of angles. For instance, Bretag and Green (2014) explored the ethical behavior of academic leaders in an Australian university and found that virtue ethics principles were often used in relation to academic integrity policies among these academic leaders. Another scholar explored Finnish universities’ adherence to national ethical guidelines on plagiarism by analyzing those universities’ reactions to notifications of suspected plagiarism (Moore, 2020). The findings revealed the universities had many inconsistencies in regard to the definition of plagiarism and disciplinary actions against plagiarism (Moore, 2020). Other researchers have examined academic ethics regarding scientific misconduct among researchers (Tagne et al., 2020). One of the key findings was that the participants of the study were concerned with the volume of misconduct (Tagne et al., 2020). Academic honesty, unethical behavior intention, and ethical reasoning abilities have also been points of emphasis in academic ethics research (Henning et al., 2020; Jamil et al., 2019; Pau et al., 2019). These different points of emphasis are useful in understanding the variety of ways in which ethical behavior may manifest in the academic setting.
Ethical engagement is another effective way to assess the ethical behavior of different university populations, including online faculty members (Plante & McCreadie, 2019a; Plante & Plante, 2017). Plante and McCreadie (2019a) defined ethical engagement as one’s interest and engagement in ethical issues. Such ethical engagement is both internal and external (Plante, 2004). In other words, it takes place in the form of thoughts and feelings, as well as overt actions. When individuals have a high level of ethical engagement, they are generally involved with ethical issues and behave ethically in a consistent manner. A high level of ethical engagement in online faculty will likely translate into ethical behavior in their teaching work.
Plante and McCreadie (2019a) created the Santa Clara Ethics Scale (SCES) to measure the degree of ethical engagement. This instrument has 10 items. The highest score for each item is four, whereas the lowest score for each item is one. The SCES produces a summed score based on the scores of all the 10 items for ethical engagement. The maximum score one may receive from the SCES is 40, and the minimum score one may receive from the SCES is 10. A high score reflects a high level of ethical engagement, which means the individual is interested and engaged in ethical issues, and vice versa. Respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and concern for others are the values highlighted in the SCES (Plante & McCreadie, 2019a).
To examine the new scale’s validity and reliability, Plante and McCreadie (2019a) tested the SCES using 200 participants. The researchers performed factor analysis and showed that ethical engagement accounted for 42% of the variability in all 10 variables of the scale, supporting the test’s validity. The SCES also has a Cronbach’s alpha of > 0.83, which indicates reliability. Plante and McCreadie (2019b) conducted another study on the SCES. This study also supported the validity and reliability of the SCES. Not only is the SCES valid and reliable, but it is also particularly effective compared with other available ethics measures. It is user-friendly because it has only 10 items and uses concise language (Plante & McCreadie, 2019b). Because the contents of the items are general, the scale can be used for a variety of purposes (Plante & McCreadie, 2019b). Plante and McCreadie (2019a) recommended future research be conducted with different university populations.
According to Peterson and Seligman (2004), there are 24 character strengths. These character strengths are positive psychological mechanisms that define the six virtues needed for virtuous character. Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) character strengths model is rooted in Aristotle’s virtue ethics—a normative ethics theory that places an emphasis on virtue and character. Aristotle believed virtues are expressed through one’s behavior and can help individuals to become ethical exemplars when they are practiced consistently (Bretag & Green, 2014; Ghosh, 2016). Like the six virtues, character strengths make individuals who possess and consistently practice them virtuous agents (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Peterson and Seligman (2004) identified six universal virtues through philosophical, historical, and cross-cultural analyses. These virtues are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. To describe the six virtues in greater detail, Peterson and Seligman identified 24 different positive psychological processes, known as character strengths. These 24 character strengths manifest in one’s behavior through thoughts, feelings, and actions (McGrath, 2015b; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). They also tend to be consistent across situations and time (Höfer et al., 2020; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Because character strengths are behavioral dispositions that represent virtuous character, they offer opportunities for the empirical investigation of normative ethics (Crossan et al., 2013). As shown in Table 1, each of the 24 character strengths represents one of the six virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Research shows character strengths are linked to ethics indicators. In a study conducted by Or (2020), character strengths of courage and humanity were found to be positively and moderately correlated with ethical engagement in human services professionals. Other recent studies concerning character strengths and ethics primarily pertain to the relationship between leader characteristics and ethical leadership (Eisenschmidt et al., 2019; Palanski et al., 2015; Sosik et al., 2019; Thun & Kelloway, 2011). Sosik et al. (2019) examined the relationship between character strengths, ethical leadership, leadership performance, and psychological wellbeing. They demonstrated that when military officers possessed a high level of self-regulation, their integrity, social intelligence, and bravery manifested in their ethical leadership, in-role performance, and psychological wellbeing. Palanski et al. (2015) found that courage explained the relationship between ethical decision-making and integrity and work performance in leaders across a variety of sectors in the United States.
Another similar study examining the relationship between character strengths and ethical leadership revealed subordinates who reported higher levels of character strengths demonstrated by their supervisors also reported high levels of ethical leadership and lower levels of abusive supervision demonstrated by their supervisors (Thun & Kelloway, 2011). In a qualitative study, Eisenschmidt et al. (2019) interviewed several exemplary principals in Estonia and Finland to find out how the six virtues may create purpose for ethical leadership. The principals discussed the ways the virtues had informed their resolutions of different work challenges. All the six virtues played a role in creating purpose for ethical leadership in principals, although wisdom, courage, and humanity were the most commonly displayed virtues in their resolutions (Eisenschmidt et al., 2019). In these three virtues, love of learning, social intelligence, and bravery were the most notable character strengths. The findings of this study also suggest the character strengths model is a suitable comprehensive framework for educational contexts (Eisenschmidt et al., 2019).
Character strengths can also be categorized based on a five-factor classification (Martínez-Martí & Ruch, 2017; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). As described in Table 2, these five classifications include restraint strengths, intellectual strengths, interpersonal strengths, emotional strengths, and theological strengths. Because Peterson and Seligman’s original six-virtue classification is generally considered theoretical, some researchers have opted for this five-factor classification of character strengths when researching character strengths (Harzer & Ruch, 2015; Martínez-Martí & Ruch, 2017; Najderska & Cieciuch, 2018; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
The Value in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) is the most common assessment used to measure the degree of one’s character strengths (McGrath, 2015a). The VIA-IS is the full version of the test, which consists of 240 items. It intends to produce separate scores for the 24 character strengths and the classifications of character strengths (including the six-virtue classification and five-factor classification). As the scale became more popular, Peterson and Seligman (2004) developed shorter versions for the VIA-IS to make the scale more accessible and user-friendly, including the VIA-72 (which has 72 items). The VIA-72 has validity coefficients ranging from 0.36 to 0.48, which indicates validity, and a Cronbach’s alpha of > .70, which indicates reliability (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Researchers indicated there is a need to examine the relationships between character strengths and different ethics indicators to determine if character strengths are associated with ethics development as theorized (Han, 2019).
Ethical Engagement, Character Strengths, and Online Teaching
Effective teaching is part of being an ethical faculty member (Corlett, 2014). With a higher level of ethical engagement, online faculty members are more motivated to perform at their best and more likely to engage in effective teaching practices (Sethy, 2018). Character strengths support individuals in becoming ethical agents, therefore, they can serve as effective tools for promoting ethical behavior of online faculty (McGovern, 2011; McGovern & Miller, 2008). Since character strengths are generally manifested in one’s behavior consistently across situations, they also serve as predispositions for effective teaching practices (McGovern, 2011; McGovern & Miller, 2008; McGrath, 2015b). Symbaluk and Howell (2018) found there to be relationships between faculty’s character strengths and outstanding teaching practices as rated by students. The findings revealed the character strengths, perspective, kindness, leadership, humor, creativity, zest, and fairness, to be the most observed traits by students among these members who engaged in highly regarded teaching practices. The findings suggest these strengths are linked to enhanced teaching performance of faculty members.
Scholars agree that the work of a teacher involves the use of intellectual, interpersonal, and emotional skills (Ayers, 2001; McGovern, 2012; Symbaluk & Howell, 2018). Thus, some types of character strengths from Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) five-factor classification, such as intellectual, interpersonal, and emotional strengths, can be especially useful tools for meeting the unique challenges of online instruction. Intellectual strengths (which include creativity, curiosity, love of learning, and appreciation of beauty and excellence) refer to one’s enthusiasm for creativity (Duan & Ho, 2018). They facilitate problem-solving and knowledge acquisition (Harzer & Ruch, 2015). Interpersonal strengths (which include kindness, love, leadership, teamwork, and humor) involve one’s love, concern for others, and gratitude (Duan & Ho, 2018). They help individuals handle social interactions positively and sustain relationships with others (Harzer & Ruch, 2015). Emotional strengths (which include bravery, hope, self-regulation, and zest) concern responding to emotional experience in a vulnerable way (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). This quality enables individuals to use positive coping strategies under stress (Harzer & Ruch, 2015).
Intellectual, interpersonal, and emotional strengths are relevant to online faculty’s teaching practices. Online faculty members may use intellectual strengths to facilitate student learning innovatively, expand their knowledge about online teaching best practices, pursue new ideas systematically, and recognize the talents of their students (McGovern & Miller, 2008). The use of interpersonal strengths promotes the development of a safe learning environment that fosters trusting relationships among faculty and students (Tsui & Ngo, 2016). It also helps online faculty skillfully facilitate student collaboration and fulfillment of classroom tasks (McGovern, 2011). Finally, online faculty members with emotional strengths are more likely to manage the demands of online teaching effectively and positively; they demonstrate a passion for teaching and self-control in different classroom situations (McGovern, 2011; McGovern & Miller, 2008).
There is a need to examine online faculty ethical behavior in the prevalence of online higher education, as well as character strengths which are theorized to improve faculty’s ethical behavior and teaching practices. Scholars have also recommended further research on the SCES with different university populations and the relationships between character strengths and ethics indicators (Han, 2019; Plante & McCreadie, 2019a). Based on these recommendations, the study emerged with a focus on the correlations between character strengths and ethical engagement in online faculty. As intellectual, interpersonal, and emotional strengths are important to the teaching practices of online faculty, the examination of the relationships between character strengths and ethical engagement in online faculty warrants a focus on these strengths. In this study, the researchers formulated the following questions:
Research Question 1: Is there a positive relationship between intellectual strengths (creativity, curiosity, love of learning, and appreciation of beauty and excellence) and ethical engagement in online higher education faculty?
Research Question 2: Is there a positive relationship between interpersonal strengths (kindness, love, leadership, teamwork, and humor) and ethical engagement in online higher education faculty?
Research Question 3: Is there a positive relationship between emotional strengths (bravery, hope, self-regulation, and zest) and ethical engagement in online higher education faculty?