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Panel discusses elements of ethical debate

| Friday, September 7, 2018

Hoping to open up a discussion on how to have ethical and and productive debates, the University Writing Program, the Higgins Labor Program, the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy, the Snite Museum and the Young Americans for Freedom jointly hosted a panel Thursday night in the Geddes coffee house.

John Duffy, associate professor of English at Notre Dame, began the panel by considering what is actually meant by the words “ethics” and “ethical arguments.”

Duffy said there are three major philosophies through which one can interpret and ask questions about ethics. The first perspective, Deontology, assumes that there are actions which are categorically right and categorically wrong, and asks a person to consider what, in actuality, is the right thing to do. The second perspective, Duffy said, examines the consequences of actions. However, both of these philosophies can face difficulties when reviewing their practical values.

“In [certain] case[s], there are some values that clash pretty dramatically, and so people begin to feel less secure,” Duffy said. “[These questions] can be much harder when we don’t know the answers.”

Ultimately, Duffy said he “feels most compelled” by a third perspective: virtue ethics.

“The question to ask here is what would a good person do … and what does it mean to be a good person?” he said.

The answers to these questions can be found through qualities such as  “truthfulness, accountability, generosity, compassion and courage,” Duffy said.

Thus, ethical arguments are those which are guided by attributes that correspond with virtue ethics, such as truthfulness and courage. If arguments are gone about in this way, Duffy said, they can become an act of “radical humility.”

“Every time we argue, we put propositions in front of others, and we ask them to judge us … In doing that, we are in a sense, inviting them to make an assessment of ourselves, and our ideas,” Duffy said.  

Elizabeth Capdevielle, assistant teaching professor in the University Writing Program, continued these thoughts by invoking the actions and works of figures such as Ade Bethune — an artist for the Catholic Worker Movement — and Martin Luther King Jr., and considered how the rationale behind these individuals could be used to foster more ethical communication in writing.

“If we want to be part of powerful social change, we can take the road of non-violence, and communication can be our way of doing that,” Capdevielle said.

Nathaniel Myers, also of the University Writing Program, then discussed what the writing program calls, the six rhetorical virtues — honesty, knowledge, virtue, tolerance, judgement and intellectual courage.

“The three virtues that are especially helpful in strengthening our own claims and our ability to reach across the political divide … are honesty, knowledge and tolerance,” Myers said.

Through the usage of these virtues, Myers said writers will be able to be less combative and more productive in persuasive pieces.

Despite the usefulness of these virtues, there are limitations to these strategies, Myers said.

“To engage virtuously in argument requires that both sides are seeking to engage virtuously … If you are the only one that’s obligated to use words responsibly … you’re already going to be in a losing position,” he said.

Ending the panel, Patrick Clauss, of the University Writing Program looked back on an incident that recently occurred in his life where, while walking in his home while the lights were off, he ran into his couch. Though no one was there in his basement to hear his exclamations of pain, his reaction was still to shout.

“We are evolutionarily programmed to use language. When something happens to us, we react.

“When you feel attacked, do you willingly give up your position, or do you more tightly cling to your position?” he said. “ … When we feel attacked, we defend.” 

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