It has been a great honor to take over the reins of the Ethics Institute from Dr. Cecil Eubanks, who stepped down as Director in May 2020. During the leadership transition, I have worked with him closely, and profited from his wisdom and deep institutional knowledge. I want to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Eubanks for his immense service to the Institute and for his continued support.
At the beginning of each academic year, it is traditional to write a letter to the Institute’s constituents, highlighting the important news and exciting programming planned and encourage all of our supporters to participate and stay involved. In this first letter, I want to take a slightly more reflective approach, looking forward as well as backward. The purpose, however, is still the same: to encourage each of you to join us in our efforts to promote ethics education and research and inspire ethical leadership. Get involved. Collaborate with us. We rely on your support.
The COVID pandemic, uprisings for racial justice, a highly contested national election. In no time in recent memory has ethical judgement and decision-making been as important.
‘Decision’ comes to us from the Latin decidere, which means ‘to cut off.’ To make a decision is quite literally to cut off—discussion, calculation, debate, and representation— in order to render or deliver a judgement.
It is because principles and facts (alone) cannot determine what we ought to do, that ethical judgement—what the Ancient Greeks called phronesis—is required. The “leap” beyond principles and facts that is inherent in any decision cannot be eliminated. Ethical judgement cannot happen while sitting on the fence. Fairly representing various sides of an issue and a good-faith accounting of the reasons people have for holding conflicting views are conditions for ethical judgement but not the stuff of ethical judgement itself.
The crises and contestations of 2020 have dramatized this.
The leaders of our state and our nation had to make life and death decisions about how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, weighing the risks of shutting down the economy with the risk of unchecked transmission of the disease. LSU’s leadership had to decide whether to open the campus this fall—and whether or not to field our athletic teams. Political tensions, already heightened by hyper-partisanship, were exacerbated by the COVID response and then again by the protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Many of us, individually and communally, had to decide what the right civic response should be—and what justice required of us. Not acting, we must never forget, is its own decision.
Here at LSU, student leaders decided—in the wake of Floyd’s death—that creating a more racially just institution required grappling honestly with LSU’s past. It was neither just nor right, they argued, to continue to commemorate the library’s namesake, John Middleton, at the center of our campus. Though an undisputed champion of higher education in Louisiana, Middleton also vocally supported segregation. Serving as LSU president from 1952 to 1961, recently published documents make clear Middleton’s role in advocating for segregationist policies after Supreme Court decisions mandated full access and participation of Black Americans in University life. Governor Edwards, writing in support of changing the name, wrote: “LSU students shouldn’t be asked to study in a library named for someone who didn’t want them to be LSU students. We can do better. We can be better.”
Of course, not everyone agreed that the judgement rendered was either wise or just. Not every issue can be settled by consensus. By their very nature, ethical judgements cut off, rather than encourage ongoing debate. A precondition of their being ethical though is a meaningful accounting of objections and inclusion of as many points of view as possible. What is clear is that LSU leadership saw themselves as acting in the name of a new generation of student leaders, exercising their civic duty to decide how the ideals of the university and the country should be expressed. In this, they recalled Thomas Paine’s dictum: “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it.”
If decision-making requires us to cut-off debate, ethical education is about teaching students how to decide well. Central to this education is an enlarged capacity for representing others in thought. As Hannah Arendt argued, citizenship requires an ‘enlarged mentality,’ the capacity to think from the standpoint of everybody else. Wisdom, integrity and enlarged perspectives, then, are the virtues that our shared ethical traditions teach us to instill in future decision-makers.
As we move forward with our educational and research mission, the LSU Ethics Institute will be hosting a series of campus-wide conversations about the Ethics of Public Memory and Commemoration—extending into 2022—with the goal of enlarging our perspectives through open intellectual exchanges. We invite you to join us in our efforts, and in doing so contribute to the future of LSU and the future leaders of our state and our nation.
With great optimism for the future,
Dr. Deborah Goldgaber
Director, LSU Ethics Institute