Emory Report
July 10, 2006
Volume 58, Number 34


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July 10 , 2006
Just what does “ethically engaged” mean?

Gary Hauk is university vice president and deputy to the president.

The most compelling moral sagas in the media these days grab our attention, because they combine unspeakable human tragedy with complex legal issues. Terry Schiavo; the collapse of Enron; the marketing of drugs with known (but not publicized) risks; the treatment of prisoners suspected of terrorism—in each of these matters the potential for legal liability and ethical outrage is enormous.

Universities, by their nature as human communities, have the potential for generating similar moral sagas, involving financial malfeasance, medical malpractice, murder, suicide, horrifying accidents—you name it. Often, the sorting out of liability takes place in the court. But although our judicial system exists for good reasons, the courts can be an unsatisfying venue for resolving moral conundrums of our day.

We often distinguish between what is “legal” and what is “ethical,” for the same reason that figure-skating commentators distinguish between one skater’s technical mastery and another’s artistic brilliance. Legal settlement can feel less satisfying than ethical resolution, because we suspect the triumph of technique over moral imagination. We care less about what is due according to case law and more about what is due according to our humanity.

Unfortunately our culture offers conflicting answers to the question of how to measure our humanity. American moral language derives from various irreconcilable strands—from the Jeffersonian and Madisonian tradition of civic virtue that forms our understanding of rights; to the biblical tradition that seeks to adhere to divine word; to the utilitarian and expressive traditions of Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman. What does it mean to be moral in America? Is it to follow the dictates of reason, to obey the commandments of God, to embrace the commercial market expecting that economic forces will work to everyone’s benefit, or to live out the songs of ourselves? As a society, we answer “yes” to all these possibilities—and thus our confusion.
For this reason, I think the real ethical challenge for a university arises not in health care, per se, or in intellectual property concerns, or in commercialization of research. All of these areas do pose serious questions and require diligence in protecting the rights of institutions and individuals. But the challenge for a university is to exercise stewardship of the definition of humanity.

Let me give you examples of how this stewardship is tested.

1. A university student being interviewed as a finalist for a national scholarship wears clothing that clearly identifies the student’s religion. A member of the selection committee makes comments that demean the student and the religion. The student doesn’t win the scholarship. Does the university have an ethical responsibility to do something in behalf of the student? If so, what?

2. An august golf club has a policy that prohibits women from membership. Some argue that the club serves public functions, and that the discrimination against women deprives them of equal access to certain economic and social benefits. The university has a distant but nonetheless relationship with the club. Does the university have a responsibility to exercise its moral authority as a lever in order to move the club to change its policy?

3. The university has been building apace for two decades. Everyone living in the midst of this construction knows the travails of traffic diversions, noise, dust and dislocation. The construction is necessary to help the university achieve its strategic goals, which the community has clarified in the course of much collegial discussion and planning. All agree that these goals are worthy, for the sake of a better university and a better world. Yet the question arises whether livability is being sacrificed for the sake of expansion. How does a university address the human stresses of its “lifestyle?”

4. A faculty member publishes an article castigating his colleagues for not complying with the simple request, “RSVP”—“please respond.” He notes that the majority of those invited do not respond to invitations to departmental events—even when they plan to attend! This is not unusual, as any planner of social functions can confirm. Checking a box on a reply card and stuffing it in an enclosed, stamped envelope seems beyond the capacity of many these days.

Now this last item might seem punctilious. But consider “ethics” and “etiquette”—two words etymologically unrelated, but both having to do with customs. The gracious “responsiveness” of social etiquette mirrors the ethical “responsibility” we have in community. Remaining responsive and responsible to each other defines what it means to be “ethically engaged.”

For the ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr, the moral life was “responsible” life. Ethics was not principally about constructing the best rules to live by. Rather, Niebuhr saw moral action as growing out of our ability to respond—our “response-ability”—to others.

We always act in response to something—to our hunger, our desire for entertainment, a child’s cry. What gives our response moral weight is our interpretation of the object or act to which we’re responding. The cries of a child in the supermarket might be prompted by fatigue—or by abuse. How I respond will depend on how I interpret the situation.

If I ignore the cries of the child, I may be viewed as indifferent or even criminal. If I intervene, I may be viewed as meddling or heroic. In either case, I am accountable, in the sense that I can expect my own action to mean something to others, who in turn may respond to me.

This accountability we have for our actions means that we do not exist as moral beings apart from community. What transcends and guides each of us into moral selfhood is “ethos”—the customs and manners of our community, or the ideals and principles by which our community lives. Understanding and nurturing this ethos is critical for any university community.

A university, after all, is a community dedicated to discovering and telling as best it can the clearest and deepest truth about reality. Such work requires attending to what is “other” than us with heightened concentration, curiosity, wonder and even self-forgetfulness.

Iris Murdoch, the late British philosopher and novelist, called this kind of activity, this "'attention' to the other," the defining characteristic of the moral person. “Attention” suggests that vision, not decision, constitutes the heart of ethical life. Ethics depends on seeing contexts—those networks of value built up by our attentiveness to what is real, what is around us.

When Murdoch speaks of attention she is really speaking not just about a “loving gaze” but about love itself—about seeing something clearly enough to achieve what she calls “the nonviolent apprehension of difference.” This is the basis of the moral life: "the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love is the discovery of reality."

It appears, then, that what the university is about is really the inculcation into its various members of a kind of attentive love—for reality, for the world, for each other. This is unusual talk for a research university—talk of love. But it does play out in various ways. We can see it at work in the Emory strategic plan, part of which speaks explicitly of “confronting race and difference." Maybe a better phrase would be “understanding difference without violating it.”

We will measure our success in this strategic plan by the achievement of certain benchmarks, by which we intend to hold ourselves accountable. But our ultimate success in fulfilling our mission will be measured by whether we hold ourselves accountable to that more transcendent understanding of who we are as a community. The more stringent accountability will lie in our openness to absorbing and accepting the truth of each other’s irrefutable difference.

This essay is an excerpt from a lecture Hauk gave at The Faculty Ethics Summer Seminar entitled “The Ethically Engaged University,” held May 17–26 at Center for Ethics and is printed here with permission.