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Ethics in Society Program encourages moral reflection

As the 15 undergraduates slogged through the mud in a drizzling rain, abstract theories of environmental justice began to find a human face.

On their right, a solitary heron cruised above the sloughs of a seemingly endless national wildlife refuge. But when the students looked to the left, the vista was less idyllic.

Green grass no longer grows in the Wilsons' yard. The family dug up their vegetable garden and replanted tomatoes and zucchini in above-ground pots when arsenic was detected in the soil. The carcinogen is a by-product of a nearby hazardous materials recycling plant.

"That's where they dumped all the contaminated dirt," Keisha Evans said, pointing through a chain-link fence to a waist-high mesa covered with black plastic and weighted with tires. "And that's where it's stayed."

Evans often takes visitors on what she calls "toxic tours" of the East Palo Alto bayfront neighborhood where she and her family have lived for more than 20 years. As she stops beside a Superfund site that has been designated for clean-up by the Environmental Protection Agency, or describes how local teenagers are organizing to protest two proposed cement plants, the motherly activist makes her point with poignant stories.

This quarter Evans also serves as a community consultant for Philosophy 77, "The Ethics of Social Decisions," an innovative course that is equal parts political theory and public service. The course is focused on the environmental justice movement this year; it examines how communities of color are disproportionately burdened by the siting of toxic facilities and waste dumps in their neighborhoods. Students read up on pollutants, study the history of the movement and then work as interns in local non-profits, including the Ujima Security Council, Youth United for Community Action and Santa Clara County's occupational safety and health organization.

The course, which is linked with the Haas Center for Public Service, is a cornerstone of Stanford's Ethics in Society Program. The focus changes each year, from children's rights to issues of education or hunger, but the goal of the course remains the same: integrating moral and political philosophy with real-world concerns.

"One of the problems with most ethical theories is that they're nice in the abstract but we don't know how to embody them in our lives," says Debra Satz, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics in Society program. "In the program we hold theory to the test of practice and ask how it can be incorporated into the way people live, or should live. We want to prepare our students for lives of personal integrity and reflective citizenship, by encouraging their capacities for critical thinking and moral inquiry and their concern for justice."

As students from diverse backgrounds begin to explore these issues in class, examining the effects of poverty and racism, the discussions can get passionate and heated. That's why the "reflective" training provided by philosophy plays such a critical role, says Lori Gruen, a lecturer in philosophy who teaches the environmental justice course and several others in the program.

"The fact that people are being poisoned in this country is a shocking thing," she says. "And if you are black or Mexican American or Native American and you find out that this is happening primarily to people of color, you're probably going to be outraged.

"Feelings of outrage are an important source of information, but we don't just say, 'Well, OK, that's how you feel.' Instead, we want students to step back and reflect more deeply on why they have certain feelings, and then evaluate the role those feelings might play in their judgments."

David Holloway, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, says that moral and ethical reflection should be an integral part of undergraduate education.

"I think Ethics in Society is an extremely important program that is performing a critical function for the university," Holloway says. "In fact, I would very much like to see Stanford be stronger in the area of normative theory and studies of ethics because I think the university ought to have the capacity to reflect on issues like changes in technology and international security issues.

"It's a very good program, and you can certainly have more of a good thing."

The program in Ethics in Society was founded in 1987, at a time when ethics centers were being established at professional schools of a number of major research universities. In the past decade, ethics programs increasingly have been situated at the center of liberal arts curricula, according to Amy Gutmann, the founding director of Princeton's University Center for Human Values.

"Stanford's Ethics in Society program is a very welcome and important addition to the increasing number of interdisciplinary ethics centers around the country and world," says Gutmann, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics at Princeton University and current dean of the faculty.

Noting that Ethics in Society "aims to enrich a liberal arts education by sponsoring more teaching and scholarship on issues as practically important and as theoretically complex as social justice, individual well-being and citizenship," Gutmann said she first became familiar with the program when she was invited to speak on campus for the Tanner Lectures in Human Values.

"I enjoyed the intellectual engagement that both the program and the Department of Philosophy provided," Gutmann added. "And I was very impressed by the students, too."

The interdisciplinary honors program enrolls between six and 10 students each year from a wide range of majors, including philosophy, political science, psychology, public policy, urban planning, biology and human biology. Its relatively short history is nevertheless star-studded: Ethics in Society has the highest number of Rhodes, Truman, Fulbright and Marshall scholarship winners, per capita, of any program or major at Stanford.

Eric Beerbohm, for example, is a political science major who has won a $30,000 Marshall scholarship for graduate school and is completing a co-term master's degree in philosophy. He spent last summer working in the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and now is considering a stint with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after graduation.

"Ethics in Society was one of the reasons I came to Stanford," he says. "It's one thing to say you know intuitively that something is wrong, but it's quite another to be able to give five reasons why it's wrong. And that's what the program shows you ­ how to argue for your intuitions, how to articulate moral philosophy, and then how to reflect on what our responsibilities are to ourselves and our families and communities."

Beerbohm is writing his honors thesis this year about issues of responsibility and deservedness, drawing on the work of political theorist John Rawls. Other students are crafting theses around issues of international justice in the European Union, multicultural education in Northern Ireland, components of justice and punishment in the American political system, and ethical aspects of gene manipulation in humans.

Susan Okin, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society and a professor of political science who preceded Satz as director of the program, is teaching the program's honors seminar this year.

"We really want students to ask specific ethical questions about actual issues ­ for example, social, political or medical ones," she says. "The first challenge for most students is to narrow down their topic, and then they need to figure out what kinds of empirical evidence will help them to make a strong argument."

There are five juniors and seniors in Okin's seminar, and the ratio of students to faculty continues to be a big attraction of the program, according to a number of graduates.

"I think the best thing about Ethics in Society was how much contact I had with professors," says Michelle Friedland, a first-year student at Stanford's law school. "When I was writing my research project, I often spent three hours a week with my adviser."

Friedland designed her own ecology and population biology major as an undergraduate and had an opportunity to do field work in Hawaii and at Hopkins Marine Station. But she says she was particularly interested in the ethics of environmental issues and could not find any other place on campus that provided training in that field.

"My interest was in applying theory, rather than pure theory," Friedland says. "I ended up writing my thesis about the obligations we have to future generations when we make environmental decisions."

Friedland says she feels as if she still has a home in the philosophy department, where Ethics in Society is housed, and she returns regularly for discussions of political theory over pizza at a faculty and graduate student workshop on equality that is funded by an National Endowment for the Humanities grant administered by the Humanities Center. Ethics in Society also sponsors the Tanner Lectures in Human Values and the Wesson Lectures in Problems of Democracy, in addition to an annual lecture series that focuses on a current topic of public policy debate such as immigration or human rights.

At a time when there is a concerted effort on campus to strengthen the humanities, Satz says the program can be helpful in giving ethics a more prominent place in the curriculum. She has been meeting with deans in the School of Humanities and Sciences to explore a number of initiatives, from helping faculty develop new undergraduate and graduate courses on moral issues to sponsoring a yearly faculty development workshop on ethical and political theory.

"Given that Stanford trains so many pre-med and professional students, the idea that these students are being trained without being forced to confront moral and political dilemmas and issues is disturbing," Satz says. "I'm hoping that Ethics in Society can play a role in encouraging moral inquiry across intellectual disciplines and professions."


By Diane Manuel

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