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On Ethics



On Ethics





Because President Bloom has made the fostering of ethical intelligence a key priority of his tenure, Bruce Weinstein '82  recently interviewed him for his syndicated column, "Ask the Ethics Guy."

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Ethics Guy: Do people take ethical behavior less seriously than they used to? What have you observed that was legally permissible but unethical?

Swarthmore's Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility is home to numerous activities and programs that link the campus to communities in the U.S. and abroad through service and social action. 
President Bloom: If behaving ethically is defined as acting with integrity, recent glaring examples of political and corporate ethical irresponsibility notwithstanding, I am not persuaded that there has been evidence of an overall decline relative to historic norms. If behaving ethically is defined as extending respect across differences of gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, and disability, I believe modern societies have made substantial progress, although there remains considerable distance to go. If, however, behaving ethically is defined, as it must be, to include acting in ways that will, over time, ensure adequate standards of nutrition, health, education, and of opportunity for all, then, particularly given the resources at our command, this nation is falling decidedly short in a critical dimension of ethical behavior. From income tax legislation which cavalierly widens the gap between the wealthy and the poor, to steady elimination of the social network that protects the poor, to exorbitant spending on foreign war rather than on improving conditions of life worldwide, there is mounting evidence of a diminishing sense of responsibility to those here and around the world who find themselves excluded from the mind-boggling production of global wealth.

One powerful means of addressing this diminishing sense of responsibility lies, I believe, in correcting what I see as a disturbingly narrow conception, across America, of the purposes and practices of undergraduate education. Educational emphasis tends to fall almost exclusively on developing in students the content and skills necessary to fit into communities, societies, and the world. Missing is a complementary concern for cultivating in students powers of rigorous, independent critical analysis and then motivating them to apply that critical analysis to define priorities for their communities, societies, and world, and to imagine the ways in which they might personally contribute to advancing those priorities.

Given the enormous resources devoted to undergraduate education - in the form of both public and private funding, the years of their lives students invest in it and the hard work of faculties and staff - and given its potential to effect significant change, I believe it is ethically irresponsible for higher education not to step up to this broader mission.

Ethics Guy: What is one of the toughest ethical challenges *you* have faced in your career, and how did you handle it? 
Bella Liu '07 (right) created the China Memory Book Project to help children in Central China whose parents have died or currently have HIV/AIDS preserve memories of their families and to cope emotionally through the making of memory books.

President Bloom: The most important ethical challenge I face on a nearly daily basis is moving students beyond passionate advocacy of single-dimensional ethical positions to engage the full range of ethical claims and implications that bear on the positions they advance, without diminishing their commitment to a better world. Anchoring that passion in an ethical intelligence that seeks not only to further their cause, but to understand and respond to the additional, and often contradictory, claims that they haven't yet taken into account is a central purpose of fine undergraduate education - and a purpose, I believe, Swarthmore College quite consistently achieves.


Ethics Guy: If you could summarize the most important guideline you use in conducting yourself professionally and personally, what is it? 
Kevin O'Neil '01 (right) co-founded Rescue Corps to equip and train volunteer fire and rescue squads in troubled areas of the world. 
President Bloom: I am persuaded that the foundations of human conceptual, emotional, and ethical life are universally shared and offer the basis for developing understanding, trust, and common purpose even across seemingly unbridgeable divides. And I feel committed in all my interactions, both personal and professional, to seek and build on the commonality I expect to be there.

Extensive international travel from my undergraduate years, on study of Western and Eastern languages, scholarly exploration of cross-cultural differences in ethical thinking, and of the range and limits of the influence of distinct languages on thought and practice in building college communities that find common purpose across difference have convinced me of the existence of that commonality. I take great pride in the power of a Swarthmore education to equip students to expect commonality across difference, and to build on it.

Ethics Guy: Why should we be ethical?
President Bloom: Ethical commitment to respect the rights and property of others makes possible the protection of individual security and of collective interests without the need for authoritarian control. Ethical commitment to uphold collective and public trust constitutes a necessary basis for the legitimacy of leadership to govern, and to effect positive change. Ethical commitment to the worth of others overcomes stereotyping and parochialism to favor the embrace of common and cooperative purpose. And ethical commitment to ensuring adequate conditions of nutrition, health, education, and opportunity for all produces the decisions and actions that will create the most dependable foundations for a peaceful and democratic world. We must educate for and model these commitments if we are to exercise our ethical responsibility to the future.

Alfred H. Bloom

Alfred H. Bloom graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1967 and received a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University in 1974. He served as Assistant and then Associate Professor at Swarthmore College, teaching in the areas of linguistics and psychology for 12 years, and then as Dean of the Faculty and Executive Vice President at Pitzer College. He returned to Swarthmore as President in 1991 and is currently serving in his fifteenth year in that position. Write to him at

Bruce Weinstein '82

Bruce Weinstein '82 is the professional ethicist known as The Ethics Guy. His latest book is Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good (2005). Weinstein received a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore in 1982 and a Ph.D. in philosophy and bioethics from Georgetown University.Write to him at