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EthIC Seeks Wisdom Through Discussion

<rleton's EthIC program, or Ethical Inquiry at Carleton, has been in existence for a number of years and was developed and well led by previous directors. This year, however, EthiC has formed a new branch, entitled "Windows of the Good Life" which is celebrating its first successful inaugural year on campus and examines, at its core, life's biggest questions

EthIC’s main goal is “inquiry which requires you to open up big questions about what we are and what our nature is as human beings and what our place is in the whole of the cosmos,” explained EthIC director and Political Science professor Laurence Cooper.

Launched a year ago with roughly ten students, EthIC now has a group size of nearly fifty students.

“We’re trying to go into fundamental inquiry,” Cooper said. “I want to highlight the word ‘inquiry’ because people sometimes hear ‘ethic’ and they think it means sermonizing or preaching, and while that’s a very legitimate activity, it’s not really what EthIC does.”

EthIC meets at least three times a term and discusses extensively topics that aren’t always covered in classes. The organization sponsors events that also focus on specific themes, and is working to invite speakers and run seminars on campus.

“The kind of inquiry that I’m most interested in promoting with EthIC and in my classes, for that matter, is inquiry that goes to the fundamental questions and doesn’t presume that the questions can ever be definitively answered but presumes that we will be wiser and better for engaging the questions in a serious way,” said Cooper.

This year, EthIC has largely focused on its inaugural co-curricular year-long seminar entitled “Windows on the Good Life.” Professor Cooper, in partnership with Alan Rubenstein, research associate in EthIC, convenes a group of students to discuss a selection of great texts.

“We hoped to have just enough students to put together a lively seminar,” said Cooper. “It was just one [all-campus] email and a few of these flyers, and we had a huge response of interest from students with great enthusiasm and in great numbers.”

“It’s not for credit, which is really interesting because students are only there for the best of reasons. There’s no credential that they get out of it–they’re excited and a little bit hungry to do this kind of thing,” he added.

This year’s theme is “love and human flourishing.” Each term has been devoted to a different great text that addresses this theme. This year has included a close study of Plato’s Symposium in the fall, and a large part of the Book of Genesis in the winter. The group is currently studying Shakespeare’s Othello and As You Like It. For the modest volume of reading that these texts represent, the seminar focuses on getting into close reading and in-depth discussion.

“Probably the most serious way you can engage these serious questions is by reading and really taking to heart people who have thought about them and written about them with the greatest power and care,” said Cooper.

The idea of an annual publication, which among other things, would include student responses to seminar readings, has recently been introduced as a possibility.

EthIC expects to maintain the pattern of Plato in the fall, something from the religious roots or Biblical sources of our civilization in the winter, and Shakespeare in the spring, the idea being that the modern West or the U.S. especially is part of a civilization that has multiple sources, of which perhaps two of the most powerful have been Athens and Jerusalem. Shakespeare’s status as the great poet of the English language rounds out the triad.

Cooper describes the co-curricular seminar as a way to integrate more ethical programming into Carleton’s academic offerings. The current co-curricular seminar being offered for credit is a budding possibility.

“I personally want EthIC to not just be in the business of scattershot events, a speaker here, a book group there. I want EthIC to have a sustained academic seriousness,” he says.
“As I tell my students at the start of every year, the animating question of political philosophy is the question of the good–what’s good for us, what’s a good way of life, what’s the best way of life, what’s a good society.”

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