Princeton University
May 30, 2000

Remarks by University President Harold T. Shapiro

Graduating students, distinguished members of the platform party, family and friends, it is my pleasure and honor to be able to address you for a few moments on this wonderful and happy occasion.

Commencement is always a joyous milestone, not only for the graduating students, but for their families and friends, their teachers and all who have nurtured them, mentored them, and cherished them.

Our justified pride in the achievements of today's graduates is buoyed up even further by our feelings of hope, of anticipation, and of optimism as we welcome the next generation of leadership to the challenges and the opportunities that we all face. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I join with all of you in celebrating the achievements of today's graduates.

At Sunday's Baccalaureate Service Queen Noor spoke about our individual and joint responsibilities to be of service to others. In the next few moments I will also speak about certain obligations that accrue to all thoughtful citizens. My focus, however, will be somewhat different, since I will consider what is to some a perplexing aspect of the exciting lives we share together. I want to speak about anxiety and ethical controversy. Moreover, I will advance the notion that ethical controversy and at least a certain type of anxiety may be a very good thing.

The particular anxiety I have in mind is a moral anxiety, or a certain anxiousness or even uneasiness regarding the nature of the moral responsibilities that accompany our rapidly expanding knowledge of the natural world, our developing moral sensibilities and our ever larger accumulation of technology and resources.

The anxiety I wish to speak about, therefore, is not the everyday anxiety one may feel about, for example, taking exams or meeting deadlines for your senior theses. These types of anxieties are real enough, but not the focus of my concerns this morning. You may, however, remember the Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown is complaining to Linus that he is not only worried about his exams -- that's bad enough -- but he is also worried about the fact that he is worried! As Charlie Brown explains to Linus, even his anxieties have anxieties!

The moral anxiety I will speak about concerns a deeper matter; namely, how we can build a better future by constructing social and cultural institutions and mechanisms that more fully reflect the interests of everyone.

The purpose of my brief remarks is to suggest that such moral anxiety and ethical controversy are essential to the dynamic evolution of our society, and that each of us should consider them as welcome companions on our life's journey. I believe, therefore, that a certain anxiety about society's current circumstance is a necessary ingredient of both a thoughtful life and our capacity to imagine a better future.

Without such anxiety and concern our lives would never change for the better, and a life devoid of ethical controversy or uncertainty about how one ought to act means that one has ceased taking moral behavior seriously. I believe, therefore, that a certain level of moral anxiety and a healthy, even contentious, struggle on ethical matters is a very good thing. They are omens of a healthy life, a healthy society and a cause of hope and optimism regarding our future.

It is frequently the case, for example, that widespread anxiety and ethical controversy regarding some aspect of existing social arrangements is responsible for initiating the efforts necessary to bring about important and desirable change.

Whether it is our moral anxiety that causes change or not, the inevitable upheavals of change itself … the redistribution of wealth, resources, power and information that always accompanies change…are themselves tremendously potent sources of large-scale human anxiety and ethical controversy.

One way or another, therefore, a certain moral anxiety and ethical controversy are the constant companions of change, and a high rate of change in scientific, political, economic or social matters, such as we are all experiencing in contemporary life, can be expected to be accompanied by a high level of anxiety and ethical controversy.

We have to accept the fact that in a world that is changing as fast as ours, all thoughtful citizens will have to share in the anguish of finding the right moral perspective within which to accommodate these changes so that we may all share in a better future.

Each of us, as individuals, is invested with a great deal of moral autonomy, but also moral responsibility. Indeed, the moral authority and responsibility that is now presumed to rest on the shoulders of each one of us is perhaps the most significant aspect of modern life. It is both the greatest source of our freedom -- and our freedom of conscience -- and the most important foundation of our moral responsibility.

In order, therefore, for each of us to meet our moral responsibilities and protect our freedom, we must face and deal with the moral anxieties and ethical controversies of our time.

In such circumstances all thoughtful persons need to be anxious about just what it is we ought to be doing, why we should be doing these things, and what set of objectives we have in mind.

For example, the extraordinarily rapid expansion of the scientific frontier in the area of human genetics is once again changing our view of ourselves and introducing the possibility of being able to extend our control not only over nature but over human nature itself. Such developments may require us to re-think such stable cultural norms as the meaning of family and the relationships between the generations. It will be a significant challenge -- full of ethical implications -- to construct the new social structures required to give meaning to these new scientific developments.

In addition to the rapid movement along the scientific frontier, however, we are also at a moment in time when many previous political coherences also seem to be shattering. For example, the world of easily identifiable contending powers and ideologies is slipping away.

I grew up under the twin shadows of World War II and the Cold War. It seemed easier then to understand just who the major powers and ideologies were that were competing for our allegiance. Our contemporary situation has become much more complex.

Given all these new complexities and a general uncertainty regarding our moral responsibilities, the New York Times did a national survey on the moral attitudes of individual Americans. The results were reported on May 7, of this year in the New York Times Magazine. Let me just quote from the headlines of that survey:

One: There is no strong god. Two: There are no strong (moral) rules and no strong superiors, moral or otherwise. And finally, Americans are unwilling to follow anyone's party line regarding how they ought to behave.

The reporter concluded among other things that, unlike Socrates and Galileo, individual American "dissenters" had no need to escape from society, since society, in the sense of a common source of authoritative rules, had, to some extent, already evaporated. I would conclude that there is an urgent need to take our moral responsibilities more seriously than ever.

Whether it is new developments on the scientific frontier or new political and economic arrangements, all these changes confront us time and again with new and anxiety-provoking questions -- questions about our place in the world, the appropriate exercise of our free will and the nature of our humanity. We are forced to wonder, once again, just who we think we are, what we think we are doing, and to what ends we are doing these things.

Interestingly, these are the same type of questions that were prompted by the Copernican revolution, when we found out that we were no longer the center of the universe; or by the Darwinian revolution, when we discovered that we humans seemed to be only one part of a vast scheme of evolution; or by the Freudian revolution, when we discovered that we may not consciously fully control our personal lives!

What is so fascinating to me is that each of these steps, which revealed to us more and more about the natural world, generated great moral anxiety and ethical controversy as they forced us to reconsider the nature of what it means to be human and the ultimate role and purpose of human communities.

Indeed, since the earliest days of Western history, there has been a pervasive anxiety about how new knowledge would influence the future of the human condition or affect the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Are we, for example, destined to control and exploit nature, as the Bible suggests -- or do we exist to praise and celebrate nature, as the Bible also suggests?

And today, we strain harder than ever before to define ethical guidelines that will help us to navigate this floodtide of discovery, as we struggle to construct new moral perspectives within which science and technology can thrive in ways beneficial to both individuals and society at large.

You, who are about to become Princeton alumni during this important rite of passage today, will pass through our gates to raise families, to follow the paths of your careers, to lead your communities -- perhaps even your countries -- and to serve societies everywhere.

And you will carry your own hopes and dreams -- and anxieties -- as well as those of your parents and families, who have done so much to prepare you for the task ahead, as you will also carry the affection and aspirations -- and anxieties -- of your teachers and mentors here on campus.

I hope that your experience at Princeton not only helped you gain knowledge but prepared you to eagerly confront, consider and debate the momentous moral and ethical questions that accompany the flood of new knowledge.

It is my belief that it is these issues that will ultimately determine the future of your generation and the many generations to follow.

It will be your task to chart an ethical course that encompasses the rich human diversity of our nation and the complex realities of our rapidly broadening global society. One of the important distinctions that makes us human is the capacity to put ourselves in the mind of another and to understand what they believe, what they need and what they and desire.

This treasured human capacity is the source of both our ethical responsibilities and opportunities. And in the midst of all the change, challenge and anxiety, let me assure you that there is one thing that we are not anxious about -- and that is how ready and able you are to undertake this task, to push forward the boundaries of both knowledge and understanding.

And so, as you leave this campus and disperse into all regions of the nation and corners of the world, remember that Princeton is here to serve as a bright beacon in your lives, both searching and guiding; a place to which you may always return (either physically or in your mind's eye); a place that needs the sustenance and wisdom of your shared experiences to flourish and exist for the benefit of succeeding generations.

I congratulate you all on your wonderful achievements as students and thank you for the contributions you have already made to our shared academic and moral life here on campus. We shall cherish these days spent together and miss your constant presence and as we watch you depart through FitzRandolph Gateway, we will look forward with keen anticipation to your frequent return.

I will close my remarks with the words of Princeton's great 19th century scientist, Joseph Henry: "How short the space of an earthly career ... and yet what a universe of wonders is presented to us in our rapid flight through this space."

To Princeton's Class of 2000 and all of you receiving degrees from the Graduate School today, good luck and Godspeed on the next step of your journey.