The Ethicist Column

Is it wrong to tell my mom I don’t party at all? Is it better to vote for a candidate you truly believe in or one you believe actually has a chance of winning? Is it ethical to invade Iraq? Do I have any obligation to tell a person if they are being embarrassed without their knowledge (eg. fly down)? Is it ethical for local colleges not to pay taxes? Is it ethical to consider race as a factor for admission? Is it ethical to not invade Iraq? Is (the difference between .my roommates’ actual sexual history and what he is telling his new girlfriend) my business or do I have an obligation to tell her he’s lying? What obligation do we have to be civically engaged? Is it wrong to download copyrighted music and video files from the internet and share them? Is it possible for students to grade the papers of one’s acquaintances and friends fairly? Is amnesty for illegal immigrants ethical?

Some of these are large questions that have broad implications for the people and nations of the world. Some are personal dilemmas that trouble one in the deep of the night. Still others are local issues that affect the community life and personal development of Carleton students, faculty and staff. All of these and many more have been questions for the “Carleton Ethicist” over the past two years.

The “Carleton Ethicist” is one of the activities of EthIC, the Program in Ethical Reflection at Carleton. This program, now entering its third year, works to create opportunities that will foster ethical reflection by the entire Carleton community. During the next year, EthIC will bring speakers to campus, organize small groups for further discussion of ethical issues and dilemmas, place table tents of questions in dining halls, organize the ethicist column, and seek to foster meaningful reflection in a variety of additional ways. As this is the last year of an initial pilot phase, EthIC will also enter a strategic planning process as it looks towards the future and a potentially expanded role in the future of this community.

As the new director called to lead EtthIC through this process, I am deeply encouraged by the energy and commitment I have already seen in my first month here. As I think back twenty years to my own time as a student at Carleton, it was the dialectic between my curricular activities and my student and community life that truly shaped my development and life at Carleton and beyond. Although many of my classes were extraordinary in their own right, it was life outside the classroom that pushed me again and again to reflect more deeply, to consider the implications for the common good, and to yearn for the best possible “toolbox” with which to enter a complex and troubled world. At its best, EthIC will focus on this intersection of academic life, personal development and the nurturing of thoughtful and ethical community.

So, with a moment of introduction, we return to this “Carleton Ethicist” column. Over the next year, this weekly column will respond to questions submitted by members of the Carleton community via email to These questions will be forwarded to me anonymously, and I will recruit a member of the Carleton faculty, staff, administration, alumni or student body to respond to the submitted question. Our hope, of course, is not to be able to provide a single, clear ethical choice for every dilemma, but to foster ethical conversation, reflection and action. This will only be as successful as you make it, both with your questions and your willingness to reflect on the responses. Start sending questions today---we will favor a mix of very local, day to day dilemmas and some of the big questions of our day. EthIC has historically felt that a single, thoughtful response was better than a short point-counterpoint, but we may mix it up from time to time.

Finally, if you are interested in ethical reflection and the other activities of EthIC, please drop me an email or stop by. We will be looking for ethicists, small group participants and leaders, and ideas of all kinds for the future direction of the program. Not sure if you should take on anything else, well “Ask the Ethicist...”

Michael Hemesath, former director of EthIC