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CSUB's Kegley Institute of Ethics Celebrates 20th Anniversary
  April 7, 2006
Mike Stepanovich, 661/654-2456,,
or Jaclyn Loveless, 661/654-2138,

The list is 20 years long, a collection of thought-provoking people who came to CSUB to probe, to question, and with any luck to find an answer or two. There was Tony Kushner, author of "Angels in America"; Robert Haas, America's poet laureate; the late David Shaw, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times; John Daniel, a member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Dr. Jocelyn Elders, former surgeon general of the United States; ethicist Peter Singer; former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose wife, Valerie Plame-Wilson, was exposed as an American spy by someone in the Bush administration.

All these and more have spoken at CSUB during the Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture, the annual highlight of the Kegley Institute of Ethics. They've been thought provoking, insightful and informative. They've provided discernment into national and global issues that have given Kern County residents the opportunity to gain multi-dimensional views of some of the biggest issues of the day.

The Kegley Institute of Ethics has been effectively raising the local conscience on a variety of issues for 20 years now. It is named in honor of Charles W. Kegley, the late philosophy professor who envisioned "a forum where the community and the campus could come together and discuss issues facing the nation," said Jacqueline Kegley, his widow and also a philosophy professor at CSUB. "His concern was to make philosophy important to the community." "Charles was the first hire in the department and he brought in the rest of the faculty," said Christopher Meyers, institute director and a philosophy professor. "He was significantly engaged in the idea of public philosophy, and believed that philosophy had a lot to contribute in trying to figure out difficult contemporary problems.

"So in 1986 the philosophy department started thinking about how the campus could contribute to that process. They decided they wanted to found an ethics program, and they hired me in '86 to do that, to help create a center." Unfortunately, Meyers said, "Charles had very aggressive prostate cancer. He had to retire in spring of '86; that was when I was hired, as his replacement. The expectation was that he would live long enough to see the development of the program, but sadly he died in mid-summer."

Jacqueline Kegley recalled that a fundraising dinner was held to raise money to get the institute off the ground. "When he died, we went through the formal organizational process to honor his lifelong commitment – raising the conscience of the community. Our son, Charles W. Kegley Jr., a professor of international relations at the University of South Carolina, gave the first memorial lecture in the spring 1987. … This spring will mark the 20th lecture." Both Meyers and Jacqueline Kegley feel the ethics institute has accomplished what was envisioned.

"The community knows we exist," Kegley said. "They've come to us, the communications community and the medical community. The city and county have called on us to help with ethical issues. We've gone into the public schools. There's an awareness that we are a resource."

Added Meyers, "Our goal all along was to be a regional resource. Most ethics centers are driven by a desire to conduct scholarly research and to make a national name for themselves. Our mission has been to be a local and regional resource, to provide ethics consulting and outreach for the university's service region. We did not focus much on research, and did not host national or international conferences because we wanted to be locally driven. We're also different in that most ethics organizations focus on one area, for example, medical or journalism or public affairs. We thought we would be more effective if didn't specialize in that way."

"Part of our argument," he continued, "is that issues across professions are the same ethical issues. They get played out in profession-specific ways. But the issues are the same – treating people with dignity, helping people to accomplish their life goals. Whether that's in journalism or medicine – treating patients as persons – all have as their underlying core the same basic structure."

Meyers has worked with local news organizations on ethical issues. Shortly after his arrival, he arranged to spend time with The Bakersfield Californian not only to provide advice on issues but also to learn more about the industry. "To do good practical ethics, one must understand what drives the decision making of the practitioners. … So with journalism, I wanted to find out how to put out a paper. The editor at the time, Bob Bentley, was generous enough to let me sit in on the editorial board, and that expanded into the newsroom. That lasted about seven years. I did a similar deal with Channel 23. "So my role started as research activity and over years evolved into a collaborative. At the same time I gained considerable insight into how journalists practice their craft."

Medical issues have also occupied much of the Kegley Institute of Ethics' time. "Medicine has been by far our biggest push, because that was my primary training," Meyers said. "I sit on ethics committees at all the hospitals in town. We have weekly ethics ‘rounds' at Kern Medical Center, where I also provide ongoing consulting for the medical staff and the whole hospital. I do similar though more limited work at the other hospitals, providing educational programs, helping design policies, doing case consulting work. "All the hospitals approach ethical problems in a different way than they did 19 years ago. Part of that is the medical profession takes ethics much more seriously, but I like to think we've had an important influence on how they handle ethical concerns."

And just what is it that the Kegley Institute of Ethics provides? "Ethics is recognizing the difference between is and ought," Meyers said. "A factual question tries to figure out what is the case. An ethical question tries to figure out what ought to be the case. We believe that those oughts are grounded in universal moral principals, and we help people to draw the connection between those principals and their daily decision-making." That's important, he said, because that's "what makes us human. It's probably the only key distinguishing characteristic between humans and other animals, that is, the ability to recognize where morality is present in a problem and be morally accountable for the choices we make."

The choices of some people have been making headlines in Washington and elsewhere, drawing attention to unethical behavior at various levels of government, but Meyer doesn't believe that necessarily means there's a greater need now for ethicists.

"Some of the problems emerging from Washington are no different, they're the same problems as always," he said. "People are tempted by power and financial gain. Part of the problem in Washington now is that power is too centered in one party and one ideology; with that concentration comes just too many temptations. Those trying to curry the favor of people with power keep going to the same individuals, giving them ample opportunities to ethically fail. It's not an issue of one party or the other; it's unique to power. National ethical issues are not just limited to politics. Kegley sees a wide range of issues that have ethical implications. "Ethical values and issues cross all walks of life," she said. "Issues I see for ethicists in the future are medicine, land use, energy technology, the war in Iraq and international relations. That last one is interesting: how do we deal with other nations, their values and way of life?

"Religious ethics are important. Are there common values among the religious communities, and how do we build tolerance in the religious community? There's a lot to address in the future, a growing concern about people using violence to accomplish their goals. A lot of people don't see civility as an ethical issue, but I believe it is. It has to do with the way we treat others." Meyers also stressed that that morality "is not just who is sleeping with whom. Morality is also caring for one's neighbor, taking responsibility for all one's choices."

Meyers and Kegley are working to increase the institute's activities as it moves into its third decade. "We're hoping to provide more scholarships and campus activities for students," Meyers said. "We're developing more involvement with interdisciplinary research with other faculty. This proposal is in the final stages and we're getting great support from the administration. We also hope to expand upon our current group of associates both on and off campus. Institute associates are doing work in ethics in their campus disciplines and their professional lives.

"We're always looking for other community and campus people who would like to be members of the institute. As an associate we provide opportunities for travel and research support. … We really see ourselves as a practical ethics center in the richest sense of the word, helping people better understand their own ethical values and working through ethical dilemmas." A principal vehicle for that effort is the annual Kegley Memorial Lecture, which took a sharp turn 10 years ago from what had been the norm the first decade.

"For our 10th anniversary, we decided to bring in Dr. Jocelyn Elders to open the speaker series much more to a widespread audience," Meyers said. "Up to then we had been bringing in people who appealed to academics. Elders attracted a community-wide audience, filling the Dor้ Theater, and she gave an energetic, rousing talk. Her talk marked the first time we were attacked by the right; talk-radio and letters-to-the-editor were critical of us bringing her to Bakersfield.

"In addition to Elders, the most important speakers were Cornell West (at the time, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard University) Peter Singer, and just this year Ambassador Wilson. Singer is one of the best known, if not the best known, ethicists today, and has very controversial views about medical treatment, animals, and euthanasia. Again we took considerable criticism for sponsoring him, as we did for bringing in Wilson," who was in the middle of a political firestorm over accusations of political attacks and illegal revelations of his wife's covert status. Both speakers, though, got people thinking and talking about the very issues we want people to think and talk about – who are we as a society and what are our basic values?"

This year's lecture follows that pattern: Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," which was the subject of an Academy Award-winning movie of the same name.

"That shows the effectiveness of bringing in important controversial figures," Meyers said. "Their presence motivates people to think about ethical problems, their own lives and how they might do things differently. And that's what we want for the institute in its next 10 years – to generate thought, to raise difficult questions, to be a conscience for the community."