Why a Center for Ethics at Lehigh?

What’s the big deal about ethics?

We are daily reminded of ethical lapses of leaders in government, business, academia, and other professions, and of moral challenges confronting individuals, groups, institutions, nations, and the global communities. Conversation about moral complexity in local, national, and international affairs is desperately inadequate due in large part to modern communication systems and the politicization of media outlets. With so much emphasis on speed and instant communications, with the emergence of a divisive public discourse that stresses winning and losing arguments, with winning seeming to go with the loudest voice or the last word, reflection on the complexity of value questions is becoming a lost art in modern society. In the public arena, value questions often arise simplistically and invoke an “us or them” mentality, which affects how “facts” are presented, interpreted, and made available through the media for public consumption, and which is reflected uninformed partisan discussion, poor or nonexistent deliberation, and feeble or reprehensible decision-making. There is, in other words, a distressing lack throughout society of rigorous inquiry into, probing reflection on, and responsible engagement with the ethical dimensions of life. 

But why establish a Center for Ethics at Lehigh University?

Lehigh University’s mission to advance learning through teaching and research and to prepare graduates “to engage with the world and lead lives of meaning” places a high premium on the adherence to and expression of a set of “essential and enduring” values of “intrinsic importance” and on the ethical development of students.[1] The University’s commitment to equity and inclusion and to the Principle of our Equitable Community highlights this emphasis on the ethical dimensions of life at Lehigh and beyond.  The centrality of research to the mission of the university in the 20th-century context, both as it is reflected in teaching and as it contributes to knowledge more generally, requires that research explicitly engage with ethical dimensions of human life, including research activity itself.  And while the University is officially committed to the Principles of Our Equitable Community, there is still much to be done in not only fostering a climate of respect that is embraced and enacted by every community member but also in having meaningful discussion about how we should live together here.

Why is the Center housed in the College of Arts and Sciences?

As the traditional site of university attention to this aspect of Lehigh’s educational mission and commitments, the College of Arts and Sciences recognizes that in a morally complex and culturally diverse world, responsible education, scholarly research, and community discussion must seek to increase awareness of, informed critical in inquiry into, sound reflection on, and responsible engagement with the ethical dimension of life. The Center for Ethics is established to serve as a leader in fostering these skills and activities.

How will the Center for Ethics contribute to the educational mission of the university?

While attention has always been given to values, ethics, and the practicalities of decision making in some domains of the Lehigh University curriculum, the need to consider this dimension of the Lehigh educational experience has become ever more pronounced as society faces crises in the important spheres of contemporary life where Lehigh expects its graduates to work and assume leadership roles:  business, government, education, medical and biological science, engineering, and other professions.  An educated person able to meet the demands of living and working in the world today must attend to the inevitable and inescapable press of value questions and ethical concerns and do so in a way that reflects their development and use of capacities and skills in a wide variety of disciplines that enable them to identify, understand, and deliberate well about ethical issues, to connect challenges and responses across domains, to develop the cross-cultural ethical competencies that will fit them to be decent colleagues, employees, employers, professionals, suppliers, and consumers, to act responsibly, and become moral leaders. Accordingly, the 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 when value conflicts arise, and whose personal codes of values and ethics emphasize the need to accept responsibility for themselves as well as for the well-being of their various communities

Is there a research dimension to the Center for Ethics?

Both the ever-changing pressing current ethical challenges and the perennial Big Questions about how to live appropriately are the scholarly and research foci of Lehigh faculty members and graduate students in some disciplines at Lehigh University, there remain a plethora of disciplines and areas of activity at the university in which ethical issues remain unacknowledged, unaddressed, or insufficiently tackled.  Moreover, it is no longer possible to do scholarly research in ways that are disconnected from the rest of the world; scholars have to confront sociocultural realities and ethical challenges in our domains, including the domains of research and publishing themselves. Accordingly, There is a need, then for the kind of activities that only the Center for Ethics can generate and support that focuses on research.

What about the world beyond the Lehigh campus?

Finally, the University has an obligation to contribute its expertise to the large community, and the Center for Ethics is uniquely situated to be a public resource for expertise on matters in the ethical domain. Whether through open-to-the-public lectures, podcasts and videos, commentaries on current issues, or other public-facing activities that challenge the current climate of partisan discussion, poor deliberation, and unsound decision-making and contribute instead to serious reflection on the complexity of ethical challenges, responsible deliberation, and sound decision-making, the Center can help make Lehigh a leader in public ethics education.

[1] From the University’s Mission Statement, 2017-18 Catalog, p. 5.