Forum encourages frank talk about difficult ethical issues
Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- The dinner plates were cleared, and the discussion about the conflict in the Middle East reached its second hour. Katharine Roberts '04 and Vanessa Wills '02 were trying to sort out how the notion of justice fits in with the recent actions of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"Both sides think justice requires that they get certain things," said Wills. "That's a big part of what fuels the resentment between the two."
As students wrestled with that question, Donald Moon, the Laurance Rockefeller Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching, jumped in. "Does anybody here think that Israel shouldn't exist -- that the extremist Palestinian position represents the right and morally valid position?" he asked.
Natalie Deffenbaugh '02 said she didn't think that was the right question to be posing. "There has been international acknowledgement of the right of an Israeli and a Palestinian state to exist side by side. Whether or not there is fundamental justice in those assertions, they have been stated, and we just have to work with that."
The no-holds-barred conversation took place in mid-April at the Human Values Forum, a biweekly gathering of students and faculty members over dinner for a frank discussion on ethics and moral values. The forum is part of the University Center for Human Values, Princeton's forum for education and scholarship on ethical issues and human values.
So far this year, members of the forum have debated the right to die, hashed out the issues raised by cloning and stem cell research, and discussed the merits of prescription drug advertising to consumers. Past discussions have focused on the values that sports require athletes to learn, the ethical implications of the honor code and the euthanasia of disabled infants.
"The people who attend are from different backgrounds and different majors, and we try to address a broad range of topics," said Peter Shindel '02, who is the group's vice president. "It's never dull."
The forum was founded in 1999, and is supported by a gift from Bert Kerstetter '66. The group meets once every two weeks over dinner at 5 Ivy Lane. To apply to become a member, students contact one of the forum's officers. Thirty undergraduates are members this year; all students are invited to participate. Students decide on the topic and lead the debate.
Wills, who is the forum's president, relishes the opportunity to interact with students who are not in the philosophy department with her. "It helps get you out of your little methodological box and hear other approaches," she said. "I think that's really healthy. And the faculty who are involved are so great; you can chat with them about anything."
Jonathan Goldberg '02, who has participated since his sophomore year, said he enjoys hearing what other students have to say about the variety of issues the forum addresses. "It offers amazingly intimate contact between students and professors on a personal and professional level, matched neither in the classroom nor in any forum I've participated in at Princeton," he said.
Fellowship and good food
The idea of creating the Human Values Forum was championed by Harry Frankfurt, professor of philosophy, who was a member of the center's executive committee. Frankfurt, who taught at Yale before coming to Princeton in 1990, was impressed by the interactions between students and faculty at Yale's Elizabethan Club, a literary society.
Jeffrey Stout, professor of religion, joined the forum when it was founded and has been a frequent presence since then. "I have stayed involved because I enjoy the fellowship, the discussions are stimulating and the food is good," he said. "I have especially enjoyed spending time outside the classroom with some of the most interesting students I have taught over the years."
Stout was disappointed that he missed the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because "everybody I have talked to says it was the best discussion of that issue they had had with anybody," he said.
He also noted the superb meeting earlier this year on stem cell research. Those participating in the discussion included several leading thinkers in the field: Harold T. Shapiro, Princeton's president emeritus and chair of President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission; Stephen Macedo, the Laurence Rockefeller Professor of Politics and director of the University Center for Human Values; Peter Singer, the Ira Decamp Professor of Bioethics at the center; and Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who served as chair of the federal Working Group on the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of the Human Genome Project. She is a visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School this year.
"I think you'd have trouble assembling a better symposium on stem cell research anywhere in the world," Stout said.
Roberts, the sophomore who joined the forum last fall, said she gets a great deal out of the intellectual debate that goes on. "We don't just hammer away at the old, tired arguments for and against abortion or assisted suicide or the Israel/Palestine issue; we get to the bottom of how we look at ethical questions, and we genuinely look for answers and for common ground. The presence of faculty challenges us and helps us refine our focus, and, frankly, I think we do the same for the faculty."
During the discussion of the Middle East, which transpired over poached salmon and salad, students and faculty debated the significance of Israel's 1967 borders, whether terrorists deserve to be treated as human beings and how to evaluate whether Israel's campaign against the Palestinians was morally justified.
Discussions "can get pretty heated, but people are always polite," Shindel said.
And each week the conversation produces more than a few insights, Wills said: "Somebody will say something and I'll think, 'That's brilliant. How could I not have realized that?'"
Students and faculty who are interested in joining the forum should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor: Ruth Stevens