This was the central question President Bill Chace posed to the Class of 1999 at the fall convocation ceremony Aug. 22 at Glenn Memorial Auditorium.
Chace told the 1,263 freshmen, Emory College's largest entering class ever, that one of their primary duties at Emory will be to think through a conflict between two philosophers: Socrates and Immanuel Kant. Socrates, Chace explained, argued that vice is ignorance, that to do or to be wrong is a result of not knowing. Kant, on the other hand, argued that vice is having an evil will, a will that is deaf to the voice of conscience.
"If you go along with Socrates," Chace said, "you will argue that if you wind up in life with a good moral character, it will be because of luck or accident. You won't be full of vice because, thanks to forces beyond your control, you will have been saved from ignorance. Kant would respond by saying that the argument Socrates gives makes impossible the whole idea of a moral life. For if you say that character is simply the chance product of your genes and other determining causes, then there isn't much you can do to make a difference, good or bad.
"But if you take the Kantian position," Chace continued, "the one that says you do possess moral authority over your own life and that you can listen to your conscience and force yourself to live within the dictates of an understanding of what is good, you will be accused of having introduced vague, mysterious and immaterial factors, such as conscience and will, into the discussion."
All human beings, Chace said, eventually find themselves asking about the things they are responsible for and the things they can't help; and all human beings move back and forth between treating themselves as determined and treating themselves as free.
"I will tell you where Emory stands on this complicated issue," Chace said. "Part of the time, we are going to treat you as absolutely responsible moral beings. We are going to assume that you know the difference between what you should do and what you should not do. When you act, as part of the Emory moral community, we are going to stipulate that you are responsible and blamable for what you do.
"But another part of the time, we are going to assume that when you are part of the Emory educational community, the community to be educated, we should take you for what you are, with all your talents and all your weaknesses, all your gifts and all your ineptitudes, and that we should try to educate you, each of you, one by one. . . In that spirit, one of happily assuming that you need us, need the faculty, need this education that you could not have created on your own, we are here to educate you, one by one. And yet, even as we bring you into the educational community, we are determined to hold you responsible for what you do in the moral community. I think it will be an interesting four years for each of you."