Intentionally or not, everyone “does” ethics, oftentimes extraordinarily well. All you have to do is wonder or argue about how to act, what lives to emulate or honor, or which obligations to embrace or ideals to pursue. Begun in 2010 in celebration of the Institute’s 15th anniversary, this series aims to engage faculty and students from across Duke’s campus in examining their research through the lens of ethics.
How can DNA be a tool for human rights?
Human rights injustices afflict many populations in the world: migrants fleeing Central America, Cambodia or Libya; Nigerian sex slaves in Italy; sex trafficking victims in the U.S. While scientific technologies cannot resolve crimes of humanity, DNA can be one tool to address exploitation and human trafficking . DNA testing could, for instance, help identify missing persons and potentially reunite those who have been trafficked with family members. But to do so, there needs to be better technology and a shared database contributed to by multiple parties that respects the sensitive needs of vulnerable populations. Navigating the science and its implications can be daunting, and ethically troublesome, but that doesn’t mean the use of science for humanitarian purposes should be discounted.
How can we provide solutions for patients battling obesity that don’t ask them to reject who they are fundamentally?
Obesity is recognized as one of the largest preventable risk factors for many other diseases and health problems. It has been declared a national epidemic. Behavioral solutions are needed to provide patients with the skills and support necessary to make healthful behavior change. This includes taking into account psychological and social factors like income, education, culture, and race—factors outside of the patient’s control. Rates of obesity are much higher in medically vulnerable populations. The clinical solution to obesity has traditionally required individuals to keep meticulous records of everything they eat and drink, as well as their exercise over 6-12 months. For those who are struggling to make ends meet, raise children on their own, or have limited transportation options, how do we find practical solutions for them? Technology can help.
How can math be used to keep us healthy and safe?
We have all sorts of data at our fingertips – on healthcare trials and treatments, crime statistics, and weather patterns for example. But how do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? Mathematical modeling can be used to help us understand a problem in a new way. It can be used to make predictions on what clinical trials to run, where crime will happen, or when catastrophic storms might hit. We can use predictive modeling to help decide where to focus resources in ways that benefit individuals as well as society as a whole.
How can we design legal institutions to resolve international problems?
Many of today’s most pressing challenges transcend national borders. Combatting climate change, respecting human rights, ensuring financial stability—these are only a few of the many issues affected by the flow of people, money, and ideas across borders. Addressing these challenges requires international cooperation. But there is no way to force nation states to help solve these problems, for example by signing a treaty or becoming a member of an international organization. The key is to design international agreements and institutions in ways that give states incentives to join and cooperate.
How can literary innovation help us make sense of a globalized world?
More than ever, our everyday lives put us in contact with far away people and places. We need transnational literacy to help us figure out who and where we are in the world, to let our cultural and even linguistic differences be something that connect rather than divide us. Literature and the arts are vital resources for developing transnational literacy. Readers understandably want to be moved by what they read, to identify with familiar characters, and to be absorbed by an exciting plot. But sometimes the best stories are the ones we did not know we wanted.
How do you measure morality?
One of the reasons people have difficulty explaining their moral worldviews is because they tend to tailor their social circles to limit interaction with people who disagree with them or cause them to question their beliefs. If people’s viewpoints are obvious to them and the others in their social network, they have no reason to question themselves or articulate their beliefs. It reinforces the idea that their understandings of the world are self-evidently true.
How do we build a common life in places characterized by deep religious and cultural diversity?
Building a common life between faith groups and people of no faith without demanding everyone abandons what they cherish about their way of life is a challenging prospect. It is particularly acute in urban contexts where state and market pressures are more intense. Another dimension of the problem is that different religions offer competing truth claims and forms of life that as a result of globalization and migration are increasingly jostled together.
Who should have a right to the “commons” in a post-colonial world?
Access to social, natural and political common resources is a complicated social and political problem. It is perhaps most complicated for post-colonial countries, where resource loss and insecurity are exacerbated by climate change and globalization, and the determination of who has the rights to those resources ties into ongoing conflicts regarding ethnic tension and citizenship. As access to land and availability natural resources diminish, we are left with environmental refugees.
Can we balance obligations to prosecute human traffickers and at the same time protect those who have been trafficked?
In 2009, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) which created the “T-Visa”— a Justice Department tool to prosecute human traffickers and offer temporary visas to victims of trafficking. Since its creation, this program has been chronically under-subscribed with less than 5,000 applicants applying over a 10 year period. The Justice Department estimates that 50,000 people are illegally trafficked into the United States each year for forced labor or sex work. However, Congress can legally issue only 5,000 T-Visas annually that would help to prosecute traffickers and allow victims to stay in the United States legally. Of those 5,000 slots available each year, only a small fraction of victims of trafficking avail themselves of this tool.
Recalibrating Risk – Lori Bennear, Ed Ballesisen, Kim Krawiec, Jonathan Wiener
What makes for an ethical policy response to a crisis?
When a crisis such as an oil spill, a financial meltdown, or nuclear disaster occurs, it focuses public attention in ways that less dramatic processes, such as the accumulated death and illness caused by automobiles or pollution, or the hardships of income inequality, do not. Policy makers often have developed proposals to address the risks that cause these everyday harms, but lack political support to implement them. Public perceptions of a crisis event can provide a brief window of opportunity to turn proposals into policy. But crises and public outcry can also distort policies.
What should we eat?
Everyone eats. Some more than others. About 870 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. This includes more than 100 million underweight children below age 5. In the U.S. alone, some 50.1 million Americans—onesixth of the population—don’t know where their next meal will come from. That such chronic hunger and poverty persist in a world capable of producing enough to feed everyone lingers as one of the most pressing moral dilemmas of the 21st century.
To the extent that ethics is about choosing to be good, the political and cultural economy of food makes ethical
consumption impossible for most.
Who counts as a refugee?
In 1948, my then-fourteen-year-old grandfather, two great-uncles, and great-grandfather fled their home in Shandong province to escape persecution by the Communist army. They left other family members behind, including my great-grandmother, whom my grandfather never saw or spoke to again, and followed the retreating Nationalist army. After a year of war and famine, they ended up in Taiwan, where instead of settling in the military dependents’ villages in Taipei, they moved to the countryside.
Sixty-four years—two generations—later, it suddenly struck me that these family members were wartime refugees.
Doriane Lambelet Coleman
Should healthy minor children be used as organ donors for their ill siblings?
This question, popularized by Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and first posed in the early days of kidney transplantation, remains a real conundrum in both medical ethics and law. For both disciplines, the benefits and harms of the transplants are clear: On one hand, lives are ameliorated or saved when they otherwise might not be, and families are able to sustain themselves, at least in the short term. On the other, healthy children, who lack the legal if not also the cognitive capacity to object, are subjected to serious physical and sometimes also psychological harm for the benefit of others.
What’s in a stereotype?
We all stereotype. We have to use categories, labels, generalizations, and not very nuanced judgments and conclusions everyday to make sense of a world of chaotic and cacophonous sounds, images, people, ideas, and information. A stereotype is like a short-hand label that enables us to distinguish between the millions of bits of information we deal with everyday.
Why don’t incentives always work?
Incentives—offers made to motivate particular actions—seem to be an easy fix for all kinds of problems. There are programs that offer incentives to get people to take their medicine. Some schools give cash incentives to students who get good grades. Incentives are used to increase worker productivity, and so on. The use of incentives is one answer to the question: how can one person get another person to do what he wants him to do?
Should there be a market in human organs?
In the early 1970s, organ donation was an experimental therapy often seen as posing the same sort of dangers as genetic engineering or human cloning. Against this, transplant advocates developed the idea of organ donation as a sacred “gift of life.” It worked. Most people now think of donation as a straightforward moral obligation, or at least an obviously good cause. Over time, organ donation as a gift exchange became the ethical standard, and the idea of trading in a market for organs anathema.
William Darity, Jr.
How might social policies change as more Americans identify themselves as “multiracial”?
Are more Americans, in fact, identifying themselves as “multiracial”? Census 2000 provided respondents with the first opportunity to select more than one racial category. At the time, 2.4 percent of all respondents—or about 6.8 million people—actually selected two categories or more for their racial self-classification. While preliminary reports from Census 2010 indicate that the number of persons checking “two or more” racial categories has risen 35% since Census 2000, the overall proportion remains at less than 3% of all Census respondents.
Michael Valdez Moses
Can novels and films make us better people?
The study of philosophy, history, the classics, and most particularly literature and film, offers us an opportunity to learn what it means to be free and responsible individuals in a modern society and allows us to ask fundamental questions: What is the relationship between freedom and justice? What moral responsibilities does a free individual have toward other members of society? What is the difference between individual liberty and mere license?
Does competition bring out the worst in us?
One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a guy in outdoor garb with a rifle strapped over his shoulder, sitting at a bar and having friendly drinks with a deer on the barstool next to him. The guy remarks, casually, “Hey, if we should meet in the woods and anything happens, remember, it’s just hunting.”
What happens when we blur the line between what is virtual and what is real, and what are the dangers or opportunities in doing so?
When we move from the real world to a truly virtual space, such as that of Second Life or World of Warcraft, we cross clear entry thresholds as we log in and “become” our avatars. These boundaries between the real and the virtual clearly signal to users that they are leaving “meatspace” to enter virtual space. We know our roles in that space—who we are, what we experience, and the implicit values that inform our conduct—and that these roles change as we move from one world to another.
There have been examples throughout history of “bad” people becoming “good,” such as with the case of Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame. Are these anomalies or is there really such a thing as a “moral conversion”? If so, what makes it happen?
For me, a “moral conversion,” means a significant change for the better in an adult’s moral commitments and actions. I haven’t found that people who undergo moral conversions can be simply characterized as wholly “bad” in any simple or uniform way. Schindler was a scoundrel to his wife, but she appreciated his kindness and willingness to help others. He opened a factory in occupied Poland and employed Jews initially to make money, but he witnessed and heard of many acts by Nazis of increasing horror and then of pure sadism. The emotional impact of these events no doubt engaged his compassion as well as his disgust at the perpetrators.
After a regional conflict, the management of natural resources is often in disarray. How can conflict-torn communities best recover?
Environmental recovery includes such issues as reestablishing the water supply and its distribution. In the aftermath of a conflict, obtaining clean, plentiful water is a daily struggle for those left behind. Urban water supply and sanitation systems are often ill-equipped to accommodate a mass influx of refugees. And the risks of dying from exposure to infectious disease linger for years owing to the lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation.
How do people decide what is the right thing to do in any given situation?
To answer this question, one could turn to the Hindu concept of “dharma” whose root meaning is to uphold and to sustain. Dharma indicates actions and thoughts that are conducive to the stability of all that is good in self and society. So knowing one’s dharma means knowing what right conduct should be, whether in small acts or major decisions and at any given moment or place. This process of “knowing” is usually one of experimentation and reflection, marked by things like missteps, doubt, correction, and a sense of fulfillment.
If a brain tumor leads a father to molest his daughter (an actual case), can he be held morally or legally responsible for his actions?
In this unusual case, a 40-year-old Virginia father and teacher led a fairly normal sex life until 2000, when he began collecting pornography, then child pornography, and finally he propositioned his stepdaughter. After being convicted of child molestation, he began experiencing headaches and a loss of coordination, leading to a diagnosis of a brain tumor. When the tumor was removed, his problematic behaviors and desires disappeared. He was eventually allowed to go home to his family. Several months later, the tumor returned, and so did his unusual behavior, before the tumor was removed again.