The question is deceptively simple—and seemingly straightforward. It applies to every dimension of life, from the personal to the professional to the political and beyond.
Yet, all too often, it goes unasked.
On those occasions when the question is asked, it can cause intense internal conflict, sometimes leading to a very different answer than originally thought.
Every day, throughout our lives, we are faced with choices and decisions. And just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should do it, says Robin Dillon, the William Wilson Selfridge Professor of Philosophy and director of the new Lehigh University Center for Ethics. The question we need to ask, she says, is: “But would it be right?”
That question is at the core of the Center for Ethics, launched during the spring 2018 semester and housed administratively in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Interdisciplinary Programs. One of the center’s aims is to teach students how to reason their way through thorny ethical dilemmas they will face throughout their lives.
“What I’m really hoping is that, with the center, there are many more students who come to understand that there’s no part of their lives that doesn’t have ethical dimensions and that there are ways to think about these—ways that are better and ways that are worse,” Dillon says.” And there are answers to questions, some of which are better, some of which are worse. And that the better ways of thinking about them give you better answers than the worst ways of thinking about them.”
The point of teaching ethics is to help students “learn how to think,” Dillon says. “Not what to think, but how to think.” Eric Baumer, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering who is on the ethics center steering committee, teaches a required ethics course for computer science majors called Computers, the Internet and Society. Baumer jokes that his personal subtitle for the course is Don’t Be Evil.
“It’s all about trying to identify potential harm from technology and mitigate those harms or potentially even eliminate them if we can,” Baumer says. “Part of my job as an instructor for that course is explicitly not to tell students the answer. My job is to show them the question or the problem or the issue or the challenge and then try to give them the conceptual tools to grapple with it.”
DEVELOPING EDUCATED CITIZENS
Dillon, who has taught ethics at Lehigh for three decades, has long been an advocate for an ethics center. It finally became a reality thanks to the vision and commitment of Lehigh’s Class of ’61, whose members decided to devote their fundraising efforts leading up to their 50th reunion in 2011 to create an endowed fund to support the teaching of ethics at their alma mater.
“You don’t need to look very far to see the lapses in ethical behavior in this country,” says Michael Hoben ’61, who serves as class officer and, along with the late Peter S. Hagerman ’61, led efforts to create the ethics endowment. “We thought the country seemed to be losing its tether to ethical behavior, and for that reason, we thought this is an issue that’s bigger than just our class or university. This is a national problem people can relate to. That was the genesis for suggesting this move toward contributing to a fund for ethical teaching at Lehigh.”
The Endowed Fund for the Teaching of Ethical Decision-Making was established in 2009 and initially supported a speakers series on ethics for a few years, followed by an undergraduate ethics symposium held in 2015 and 2016.
When Hagerman died in 2016, he left a substantial gift to the ethics fund that made it possible to create the new ethics center. The center’s signature program is the Peter S. Hagerman ’61 Lecture in Ethics, which will attract high-profile speakers each year to share their insights on issues related to ethics. Once the ethics center received formal approval from the president’s office in February of this year, it wasted no time making its presence known on campus.
The #MeToo movement—which focused worldwide attention on sexual harassment and abuse, with numerous high-profile men and women in business, politics, entertainment and other fields forced to resign in disgrace, while criminal charges were brought against others—provided the thread that tied together the first series of programs undertaken by the center this spring.
The inaugural Hagerman lecture, held at Zoellner Arts Center in late March, featured Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard who was the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. Fiorina, who made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, spoke on Why Ethics and Respect Matter. In his introduction of Fiorina, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Donald E. Hall talked about the ethics center’s mission:
“Our center seeks to address the need to develop educated citizens, both aware of moral complexity and committed to advancing the common good, individuals who have learned to assess information and attend to sound ethical values in achieving understanding, who are civic-minded and capable of civil discourse even when value conflicts arise and whose personal code of values and ethics emphasize a need to accept responsibility for themselves as well as for the well-being of their various communities.”
During her talk, Fiorina noted that “so often, the people who are celebrated as ethical and good people after the fact were criticized mightily in their times. Interesting, isn’t it, that you can’t necessarily look out to the headlines of the moment to figure out the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, that you have to look inside and think deeply about what you believe?”
A panel discussion, titled MeToo? Sexual Harassment and Intersectionality: The Position of Women of Color, Transpersons and LB Women, featured “voices that were not being heard in the #MeToo movement,” Dillon says. “That was a very cool program.”
The center also held two faculty round tables, the first to talk aboutsexual harassment and a follow-up to discuss what can be done about it. And the center co-sponsored two talks with the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, which brought in Kecia Ali, a religion professor at Boston University and former president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her lecture topics were titled Contesting Muhammad: Contemporary Contraventions in Historical Perspective and Muslim Feminism, Islamic Law and the Quest for Gender Justice.
The panel discussion was co-sponsored by the Africana Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs, while the faculty round tables were co-sponsored by ADVANCE (Advancing Women in Science and Engineering at Lehigh University), the Center for Gender Equity and Lehigh Men Allies and Advocates for Gender Equity. Dillon believes working with other existing programs on campus is the right strategy for the ethics center.
“It makes no sense in the current Lehigh programming environment for the ethics center to be another generator of programs that has to compete with all the other programs that everybody around campus is offering,” Dillon says. “Aside from the Hagerman lecture, which will always be ours, what we will be doing programming-wise in the future is helping other people, other units around the university, do programming around ethical issues that they otherwise can’t do because they just don’t have the time or resources.”
BUIDING A FACULTY COMMUNITY
While there are no plans at the moment for a physical center on campus, there is excitement and momentum building about what the new ethics center will be able to offer undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and even the Southside Bethlehem community.
“Part of the goal is going to be to articulate what we mean by ethics, articulating that in a way that gets lots of people from lots of different disciplines interested and excited and saying, ‘Oh, I want to be part of that conversation,’” Baumer says.
The center’s steering committee, which currently consists of 14 faculty representatives from across the university’s four colleges, has begun the work of paring down a long list of things they could do to a much shorter list of “things that are actually doable and have a big enough impact to be worth doing,” Dillon says.
“One of our challenges now is figuring out how to build this list of names into a real faculty community,” she says. “What’s absolutely critical for the success of this center is a broad base of faculty support.” The many ideas that have been suggested include creating an ethics fellows program, where students working on an undergraduate or master’s thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation related to ethics would become liaisons between the center and the four colleges and engage with other students; developing a set of resources that anyone teaching ethics across any discipline could access to find best practices and current scholarship; starting an ethics-related podcast; creating ethics-based talks or events for 5X10, a programming series that requires all first-year students to attend five programs within the first 10 weeks of their first semester; creating an ethics minor; and possibly offering a graduate certificate in ethics. “I think what’s really interesting is that all of these are viable,” Baumer says. “Any of these, and other things that we haven’t thought of, might come to be over the next five years. So I think it’s exciting to be part of it at the ground level.”
Baumer, for example, is particularly excited about the prospect of working on a core curricular resource on ethics that would be available to faculty both within Lehigh University and at other institutions.
“I know there are lots of courses where, it might not be all about ethics, but ethics comes up,” Baumer says. “So, it would be really valuable to have this core resource that is up to date with current scholarship in the field that provides best practices for translating questions of ethics across or to a bunch of different application domains.”
A BEACON TO FOLLOW
As an undergraduate student who thought she was going to be a lawyer, Dillon took a philosophy class that opened the door to a far different life. Now, in her 31st year teaching ethics at Lehigh, students still arrive at the university asking the same questions Dillon asked.
“The reason I do ethics is because it deals with the kinds of questions that I think are so important,” Dillon says. “How should I live? What kind of person should I be? One of the nice things about teaching philosophy in college is that you get kids when those are really live questions for them.
“This is the first time many of them have been away from home, and that’s the point in your life where you’re trying to figure out, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to be for the rest of my life?’ And that’s when it got me, too,” she says. “There are lots of parts of philosophy that I think are interesting, but it’s the ethical questions and the ways of going about answering them—that’s what really captures me.”
And those questions never go away. Hoben, who earned a B.A. in finance, went on to a successful career in the investment business, retiring as chairman and CEO of Benefit Capital Management Corp. He firmly believes that those who conduct themselves in an ethical manner have an advantage over those who do not.
“It’s very easy to attack a problem on a one-dimensional basis, i.e., to make money or to beat the competition,” he says. “It’s another thing how you go about doing it and what the ramifications to those actions are. I can’t stress that enough.
“I still maintain that people who are truthful, honest and fair-dealing have an edge and will do very nicely—because trust is vital in any interaction, any business, any profession,” Hoben says. “And once that’s lost, it’s irretrievable. Trust is based on honesty and ethical behavior. That’s not to say that we all don’t have lapses sometimes in our lives. But at least the beacon is there to follow.”
The Endowed Fund for the Teaching of Ethical Decision-Making, which made the new Center for Ethics possible, creates a profound legacy for the Class of ’61 and all those who will support it for years to come. It helps ensure that the beacon of ethics teaching at Lehigh will continue to shine in even the darkest times.
His hope for the center, Hoben says, is that it becomes “an important and integrated part of the university’s entire academic structure.”
“I’d like Lehigh to be a leader in ethical thinking,” he says, “and an example for other institutions.”
Mary Ellen Alu contributed to this article.