Ethical debates have formed the cornerstone of human society for countless generations. Ethics and the complexity of morality and decision making all boil down to how we act not only when the eyes of the world are upon us, but when we think no one’s watching as well.
Dr. Arthur Dobrin, a Westbury resident and professor who teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University, published The Harder Right: Stories of Conscience and Choice about a year ago.
At a recent lecture he held at the Syosset Public Library that tied into the book, Dobrin noted that it is a collection of fictional short stories that all have to do with people making ethical decisions, many of them are inspired by true events.
“One of the questions that people always have is, isn’t morality different from place to place? You have your opinion, but the answer to that question is yes and no,” he said. “Certainly there are different opinions, but there are certain things that are universal. Ethics is really about how we get along with one another, how we make life tolerable, how we can live. But to do so, there has to be a common human nature, and that’s what this is all about.”
Dobrin holds several lectures a year throughout Long Island and Queens. He noted that he likes his speaking engagements to take the form of a free-flowing discussion with his audience, with attendees posing questions and getting personally involved in the topic at-hand as opposed to simply passively listening.
“I like to pose one or two ethical problems to the audience and see how they react to them,” he said. “However, sometimes I never even get to that, because people usually come in with lots of questions or opinions to start with, and I’m happy to just puck up with whatever people are interested in. It’s always a surprise.”
An example of an ethical problem that Dobrin may present to his audience is one that he’s personally faced himself as a teacher, he said. It involved a youth from a disenfranchised neighborhood who was attending college on an athletic scholarship and was, unfortunately, not maintaining the grade point average required of him.
“He’s very nice, always does his work, has been getting all sorts of additional support all throughout the semester,” he said. “But, when everything was done, he’s still failing. He just really shouldn’t be in college. But for him to keep his athletic scholarship, he needs to maintain at least a ‘C’ average in all of his classes, and he needs his scholarship to stay in school. The dilemma is, he will be going back to a neighborhood where one out of three people wind up in prison and one out of ten wind up dead before they’re 35. It’s one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever faced as a teacher.”
But what was the final outcome of that precarious situation? Dobrin wouldn’t say, the ethical issues it presented forms the very crux of his teaching, and often provides excellent fuel for discussions with the audiences at his lectures, he said.
Stanley Brubacker, a Syosset resident, was in attendance at Dobrin’s lecture, and said that it made for an outstanding afternoon sure to fuel philosophical debates in his household for many days to come.
“Dr. Dobrin was a wonderful speaker, and he made several poignant points about the place of ethics and morality in our society,” he said. “And I love how he almost let the audience dictate the flow of the conversation, to voice their opinions and concerns. The fact is, we’re a country that has a lot of moral and ethical dilemmas, and unless we find a way to work them out together, we’re going to be in big trouble.”
Dobrin notes that ethics are as essential to a society as the air we breathe and the emotions we feel. Indeed, he said, ethics are the defining trait of any great culture, and what serves to bind us together as human beings, great and small.
“It’s universal in the way that language is universal to people,” he said. “Everybody speaks, but we all talk in different languages. But whatever the language is, we can often figure out what someone is expressing even though we don’t understand the words. Similarly, with ethics, there’s a basic structure and we all understand people being angry, say, and so on. And add in our own personal experiences, our cultures…clearly there are differences, but underneath those differences, we’re all really the same.”
To find out more about Arthur Dobrin, visit his website at www.arthurdobrin.wordpress.com.