Campus News

October 13, 2010

Ethics center celebrates 20 years of igniting moral imagination

As the Emory Center for Ethics observes its 20th anniversary, Director Paul Root Wolpe offers his definition of the study of ethics: “Most dictionaries would say ethics is a system of moral decision-making. I disagree. Ethics is a fundamental set of values by which we live our lives, values that engage our reason and our emotions.”

“If you just teach ethics, you completely miss the truth of how people make ethical decisions,” continues Wolpe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics and the Raymond F. Schinazi Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics. “They make them through a deep set of emotional and rational combined feelings, and beliefs about things. Unless you engage all of those together, you aren’t teaching ethics.”

Through the years, Center faculty and staff have contributed to deepening ethics scholarship and research, teaching and innovative programming. Numerous faculty and key leaders, such as the Center’s early directors Robert DeHaan and James Fowler, have contributed to its University-wide presence. Wolpe sees this trend continuing in the future, enriching the life of the University and enhancing Emory’s vital role in Atlanta’s cultural and intellectual life.

In the two years he has guided the Center, Wolpe has instituted numerous programs aimed at achieving his vision of ethical teaching and involvement in the University and the community.

The Center’s home on Dickey Drive has become a destination for Emory faculty, staff and students to gather for lectures and cultural events, such as “Testaments of the Heart,” a campus-wide series of Holocaust-era visual art, music and multimedia programs.
Its new Ethics and the Arts initiative is “every bit as important as our philosophy of ethics classes,” says Wolpe. “Unless you get people emotionally and spiritually engaged, just getting them mentally engaged in ethics is not going to result in more ethical people.”

To that end, the Center has entered partnerships with arts organizations across Atlanta, including an innovative program in conjunction with the Alliance Theater, bringing in playwrights and actors to present scenes from works and then engage in discussion of the ethical topics involved.  Later this year, the Atlanta Opera will visit campus with scenes from George Gershwin’s racially-charged “Porgy and Bess.”

The Center for Ethics is involved in every aspect of campus life, from mentoring undergraduates, to involving professors from each school in teaching and decision-making, to engaging medical students and residents in ethics discussions.

It offers conferences and programs that both attract world-renowned speakers and spark deep and important conversations, expanding its sphere of influence and engaging professors and students from across the entire college community. 

Wolpe will give the keynote at "The Overlap of Legal and Medical Ethics: Issues in End-of-Life Decision Making," presented by Emory Law on Friday, Oct. 15. Panelists include the trial judge, guardian ad litem and two attorneys involved in the Terri Schiavo case.

Its biggest program of the year is the State of Race, which next month will feature CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien, whose body of work includes many explorations of problems of race in America.

In celebration of its milestone 20th year, the Center for Ethics sponsored an Oct. 7 symposium, “Crossing the Line: The Ethics of Intervention,” bringing together an extraordinary assemblage of nationally and internationally recognized experts on matters of ethics to address some of the most pressing ethical issues of our day. Audience members as well as some 800 viewers of the simultaneous webcast listened as panelists discussed the ethics of individual choice, of public health policy and of intervention in wartime.

In concluding the conference, Wolpe acknowledged the difficulties in making ethical decisions in a complex, imperfect and ambiguous world. The question, he said, is not should we intervene, but how?

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