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Ethically Speaking

Front-page events spark cross-discipline dialogue.

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Two weeks after photographs were published showing U.S. soldiers abusing inmates in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Stanford’s new Center on Ethics convened experts to look at the checks and balances that were MIA—missing in action.

“What made denial or marginalization of the events impossible were the constantly unfolding visual reminders that we were perpetrating the kinds of abuses we had entered the arena to prevent,” says law professor Deborah Rhode, who directs the center and moderated the panel discussion. “That hypocrisy, in a useful sort of way, galvanized public opinion and focused on the need for the United States to play by international rules.”

Rhode, who specializes in legal ethics and professional regulation, likes a rigorous intellectual tussle. At various points in her 25 years on the Farm, she has gathered like-minded ethicists around a timely topic, such as the unraveling of Enron. Two years ago, Rhode proposed a permanent center on ethics that would bring legal scholars, physicians, engineers, environmentalists and humanists to the same discussion table. She envisioned collaborative teams who would guest-teach in one another’s classes and develop ethics instruction that could be adapted for courses all across campus.

University President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, liked the concept and offered to fund it for three years, with matching monies from deans of Stanford’s seven schools. Last year, Rhode coordinated several workshops that demonstrated how quickly faculty affiliated with the ethics center could respond to front-page events. One session, with law professor Lawrence Lessig, probed the ethics of electronic file sharing. Another, with Knight Fellowship journalists, looked at the ethical challenges of covering cases with high-profile defendants, including Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson.

In February, the center’s public launch will be marked with a conference on moral leadership, co-sponsored by ethics centers at Harvard and Princeton. “I truly believe that the central moral challenges of our times involve issues that run across disciplinary boundaries,” Rhode says. “We are a kind of feudal structure, and people don’t cross each other’s turf often enough. There needs to be a broker, which is a role I think the ethics center is well positioned to play.”

Stanford’s Center on Ethics is one of more than 80 university-based centers nationwide. Many were formed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, with a few dating from the 1960s. Associate director Lawrence Quill, who also leads Stanford’s undergraduate honors program in ethics in society, hopes to strengthen links between campus research on ethics, seminars, workshops and public service. Down the road, the honors program and the ethics center hope to share staff, programs and office space. As Rhode says, “We’re toilers in the same vineyard.”

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