Applied ethics series to examine country’s fallen standards

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

If there is nothing more patriotic than dissonance, Chautauquans will certainly celebrate Independence Day in good form with a series of special lectures focusing on U.S. government dysfunction that starts this afternoon. Four speakers from the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University will lead the Lincoln Applied Ethics Lectures at 4 p.m. today through Wednesday at the Hall of Philosophy.

Peter French, the director of Lincoln Center, along with two Lincoln Professors and one Lincoln Fellow, will speak in conjunction with this week’s “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good” theme, while also engaging in discussion with their audiences.

In 1998, Chautauqua residents Joan and David Lincoln established the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU to emphasize the importance of providing students with an ethical education. The Lincolns created a partnership between Chautauqua Institution and the Lincoln Center that has lasted more than a decade, sponsoring theme weeks ranging from “Business and Ethics” to “the Ethical Frontiers of Science.”

In his 10th year leading the ethics series at the Institution, French will open the series today with Jason Robert, a Lincoln professor. Tuesday afternoon, Lincoln professor Braden Allenby and Lincoln fellow Thomas Seager will speak, and on Wednesday, the four will give brief reprisals of their presentations and hold an open discussion and Q-and-A session with the audience.

Peter French

Peter French

Chair and director of the Lincoln Center since its opening in 2000, French will begin the lectures with a discussion about America’s change in standing over several decades in regard to “common good” issues such as education, life expectancy and health care.

“This year, I’m going to lead off with a discussion about what’s gone wrong in our country in the last few decades as to why, perhaps, the country has fallen significantly down on the standards that are used to evaluate where countries stand in regards to achieving what we call the expectations of the common good,” French said.

French plans to examine governmental structures in-depth and discuss their failings, as well as possible solutions.

“In terms of government structures, there are systemic elements not particularly suited to respond to these kinds of changes in a particularly effective way,” French said. “I’ll talk about how we can confront some of these problems from other angles than just hoping the government is somehow going to fix itself and improve matters for us all.”

French will not just focus on the government, but also the public and its perception of what constitutes the common good and who is responsible for it.

“We’re trying to open up people’s thinking to look at issues in this world that we’ve tried to ignore as a country and as individuals for much too long,” French said.

French has also written several books on ethics. His most recent is War and Moral Dissonance, a memoir of French’s experience teaching ethics to Marine and Navy chaplains during the Iraq War.

Jason Robert

Jason Robert

As the Lincoln professor of ethics in biotechnology and medicine, Robert will speak about health and health reform. He will look at the intersections between government and health in terms of the common good.

“I think I’m going to be more hopeful and optimistic than the other speakers,” Robert said. “With health as my focus, I want to argue that the common good is imaginable and achievable, and that government can be a good thing rather than a bad thing.”

Like the other speakers from the Lincoln Center, Robert will address the angle and attitude with which the public views and affects the common good.

“Part of the issue is that we’ve just been thinking about the common good in the wrong way,” Robert said. “I want to demonstrate how to re-imagine the common good in a way that’s genuinely American.”

“Of course, that’s a challenge for me because I’m Canadian,” Robert joked.

Robert’s first visit to Chautauqua was in 2009, and he said that during his second time here, he hopes Chautauquans can impart as much wisdom on him as he does them.

“Really, I hope to gain a sense of how big a challenge this is, that other people are optimistic, and I’m not the only optimist,” Robert said.

Braden Allenby

Braden Allenby

“The subtitle of my speech is, ‘If You Want the Future, You Can’t Handle the Future,’” Allenby said.

Allenby, the Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics, will use his expertise of environmental engineering as a framework for his speech Tuesday. As does French, Allenby plans to highlight the recent drastic changes in U.S. life.

“This particular set of changes is more important than anything we’ve ever gone through as a society,” Allenby said.

Ending on a positive note, Allenby will reinforce the public’s ability to impact the government.

“If we can realize how badly broken the traditional ways of thinking are, then we can begin to discuss the ways in which we can enact change,” Allenby said.

During his fourth visit to Chautauqua, Allenby said he would like his audience to adopt a critical, but hopeful, eye in regard to the decline of the common good in the U.S.

“I’d like Chautauquans to take away a healthy skepticism for much of what passes as dialogue today, along with a sense of optimism for the future,” Allenby said.

In the past, Allenby served as Environmental, Health and Safety vice president for AT&T and as director for Energy and Environmental Systems at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in addition to his professorial posts.

Thomas Seager

Thomas Seager

Seager is a Lincoln Fellow of Ethics & Sustainability. At ASU, he is leading a National Science Foundation project that uses game theory in order to develop new strategies to teach ethical reasoning skills to science and engineering graduate students.

Along with his colleagues, Seager will address government dysfunction and approaches that might be utilized to take the place of where the U.S., in particular, has failed.

Given his research, Seager is expected to focus on education as a “common good” issue, as well as the way education can be used and reformed to serve as a solution to many of the issues French and Allenby will bring up.

This will be Seager’s first visit to Chautauqua.

French, Robert, Allenby and Seager said they are particularly enthusiastic to lead these discussions at Chautauqua and continue the Lincoln Ethics Series at the Institution.

“People at Chautauqua seem to be open in looking at the complexities of issues and not just accepting simplistic answers to questions that are anything but simplistic,” French said. “I enjoy the fact that after we finish the session, there’s always a whole line of folks who want to talk some more and continue the discussion.”