Is There Such a “Thing” as Ethics? What a Contingency Analysis Suggests

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1.0 Type II Ethics CE Credit

About the presentation: 

Much of the discussion of ethics and ethical behavior begins with what may be referred to as ethical values and principles. Philosophers have wrestled with what precisely defines ethics. On one hand ethics has been viewed as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior, and on another it is the field of study which investigates moral behavior. Students taking ethics classes are often presented with “moral choice,” situations such as the train diversion dilemma. Their arguments as to the course of action and the feelings that emerge become the focus of discussion. We suggest that ethics as a thing, whether as a set of guiding principles or as a field of study, does not exist. This is particularly true for arguments that ethics represent absolute good. Even so, the attempt to act ethically lies at the base of every profession. As Wittgenstein said, “Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.” We propose that instead of describing what is or is not ethical, we advocate examining the consequential contingencies responsible for creating and following codes of conduct, their change over time, and how conflicting contingencies can result in what might be described as conflicting ethical conduct.

Learning Objectives:

  • Participants will describe the role absolute goodness plays is in guiding ethical behavior.
  • Participants will describe how consequential contingencies determine ethical guidelines and the implications of such guidance.
  • Participants will distinguish between apparent and genuine assent and the implications for analyzing the contingencies governing professional conduct. 

About the presenters:

T. V. Joe Layng is a Fellow of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and was the 2020 recipient of the APA: Division 25 Fred S. Keller Behavioral Education Award. Joe has over 50 years of experience in the experimental and applied analysis of behavior with a particular focus on the design of teaching/learning environments. He earned a Ph.D. in Behavioral Sciences (biopsychology) at the University of Chicago. At Chicago, working with pigeons, he investigated animal models of psychopathology, specifically the recurrence of pathological patterns (head-banging) as a function of normal behavioral processes. Also working with pigeons, Joe collaborated with Paul Andronis and Israel Goldiamond on investigating the production of untrained recombinant, complex symbolic repertoires in pigeons from simpler behavioral components, a process they described as contingency adduction. Joe has extensive clinical behavior analysis experience with a focus on ambulatory schizophrenia, especially the systemic as well as topical treatment of delusional speech and hallucinatory behavior. In 1984 he founded Enabling Technologies, a software firm which was one of the first to use gamification to teach business software, as well as an array of business products and advanced 3D modeling software. In the 1990s, Joe was Director of Academic Support and then Dean at Malcolm X College in Chicago where he founded the award winning Personalized Curriculum Institute. In 1999, he co-founded Headsprout where Joe led the scientific team that developed the technology that formed the basis of the company’s patented Early Reading and Reading Comprehension online reading programs used by millions of children, for which he was the chief architect. Joe has spent the last several years mentoring students, and interested investigators and practitioners in nonlinear contingency analysis. He has published over 50 articles or chapters, a range of software applications, coauthored a self-instruction book on Signal Detection Theory for behavior analysts and recently coauthored the book Nonlinear Contingency Analysis: Going Beyond Cognition and Behavior in Clinical Practice. Joe is currently a partner in Generategy, LLC.

Paul Andronis earned the B.S. and M.S. in Zoology at Western Illinois University, and M.S. and Ph.D. in Biopsychology at The University of Chicago under the tutelage of Prof. Israel Goldiamond.  At Chicago, he and Joe Layng collaborated on several projects, including: experimental work with pigeons on contingencies of social behavior and on control of self-injurious behavior by positive reinforcement contingencies; a training program in behavior analysis for mental health workers at a State of Illinois mental health facility; and as Systems Analysts at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, where they and a team of behavior analysts successfully implemented a hospital-wide computer information system.  Afterwards, he, Joe Layng, and others from Goldiamond’s lab  founded a software company focused mainly on productivity products, featuring advanced control-analysis strategies for user-testing with attention to the critical stimulus control relations involved.  He then completed a three-year USPHS Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Psychiatry at The University of Chicago, and concurrently held part-time appointments as Instructor in behavioral sciences departments at Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Roosevelt University, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology (where he received the Excellence in Teaching Award).  He was subsequently appointed full-time as Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Chicago Osteopathic Medical School where he established a new behavioral medicine program and trained psychiatry residents and interns in applications of behavioral contingency analysis to clinical problems.  Soon thereafter, he was recruited back to the faculty of The University of Chicago, with primary appointment as Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry in Behavioral Medicine (Department of Psychiatry), and joint appointments in the Department of Medicine (Section on Gastroenterology), in the Committee on Biopsychology (Department of Behavioral Sciences), and in the College.  In Fall 1990, he was hired by the Department of Psychology at Northern Michigan University (NMU), with primary responsibilities for teaching courses in experimental and applied behavior analysis, training students in behavioral research and intervention, and coordinating the Behavior Analysis concentration area, for which after ten years he was awarded the NMU Distinguished Professor Award.  In addition to his teaching, academic work, and running his basic research (human, pigeon, and cockroach) laboratories at NMU, he was also sought out for consultation by outside programs delivering treatment for children with autism, adults with cognitive deficits and mental illnesses, and by Headsprout, Inc., a large software company specializing in online instructional programs.  After the sale of Headsprout, Joe Layng and he then partnered in a new educational software company, Generategy LLC, and recently coauthored a book (with Awab Abdel-Jalil and Trent Codd) on nonlinear contingency analysis and Goldiamond’s Contructional Approach in clinical settings.  Professor Andronis retired last June after thirty years at NMU, and was granted status as Professor Emeritus of Psychological Sciences.