Professor Ethan Sullivan teaching his Portico class

Professor Ethan Sullivan teaching his Portico class

On a Friday in mid-November, Professor Ethan Sullivan and his Portico class bounce back and forth between Aristotle and accounting, the classics and the headlines.

The day’s topic is Aristotle’s reflections on “voluntary” and “non-voluntary” actions. These are, to put it plainly, things you could be blamed for and not blamed for, in the ethical universe. Gesturing frequently and maneuvering around rows of the small classroom in Fulton Hall, Sullivan spins a few scenarios and sets a quick pace for discussion.

What if he, Sullivan, stumbled in class and knocked over a can of soda that poured onto a student’s lap? In response to this question, the phrase “non-voluntary” bubbles up. The professor adds, with a twist: What if that happened because “I just got hammered before class?”

A young man in a purple flannel shirt replies: “Aristotle would say that’s voluntary.” Why? The student continues, generating laughs—“Because you chose to get smashed.” Then Sullivan points toward a student on the other side of the room and asks, hypothetically: “What if Paul’s family is starving, and he robs a McDonald’s to feed them?” There’s a slight pause before a handful of students speak up: “Mixed.” Sullivan says, “Yes, this is what Aristotle calls a mixed action,” both voluntary and non-voluntary.

With the Aristotelean view in hand, Sullivan gets down to business: “What does the WorldCom case tell us?” He’s referring to assigned reading about the collapse and bankruptcy of the telecommunications giant in 2002 after revelations of accounting fraud. The professor hands out worksheets, and the students break into small groups for discussion.

After about five minutes, the full class regroups. Sullivan and the students dig into an ethics case study centering on Betty Vinson, who was director of management reporting at Mississippi-based WorldCom. Vinson’s bosses had ordered her to make the fraudulent entries—or resign.

By the end of that conversation, the Aristotelean perspective is back in full swing. Sullivan asks, “Do we pardon her? Blame her? Put her in prison?” The comments of a student wearing a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt reflect the sentiment of the group. Vinson’s action “was voluntary,” she says. “She knew it was wrong. But it was also mixed. She had a family to support.”

What most of the students don't know, until Sullivan tells them at the end of class, is that a judge agreed with their mixed view. In 2005 Vinson was sentenced fairly lightly to five months in prison and five months of house arrest for her part in the $11 billion accounting fraud. WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebers was sentenced a month earlier to 25 years in prison.