Individuals can still make a difference
On 30 June Sacred Heart University (Luxembourg Campus) held an interesting conference at the Chamber of Commerce on the issue “Can individuals still make a difference? Ethics, leadership and management”. After a brief introduction by Dr. Edmond Israel, Chairman of the Board of Regents of Sacred Heart University, the principals of SHU and the University of Luxembourg made keynote speeches on the role of a university in the transmission of ethical behaviour. The different religious and ethical backgrounds of these two scientists made for an exceptionally interesting conference that stood out among the usual discussions.
The first part of the evening, featuring Prof. DDr. Rolf Tarrach, Rector of the University of Luxembourg and Anthony J. Cernera, President of the Sacred Heart University, tackled the question of the evening at a philosophical level. This was followed by two further speakers and a lively business panel on the application of these considerations to real life.
Educating responsible people
Prof. Tarrach, who describes himself as an agnostic, raised a key question: are managers free agents or merely hostages of the system in which they work? In his view, the extent to which universities are responsible for educating responsible economic leaders is a political question. Universities should actively help to solve outstanding problems. In order to achieve this noble aim we need scientists to collect data, he continued; we need knowledge to interpret the data and the humility to recognise what we don’t know; we need an ethical framework with which to interpret the results and this requires leadership to educate responsible people. The role of a university is “educating responsible people”.
Science is about diminishing ignorance, said Professor Tarrach, continuing that knowledge itself had no ethical value, so it was the role of universities to teach the ethic of responsibility. “Scientsts don’t know what the truth is; they observe”. In his view, there is a key difference between religious ethics and the ethics of science, which he views as the “will to freely decide”, and he holds that as a result religious belief and science are incompatible. In his view this puts religious universities at a disadvantage.
However, the examples of ethical challenges proposed by Professor Tarrach failed to establish this point because the putative responses of a Catholic were in each case wide of the mark. As Professor Cernera commented later, believers are fully responsible for their moral decisions and to abdicate from this responsibility (“let God decide”) was a conscious act of free will. Believers decide freely between the available options. Free will is an amazing gift, which should be used wisely.
Moving on from the physical to the metaphysical Professor Tarrach asked “Is there knowledge beyond scientific knowledge?” In his view a scientist must answer “no”.
He concluded by declaring that an individual has responsibility for society and that this responsibility is not transferable (a reference to religious belief). “Individuals are absolutely essential for the well being of our society.”
Don’t you loose your sense of wonder
Responding to Professor Tarrach, Anthony J. Cernera, President of Sacred Heart University ,described himself a “believer with deep agnostic tendencies”. It was too simple to state that believers shift responsibility onto God, he said. Their choices will be nourished by faith, and “an act of faith is always an act of trust”.
One of the key problems of our society is excessive individualism. While society has freed itself from an old moral horizon that depended on authority, the values of the enlightenment, which sanctified the freedom of ambition, brought their own danger. Man lost his sense of wonder. “People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, something that is worth dying for and therefore worth living for. We suffer from a lack of passion”. In his view, we have narrowed our minds with regard to what human life is about, giving up any sense of responsibility towards others. This is the dark side of independence, limited to the individual self.
Which narrative shall we choose?
According to the Jewish tradition, God has not completed His work in this world: we are invited to work with him. And in this we must avoid the temptation of escaping responsibility and choosing the easy path. “Technology and science are not neutral”, Professor Cernera underlined; a university has to be a place where ethical questions and technology go hand in hand. The great ethical question in research is: should we do a thing, just because we can? The answer of the twentieth Century was “yes”, resulting among other things in the atomic bomb. “The reduction of knowledge to scientific knowledge was the greatest mistake of enlightenment” he said.
A Catholic university makes mistakes but if well run these will be self correcting, he continued, “The Catholic community has to be prepared to challenge itself.” Christ’s message was radical, it challenged the thinking and behaviour of the authorities and received opinion of his time. The Christian church has always done the same.
He also pointed out that the real challenge is not a conflict between science and religion, but how to find a meaning and purpose in life. Quoting Sartre, “humanity is condemned to be free” he went on to conclude that “Our essential decision is to choose which narrative we will base our life on”. The final freedom is the ability to choose your spiritual attitude towards the circumstances in which you find yourself.
Happiness is a decision!
After these two quite opposite and passionate speeches, DDr. Jean Ehret, Research Fellow of the Sacred Heart University, moderated a lively discussion, during which Professor Tarrach said that knowledge is one of the main factors of happiness. A member of the audience disagreed, saying that happiness is a decision which each individual is free to choose. The verbal swordplay between Tarrach and Cernera mainly dealt with the question of the origin of our sense of responsibility, as humans. For Professor Tarrach, our sense of responsibility is personal while he claimed that for believers, we dump responsibility on God. But as Professor Cernera responded, believers have the inestimable freedom to choose themselves which road to take.
The real challenge now for universities is fundamentalism, which is fed by the fear of uncertainty. People flee uncertainty into extreme views. Professor Cernera recommended life- long learning as a solution, a point which reflected Professor Tarrach’s emphasis on education as a prerequisite to moral decisions, and in which sphere universities have a role to play. However, at the end of the day responsibility lies with each individual. This was a conclusion to which both academics could sign up. EK