Good Essay On Penn State Scandal – Ethical Thinking

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Ethics, Theory, Children, Family, Abuse, Criminal Justice, Happiness, Crime

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/12/27

Penn State Scandal – An Ethical Perspective

The Penn State child-abuse sex scandal was one of the biggest such scandals to hit American varsity football. This essay will attempt to analyze the Penn State Scandal from the view of ethical theories and related thinking.

Overview of the Scandal

The Penn State Scandal begun with the involvement of Jerry Sandusky who was the main perpetrator. Having been associated with the Penn State Football team since 1969, Sandusky founded the Second Mile charity in 1977 as a home for foster children. At its peak, the foundation had more than 200,000 children in various academic and non-academic capacities. (Gill & Allen, 2013, p. 73) The incidents of abuse started as early as 1998 and although he retired in 1999, Sandusky continued as a defensive coordinator with an emeritus status that gave him access to Penn State sports facilities, 168 acres of land for his charity, tickets and other perks, including monetary ones. (p. 75) From this period, Jerry Sandusky molested as many as ten boys during the fifteen year period. All the ten boys were associated with Second Mile
The bigger problem, however, was that most of the Penn State staff knew the goings-on in the locker rooms, but chose to maintain silence. Even witnesses to his act, James Calhoun, a janitor, and Mike McQueary, a Graduate Assistant, chose not to report Sandusky’s acts to the authorities for the fear of reprisal and losing their jobs. Instead, Calhoun reported the incident to football coach Joe Paterno, who, in turn, reported the same to director Tim Curley and Vice-president Gary Shultz. (p. 75) Instead of choosing to report these, Curley told Sandusky not to carry out these activities in the Penn state facilities. Penn State and the senior officers within the organization clearly failed in their duties since they did not even bother identifying the boys who were being abused on a regular basis by Sandusky. Instead, the officers did everything in their power to initiate a massive cover-up of these child abuses. However, the complaints begin pouring in around 2009, due to which a grand jury investigation is initiated that results in the whole scandal becoming public. The disclosure of the facts resulted in the termination of employment of key actors in this scandal, including Curley, Paterno and the Penn State President Spanier. (p. 77) The essay will now proceed to examine the actual course of action that the officers should have taken from an ethical perspective.

Ethical Thinking

As per the guidance provided by these theories as well as the case accounts, Sandusky is the main perpetrator of these crimes. The onus lay on Curly and Shultz as well as other senior officers of Penn State to take necessary legal action, including informing the relevant authorities on this subject. However, even after the matter was brought to their attention by Coach Paterno through McQueary the officers chose to cover-up the incident. Their silence for a period of 15 years does not speak well since it shows that they covertly supported Sandusky in his dastardly deeds. To make matters worse, both Curly and Shultz lied on the stand before the jury. The ideal and ethical course of action should have been to come out with the truth at the very start. In fact, such an action would have immediately exonerated Penn State and its officers, while laying the blame on the real perpetrator of these acts – Sandusky.
The essay would proceed to examine this incident from the point of view of three ethical theories, namely Utilitarianism, Kant’s theories (Kantianism) and Virtue Theory.


The theory of utilitarianism was founded by John Stuart Mill. In his work Mill mentions, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Mill, 2001, p. 10) Therefore, one can understand that theory primarily focuses on maximizing happiness for everyone
After Sandusky’s acts were witnessed and reported by McQueary and Calhoun, the senior officers of Penn State chose to cover-up the incident rather than report it to a legal forum. Instead, had Curley and Schultz decided to seek justice for these abused boys, they would have been maximizing happiness not only for the victims and their families, but for the whole country. In the US, as in most other parts of the civilized world, cases of child molestation and sexual exploitation are frowned upon. Therefore, any step that would involve preventing the same or punishing the perpetrator would, in turn, have brought the greatest Happiness to the society, as a whole. One could potentially argue that before this scandal was revealed Penn State was trying to maximize happiness for its own self (including its employees, student body and other staff), since the victims and their families were in the minority compared to the entire organization. This was the sole reason for Sandusky, Curley, Schultz, and Paterno to cover up these incidents so as not to tarnish the name of Penn State publicly. However, this thought would contradict the Utilitarian Principle since in the long run Penn State and its employees were affected severely on the scandal being exposed. In this way, the behavior of these senior officers violated all the principles of the Utilitarian theory.

Kant’s theory

The basis of Kantian ethics is the performance of one’s duty. In addition, Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” (Driver, 2007, p. 90) In the case under consideration, Sandusky did exactly that – he treated the children merely as a means to satisfy his own sexual needs without caring for them. Curly and Shultz also displayed an equally callous behavior by not even bothering to find out the identity of the children and, in fact, telling Sandusky “not to carry out these activities in the Penn State facilities.” One could surmise that they were almost hand in glove with Sandusky, although they did not actually commit the acts.
Further, the actual act of the abuse is also viewed by Kant as a very bestial and animalistic form of enjoyment. Kant viewed humans as slaves to animalistic desires of self-preservation, species-preservation, and the preservation of enjoyment. Consequently, he stated that humans had a foremost duty to shun certain maxims that degraded themselves and others, including unnatural sex and sexual degradation. (Denis, 1999, p. 225) In case of Sandusky, he personally violated this maxim a number of times through abuse of young boys. These acts were both degrading to the boys as well as unnatural in nature. Thus, through his acts, Sandusky violated this very aspect of Kantian ethics as well.

Virtue Theory

The very foundation of the Virtue Theory focuses on a number of virtues as put forth by Aristotle, of which honesty, courage, temperance, and justice are the key virtues (or the absence of those) that could be applied in this case. (Bailey, 2010, p. 16) Although Bailey argues that the theory has very high standards for its agents, she does accept that the key virtues stated are attainable and can be used to test if an agent is in violation of the virtue theory. (p. 2) In all of these and other qualities that theory advocates, ‘moderation’ is the key aspect. (Garrett, 2005)
If one begins with Sandusky who violated the honesty and the temperance aspect of the theory, one can understand that Sandusky time and again went back on his words. He perpetrated against his own victims gross injustice since most of these children looked up to him and trusted him as a dominating figure in their athletic life. He also exhibited the opposite of courage – extreme cowardice since he constantly kept hiding and committed his acts in a veil of secrecy. Both Curley and Schultz also violated the honesty aspect, firstly by covering up the situation and then lying before the grand jury to supposedly protect the reputation of Penn State. Had the virtue of courage been present in them, they would have ensured that justice would be done towards the abused children, even if that meant problems for the university. On the other hand, McQueary courageously reported the child abuses to his senior officers in hope of justice, but none came at all. However, Calhoun, who witnessed the abuses, chose not to report the same since he was interested in retaining his job, but not interested in seeking justice for the abused children. Overall, Sandusky and Penn State as well as its officers, barring McQueary (to some extent) violated almost all the aspects of the Virtue Theory.
In conclusion, one can understand that the main persons involved in this scandal, namely Sandusky, Curly and Shultz all stand in violation of the ethical theories, and therefore in violation of both moral and ethical codes. It is extremely shameful to support a child abuser and protect him from the law as he continues to wreak havoc on the lives of children. After all, one must remember that a person who witnesses a crime and remains silent is equally responsible for the crime as the person who committed it.


Bailey, O. (2010). What Knowledge is Necessary for Virtue? Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy. (4.2): 1 – 17.
Denis, L. (April 1999). Kant on the Wrongness of "Unnatural" Sex. History of Philosophy Quarterly Journal. (16.2): 225–248.
Driver, J. (2007). Ethics: The Fundamentals. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.
Gill, E and Allen, T. (2013). The Sandusky Child Sexual Abuse Scandal: The Implications for Athletic Department Procedures, Training, Policy, and Child Welfare System Interactions. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. Special Issue; 70 – 89. Retrieved from
Mill, J.S. (2001). Utilitarianism. Kitchener, ON: Batoche Books.
Garrett. J. (2005). Virtue Ethics. Bowling Green, KY: Western Kentucky University. Retrieved from

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