What’s the purpose of ethical reflection in contemporary society, particularly within the framework of contemporary higher learning? Why do we need ethics at the university?
Think about it a little bit. Analyze your psychic energy, your thoughts, your feelings, your words and conversations, maybe even your actions. Where is the concentration? I venture to suggest that a lot of it will be critiquing, criticism. We spend a lot of time complaining, nagging, criticizing the state of affairs, behavior of people, flow of history, the nature of relationships on micro- and macrolevels. Another words, with all due respect to our exaggeration, there are a lot of problems in the world. We think about them, we talk about them, because they bother us. Ethics is the discipline of understanding and communicating why something is good and right and why something is bad and harmful with the hope that critical and creative thought can help us move a little bit in a right direction. It is also at the same time a very difficult and subtle discipline. Nobody likes moralizing. We find those who preach down to us to be condescending. That is why the discipline of ethics requires great subtlety and humility through which we clearly and profoundly see problems, issues, and causalities, but also speak about them not only as distant outsiders who are beyond and above the moral mores, but with the sense of humor admitting that we are part of the problem. We can be part of the problem, but we could also be part of the solution. Ethics is a discipline of seeing the difference, of naming it, and working on it.
Speaking on applied issues, if you could name two or three specific domains where ethical thinking is most indispensable, which ones would these be?
I would probably say its bioethics and artificial intelligence which are in some sense connected because intelligence is actually characteristic of the living human being and bioethics as its summit has the welfare of the human being. The great drive for discovery, for scientific creativity, for mastery and commercial production which today can harness cybernetics, bio- and digital technologies, at the same time put us on the frontier which we could never have imagined, even yesterday. We will be faced by many ethical issues which will be connected with also great threats. I don’t know if I will live to see the development of this landscape, but I think biotechnology and artificial intelligence are some of the most important ethical questions of the future.
Do you think this kind of questions could have definite answers? Could we eventually come to some kind of consensus on them or its always going to be the matter of tension, conflict, and contestation?
I believe there are definite and true ethical answers, but I am skeptical about the possibility of general or even partial consensus at least in a defined space and time. We find that things that now we historically look upon with general unanimity were hardly obvious for our predecessors. The genocides perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler provoke hopefully almost universal condemnation. However, great numbers of people were actively involved in making these genocides happen, making them possible, and making them actually realities, and many generations look another way being incapable of naming them and applying to them real critical judgement. I think we will be floundering around ethical questions “what to do?”, “what is right?”, “what is good?”, “what is evil?” as long as we live. It seems to be the state of affairs for the human race.
What are the moral principles of engagement with those we disagree with?
As you noted, we will probably remain in a state of deep disagreement at least in a foreseeable future. How should we talk to those we disagree with? Well, I think, first of all, before we talk, we should listen. First of all, to hear the positions and arguments. Second of all, when we listen, we witness to the fact that we recognize the dignity of other who has that variant position. Communication and dialogue require openness. And if somebody has a sense that we are absolutely closed to them, they will never engage us fully in dialogue, they will not open themselves up to our position and our arguments. So, I believe that working on our capacity to hear the other is a precondition. There are cases in which positions and arguments of persons, groups or entire societies are for me or you repugnant, wrong, and completely unacceptable. And this is a great human challenge. I think here it is difficult to act without grace. It is actually a superhuman effort to be in dialogue with somebody who is trying to destroy you, for example, to forgive someone who is not at all interested in your forgiveness and of course not repenting. Here for me the posture of Christ is particularly compelling. Not all of us are willing to be nailed to a tree byour aggressive interlocutor. But it was that sacrifice that became the strongest argument in human civilization. There is no event that has influenced human history more than the story of Christ’s sacrifice. Not all followers of Christ have acted or do act ethically, but that
modality in which Jesus of Nazareth interacts with those that disagree with him fascinates human imagination for two thousand years.
How would you articulate the purpose of moral life as addressed to a pluralist audience?
Our coping intellectually, socially, politically also on the individual level with the challenge of morality is connected with our fundamental desire to live and let others live, and live well.
Most people can agree on that principle. We can agree on an abstract principle of fairness. When we start getting into the details of what is just and unjust today in the world where there is not one common anthropology, not one clear understanding what the human being is, it becomes increasingly difficult to have entire systems of ethical thought and behavior which command a consensus, but I think we are doomed to keep trying because if we want to live well, and live in a life-giving way, we have to do what is right for ourselves and then for others. In some ways, ethics is on how to keep this search of what is good for you and me under parallel track.
Interviewed by Victor Poletko