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Finding an Ethical Balance

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Baccalaureate Service
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Good morning. I am thankful, and we are all blessed to be here.

This begins the events comprising a very special day ... for everyone here:

  • whether you are graduates leaving the intellectual challenges and pleasures of university surroundings, or plunging into work toward an advanced degree;
  • whether you are parents watching your offspring mark yet another milestone;
  • whether you are trusted teachers and mentors; or
  • whether you are friends of a graduate whose future is of interest to you;

Today begins a time of transition and change for each of you.

What is more, individual transition occurs in the midst of societal and global change — a time of unease and uncertainty. Ours is a complex world beset by armed conflicts, divisive doctrines, ecological threat, epidemics, and natural disasters, most of which do not respect national borders.

Today's world — the wi-fi, hyper-linked, warp-speed, 24-7-365 on-line world — adds layers of complexity to this mix — and, brings transition, change, and turmoil that much closer to the individual.

It can be overwhelming.

So, it is good to mark a special occasion with quiet reflection in a house of prayer. It is good to use this time and this place as a time to recall who we are, and where we are going, and also to think about what it is that guides us. What magnetism keeps our moral compass pointing true North?

This morning's service is such a time — a time to seek one's bearings, a time to find a point of balance, a time to ask the Almighty for guidance.

The reason change is difficult, I believe, is because change requires that we rethink our relationships — our relationships to each other and our relationships to the world. This requires us to seek guidance for our behavior and for our actions with regard to others, humankind, society, and our planet? Ethical guidance.

Ethics, in this context, is an arrangement of priorities [perhaps a rearrangement] to determine what has primacy. Ethics concerns the principles of human duty — the moral precepts by which a person is guided.

We always are confronted with ethical questions. But, the need to apply ethical principles to daily issues has not always been as prevalent as it seems today. Ethical questions capture headlines with far more frequency than previously.

This is due, in no small measure, to an acceleration of possibilities. More is possible than ever before. There are myriad possibilities, choices, decisions, options, alternatives — a situation which focuses attention on which ones are right, and which ones are not right.

Fifty years ago, for example, few hospitals maintained ethical review committees. Courses in ethics were confined to university philosophy departments, and ethical debates and discussions were largely theoretical. Academic ethics dealt, primarily, with the principles of academic freedom, and the protection thereof. Corporations, as a rule, did not place ethicists on retainer to advise their boards of directors.

Today, however, there are codes of ethical practice for most professions, guidelines for privacy and security of information, research conduct, laboratory records, conflict of interest, quality standards, and employment practices. The New York Times retains a weekly ethics columnist, and there is a national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Competition, which has engaged university students for about a decade.

In part, this derives from our more litigious society. But, it also reflects competing interests, interaction, choice, and an innate concern for fairness.

I speak, on occasion, about ethical challenges in science and technology, where new discovery and innovations continually raise new issues. For instance:

In areas of high biodiversity, organisms which cannot flee their predators, such as plants or coral, are evolutionarily predisposed to develop high toxicity. Biologists are learning that such substances — frequently found in pond scum — may be developed into drugs useful in treating human disease.

Biodiversity raises interesting questions about who should profit from patents based on biodiversity found in developing countries. If the extracted material were a mineral, there would be little question that the country of origin would receive compensation. U.S. patent law protects the individuals who do the intellectual work needed to turn raw biological discoveries into marketable products. International law does not yet address such issues. What is the right ethical position? Sometimes the right ethical position is not clear-cut, but involves balancing competing positions.

But, how do you balance competing interests? What is fair, and to whom? What, or who, has primacy? What is right?

Sometimes to balance competing interests and resolve ethical questions, one must reframe the questions. Let me illustrate:

For years, scientists have warned that human activities are damaging the natural world, causing species extinction, global warming, polluted waterways, and barren landscapes. Yet, others argue that development and use of natural elements has improved the lives of billions of people.

A new report by experts from 95 nations, however, reframes these competing issues, in a global inventory of the state of planetary ecosystems, quantifying the impact of human activities. The report warns not of damage to nature, but of damage to the things which nature does for people — the "services" which nature provides.

Natural systems, of course, purify our air and our water, provide us food and fiber, stabilize our climate and soils, protect us from disasters, supply raw materials and medicines, and more.

The result is a reframing — from man against nature, to man as a part of nature. For the engineers and problem-solvers in the audience, this casts sustainable ecology as a "design issue" — something which we might draft so as to optimize our being part of nature.

Reframing means coming at something from a different angle — to help seemingly entrenched parties see issues in new ways, enabling them to find common ground, which can lead to understanding and resolution. In other words, it is useful to examine how one thinks about something, and what language one uses in describing and discussing it, and placing all of this in the context of the interdependency with others.

Each of the many global conflicts, which employ and destroy so much of the world's resources, involve an array of ethical issues, pitting group against group, culture against culture, history against history. And yet, global economics, energy security, and geopolitics continually demonstrate the degree to which our collective wellbeing is interlinked. Recognizing this interconnection may help us find ways to reframe complex issues, to resolve issues, and to work toward the larger good.

Even with reframing, at times of change and complexity, one naturally longs for "answers." Knowing where one is, and where one is going, is what gives one strength when questions without obvious answers arise.

Today's complexities mean decisions are less clear-cut. Possible courses of action have multiplied, offering a complex series of options. At points of life transition — such as today — a sense of ethical balance can be helpful.

How does one achieve balance?

If one is on a balance beam, say, or, perhaps, a sailboat in rough water, balance comes from observation — establishing one's place in relation to one's surroundings. On the balance beam, that would be the bar itself, the distance to the floor, the proximity of the coach, one's concentration, and mental focus. On a sailboat, that would be the horizon, the stars, magnetic North. It is no accident that these elements were used for centuries to determine position and place at sea — surroundings provided clues, and humans learned to use those surroundings to find their place, their direction — and their balance.

Finding an ethical balance is similar.

So, as you move closer to commencement today, to that magnificent point of transition, the elements at your disposal are many. You have available to you the guidance of family and upbringing. You have available your cultural context, which is unique to your own background. You have spiritual precepts and practices. You have faith. Use them all.

But, to find true balance, do not stop there.

Be curious. Ask questions, and be as informed as you can be. Understanding is, perhaps, the most important basis for finding ethical balance.

Allow differing ideas and perspectives to stretch your thinking. Discovery, creativity, innovation, and ethical decision-making derive from the sensitivities developed from such juxtapositions.

Gather around you people from a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and viewpoints — seek commonalities and new approaches. Allow differences to freshen and inform your thinking.

Finally, be positive and remain strong. Nothing is gained through cynicism and negative thinking. Nothing is gained if you are unwilling to take a stand. Be unafraid, engage with others.

It is tempting to think that many of the tough issues of the day do not involve you directly. But in reality, everyone is involved. The small decisions and judgments which an individual makes, daily, are seemingly not important. They become important, however, because each of these small decisions and choices coalesce, within every community, to create the larger mind-set, the collective consciousness. The bottom line is — what you think and what you do matter, and they coalesce with what others think and do.

In the end, each of us has both the power and the obligation to confront ethical issues-issues which are too important to leave to others to decide. That confrontation is necessary for ethical balance, which you will carry with you, always, as a tool. In confronting ethical issues, you must be unafraid to act.

Because, you carry with you, also, the legacy of another Boston University alumnus — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who received his Ph.D. from the School of Theology in 1955. There could be no finer example of moral strength, vision, and courage. He followed the leading of the Almighty, which gave him ethical balance and clarity. He had the vision to see that the ethical path is sometimes the action path — the action path which relates to the key message of Matthew, Chapter 5. Dr. King once said:

"Cowardice asks the question - is it safe?

"Expediency asks the question - is it politic?

"Vanity asks the question - is it popular?

"But, conscience asks the question - is it right?

"And, there comes a time, when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;

"But, one must take it because it is right."

Thank you, and Godspeed.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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