Integrating Ethics

From Thought to Action





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Defense Mechanisms



A major obstacle to developing effective ethical judgment is called “defense mechanisms.” Sigmund Freud popularized the concept of human defense mechanisms when he introduced his personality model—the id, ego and superego. The ego deals with reality, attempting to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id and superego. The id seeks to fulfill wants, needs and impulses, while the superego seeks to act in an idealistic and moral manner. While modern research does not focus on Freud’s theories the same way he presented them, the concept of defense mechanisms remains a viable way to understand human behavior and, in our context here, a challenge to ethical judgment.

Defense mechanisms are sometimes created to shield us from the conflict between what we want instinctually and the standards of behavior that have been established. In an attempt to protect ourselves, and sometimes coupled with rationalization, they can be used to distort the choices we make. Defense mechanisms filter out an alternate reality in favor of the reality that the mind prefers—they can falsify, twist, or deny reality. Denial is an open rejection of an obvious truth. By simply denying that the problem, affliction or ailment exists, the person does not have to deal with it.

Denial as a defense mechanism has become especially evident with the judgment students are making regarding alcohol consumption and binge drinking. Despite best efforts, overdoses involving alcohol alone rose 25% since 2008 in high school and college populations (NIH, 2014).

The first step to helping students have better judgment towards consuming alcohol involves the rejection of denial; we cannot deny that many students will drink, and virtually all of them will one way or another experience the consequences of drinking. Here are the current facts about college drinking from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. We know that:

• 1,825 college students die every year from alcohol-related injuries.
• 690,000 students are assaulted by someone who has been drinking.
• 97,000 of those are alcohol-related sexual assaults or rape.
• 25% of college students report academic consequences of alcohol abuse.
• 1.5% of college students report trying to commit suicide due to drinking or drug use issues

To put defense mechanisms to rest for good, and to encourage stronger ethical judgment in our students, we need to give them a reality check. This increased awareness can actually reduce their use of defense mechanisms. Because substance abuse causes a well-documented ripple effect across a school, there are many interactive resources that faculty can use and integrate into their classroom to hit the point home.

Teaching Strategy: "A Night Out "

Provide the following link to your students about The Dangers of Drinking Too Much, and use the video below as a discussion trigger about ethical judgment. Ask students to consider the choices being made in the video—what they perceive in behavior and outcome, how they relate (or don’t), and what choices they would have made.

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"A Night Out"

Defense Mechanisms