Should Ethicists Be Activists?
I was drawn to the academic discipline of ethics because it was about making moral claims, calling for actions, and evaluating the impact of current and past social and religious structures. Doing Christian ethics, I thought, could be synonymous with activism. However, as I spend more and more time in front of a computer or in a classroom it becomes more and more difficult to convince myself that being an ethicist makes me an activist. The same might be true about my identity as a feminist academic. Is writing and teaching from a feminist perspective automatically activism? I often wrestle with this question. Hopefully, it isn’t just academic feminists or ethicists who find themselves conflicted about a description like scholar-activist.
At this year’s meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE), Society of Jewish Ethics (SJE) and Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics (SSME), a small group of members participated in a “die-in.” Most recently, die-in’s have been staged across the United States as a protests to remember victims of police shootings. The protest was held in the common space of the Societies’ meeting on the last day of the conference. A number of panels and informal discussion at this year’s meeting focused on issues of racial disparity/equality and ethical responses to systemic social problems. When Amy Levad started sending messages around and asking who wanted to participate in the die-in, I was thankful to not just “talk” about the issues, but to “do” something.
The protest came right after the plenary address by the President of the SSME, Kecia Ali, in which she focused on questions of conduct as a scholarly organization. In the address, she said, “It is on purpose that I have said less about the content of scholarship on Muslim ethics and more about its conduct. That is to say, how do we as scholars who study Muslim ethics or produce Muslim ethics, or some combination of these two, go about our professional activities?” She concluded her talk by restating her vision for SSME. “A small organization; a big opportunity. I would like to see us get bigger – but not huge. I would like to see us bring in more scholars – but not too many more. We should continue to emphasize quality over quantity as we build a culture of meaningful exchange, mentoring, and collaboration. After all, we are not just a space for scholarship on ethics, but a place to nurture ethical scholarship.” Ali’s address made me question to what extent are these ethical societies a place to advocate for and embody ethical claims?
I have always found it peculiar that a group of ethicists can convene themselves solely for academic purposes. As a member of the SCE, I am disappointed that in the past the Society refused to take a public stance on issues of public health, war, or (even closer to home) academic family care policies. This year, Karen Guth in her presentation “The Law of Love and Restorative Justice: Assessing the Complex Legacy of John Howard Yoder” challenged the SCE to consider how it is ethically implicated by the problematic legacies of members who committed sexual assault. One would think that a group of ethicists with a shared religious tradition might feel compelled to speak out on social issues of the day (to take an activist stance if not directly participate). Some members suggest that the diversity of politically and religiously liberal and conservative beliefs make a single voice too difficult to achieve. Other members say the SCE is a professional organization focused on our society, not the society. Perhaps there is enough work to be done within our ethics societies, and thus we need not take organization-wide public stances. Perhaps not!
I and others were moved to take part in the protest, not only as a statement about current events outside SJE, SSME, and SCE, but for the specific reason that racist practices go on within our societies. During the protest, members laid on the ground with signs that said, “This is what Jewish Ethics looks like”, “This is Muslim Ethics”, “This is Christian Ethics” often including #BlackLivesMatter. AnneMarie Mingo spoke to those gathered after the silence ended, sharing her take on the purpose and meaning of the die-in. As I see it, these statements and action apply to our scholarship, our conduct as professional organizations, and the broader communities of which we are members. When it comes to structural evil or systemic sin, it is always about both our societies and the society. If embodiment of values in protest defines ethics, I have a renewed sense of being a scholar-activist.
For more conversation on the intersection of ethics and activism, see Rebecca Todd Peters’ response “Are Scholar-Activists Welcome in the Academy?“