So, just what are ethics anyway? Are there rights and wrongs about paper-versus-plastic, bottled water-versus-tap, KFC original recipe chicken versus "extra crispy"?
Thankfully, A2ethics.org — a new not-for-profit organization dedicated to discourse on everyday decision-making — and founder Jeanine DeLay are leading the charge for answers. A2ethics features blog posts on common conundrums as well as less commonly considered questions (recent topics: the election, Kid Rock's music distribution decisions, getting under-charged at the corner store) and podcasts on the ethics of such subjects as food security and teaching, as well as a forum for readers who want to join the discussion. The organization also hosts events, including a lecture at Greenhills School Performing Arts Center on November 6 about the looting of Iraqi artifacts.
"I just don't think anybody knows what ethics are. It's so hazy, and I think people keep it sort of hazy and undefined on purpose," says Barton Bund, 32. "Jeanine just said that within everything there's right and wrong. It's is about decision making."
Bund is the web community director for A2ethics, and regularly meets with DeLay to determine coverage for the A2ethics.org website and hosts podcasts. He calls DeLay "a great mentor," key to helping him develop his own ethical system since he took on the position about a year ago.
"She's brilliant, she's radical and able to find the ethical underpinnings of anything," Bund says. "She has a lot of vision, she has a lot of faith and trust in me and she's been a great mentor."
Jesse Bernstein, President and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, first met DeLay when he got wind of a donor interested in developing a program on ethics for young professionals. She, of course, was the donor, and the program that resulted from their initial conversations was A2ethics.
"I was very impressed that she would take something that has been so soundly ignored in our culture and focus on it and endow this and put her resources behind it," Bernstein says.
Another thing Bernstein praised DeLay for is her ability to entrust someone else with her pet project.
"A lot of people have a vision and they want it done their way, lock step," Bernstein adds. "I think she's got the right conception of how you get to [young professionals] in this day and age, and it's very different. She's not at all afraid to let go and let other people design and mold and structure how to achieve her vision."
Continues Bernstein: "Jeanine kept saying she wants to start the avalanche, but not run it."
So just who is this long-time ethicist who's been able to get people to think hard, often about things they've previously never considered?
"I first got interested in ethics almost 30 years ago," explains DeLay, 56, who studied philosophy and government at Miami University (Ohio) and University of Virginia. She became interested in medical ethics while working for a health care concern commission, and introduced a course on applied ethics to the board of Greenhills Schools in 1980. It was a class she would teach for 24 years; in between that, she also lectured on sport ethics in the University of Michigan's kinesiology division for a decade.
"Many of the students I was teaching were athletes," DeLay says, who has been active in sports all her life; a dedicated marathon runner and rower, she is also a devout boxing fan (a surprising fact for many students, she said). "We would talk about paternalism in coaching, violence in sport, discrimination in terms of Title IX, social issues, privacy and confidentiality."
For a university where athletics are such a huge part of its culture, directing the conversation toward ethics came at an important time.
"There's a long-standing (athletic) tradition at Michigan, and certainly the professionalization of sport has caused it to have ethical issues that previously were not there," says DeLay. There's also the question of whether the commercialization of college sport is appropriate. "A whole debate continues to exist on amateurism and professionalism."
Inspiration for A2ethics, and its original mission to address 20 and 30something professionals, came from DeLay's students. She says former students working as freelancers were scrambling for mentors and resources on how to deal with moral dilemmas in their work.
"They felt isolated and insulated, I think, and wanted to have some direction," DeLay explains. "That's really how this came to be."
She pitched A2ethics.org as a resource for this demographic, first to Martha Bloom, program director at the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, then Bernstein.
"I think I prevailed upon them — 'We should really be concentrating on ethics' — and they very kindly went along with my quirky notion that people would be interested in ethics," she says.
Bernstein has only praise for DeLay.
"I think the brilliance of Jeanine's and her approach is that she tapped into what I think is an element of the young professionals and the twenty-and-thirty-year-olds," Bernstein adds. "Some of them are starting to ask these questions (about ethics) — look at how many business students are applying to work in the non-profit sector and looking to start socially positive businesses that have this as a core element. I think she tapped into something that I hope is a change in direction [for society]."
This change would be greater subscription to what DeLay calls "the slow ethics movement" — a play on the slow food movement. Proponents of slow food (versus fast food) emphasize that food is to be enjoyed and savored and thought about — and it should be the same with ethics. Instead of jumping quickly to conclusions about ethical issues or social concerns, as many people are prone to do, DeLay says, A2ethics wants to take the time to think and then discuss.
"Ethics is in the atmosphere," she says. "We're charging the atmosphere with ethics matters, to be scientific."
One way to do this has been with the site's podcasts, which use one subject — such as food security — to talk about ethics. Also, A2ethics often uses the arts to bring out ideas; an upcoming event, led by Bund (who also runs Ann Arbor's Blackbird Theatre, is a night of "ethics improv," where performers act out ethics experiments. Other upcoming events include a discussion on music and democracy, and a reading of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
"I think we're a media-performing-arts-science-humor organization," DeLay jokes. "If we're innovative it's not that we're innovative in any way, shape or form in technology, but we're innovative in looking at community artifacts, talking to people in our community, and asking them what the community should have in terms of economic, social and ethical changes."
Kimberly Chou is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. She is a frequent contributor to both Metromode. This is her first article for Concentrate.
Jeanine DeLay at the Washtenaw Dairy-Ann Arbor
Barton Bund Outside the Blackbird Theatre-Ann Arbor
Statue of Raoul Wallenberg-A Swedish Diplomat that Saved Thousands Hungarian Jews in 1944- U of M Campus-Ann Arbor
Jeanine DeLay-Ann Arbor
That's Right, VOTE-Ann Arbor
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He gets ethical all the time.