Martha Nussbaum Lecture on Nov. 14

Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

It’s not often that JMU brings one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 intellectuals in the world to campus. While many people might not fully appreciate how amazing it is to have received the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2002, the Barnard College Medal of Distinction in 2003, the Radcliffe Alumnae Recognition Award in 2007, and the Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in 2010, Larry Burton and Ralph Cohen of the Cohen Center for the Study of Technological Humanism recognized that those accomplishments and the person who received them is exactly the kind of speaker that JMU should be trying to attract. Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Law School and Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago. She is also an Associate in the Classics Department, the Divinity School, and the Political Science Department, a Member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. Just by looking at her obligations at her home institution, you can see that she’s a woman of varied intellectual interests who also happens to be extremely busy.

She’s not too busy, though, to make plans to come to Harrisonburg twice this fall. “Injustice and the Dubious Value of Anger” was originally scheduled for September as the inaugural lecture in the Cohen Center’s Visiting Speakers Series, but Nussbaum had to stay grounded in Chicago after an unfortunate fire closed all of the city’s airports. Undeterred by this terrible accident, she readily agreed to reschedule her speech for this Friday, Nov. 14. In the abstract for her lecture, Nussbaum indicates that she wants to help her audience understand that anger is “fatally flawed from a normative viewpoint — sometimes incoherent and sometimes based on bad values. In either case it is of dubious value in both life and the law.” That will assist us Dukes in grasping why we need to re-think our attitude toward anger and how this new perspective might support revolutionary justice. So many of the brief, everyday moments in our lives are connected to anger in some way—the cranky review left on a website, the heated exclamation uttered when we get cut off in traffic, the passive-aggressive comments we make to our partners. The widespread, casual acceptance of this antagonism is reflective of a larger and more systemic issue affecting our entire society, and that’s something worth addressing. If Nussbaum’s lecture can get us to reconsider the role that anger plays in our lives, it can only be a good thing.

When an academic superstar like Martha Nussbaum is willing to make arrangements not once, but twice, to travel to our corner of the Shenandoah Valley, it says a lot about the kind of woman and scholar she is. The subject matter for her lecture says even more, and that subject has the potential to have a profound effect on our campus culture. With everything that she’s done to get here, we ought to do our best to make her feel welcome and to critically engage with the ideas she will propose. Nussbaum is one of the top minds working in the world today and for one afternoon, JMU will get to benefit from her wisdom and insight. “Injustice and the Dubious Value of Anger” will take place this Friday, Nov. 14 from 4:00 to 5:30 in the Health and Human Services building, room 2301.

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Leadership and the 8KQ

Election season in the United States is a truly polarizing time of year. Whether your candidate wins or loses (or even bothers to run at all), it’s hard to remain untouched during this period of electoral turmoil. The charged rhetoric, the vitriolic advertisements looping non-stop on TV, the flurry of unwanted campaign postcards filling up your mailbox…this ephemera, intended to drum up support for one contender or another, seems frustratingly ever present. The intention behind our system of government, that periodic elections will spur a renewal of representation and leadership so as to ensure that each governing body actually does speak for its constituents, gets a bit lost in all of this promotion and contrived chaos.

In spite of the unpleasant means and methods to which political campaigns must resort these days, those who are selected to lead are held to a high standard. They are asked to be eloquent defenders of shared values, skilled architects of policy and procedure, elegant negotiators of inter-party communication, and much more. In all of those roles, active ethical reasoning is expected, if not required, by citizens. These responsibilities necessitate in-depth and complex decision making, and the expectation is that those decisions will be firmly grounded by ethical contemplation. When political scandals erupt, it’s typically when that trust has been broken by a shift from ethical and logical consideration to ill-advised rationalizations.

Thankfully, most of us here at JMU have avoided such machinations by being frank and open in our dealings with one another. Our campus community prizes integrity, and we hope to see it demonstrated by every member of the Madison family. No hateful TV commercials, underhanded attacks, annoying robo-calls, or poorly reasoned justifications for this university! We have many opportunities to act as leaders and demonstrate our shared honorable values; if you’re a part of JMU, you’re charged to “be the change.” That edict sets the tone for the entire Madison Experience, and it sets us up to be proactive member-leaders of our community. The implication is that we’re to work together, and that honesty and a cooperative spirit will guide our governing choices.

One way to reaffirm this ethos is to connect with the Eight Key Questions and refine our ethical reasoning skills. Chime in, Dukes—what are you doing to integrate the Eight Key Questions into your leadership work? Whether it’s a part of your office procedures, an activity that you’re doing with your student-led group, or something else that’s entirely different, we want to know what you’re doing to make the 8KQ a part of your day-to-day life here at Madison. How are you contributing to JMU’s culture of ethical reasoning, and how is this commitment helping you to lead?

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Teal Pumpkins for Halloween

Halloween is here again—jack-’o-lanterns are being carved. Little Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Princess Elsas are practicing their best trick-or-treat choruses. Scary movies are being watched (and eyes are being hidden during the really terrifying scenes). Candy and snacks of all kinds are being stockpiled. Everything is almost ready for the little ghouls and goblins to run amok through our neighborhoods, but these preparations bring lingering concern for some.

Halloween should be a fun and festive time for those who celebrate it, particularly for its younger participants. Children who join in the holiday should only have to worry about certain things—having a great costume, wielding a bag big enough to tote their tasty treats, and maybe getting frightened by the creepy fun of the season. These things are easy to take for granted but for many families, it’s not so simple. Instead of just having to double check the kids’ candy stash for unwrapped goodies or rationing out the haul to prevent sugar overload, some parents and caregivers have to confiscate the entire bag or not take their children out at all due to their kids’ food allergies or dietary restrictions, thus depriving their sons and daughters of what should be an enjoyable night for the whole family. Some folks might be wondering what the big deal is—can’t safety-concerned family members just be thorough in their perusal of this year’s sweets? Shouldn’t an older child be able to read the label and know which foods are forbidden? In some households, yes, it might be that easy but for many, it’s not.

For children with multiple and/or severe food allergies, those allergens can eliminate an entire sack of sugary goodness, making the entire evening’s trick or treating a huge waste. For some kids, an allergic reaction just means an upset stomach; for others, the reaction might involve life-threatening anaphylactic shock or other severe bodily responses. There might be enough time at each house to stop and ask about the ingredients in question, but many people who are on door duty don’t have the time, energy, or nutritional knowledge to adequately address the concerns of caregivers. Unless candy providers have an encyclopedic knowledge of the ingredients going into their confections, they might not even realize that what they’re passing out could be dangerous to these sensitive children. This reasoning holds true for children who are just learning about the terminology associated with their medical conditions—they might know they can’t eat wheat bread or drink milk that comes from a cow, but things become less certain when they read the words “gluten” or “lactose” on a candy wrapper.

All of these dietary variables make adequate safeguards hard to find, but a non-profit called Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has created the Teal Pumpkin Project as a way to combat this problem. By situating a teal-painted pumpkin on the front stoop (teal being the color for food allergy awareness), a homeowner is able to signal to incoming trick-or-treaters that they can expect to find non-food treats—think glow sticks or monster finger puppets—available at that particular house. While intended to help those with food allergies, this gesture could also be useful for families whose diets are restricted in other ways—perhaps for religious reasons or by lifestyle choices. All the same though, passing out stickers instead of Snickers could have a huge impact on trick-or-treaters.

Choosing to paint or not paint a decorative gourd is a pretty small decision in the grand scheme of things. It’s just as small as the call to purchase a bag of blowing bubbles instead of some M&M’s. Many might think that an ethical reasoning strategy like the 8KQ should be reserved for the tougher situations, the choices that will have major effects on many people, but the determination to break out the paint supplies or not is one that will touch lots of little people, many of whom are keenly aware of their dietary difference and reminded of it on a daily basis. After thinking about those children and applying the 8KQ, will you be painting a pumpkin teal in order to pass out tiny toys this Halloween?

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“Resolved: Ethics Cannot Be Taught” …

…a public debate sponsored by the Madison Collaborative and JMU’s Debate Team drew a capacity crowd of approximately 180 to Miller Hall Wednesday night. Debate Team members Samantha Perez and Nathan Buchholz argued the affirmative contending that not only is the teaching of ethics ineffective, in a perverse way, it is counter-productive, producing better cheaters who more eloquently rationalize and justify their unethical decisions. The negative, contending that ethics should and can be taught, was set forth by Rachel Keith and Jacob Bosley. Keith and Bosley emphasized the contemporary crisis in ethics and, while conceding that improvement in ethics pedagogy is needed, they asserted that it is possible and, further, that abandoning the effort to teach ethics would exacerbate the problems.

Professor David McGraw moderated the session with craft and finesse, eliciting clear and substantive questions from those in the audience and adding his final commentary on the ethics of teaching ethics. According to McGraw ethics instruction should involve activities focusing on how to reason ethically, providing a strategic framework for ethical considerations, not lecturing on either what to do or what to think.
McGraw noted that clarifying different conceptions of what it means to teach ethics is essential to the debate.

In the affirmative, Perez and Buchholz characterized typical ethics instruction as settled ethical decisions being “crammed down the throats” of students who operate with fixed ethical dispositions. Because students’ ethical dispositions are emotion-based and fixed by previous experience, and appropriate ethical decisions are not a matter of empirical demonstration, the affirmative asserted there is no motivation for students to study ethics. When forced to learn ethics using “cherry picked” case studies, students subvert the process and develop more effective strategies for rationalizing their existing values and behaviors. The negative emphasized a conception of teaching ethics best characterized as providing an ethical reasoning framework and skillset, like that in the Madison Collaborative Eight Key Question framework. Implicitly agreeing with the rejection of the “force feeding” view of ethics instruction, Keith and Bosley highlighted the potential for ethical transformation via effective instructional techniques such as authentic case studies and open discussion about vexing problems.

Both sides called upon research. The case against teaching ethics relied heavily on a two-semester study that showed the inclusion of ethical reasoning in instruction actually decreased scores on an ethics assessment. To this was added multiple instances of bad ethical decisions being made by persons who had presumably been educated in ethics. In addition, external constraints on ethical behavior such as the law or recalcitrant administrations of business schools, hospitals, and business itself were pointed to as reasons to avoid teaching ethics. The case for teaching ethics relied upon other research investigations which demonstrated effectiveness in teaching ethical reasoning and the promise of making a positive difference in actual decision making. The many instances of bad “devilish” decisions were attributed to either ineffective ethics instruction or none at all. Calls from judges and medical leaders for more instruction in ethics provided support for the negative case.

Kudos go to JMU debate team members Perez, Buchholz, Keith and Bosley for a lively educational debate introducing those in attendance to the controversies raging over teaching ethics in institutions of higher education. Each debater represented their assigned position well. JMU’s debate team, under the leadership of Dr. Michael Davis, garners national recognition for their many accomplishments. Through public debates such as this the university community benefits from the team’s talents.
By vote of the audience the argument in the negative, namely that ethics can and should be taught, won the day. But everyone in attendance was a winner. We ran a rich and robust intellectual sprint through one of the more controversial topics in higher education today — can ethics be taught? We agreed that ethics can be taught. The challenge is to do it well.

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Think pink?

When October rolls around, it’s easy to be dazzled by the color of the season. No, I’m not talking about the beautiful scarlet, ochre, or burnt orange leaves falling from the trees. I’m not talking about the browning grass, the increasingly short and dusky days, or the golden gourds and pumpkins dotting the front stoops of many a house in Harrisonburg. I’m not even talking about the creamy froth on top of your pumpkin spice latte. What I’m referring to is the tidal wave of pink that takes over seemingly every product, fundraiser, and commercial in October, all in the name of raising breast cancer awareness.

Many people see this rosy cascade in a positive light—after all, the campaign for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) increases recognition and response to a terrible disease, one that strikes thousands of American women every year. JMU certainly isn’t resistant to the allure of this altruistic promotion; during the weekend of Oct. 10 alone, the university hosted two soccer matches, one football game, and one 5K race that were all connected in some way to increasing visibility for breast cancer research and raising recognition of those affected by the disease. Aside from that core intention and the athletic nature of each event, the main element that linked those disparate activities together was the color pink. Fans were asked to wear it, athletes were given special permission to wear gear emblazoned with the color…instead of uniting behind the usual purple and gold, the JMU community connected by going pink. What, might you ask, does this roseate riot of Dukes have to do with ethical reasoning?

The short answer is plenty. While we feel a sense of solidarity and pride when we look into a crowd of our peers and see everyone visually united for a common reason, we Dukes might want to think more critically about what’s actually going on when we participate in this movement. The most recent ethical dilemma arising from this push to make pink the color of October was a decision on the part of the Susan G. Komen Foundation to partner with Baker Hughes Inc., a company known for its focus on oil and fracking. Komen, one of the largest and most recognized breast cancer organizations in the United States, accepted a $100,000 donation from the energy company which then produced 1,000 hot pink drill bits that were distributed all over the world. These drill bits were to be used for fracking, a process that utilizes pressurized chemicals and other liquids to crack rock layers in an effort in extract natural gas. Since this isn’t the typical partnership or pink product that we usually see during this time of year, it raises the question—what are we actually doing when we go pink for NBCAM? What is being accomplished by this campaign, particularly through the Komen Foundation’s most recent partnership, and by JMU’s participation in the larger movement? If we apply the Eight Key Questions to this particular initiative, how might the JMU community respond—would we still make pink the color of the season?

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Student Blog – The Anti-Gay Preacher

JMU student and Madison Collaborative Advisor (new peer education group), Megan Sibley, sent me the story about the preacher on-campus at JMU in mid-September. I asked her to think about how the Eight Key Questions may apply to this situation and she wrote the following response.

By Megan Sibley, Junior, IDLS – Early Childhood Education

On September 16th and 17th, Reverend Jackson preached against homosexuality outside Carrier Library. His proclamations did not go unnoticed – instead, it instigated a massive retaliation in support of LGBT. JMU students sang hymns and held signs while drowning out the preacher’s words with chants supporting gay equality. This certainly posed an ethical dilemma. The complex perspectives can be seen when applying the 8 key questions to this scenario.

Fairness – Fairness applies to the reasoning behind both the reverend and the students’ decisions. The most objectively fair thing to do would be to allow both sides of the argument to voice their opinions. But from the students’ perspective, fairness was centered on equal human rights. They fought against this man’s opinion in support of a fair society.

Outcomes – The ultimate outcome was the students’ successful reprisal with a message of love and acceptance. It gained media attention, which helped spread the word of equality, as well as giving empowerment to the gay community. If nobody had retaliated against the preacher, gay students who heard his negative talk would not have realized how accepting and supportive our school actually is.

Responsibilities – The students didn’t have an official obligation to stand up against Reverend Jackson. They could have walked right by and not said anything. However, they felt it was their moral responsibility to stand against his negative message. That was a responsibility that many would not have considered their own (i.e. the bystander effect), but these JMU students stepped up. The reverend thought he had a responsibility too – to spread the word of his religion.

Character – When speaking out, the preacher and students expressed their character. The students showed compassionate character when defending the targeted group. The reverend considers being Christian as part of his identity, but he should think about whether his words reflected the person he wants to be.

Empathy – Reverend Jackson did not appear to use empathy when making his decision to preach. He was not thinking about the impact his words had on others’ self-esteem. He also did not try to understand the point of view of the students who were trying to reason with him.

Authority – To the reverend, his authority was God and the Bible. But he interpreted it in such a way, it ended up hurting rather than helping his message.

Liberty and Rights - Liberties and rights were at the core of this situation. Each party exercised their freedom of speech. The students took their right to free assembly to combat the reverend’s message. But possibly the most important innate right was for safety and peace of mind. The gay students at JMU deserve to feel as safe and welcome as the straight students. Removing the preacher from campus created that safe, loving environment for them.

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Making Ripples

On September 17th, Justice William C. Mims, a Harrisonburg native, opened the Madison Vision Series with a brief history of the word Justice and ended with a challenge to the men and women of JMU to “make ripples, do justice.” His reference was inspired by Robert F. Kennedy’s 1966 “Day of Affirmation Address” in Capetown, South Africa. For more information on this speech by Robert F. Kennedy visit www.rfkcenter.org. Justice Mims also proposed that the Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, is a pathway toward making ripples at JMU. As a Madison Fellow this academic year, I welcome opportunities to work with all faculty interested in incorporating ethical reasoning into their courses. Visit the MC website or email me at mccarthb@jmu.edu Let’s make waves!

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Does Science Make You More Moral?

This question was addressed in a research article where subjects were “primed” – given a word or phrase – from science and then asked to weigh in on various ethical issues and dilemmas.  Those subjects which were primed by the science terms actually showed a statistically significant improvement on ethical decision making.  [Forwarded by Judith Dilts, associate dean, CSM.]  http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0057989

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College Students Do The Right Thing

A group of students who found themselves in an untended store decided to do the right thing.  See: http://news.yahoo.com/video/4-ny-college-students-honest-052657464.html  [ Nick Langridge, senior vp university advancement, forwarded.]

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Reflection not Reflex

Philip Zimbardo’s notoriety came from the Stanford Prison Experiments in which students who role played prison personnel treated students who role played prisoners so harshly that the experiment had to be stopped. It was actually Zimbardo’s wife an outsider who saw what was going on that forced the end of the experiment. Zimbardo is now designing ways to teach against the “bystander effect.” He calls his training a training for heroes.  According to the article, “The hero project’s curriculum teaches students to use a mental “pause button” so that they can avoid falling prey to automatic assumptions (“Someone else will take care of it”) and choose a more thoughtful response instead.” The MC’s pause button is the eight key questions, i.e. a little more content than simply stopping to think. Just stopping to think about anything — reflecting–  causes better thinking and acting. See:  http://www.theatlanticcities.com/arts-and-lifestyle/2013/09/you-can-train-humans-be-good-people/6806/  [ Forwarded by Tom Adajian, philosophy.]

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