President Alfred H. Bloom
Commencement Address
29 May 2005


Welcome and congratulations, Class of 2005, and welcome and congratulations as well to your parents, families, friends, and teachers, who guided, encouraged, and supported you in your extraordinary undertaking.

And thank you, graduates, for providing by dint of your hard and creative work the basis for this celebration and for your individual contributions to the quality of this College, for which we share such affection and esteem.

We look forward to your stream of accomplishments, both large and small, for which we will, of course, be pleased to take partial credit, and to your continuing attachment to a community that promises you a very warm welcome whenever you return.

In this same year that you assume your new status as alumni of the College, Helen DiFeliciantonio and George Huber, each after 40 years of service; Josephine Hopkins, after 34 years of service; and Elizabeth Woolson, after 23 years of service, are retiring from our staff; and Chuck James, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor of English Literature, is retiring from our faculty. Please join me in thanking these very special members of our community for their important part in shaping Swarthmore's excellence.

I also want to acknowledge with deepest sadness the passing of Bernie Saffron, Franklin and Betty Barr Professor of Economics and an esteemed member of our current faculty, and of Bobby Berman, a beloved member of the Class of 2005, who, having completed all requirements for graduation, will receive his degree posthumously today.

Before the awarding of degrees, though, I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on a national phenomenon I find quite troubling and to which I am convinced we must respond, namely, the reemergence of moralistic absolutism:

During the middle years of the 20th Century, moralistic absolutism - reductionist, impermeable, unexamined, and passionate conviction about what is right - fueled imperialist Japan, Soviet communism, and Maoist China, as it did McCarthyism here at home and this nation's undiscriminating response to communism in Vietnam. Across history, such moralistic absolutism has constantly intensified and widened ethnic and religious conflict and impelled advocacy groups of every persuasion toward confrontation, stereotyping, and demonization rather than reasoned dialogue.

Today, moralistic absolutism powers radical Islamic fundamentalism and North Korea's paranoid self-reliance and is on the rise again in this nation in the troubling form of a cluster of unexamined moralistic concepts including "the sanctity of life," "liberty above all," "axis of evil," "anti-affirmative action," "intelligent design," and "family values," which are exerting increasing influence on American social attitudes, scientific and legal practice, and domestic and foreign policy.

I say "troubling" because, whenever populations or groups embrace such absolutes as the mobilizing principles of their identity and worldview, complex ethical reasoning is suppressed; perspectives and facts that complicate accepted understanding are ignored; individuals who do not share the favored view are cast as "other" - often as immoral, unpatriotic, threatening - and attitudes and actions that would otherwise be constrained by respect for others and by more far-reaching perspectives are allowed free, and often, destructive rein.

Faced as we are with this rise in moralistic absolutism, and the social division and damage that it can engender, I ask you to think with me for a few minutes about how best to release in others the more complex and permeable modes of thought that can bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divides that absolutism creates. Sustaining democracy and shaping a constructively collaborative society and world require that we succeed at this historically recurring responsibility.

Admittedly it is difficult to reach both those whose identities are most bound in such absolutes and those invested in manipulating absolutes for their own instrumental agendas. But I believe that it is more possible to reach across divides of absolutism than we might first imagine. If, as has been graphically illustrated in Vietnam, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, the use of force to intimidate others out of absolutism tends only to tighten its hold; and if confrontational advocacy likewise tends only to harden absolutist resolve; then how can we foster in the place of unexamined and impassioned absolutism, the open, analytic, collaborative orientation fundamental to democracy and to meeting the human and environmental challenges that we face as a society and world?

I would like to suggest the parameters of an approach, which I hope you, graduates of the Class of 2005, will, over time in your own ways, refine and perfect:

To begin, it seems to me that for any approach to be successful in releasing the grip of absolutism, it must first establish a context of validation, confidence, respect, and partnership - a context that deflects defensiveness and enables all sides to let go of the security and certainty that moralistic absolutes confer.

To convey validation and confidence, the approach must emerge from, and communicate the expectation that, beyond differences in attitude and belief, there lies a common human ground of intellect, care and valuing - a common ground that will provide the building blocks of shared purpose and constructive action.

To forge respect and partnership, the approach must be conceived, and engaged, as a mutual process, pursued with personal and cultural humility, responsive to the sensitivities, concerns, and fears of the other, insulated to the extent possible from external differences in privilege and power, and advanced through careful listening and shared exploration of the other's ways of seeing the world.

With that context of supportive human connection established, the way then opens to invite the other to reflect on contradictions between the implications of the absolutes, to which he or she subscribes, and the complexity and richness of her or his own moral logic and intuitions.

Wouldn't most advocates for the absolute "sanctity of life," having reflected on that concept, find themselves uncomfortable with its implication that, to be consistent with the notion of absolute sanctity of life, means arguing against war no matter the circumstance, against capital punishment, against a patient's expressed will to forego further medical intervention, and for expending significant portions of their own and this country's wealth, to prevent deaths from poverty and disease around the world?

Wouldn't most proponents of "liberty above all," after reflecting on that concept, likely come to recognize that liberty, absolute and unconstrained by safeguards to health, personal security, and economic opportunity, precludes the very exercise and enjoyment of that liberty?

Wouldn't most supporters of unconditional war on terrorism come to admit the simultaneous need for some protection of civil rights and privacy?

Wouldn't most champions of "intelligent design," once understanding how fundamental evolutionary processes are to the emergence of new diseases and new variants of known diseases, and to their prevention and cure, be prompted to seek a more complex moral formulation that would reconcile their religious convictions with support for scientific education and research based on evolutionary theory?

Wouldn't most champions of "family values," learning that their son or daughter was gay, feel emotional and moral unease at defining their own child as "other," and at denying that child human and civil rights on that account, and be prompted to seek a more complex moral framework that would reconcile their social and religious convictions with those intuitions for compassion and equity?

And wouldn't many of those on both sides of the Palestine-Israeli divide, who have at some point espoused the annihilation of the other nation as a moral absolute, likely retreat from that position if they perceived an opportunity for a more humane path to security, identity-confirmation, prosperity, and peace?

I suggest then that inviting another to confront the failure of moralistic absolutes to capture the richness and complexity of their own moral logic and intuitions - particularly in a context of validation, confidence, respect, and partnership - can move the other, over time, to replace those absolutes with a more examined, independently constructed, complex, and permeable framework for ethical thinking.

We recognize that transition to independent ethical thought in the works of ethical thinkers from Confucius and Socrates to the Existentialists and Martin Luther King, providing persuasive evidence of its generality and potential across culture and time. And we also recognize that transition as one we have experienced ourselves - often during our undergraduate days.

Moreover, as moralistic absolutes are submitted to the critique of personal moral logic and intuition, deconstructed, and then reconstructed into more open, complex, and comprehensive ethical frameworks, striking similarities begin to emerge among the principles you and others hold.

Who, after all, upon independent ethical reflection, would not endorse both the principle of protecting life and the principle of respecting another's will? Both the principle of protecting freedom and the principle of safeguarding personal security? Both free expression of religious conviction and advancing scientific understanding? Both nonviolent and just solutions to resolving conflict?

So the disagreements that remain are most often not about which abstract principles you endorse, but rather about the way mutually held principles are applied to, and balanced in, the particular situation.

How much of the federal budget should be allocated to what kinds of foreign aid? What intrusions on privacy are acceptable to defend against terrorism? How can religious conviction best be integrated with civic commitment to intellectual freedom, right to privacy, and equal protection under the law? What resolution of a particular conflict will bring peace as well as security, identity-confirmation, and economic opportunity to both sides?

And when, in the light of examined and open ethical frameworks, disagreements are recognized to be about where you are along the same spectrum, rather than about which spectrum you are on, then no one can any longer be dismissed as unqualifiedly "other"; then, disagreements that appeared frozen in irreconcilable principle become susceptible to specification, discussion, and negotiation; and possibilities open for constructive collaboration, for reasoned persuasion, and for imaginative resolution that carry the potential to bridge what were, initially, seemingly unbridgeable divides.

Each of you is graduating today as a recipient of the distinctive legacy of this remarkable College.

With a little help from faculty and friends, you have developed impressively sharp analytic and expressive skills that will enable you to meet the full challenges of the careers you choose, and to rise within those careers to the levels of responsibility to which you aspire and which our society and world need you to assume.

With a little help from this community, you have reaffirmed your commitment to make a difference and have anchored that commitment in a more complex and independent approach to determining the right, and in a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the world in which you will make your mark.

And more directly germane to my topic today, you have also developed the habit of drawing on your own intellectual and personal strengths to connect with others across differences of experience, circumstance, and belief in ways that deliver validation, confidence, respect, and partnership. Indeed, that mode of human connection, informed by the values and practice of this community, has become an essential part of who you are and of what you most value in yourselves.

Further, you are ready to place that mode of human connection in the service of releasing in others a willingness to explore, accept, and develop the richness and complexity of their own moral logic and intuition, just as the validation, confidence, respect, partnership, and intellectual challenge you have experienced here have motivated you to explore, accept, and develop your own ethical intelligence.

I hope that calling attention at this consequential moment to these further dimensions of your Swarthmore legacy will encourage you, at every opportunity - in what you say, write, and do, and in how you advocate for the good - to take leadership in unlocking the grip of moralistic absolutism, in fostering in its place the open, analytic, collaborative orientation essential to democracy and to meeting the human and environmental challenges we face as a society and world.

I have the utmost confidence in the ability of each of you to contribute in your own way to this critical task, and I commend you for all that you have done to inspire that confidence.

To each of you members of the Class of 2005, my warmest congratulations!


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