Ethical dilemmas surround water use

November 13, 2015 Featured Slider, Latest, News Print Print

waterIt’s a dilemma — in a drought — to decide which businesses must reduce their water use and by how much.

That was the task assigned to the 31 audience members who attended English Professor Angela Cotner’s presentation on water and ethics on Oct. 21.

Rather than lecturing for 50 minutes, Cotner led students in an interactive discussion about how to curtail water use in a hypothetical town in California, a state suffering from severe drought.

In a second scenario, the audience analyzed the best way to provide water to a village in rural Africa that lacked access to clean water.

Cotner helped her audience think critically about these two water issues and the ethical ways they could be solved.

“I like how what we talked about could be applied,” said Matt Lopez, an entrepreneurship major.

“It wasn’t just philosophical, it had practical implications.”

Cotner had the audience decide which businesses in the imaginary town should be required to restrict their water usage and asked them to support the reasoning behind their decision.

“You need to decide which businesses are more important to the community,” she said.

As the groups of five or six discussed what cuts to make, they faced the dilemma of deciding what would be the most ethical.

Some groups proposed one business should be spared a water reduction because it donated to an elementary school while another should not be spared because it did not contribute to the community in an equally vital way.

Most groups agreed that one business should be spared from severe water reductions because it produced income from tourism, donated to the community garden, and provided a hangout spot for the community.

Limited access to clean water is a crisis in rural areas of certain African countries and some South American countries, Cotner said.

“The access to clean water is so critical,” Cotner said.

In the second scenario, the audience had to decide whether a non-profit organization should use a charity or a business model for drilling water wells.

In either situation, the groups began with a $25,000 donation.

Again, the audience had to think through not only what was the most efficient method, but also the most ethical.

Although the charity model would provide quicker results, most groups concluded that the business model would have a more positive lasting effect than the charity model.

Cotner asked audience members to consider why people often fail to agree on what is ethical.

Cotner said some ethical theories argue that the consequence of an action make it ethical or unethical, while other theories say the intent of actions determines if an action is ethical or not.

For example, the $25,000 donation for the African water project came from a deceased women who did not specify what she wanted it to go toward.

It is possible, Cotner speculated, the she might have preferred it to be used toward an orphanage the woman had visited earlier in her life.

A philosopher focused on intent would say the ethical thing would be to put the money toward the good intent of the donor, Cotner said.

However, a philosopher focused on consequences would say the money should go toward what would do the most good for the most people.

“It was way more interactive than I thought it would be,” said John Tran-Nguyen, a computer engineering major.

He said he learns better from interactive teaching.

OCCC Librarian Dana Tuley-Williams introduced Cotner and told students about OCCC Reads, a project designed to bring the college community together to discuss a particular book.

Portions of this year’s book,“Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource,” will be presented by different professors throughout the year, Tuley-Williams said.

She also gave out scavenger-hunt sheets to the audience.

If students go to every filtered water station on campus and write down the word for “water” that is labeled at each station in different languages, they can pick up a prize water bottle at the library assistance desk on the first floor of the library, Tuley-Williams said.

For more information, contact Cotner at or Librarian Rachel Butler at or visit

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