Forum encourages frank talk about difficult ethical issues

May 6, 2002 12:54 a.m.

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."

"How far back (in history) do we go to find out whether their actions actually are just?" asked Roberts.

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 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."

Students and faculty who are interested in joining the forum should e-mail the program . Read the full story in the Weekly Bulletin.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601