Skip to main content

Baccalaureate Address -- Hugh Lacey

May 31, 2003
The Apt Word

My heartiest congratulations to the class of 2003, and to your families and friends who are rightly proud of your accomplishments. It's a great honor for me to speak in this ceremony; and also a pleasure, enhanced by the fact that this is my last public act at Swarthmore College. You and I are going out together. I've been a lot slower than you in passing through this place — thirty-two years instead of four. Taking so much longer has its rewards: Today I get to speak, while you get to listen one final time, but happily the time has passed when papers are due and grades have to be given.

These few days of celebration mark a significant moment of transition in your lives, and mine. Ritual events intersperse the celebrations, providing symbols of the transition — inviting us to reflect on what has been achieved and on how it will inform our lives to come and be brought to completion in them, calling us to stop for a moment to dwell on the values, which shape Swarthmore's educational program, and which are expected to gain further cultivation in the lives of those who pass through it.

Eleven years ago, in his inaugural address as President of Swarthmore College, Al Bloom proposed that the cultivation of (what he called) "ethical intelligence" should be considered one of our core values — "an ethical intelligence appropriate to our time." In doing so, he was clearly influenced not only by his own earlier studies of ethical development, but also by Swarthmore's long standing links with the Quaker tradition, especially its emphases on social responsibility and speaking truth to power. With "ethical intelligence" — if I may borrow from the Ecclesiasticus passage that Gene Lang read a few minutes ago — Al coined an "apt word," an apt phrase, one that can help us put into sharper light who we are (and who we aspire to be), and inspire efforts aimed towards more fully realizing our proclaimed values.

I'll come back to the aptness of the phrase in a moment. First you should keep in mind that Al is a very shrewd administrator and shrewd administrators, like politicians in office, always have hidden agendas. (So do retiring philosophy professors.) For years I wondered what Al's hidden agenda was when he gave that inaugural address. Could it have something to do, I wondered, with wanting Swarthmore to remain at the top of the US News and World Report college rankings? But there are no points for ethical intelligence. Then, I thought: Maybe Al's going to invent a test to measure it, so that it could count alongside SAT scores in the computation of the rankings? That way Swarthmore would surely always be No. 1! This, however, turned out to be a false lead. A few weeks ago I did a "GOOGLE" search for "ethical intelligence," and then it all became clear. Hundreds of entries came up, but none mentioned Al Bloom — see how shrewd he is! Two large themes did show up: "ethical intelligence gathering" and the inability of artificial intelligence programs to capture the ethical.

Suddenly I understood why Al has always coupled ethical intelligence with the multicultural agenda and his special interest in foreign languages. Apparently he had also been reading Ecclesiasticus: "My son, study well what the time needs." Clearly the time needs intelligence gathering agents who speak foreign languages. Al is setting Swarthmore up to turn out "ethical" intelligence gatherers. Who says our graduates may have trouble finding jobs? The second theme is also important. Some have wondered how far the multicultural agenda might be extended. Now we know that, for Al, it doesn't extend to intelligent beings who cannot cope with the ethical — so we won't have to worry about having "Deep Blue," or any new-fangled "intelligent" robot, in next year's freshman class.

Hidden agendas aside, with "ethical intelligence" Al has introduced an "apt phrase," one nicely serving to focus his challenge to renew our educational values in a way that takes fully into account how Swarthmore relates to, and may contribute to addressing, the morally salient issues of our time. The phrase has not yet gained the currency or the articulated development that I'm sure Al hoped for, or even a settled meaning. I will offer an interpretation of it, with the hope that my reflections become part of a conversation in which other interpretations — including yours and Al's — are brought into critical interaction with it. My reflections concern the ways in which intelligence — reason, argument, investigation, evidence, meaning, judgment — is brought to bear in deliberations of the "ethical," that is in deliberations about how to live and to act so that human well-being is enhanced, one's own well-being and that of everyone everywhere.

To value reason, argument, investigation, evidence, meaning, judgment — and thus truthfulness — should be the distinctive mark of an institution of higher learning. Truthfulness, pervading throughout the whole of our lives, is the indispensable condition, or (what I will call) the first principle of ethical intelligence. What does this mean? Keep in mind what we are: Human beings, agents whose powers to act depend on the functioning of our bodies, and whose actions are interactions with material objects, living organisms and other human beings. All action is, on the one hand, intentional and, on the other hand, both dependent and generative of effects on the environment and on social relations. These are elementary truths. They underlie another truth, one easier to ignore, that generally there is a gap between what we intend with our actions and what their actual outcomes are. We may act with (to our own satisfaction) the best of intentions, but produce unhappy (unintended) outcomes. Ethical intelligence involves coming to grips with this gap between intention and actual outcome of actions — without evading truthfulness. There is a kind of evasion of truthfulness — that mars political discourse today and renders related ethical judgments merely self-serving — that occurs when the ethical appraisal of actions does not adequately take into account, in proper balance, both intentions and outcomes. I'll give a few glimpses of how it works.

Consider, first, over-emphasis on outcomes. Many people today adopt a stance they regard as "realistic" or "pragmatic," in which ethical appraisal should primarily address "realistically" achievable outcomes of action. For them, the gap between intention and outcome becomes narrowed by carefully locating one's actions within what one expects will be the most likely trajectory of events. Usually this means acting within (so as to maintain) current predominant social arrangements — even if they may embody serious injustice. This stance is compatible with aiming for reforms in the direction of greater social justice, and with there being localized practices that serve the disadvantaged. But it abstains from fundamental ethical appraisal of the trajectory shaped by leading and powerful social institutions. To the "realist," offering ethical critique (for example) of the trend towards economic globalization under the auspices of the World Trade Organization is as absurd as asking whether the law of gravity is good or bad. Why? When pushed, the usual answer is that there are no genuine (desirable) possibilities outside of this trajectory. But a compelling argument that this is so would need to be based on empirical inquiry that identifies what competing interests may take the alternatives possibilities to be, what their sources and proposals are, and what the trajectories of the movements aiming to realize them could be. Often, however, the judgment that there are no genuine alternative possibilities is made without conducting such inquiry. That is an evasion of truthfulness — not always a denial of what is manifestly true, but a refusal to investigate in the appropriate way a claim that, if it were true, would have profound ethical ramifications. When truthfulness is evaded in this way, those who are struggling to create alternatives, especially those who experience the injustices of predominant institutions in their daily lives, are not considered full-fledged partners in ethical discourse. They are "unrealistic;" their aspirations do not represent genuine possibilities. Thence, injustice is effectively naturalized. It, and the social arrangements that are discerned as shaping the trajectory of events, are treated as being as much part of the natural world as the law of gravity. When injustice is naturalized, a sense of the tragedy that it entails for countless human beings is lost.

I propose as a second principle of ethical intelligence: Rejection of the naturalization of injustice; and thus the preparedness to engage in the reflection, investigation, negotiation and activities, from the perspective of which the possibilities for furthering social justice for everyone everywhere can be discerned and, when the time is ripe, addressed.

Now, consider over-emphasis on intentions. If one's intentions are "good," the cause of the gap between intention and outcome of action is likely to be assumed (prior to any investigation) to be the actions of others, who are thus represented as counterpoised against "good" intentions. It's a quick step from this to dividing people into the "good" and the "bad," and replacing causal analysis with the discourse of praise and blame, to the extent of mistaking explanations (as distinct from denunciations) offered of "bad" actions to be justifications of them. It replaces the quest to understand events of ethical import with a moralistic presumption, a profound evasion of truthfulness. In turn, those adopting this stance tend to try to bridge the gap between intention and outcome by the use of power — when deemed necessary using military violence to punish the "wrong-doers," hoping thus to prevent departures from the "right" order. I say "hoping," for lacking understanding of the social realities in which they are wielding power, they have no way to grasp clearly the consequences of their exercise of power, and so it may well be illusory that it will actually bridge the gap — and, in reality, it may cause great harm to innocent people. If so, since they did not intend it, to their mind it is the fault of others. Nevertheless, as if uneasiness nags subconsciously, in order to ensure that their role as causal agents in bringing about the harm is excluded from ethical judgment, for describing non-intended outcomes they use a terminology that numbs the sensibility and imagination — think of that term that we heard so often recently: "collateral damage." The mark of this discourse is to use (what I will call) "the numbing phrase" — that which deceives not by outright negation of reality (though it may also be accompanied by overt lies) but by spraying a verbal mist that anesthetizes so that the pain of human suffering and devastation cannot be felt or even recognized. In contrast, "the apt phrase" enables clear recognition, stimulates the ethical imagination, and impedes the evasion of truthfulness. Those who hold that intentions, not outcomes, are the primary focus of ethical appraisal, may become wrong-doers themselves but, when they do so, they are unable to recognize it of themselves. Of course there are wrong-doers, great criminals, purveyors of great violence against the innocent, and justice demands that they be punished. They are blameworthy. At the same time, social justice demands identifying and addressing the conditions that cause violence. Having "good" intentions provides no assurance that one's actions are not implicated in these conditions, or that one is not an agent in the dehumanization of vast numbers of human beings.

I propose a third principle of ethical intelligence: Causal analysis of ethically salient phenomena cannot properly be expressed in the language of praise and blame. And a fourth: Ethical appraisal requires thoroughly investigating the conditions and unintended consequences of one's actions, using the "apt phrase" and dispensing entirely with the "numbing phrase."

My time at Swarthmore has been bounded by two wars that I opposed: Vietnam and Iraq. Whenever there is recourse to war there has been a breakdown of ethical intelligence, when power and violence displace reasoned discourse as the instruments of conflict resolution. Today, of course, we have not only wars and their shocking human consequences, but also — among other things — weakening of democracy and the democratic spirit and its subordination to special interests, escalating terrorism, unchecked spread of terrible diseases that are devastating some of the poorest countries in the world, deteriorating economic conditions especially for the most vulnerable worldwide, which are spreading the seeds for perpetuating the spiral of violence, stepping back from efforts to address problems of poverty and race in this country, and a weakening of the thrust towards international cooperation on such matters as human rights, the rule of law, and effective international mechanisms to deal with crimes against humanity, protection of the environment, and resolution of disputes within the framework of the UN. It all seems so overwhelming.

I am reminded of Hamlet's words:

The time is out of joint: — O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

"The time is out of joint!" What our time needs is a response to this truth — not an evasion of it, but also not a self-righteousness, reluctant, nostalgic or resentful response; certainly not one, like Hamlet's, that smacks of self-pity, self-indulgence, an inflated sense of self-importance and neurotic hubris. Like it or not, this out-of-joint time is our time, the time in which we must live, the time that will continue to affect our lives profoundly, and the time on which we leave our mark. It is a time with a history and with a future open to hitherto unrealized (and perhaps never to be realized) possibilities — possibilities ("what the time needs") that can only actually be realized if the historical causes and sustaining forces of our out-of-joint time are grasped and then surpassed, as a consequence of acts that are themselves part of our time. Another great poet wrote:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Our time is redeemable. There are hitherto unrealized possibilities, some of which represent possibilities for greater social justice, freedom and peace, for the enhanced well-being, for which human beings in all places and cultures yearn. I believe that cultivating awareness of this truth is the most fundamental task of the ethically intelligent; and doing this will require conducting the intellectual life in much closer contact with the movements, at home and throughout the world, whose programs have promise of realizing step-by-step more of these possibilities, and of beginning to form the social structures in which the possibilities could be more fully realized. The "ethically intelligent" person needs also to be "intelligent ethically." Being intelligent ethically is not to stop at denunciation of our out-of-joint time, and at lamenting the misuse of violence by our time's dominant forces (another way of playing the "blaming-game"!), standing by predicting that any alternative program will collapse under the pressures of the dominant forces or be co-opted by them or (failing these) be outright suppressed by them. No doubt, such predictions are often enough borne out, and those who make them may take satisfaction that they have understood what is going on. But successful predictions of these kinds do not establish that there are no genuinely ethically more desirable possibilities; for those who make these predictions ignore that one of the conditions for bringing about fundamental social change is bold, committed action, which stakes itself without the certitude of success. This is my fifth principle of ethical intelligence: Ethically intelligent action cannot be carried out with certitude of being successful, for whether or not valued possibilities are realizable depends (causally), in part, on the committed actions of those who value them.

Cultivating ethical intelligence attunes one better to discern the genuine possibilities for greater social justice, freedom and peace; being intelligent ethically implies recognizing that not every aspiration actually represents a genuine possibility. Our out-of-joint time does put constraints on what is genuinely possible. I repeat that it is within this time that we must find the sources of alternative possibilities. We need "apt words" to mark them, and then these words can themselves assume causal roles in our time. If they don't, they degenerate into "fluff," self-congratulatory, empty words hardly distinguishable from "numbing phrases."

Furthering ethical intelligence represents a genuine possibility, but not a disembodied or a-temporal one. It sensitizes us to time: Not only to the realities of our out-of-joint time, but also to our personal and communal times and the opportune times for attempting to realize a novel possibility. Moreover, as another poet, a compatriot of mine, wrote:

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my Time, the flood that does not flow.

Ethical intelligence recognizes that there are no quick fixes. Our out-of-joint time is not redeemed by manipulating little fidget wheels. It can be exercised at all the times of our lives and put richer substance into all dimensions of life: career, family, friendships; for it insists that social justice cannot coexist with personal diminishment. It does not draw us away from our fundamental personal and career commitments, certainly in my own case, from the time that I intend to spend playing with my baby granddaughter. It doesn't pull us into quixotic quests, the subordination of the personal to the political, or the assurance that your mature lives, like my years at Swarthmore, will not be bounded by wars — "the flood that does not flow." It recognizes that different people can make their contributions to furthering justice in a great diversity of ways and at different times of their lives. It also recognizes that we all lapse from our self-identified values (including truthfulness) from time to time; but lapses are not decisive rejections, provided that we remain open to the possibilities of repentance and forgiveness. Ethical intelligence rests easily with our "humanness," its flaws and weaknesses as well as its extraordinary achievements and potential, and its delights and foibles. I believe that cultivating ethical intelligence, highlighting its first principle: commitment to truthfulness, is of utmost urgency; it is, more than anything else, what our out-of-joint time needs.

Well, I am out of time! Before concluding, let me acknowledge my hidden agenda today. I have wanted to show that we get an interesting take on "ethical intelligence" by way of reflection on the passage from Eccesiasticus. More than that: "ethical intelligence" is just another name for "wisdom" — once again, "time past present in time present," nourishing "time future."

I conclude in the traditional way with an exhortation, one that I make with respect, interest in your alternative proposals, and preparedness to engage with your objections. Class of 2003, whatever you do and wherever you go, be open to discern novel (unexpected) possibilities for social justice and peace that lie outside of mainstream trajectories, and don't put your own intentions beyond the scope of critical inquiry and reflection. Seek to find the "apt word" and use it in your deliberations on ethically salient matters, and always resist the "numbing word."

Once again, my heartiest congratulations!