|December 2, 1999
Volume 30 Number 9
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
The Importance of Being Ethical:
Three past and present directors of the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics (CAPE) talked with me last month about the significance of ethics in everyone's lives and the importance of the many yearly forums the center sponsors. Becky White, director 1992-94 and professor of philosophy, Joel Zimbelman, CAPE's first director, 1987-92, and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, and Eric Gampel, director since 1997 and professor of philosophy, each expressed a rather surprising confidence in humanity.
Zimbelman is, perhaps, the most optimistic of the three. "People are moral beings," he claimed. "They have ethics. Values do matter."
White explained, "CAPE forums introduce questions of justice and rights and examine what people ought to value—not just what they already value. For example," she said, "the value of human life is not necessarily absolute. Under what circumstances does a life lose its value? What's the comparative harm done by the recent bombings in Moscow? Was the retaliation worse than Russia's initial aggression in Chechnya?"
The philosophers see ethics as a public—rather than private—affair. We're social beings, they say, and need to talk about ethical issues. White said, "You can't bracket ethics, you can't section off moral concerns as if they don't apply to the work place or other public spaces. Ethics is central to a good life."
Typically, what generates moral concern is a question of social policy and one that doesn't overlook the importance of the individual. That's what a democracy is supposed to do, said Zimbelman. We need to examine, he said, how intrusive the state should be in personal relationships.
"The forums include representative viewpoints," said Gampel. Members of the board (about ten faculty from various disciplines), as well as guests who speak at the forums, run the gamut from liberal to conservative. The general paradigm for the forums includes a laying out of the facts (the agreeing upon, Gampel admitted, is not always easy); then competing ethical views are expressed about how to deal with those facts.
When I asked if there were a higher ethics, the three agreed there certainly was not. Gampel referred to work done in past decades by psychologists (Harvard's Kohlberg, et al), who attempted to assess and establish moral development. He said the findings subsequently had not stood up. He explained that there are basically two models of ethical thinking. The first is relativism, in which ethics is likened to styles of food and manners of dress. In this model, there are different views about what's right and wrong—like different cuisines. It's okay that there's no objective truth. "If you are a relativist," White cautioned, "you give up the right to cross-cultural rebuke." The second model is universalism. In this view, it is possible to get close(r) to the truth. In CAPE, both models flourish.
Upcoming series relating to the university include forums on teaching, which cover how ethical issues can be taught and how ethical teaching is done, and forums on student life which cover ethical issues that come up for students. Upcoming forums in these series include "Are Parents Entitled to the Truth?" on Dec. 2 (4 p.m., BMU 110), "Teaching Tolerance in a Multicultural World" on Feb. 2, "Embarrassing Nights, Blackouts, and Lies" on Feb. 16, "Tree Huggers and Wasteful, Self-centered Yuppies" on Mar. 15, and "Free Riders in Student Work Groups" on Apr. 12.
There will be two forums on male-female issues: "He Said/She Said: The Politics of Male/Female Communication" on Feb. 9 and "Dating and Date Rape" on Mar 8. White elaborated on the importance of these two. Feminist theorists, she explained, claim that men have an inability to hear what women say because men have been socialized to think that what women say doesn't matter and that women are not reporting their true preferences (e.g., no means yes). The result is that men think they don't have to listen to or believe women.
Check the CAPE Web site (www.csuchico. edu/cape) for specific locations and times, or call Gampel at x4506 for more information. Attendance should either sophisticate your ethics—should you subscribe to relativism—or—should you lean toward universalism—help clarify what's always there. -- Thomasin Saxe, College of Humanities and Fine Arts