Ethics Ed

Teaching students to challenge assumptions, embrace ambiguity, and step outside their comfort zones

By Jim Auchmutey

Two students doing yard work in a neighborhood

Students in the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program spruce up the grounds of a complex inhabited largely by refugees.

Bryan Meltz

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“Policy in Practice”

On a sunny autumn Saturday, half a dozen Emory undergraduates climb into a van and drive six miles east to Clarkston, an Atlanta suburb where the US government has settled thousands of refugees in warrens of time-worn apartments. The van is headed for Brannon Hill, a condominium complex teetering between despair and hope. Because of the real estate bust, boarded-up units almost outnumber ones bustling with Somali and Ethiopian families trying to get a foothold in a new country. None of the Emory students grew up in a place quite like this.

After a brief consultation with the manager, the ethics professor in charge of the group, Edward Queen, straps a gas-powered blower on his back and noisily goes to work. His charges follow with rakes and lawn bags. As they scoop up the leaves and pine straw, they look up occasionally and see children smiling and waving at them from the balconies.

After a while, a resident drives up and watches the scene through the open window of his car. He catches a student’s attention and asks an obvious question: “What are you doing?”

“Community service,” answers Mariangela Jordan 12C, a junior from Romania.

The man seems puzzled. “You’re on probation?”

“Oh, no,” Jordan assures him, “we’re doing community service.”

“But you’re on probation, right?” The man can’t seem to believe that normal young people would spend their spare time cleaning up someone else’s property unless a judge had ordered them to.

Talking about the exchange later, Queen can’t resist a quip. “Maybe,” he deadpans, “we should wear orange jump suits next time.”

 The Brannon Hill excursion was one of many volunteer opportunities during Emory Cares International Service Day, the annual day of community service organized by the Emory Alumni Association. This particular group was eager to enlist: They’re part of the Ethics and Servant Leadership (EASL) program at the University’s Center for Ethics. One of the reasons they applied for EASL is because they wanted to get off campus and encounter people struggling with real problems in the real world.

“That’s the whole idea: to get us out of our comfort zone,” says a member of the yard crew, Hannah Rogers 12C, a junior from Fayetteville, Georgia.

The center, which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, is one of the most significant—and misunderstood—institutions at Emory. Significant because its purpose lies at the heart of how the University envisions itself and undertakes its educational mission. Misunderstood because outsiders sometimes have trouble imagining what an ethics center is. Does it enforce the honor code? Do they sit around pontificating about lofty issues of good and bad?

Not quite, says Director Paul Root Wolpe, who is happy to explain his specialty to lay audiences.

“People tend to misunderstand what ethics really is,” he says. “Most people think it’s questions of what’s right or wrong, what’s correct or incorrect behavior. In fact, the message we’re trying to communicate is much deeper. The decisions you make every day are informed by a set of principles and values—what I call an ethical sensibility. Only when you examine that sensibility and challenge your beliefs and assumptions can you come to a mature understanding of ethics.”

Wolpe is speaking in his office at the center, which shares a sparkling new building with Candler School of Theology. A nationally known authority in the field—he serves as NASA’s first bioethicist—he came to Emory in 2008 after more than two decades of teaching bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

The ethics center is the nexus of a broader effort that takes countless forms and reaches every corner of the campus. It starts at freshman orientation, when incoming students hear a presentation about the center and the University’s ambition to develop character as well as intellect.

The center’s seven resident faculty members and thirty-one affiliated professors infuse ethics into courses across all of Emory’s schools. They collaborate with Candler, which weaves a rich ethics curriculum throughout its theology courses, and lecture at Goizueta Business School and the School of Law, both of which have their own vigorous (and required) practice-specific ethics and professionalism training. And they share the heavy responsibility of ethics education in the schools of medicine, nursing, and public health; the School of Medicine has its own diverse ethics curriculum with deep roots in the center.

And there are more unusual examples: at Winship Cancer Institute, an ethicist on the research team fosters a vibrant ethics program in oncology research; Emory recently launched a master of arts in bioethics degree program; and there is a formal public health-focused partnership being established among the ethics center, the CDC, and the Rollins School of Public Health. Not to mention the more civic and creative outreach programs such as EASL and Ethics and the Arts, which brings artists to campus to discuss works that explore moral questions.

Most respected research universities offer an ethics curriculum these days. One of the factors that set Emory apart, its leaders believe, is the University’s commitment to ethics as an institutional value.

“I noticed it immediately when I started speaking with people about coming here,” President James Wagner says. “In my initial interviews and in reading the literature, I was impressed by the unusual facility this University has with the vocabulary of values. I decided to test it.”

Wagner spoke with about eighty people during the lengthy job interview process. He asked every one of them about Emory’s concern for ethics. Some mentioned the University’s roots in the Methodist Church, while others stressed its modern involvement with human rights issues. “Not a single person dismissed the idea,” he says. “Their attitude was: ‘Of course. How could it be any other way?’ ”

Soon after Wagner arrived, the University crafted a new vision statement, a painstaking exercise that prompted extended discussions about Emory’s values and priorities. Later research found that only one other university among eighteen top-ranked institutions considered Emory’s peers used the word “ethics” in its statement: Notre Dame. Emory has embraced the word as well, describing itself in the finished declaration as “an inquiry-driven, ethically engaged, and diverse community.”

“This is not to say that Emory is more ethical,” Wagner cautions. “But it does indicate what we expect of ourselves.”

That expectation was tested in 2009 when the worst recession in decades forced the administration to make staff reductions. Wagner summoned Wolpe to his office.

“I had no idea why he wanted to see me,” Wolpe remembers. “He handed me an article about the ethical considerations of layoffs, and we spent an hour discussing the issues. He was very concerned that a difficult situation be handled as ethically as possible. I walked out impressed that he wanted to meet with me at a time like that, when most university presidents probably would be calling in their lawyers.”

 Colleges have been teaching ethics since the dawn of higher education. For most of that time, the subject was the purview of theology schools or philosophy departments. That began to change in the sixties and seventies, as medical advances such as organ transplants and enhanced end-of-life care raised new moral complications.

“The explosion in interest really started with bioethics,” says Brian Schrag, director of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, an umbrella group for ethics centers, at Indiana University. “After the Tuskegee Study was revealed, there was a rising concern about medical research ethics. Then Watergate made people wonder about the ethics of lawyers. And there were always business scandals. It made universities think they should start applying these ancient theories of ethics to practical experience.”

The Hastings Center, an independent institution widely regarded as the first bioethics center, was founded in 1969. Other pioneering centers soon followed at Georgetown University in 1971 and Indiana University in 1972.

The field remained sparsely populated when Emory began to consider an ethics center in 1990. President James Laney, a Christian ethicist by training, started the conversation.

“He invited a group of us over to Lullwater for a series of meetings to brainstorm the idea,” recalls the center’s associate director, Kathy Kinlaw 79C 85T. “There was a general feeling that we could do more to prepare students as they went out into the world. The health sciences faculty were strong participants.”

Unlike many centers, Emory’s was meant to be cross-disciplinary, touching on everything from religion and the arts to medicine and engineering. “This is one of the most holistic centers of its type in the country,” says James Fowler, a retired theology professor who served as the center’s first full-time director for more than a decade.

Since the center was founded, the number of university ethics institutions has proliferated. At the first meeting of the ethics association in 1991, perhaps twenty centers were represented; now more than a hundred attend. “They started popping up like mushrooms in the nineties,” Schrag says.

John Stuhr, chair of the Department of Philosophy, helped launch one of those centers in his last post at Pennsylvania State University. Although he obviously values his chosen discipline, he wonders whether its recent popularity has something to do with academic fashion. “At the risk of sounding cynical, it’s easier to secure funding when you’ve established a center,” he says. “There’s also a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses. If everyone has ethics centers, shouldn’t you have one? And if you don’t, does that mean you aren’t concerned with ethics?”

Stuhr also has reservations about the fondest goal of ethics education: to mold ethical adults. There’s a limit, he believes, to what a university can do.

“It’s not realistic to think that a single class can erase habits that formed over eighteen or twenty years,” he says. “Aristotle points out the difference between knowing good and doing good. We all know what he means. I imagine it’s relatively easy to pass the Georgia driving exam, but passing it doesn’t mean you won’t be a terrible driver. Universities are like that: We’re very good on the theoretical side, but translating it into practice is much harder.”

But as Wolpe pointed out, having an ethical sensibility means more than simply knowing right from wrong. Faculty at the Center for Ethics take the approach that although a student’s character may have taken root when he arrives, there is still value in teaching, exploring, and applying ethics as a discipline.

“Of course you can mold ethical adults,” says Queen, who tries to do just that as director of the Ethics and Servant Leadership program. “If we think we can mold a mathematician, why couldn’t we mold an ethical adult? To me, education is all about the formation of individuals and citizens. But you’re not going to do it well unless you accept it as part of your mission.”

 Of all the center’s initiatives, perhaps none touches students as profoundly as EASL.

“It brings people together from across the University to learn about ethical leadership,” says the Reverend Lyn Pace 02T, who participated ten years ago and went on to become chaplain at Oxford College.

“I think about my experiences at Emory all the time,” says Ali Lutz 04T, who coordinates operations in Haiti for Partners in Health, a medical nonprofit. She tried out her career path as an EASL intern with the Georgia Justice Project, which provides legal services and support to poor families.

“That’s where I learned the distinction between charity and working for a more just society,” she says. “Charity is serving other people because they’re in great need. Working for a more just society is about understanding why people are suffering in the first place, and taking responsibility for it.”

EASL has two components. Lutz participated in the summer internship, in which thirty students are placed with Atlanta nonprofits, governmental agencies, or socially responsible businesses. They work off campus and spend one afternoon a week in the classroom. Pace was part of the academic-year program, known as the Forum. Fifteen to twenty students, receiving no stipend or course credit, meet weekly to learn about values-based leadership and ethical decision making. They eventually break into smaller groups to pursue their own service projects.

“It’s a shared intellectual journey focused on recognizing our responsibilities to the wider world,” Queen says.

This year’s Forum is typical: sixteen students from a variety of backgrounds and interests. The group starts the year with a team-building retreat on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. Then it settles into its weekly meetings, where the members learn to examine the assumptions they grew up with.

One of the first sessions deals with ethics and identity. Carlton Mackey, EASL’s assistant director, asks students to make a list of twenty things that come to mind to complete the phrase “I am . . . ” Then they fill out a similar list of attributes for different groups: poor people, white people, African Americans, and so forth. They compare the lists.

“What people say about themselves usually doesn’t match what others say about their group,” Mackey says. “I ask them why, and they’ll say, ‘It’s because they don’t know me.’ At that point, I don’t really have to say much else.”

In the next sessions, Queen introduces the students to critical ethical thinking. He asks them to consider a hypothetical situation, a classic ethical dilemma called the trolley problem. In its simplest version, a runaway train is barreling down the tracks toward five people. You notice a switch that could divert the train to another track, where it would strike one person. Do you flip the switch and kill one human being? Or do you stand by and watch five die?

“Most people say they’d pull the switch,” Queen says.

Naturally, the plot thickens. In the second version of the dilemma, you’re watching the runaway train approach the same hapless quintet from a bridge directly overhead. Only there’s no switch this time. Instead, you’re standing next to an extremely overweight man, and you realize—to your horror—that you could push him onto the track and derail the train. It’s the same moral calculus—saving five lives at the sacrifice of one—yet most people say they couldn’t do it. Shoving a man to his death is harder than flipping a switch.

“I couldn’t decide what to do,” says Leyla Sokullu 14C, from Turkey. “It was frustrating, knowing that you might kill five people because you couldn’t make up your mind.”

The point of the exercise, Queen explains, is to grasp the complexities of ethical decision making. “Hard decisions ought to be undertaken with humility and ambiguity. We take our best-considered position depending on what we know and understand, but we ought to be willing to change our minds if we’re disabused with new information or a better argument. We don’t know the mind of God.”

The trolley problem is only the beginning. Soon the students are discussing problems that are anything but hypothetical: homelessness, human rights, medical research, the environment, the plight of refugees.

 It’s Monday night, time for the Forum. This week the students aren’t gathering in a conference room at the ethics center; they’re piling into cars and vans for another field trip. Their destination: WonderRoot, a community arts organization in southeast Atlanta that partners with the center.

The director leads the students on a quick tour of the facility, a converted bungalow that manages to fit galleries, performance space, a darkroom, and a recording studio under one humble roof.

It has been only a couple of days since some of these students did yard work at the refugee complex, and they’re still wondering what to make of the experience. During the ride to and from WonderRoot, a spirited discussion breaks out.

“I think it’s kind of a publicity thing for Emory,” one person says.

“Oh, there’s more to it than that,” someone counters.

“Yeah, I guess we can feel good about ourselves for another year,” another one jokes, drawing glares from the back seat.

So what did the students take away from those three hours of volunteer work? And what, exactly, does it have to do with ethics?

Lauren Henrickson 13C has been mulling it over.

“On one hand, we were just raking up some leaves, and that’s pretty small scale,” she says. “But on the other hand, it was making us more aware of the refugee community, and that could lead to something that isn’t small scale.”

She pauses and adds another thought that suggests she is learning one of the most fundamental lessons in ethics, not to mention life: considering other viewpoints. “I hope our being there had some effect on the residents. I keep thinking about a girl I noticed peeking at us from a balcony. I hope she isn’t too young to remember that these people who were not part of her community came in to help, that someone else cared.”

For Courtney Bell 12C, the day was worthwhile—if only as an exercise in consciousness raising.

“When you come to college,” she says, “you’re so into these books and papers and exams that sometimes you forget there’s an outside world. I don’t remember the last time I read the news because I’m always studying. So the day we raked leaves was awesome, because it took me out of Emory and into Atlanta and into the world.”

That yearning for involvement is why she gravitated to the ethics center in the first place. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons she came to Emory. “We have a duty to promote the greater good,” she says. “That’s part of the culture here.”

Jim Auchmutey, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is an author and freelance writer living in Atlanta.

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