Using Your Moral Compass to Navigate the College Experience

On August 26, 2013, Dr. Adam Fried, Assistant Director of the Center for Ethics Education, gave the following address at the Academic Convocation for the Fordham College at Rose Hill Class of 2017. Dr. Fried was asked to speak on behalf of all members of faculty, and to welcome the new class to the Fordham University academic community. In case you were unable to attend, here is a transcript of the address:

Using Your Moral Compass to Navigate the College Experience

By: Adam Fried, Ph.D., Assistant Director, Center for Ethics Education

Thank you, Dean Parmach.  Welcome students!  I’m so honored and excited to have an opportunity to speak with you today.

First, let me tell you a little about what I do.  I’m the assistant director of the Fordham Center for Ethics Education.  We organize conferences and lectures, conduct research, administer an undergraduate essay prize in ethics, and offer a Master’s in Ethics and Society and an undergraduate interdisciplinary minor in bioethics. Our programs provide the Fordham community and the public with the knowledge and skills to shape a just society. At Fordham, I teach and my work centers on ethics.  But I am also a clinical psychologist and I have worked with veterans, college students and at-risk children and adolescents.  Although these two areas, ethics and psychology, may seem quite different, there is in fact a great deal of overlap.

Let’s start with ethics.  The field of ethics studies moral behavior and how one should act.  In simpler terms, what is right and wrong but, most importantly, what makes a behavior right or wrong.  Ethics are applicable in almost every discipline. In business, for example, what are the ethical responsibilities of factories that cause environmental damage? In the scientific and medical fields, is it ethical to expose a small group of people to research risks in order to potentially benefit a larger group? Is it ethical to allow people to pay for organs? As a psychologist, am I obligated to maintain confidentiality when one of my patients tells me that he is thinking about harming someone else?

We can also think about the more fundamental questions of ethics. What does it mean to be honest and to act with integrity? What is social justice and how do we attain this? How do we organize a society?  In ethics, the moral foundations that form the basis of your ethical judgment are extremely important.  Without these foundations, you would be lacking the appropriate tools to implement reasoned solutions to improve society.

Although ethics poses extremely difficult questions that we all struggle with, studying these issues within an academic setting, such as Fordham, gives us a framework for thinking about them.  At Fordham, you’ll have valuable learning experiences both inside and outside of the classroom to explore these issues.  The academic experience will provide you with opportunities to gain a variety of religious, scientific and other secular perspectives, all informing critical questions.  Ethicists draw upon many different areas in their study of moral decision-making and our students get to engage in ethics across a vast array of disciplines.  For example, students in our academic programs take courses in biology, history, English, psychology, sociology, theology, and philosophy.  Some disciplines provide the necessary foundations of ethics while others are concerned with more real world applications.

Many think about ethical issues as abstract questions with no personal connection. In fact, you are making ethical decisions every day. Take the example of plagiarism, or the taking of another’s work and representing it as your own.  Would you ever engage in this activity?  The vast majority of you thankfully would not but by not engaging in plagiarism, you are in fact making an ethical decision. But what are the foundations of your decision? You may hold a moral belief that plagiarism is “wrong” in some way but what makes this behavior wrong? Is it because you value the virtue of honesty and plagiarism is never consistent with that virtue?  Is it because it violates the cultural norms of a university and institutional rules at Fordham?  Is it because you would never want someone to take your work and claim it as their own so therefore you would never do the same?

So you’re now probably thinking that ethics is about making everyday decisions seem impossibly complex.  Actually, you’re not entirely wrong.  Ethics is sort of like some of your Facebook relationship statuses:  “It’s complicated.”  Because in ethics, there is rarely one answer that fits every situation for every person.  But that’s also what makes studying ethics always new and exciting.

As a young adult, you’re developing views on what you believe is right and wrong and why.  And in many ways, this is what college is about.  Often these are based on experiences that personally challenge your existing worldviews and force you to re-assess your personal moral compass.  As a result, these are often the experiences that are most meaningful.  My own experience working with veterans evoked feelings significantly challenged my own moral compass.

While in graduate school, I was a psychology intern at a Veteran’s Hospital where I treated combat soldiers who served in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea and even World War II. I encountered veterans with depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug problems, and traumatic brain injury. Personally, I kept thinking about these individuals and their stories, especially those who had been drafted at 18, around the age that most of you are now, and many exposed to traumatic and incomprehensible experiences. I carried their personal stories with me and began to put myself in their shoes.  What if that were me? What would I have done?  I was also quite moved by the veteran’s own moral dilemmas as soldiers and how they tried to resolve them.  They often wondered “Did I do the right thing?” and “What if I had acted differently?”

I was confronted not only with difficult ethical dilemmas as a psychologist, but there were also many other questions that I kept coming back to as a concerned citizen:  What can we do to help repair their lives?  What are our responsibilities to these individuals? What are we as a community and a nation obligated to do?

I needed to establish the foundations of the moral dilemmas for myself in order to answer these questions.  Like most ethical dilemmas, the answer that I kept coming up with was the Facebook status:  “It’s complicated.”   And it was.

I completed my internship and began working at the Fordham Center for Ethics Education but found that I couldn’t leave behind my work with the veterans. What bothered me was that it seemed that many people had little idea about the types of challenges facing veterans.  I had been so moved by this experience and knew I wanted to contribute by initiating a dialogue to inform some of these important questions and to educate others. Through the center, I organized lectures and course modules exploring our civic, clinical and economic responsibilities to veterans.  I have lectured on the needs of veterans at Fordham and to students at Albert Einstein Medical College. I have also volunteered at an army base meeting returning combat soldiers to provide them information about treatment services.  In short, I try ask myself what can I do with my knowledge and abilities to make a difference.

Your courses and related academic activities at Fordham will hopefully prepare you for the many roles you will assume in your life: professional, family member, citizen.   For the enterprise before you as a college student is not only to learn how to study or earn good grades or even to decide what you want to do when you graduate.  The far more important question that lies before you is who you want to be when you graduate? What kind of person do you aspire to be?

As in my experience working with veterans, you, too will hopefully be inspired to make your mark on the world.  But much like ethical decision-making, you need both the proper intellectual foundation as well as the commitment to act.

If you look around Fordham, you may see signs that tell you to “go forth and set the world on fire.”  No… the Jesuits aren’t encouraging arson. This directive by St. Ignatius of Loyola to his followers over 500 years ago continues to have a significant and powerful meaning:  Go out and change the world!  But how?  How does one learn to go out and make a difference and make the world a better place?

You are being welcomed today not just as a student but also a scholar who will contribute to the Fordham academic community.  With the backdrop of the incomparable City of New York as your campus, the Fordham academic experience will provide you with the necessary intellectual foundations by teaching you how to critically think about issues, eloquently and persuasively express viewpoints, and understand and apply moral frameworks to address some of society’s most pressing issues.   This intellectual foundation, much like ethical foundations I mentioned earlier, are fundamental to addressing challenges and dilemmas that may lie ahead, but, as the Jesuit principles remind us, this foundation must also be paired with a courage and commitment to act and to do what is right.

You are indeed embarking on a remarkable journey of intellectual and social development in which you will begin to develop competence in specific areas, establish identity, begin to develop your life’s purpose, and perhaps most importantly, become ethically engaged and informed citizens.

As faculty, we celebrate these goals, as they inform and motivate our work.  We thus implore you to take advantage of all that Fordham has to offer to learn how to “go forth, be inspired, and set the world on fire”.   Thank you and welcome to Fordham University.

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