2015 Moral Purpose Award Winners


2015 Moral-Purpose-Manfredi

Sofía Manfredi is a Pittsburgh native and a senior at Duke University, where she is majoring in biology and English. She will graduate this December.

I was no class clown. I never threw spitballs, I never turned the clock hands forward in class, and I never made a funny face during my yearbook photo. But whether it be satire, stand-up, or sketch, I find myself drawn to comedy. I am fascinated by its ability to be lighthearted and critical, silly and provocative, universal and deeply personal. And I honestly cannot count the number of papers, projects, and applications that have been left to the last minute in honor of Louis CK or John Mulaney releasing a new bit.
I navigated the first fourteen years of my education making few jokes, constantly seeking what I was lucky enough to be told to seek: a passion. A dream. A golden goal that would drive every aspect of my academic and professional life. But my only objective growing up was one shared by many others: I wanted to make a difference, to aid whichever cause I could help the most. I just had to find a passion through which to do so.

During high school and the first part of my time at Duke, I considered medicine, journalism, entrepreneurship, law, education, and countless fields in between. And while I found these subjects interesting and important, I could not find a single topic that I wanted to designate as my mythical lifelong passion. I spent my college application essays and my Career Center appointments hunting some path, carved out by the universe, that would show me how to be a selfless and enthusiastic and educated person for the rest of my life. I never quite found it.

In my junior year, I left Duke on an extended medical leave. I had quite a bit of time to fill, and, as it turns out, comedy and writing occupied that time. When I returned to Duke the next fall, I found myself a less patient person. I cut out the experiences that failed to engage me: I quit my job and got another one that I found more interesting, I left the extracurriculars that focused more on busywork than enjoyment, and I stopped taking classes that appealed to me more in prestige than in subject matter.

I started spending more and more time on comedy through Duke. I moved to New York for a summer and worked at a humor website as part of the Duke in New York program. I tried stand-up around the Triangle. I founded Duke’s only humor publication. With no apparent regard for my resume, I invested my time in the people and projects that made me feel smart and alive and funny. I soon sensed a concern creeping into the back of mind: could comedy possibly be my one fabled passion? Had I finally found my elusive and all-encompassing Dream? And if I had, what was I to make of the fact that it did not at all focus on service, as I had so long assumed that it would?

Certainly, comedy and laughter are positive forces. Offering both distraction and reassurance, well-written humor can open up experiences that are otherwise obscured by frustration, pain, or silence. But poorly-written humor can be at its best awkward and at its worst disenfranchising, and I am not so naive to think that I hit all of my punch lines. I am trying to reconcile the fact that “following my dreams” might mean moving to Brooklyn and telling jokes in basement clubs, offering laughter not to the beleaguered or the ill, but to random audience members who were grudgingly convinced to attend by whichever of their friends is bartending. How much of a difference would my interest in comedy really make?

I spent most of my life assuming that I would find a single passion and then become a doctor or researcher or advocate of some kind, that I would be obviously working in the service of society. But I have realized that more than one dream is allowed to permeate my life. There is not some shining passion out there that I can find like I would a quarter that rolled under the sofa; all I can find are my current interests, the ones that my time gravitates towards. Right now, my time goes to comedy. So I take some solace in this: that even if I do not contribute to society in the way that I thought I would, I have found something that makes me feel completely honest and engaged. And while society wants doctors and researchers and advocates, it also wants people who are engaged. For me, that is enough.

2015 Moral-Purpose-Augustine

Erik Augustine graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 with a major in philosophy.

A seminal moment in my development as a moral agent came, oddly enough, while reading Chicken Soup for the Soul at age twelve. In one story, thousands of starfish had been stranded on a beach by the changing tide, so a man begins to throw them back into the water. Onlookers protested. The man couldn’t save a significant portion of the starfish, so what difference could it make? Smiling as he tossed another unfortunate echinoderm the man retorted, “It made a difference to that one.”

I found this ostensibly heartwarming story troubling. Why shouldn’t the characters feel obligated to help animals in need when it could be done at so little cost to them? The situation elicited feelings of dismay and guilt as I realized that I was quickly maturing into a position where I would have the ability, and thus the obligation, to help those in need even though it would likely make the difference of a drop in the ocean on a large scale. If I could buy a meal for someone who would otherwise go hungry, how could I justify spending money on any of the frivolous things that kids do? In fact, how could I justify any of the unnecessary comforts of my life?

As I got older adults and peers tended to dismiss this line of thought, so I tended to keep it to myself. I was often told I was being too tough on myself, that we’re just human beings and we shouldn’t have such high expectations. My opinion was strict and often uncomfortable, and my resolve to voice my thoughts faltered. But while I didn’t often speak my mind, my belief—that ethics should be hard—remained. I was constantly aware of ways in which I was selfish by not taking advantage of the opportunity to be selfless.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in college is in the importance of voicing my opinion. Studying philosophy I am constantly surrounded by brilliant professors and students who have the confidence to argue their case and the awareness to understand how important it is to advocate what you think is right. These people have introduced me to a broad world of disparate moral beliefs. I have gained confidence in my thinking from connection with the like-minded either in person or through text. I have also realized the importance of discourse from debating opposing views within the classroom and without. My life has been enriched and my opinions have become subtler and more mature thanks to these sincere debates, and I have a responsibility to add my voice to the conversation.

My time at UNC hasn’t shaken me from my position on our obligations to help others. In fact, my experiences over the last four years have strengthened my position by providing relief. A moral life need not and should not be a slavish one. The commitment to ethics, be it deontological principles or the calculus of utility can and should be animated by the sincere enjoyment of doing good. In short: ethics is hard, but also happy.

Listening to others—from professors to campus protestors—argue their ethical causes has affirmed for me that a life dedicated to figuring out and doing the right thing doesn’t have to be defined by the frustration of coming up short both in terms of will power and the scope of my possible impact. I have found my own genuine desire to further moral causes both from late nights in the library and from what a meta-ethicist might call “prosocial behavior” like talking to strangers in need. If I can keep developing moral interests that are both theoretical and empathetic, I will improve my moral behavior both out of obligation and desire.

My college years have not only informed my moral views but deepened my understanding of those views’ importance. I have begun to understand how pessimistic my perspective on a moral life was and how much purpose there is even in an imperfect or relatively small scale attempt at it. College didn’t teach me that I had to throw starfish, but it taught me to enjoy it.