Hoffberger Center Celebrates Quarter Century
We could spend hours locked in a fascinating discussion with Fred Guy, associate professor and director of UB’s Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, about ethics and how our changing society continues to interpret and impact them. Here’s some additional insight from the expert about the center, the programs it offers and the extensive subject area of applied ethics.
Q: How has the Hoffberger Center grown since its founding?
A: We’ve grown considerably. When I became co-director in 1991with Tim Sellers, [University System of Maryland Regents Professor of Law at UB], if the center produced one program a semester, that was about it, and there were no other activities that I know of.
As the charge of the grant is to integrate discussions of ethics across the University, we decided we should have one lunch a month with speakers from professions that our students might go into to share the challenges they might face.
Now we do six of these lunches a year, three each semester; an Ethics Week; three ethics bowls; an ethics essay contest and a conference on professional ethics every year. Over the past 25 years, we have grown from probably two to three annual events to 12-15 activities and programs annually. We are hoping to grow that professional ethics conference into at least two days and hope to bring in up-and-coming young scholars.
Q: Tell me about the Hoffberger Center’s ethics bowls.
A: We have these for high school students and college students. Students have teams with no more than five members. There are six cases for a day, and in each session, two cases are presented. [Participants must] address [various aspects of] the case and address any ethical issues inherent in the case. We think this has much greater value to the educational experience than taking a side—you have to think through a range of viewpoints and answers that may be given.
As an example: A 16-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl were dating. The girl agreed to let the boyfriend take nude photos of her. The two subsequently broke up, and the boyfriend posted the photos on the Web for all to see. Was this unethical, as the girl had agreed to them in the first place? Who else might have been hurt? Her family, friends, school, etc.?
The judges ask questions of each team, and the teams receive points for how well they have expressed themselves, thought through the problem and so forth. At the end, the team with the most points wins.
Q: And what about Ethics Week?
A: Ethics Week happens every April. This year, we had seven seminar-style programs. We serve lunch and have speakers and try to make the programs highly interactive. Ron Weich, the new dean of the [UB] law school, gave a lecture on the intersection of ethics and law. Another seminar was “Wal-Mart: The Moral Cost of Being Cheap,” which examined how big stores can come in and put the mom-and-pop stores out of business, and whether or not that is fair and proper.
Q: How do morals differ from ethics?
A: Morals are those beliefs that we use to guide our behavior, and they can be either bad or good. However, ethics is a set of principles that guide behavior and are usually seen as the guiding principles, such as medical ethics or military ethics.
Q: How about bias, intolerance and prejudice? Are they the same as ethics?
A: No. Bias, intolerance and prejudice in and of themselves are not unethical, but they do tend to feed unethical behavior, such as acts of terrorism.
Q: How do cultural differences influence ethics?
A: Ethos is the Greek word for the character of a culture, but there is not a universal code of ethics that everyone agrees upon. And there is no one universal standard of morality. In order to overcome cultural differences, we are trying to have different cultures agree upon a universal set of minimal ethical values and principles, which is easier said than done. Furthermore, we are looking to take the best from each culture and get rid of the worst. For example, most cultures do not condone murder, adultery and stealing, and most forbid incest. How to get people to change morally and ethically is a good question, and I don’t know what it takes to change the heart of a man. But we have seen examples—and they are everywhere—of people who in the 1950s and 1960s were racists but completely changed, largely because they actually got to know people of different races and found common values and interests.
Q: In a previous conversation, you referred to a situation of having a woman in India carry another woman’s child and said that it can be a wonderful thing in that the Indian woman earns a great deal of money, another woman is happy and a child is brought into the world. But you also said that it may be a Frankenstein in the making. Could you explain what you mean?
A: This is really about bioethics, and you most likely are dealing with a lot of unknowns. You don’t know what the prenatal health conditions are, for example. You don’t know what cultural differences may arise for the woman who is the surrogate or whether she may be considered an outcast or prostitute.
Then there is the question of bioengineering, which makes it possible to pick the characteristics of your child. And there is the question if in vitro fertilization, in which there may be five or sex embryos, but if the parents only want one child, the rest will be eliminated.
And of course, there is the question as to whether it is better to adopt a child with no family than to create a new life.