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An Ethical Compass

An Ethical Compass: Coming of Age in the 21st Century

Preface by Elie Wiesel
Foreword by Thomas L. Friedman
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    An Ethical Compass
    Book Description:

    In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his victory over "the powers of death and degradation, and to support the struggle of good against evil in the world." Soon after, he and his wife, Marion, created the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. A project at the heart of the Foundation's mission is its Ethics Prize-a remarkable essay-writing contest through which thousands of students from colleges across the country are encouraged to confront ethical issues of personal significance. The Ethics Prize has grown exponentially over the past twenty years.

    "Of all the projects our Foundation has been involved in, none has been more exciting than this opportunity to inspire young students to examine the ethical aspect of what they have learned in their personal lives and from their teachers in the classroom," writes Elie Wiesel. Readers will find essays on Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda, sweatshops and globalization, and the political obligations of the mothers of Argentina's Disappeared. Other essays tell of a white student who joins a black gospel choir, a young woman who learns to share in Ladakh, and the outsize implications of reporting on something as small as a cracked windshield. Readers will be fascinated by the ways in which essays on conflict, conscience, memory, illness (Rachel Maddow's essay on AIDS appears), and God overlap and resonate with one another.

    These essays reflect those who are "sensitive to the sufferings and defects that confront a society yearning for guidance and eager to hear ethical voices," writes Elie Wiesel. "And they are a beacon for what our schools must realize as an essential component of a true education."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17161-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Thomas L. Friedman

    What does a “World-Is-Flat-Guy” like me have to do with a book on ethics? After all, the lofty, abstract world of ethics rarely mixes with the bits and bytes, banks and bandwidth world of globalization, right? Well, my short answer is this: The flat, globalized world has enabled more people to connect with more other people farther, faster, deeper, cheaper than ever before. And as the global financial meltdown in 2008 demonstrated, a breakdown in values and ethics in one country—particularly one as central as the United States—can now have profound implications for scores of other countries whose...

    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Elie Wiesel
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    Marion Wiesel and Elie Wiesel

    • The Ethics of South African Identity
      (pp. 3-13)

      It has been a year since Nelson Mandela raised his fist in celebration, greeting the uncertainty of life after prison. The country is steeped in speculation, thick air breathes anticipation into our living rooms; something is about to happen. My schoolmates compare notes about whose house is best stashed with emergency supplies—foodstuff, cans, books, cash.What do people stock in preparation for civil war?My white friends talk aboutswartgevaar, black-danger … crazed Africans stealing in the night, demanding that European children leave their Barbie dolls and march to the sea. At home, my township friends mindlessly chant grown-up...

    • Deaths in Paradise Genocide and the Limits of Imagination in Rwanda
      (pp. 14-21)

      Genocide means little when an entire population accumulates on the banks of Lake Victoria, the streets of Kigali, and a church at Nyarubuye. In the spring of 1994, the small Central African nation of Rwanda became engulfed in chaos. The Hutu majority led by Hutu Power began the systematic decimation of the Tutsi minority. In Philip Gourevitch’s seminal book,We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Rwanda’s killings come to light in an honest account of one man’s journey to understand the forces, logic, and reasons for genocide. Gourevitch writes for a Western...

    • One February Morning
      (pp. 22-31)

      Sara became a vegetarian sometime during college. At the time she told our family, we saw it as another step in a process that began in high school—a slow progression toward religious observance. In explaining her decision to me, she pointed out a few of the Torah’s provisions for meat eating: the calf was not to be boiled in its mother’s milk, and the slaughter was to be conducted in the quickest, most painless manner. There were several others. If so many guidelines had to be observed to ensure the ethical treatment of animalsdespitethe fact that they...

    • Black and White in the Land of Israel/Palestine Toward an Ethic of Care
      (pp. 32-42)

      Late in august i observed a demonstration of Women in Black, a group of Israeli women who protest the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. “Women in white” (counterdemonstrators) stand across the street with signs proclaiming the right of the Jews to their own state in the entire Land of Israel. A fistfight nearly broke out between two men who came to support the opposing sides on the day I attended. “Don’t tell me about the suffering of those Arabs—I know what it’s like to suffer,” fumed an elderly Holocaust survivor in white. “Black widows is...

    • The Bosnian Women
      (pp. 43-56)

      A brief foreword:I readThe Iliad, or the Poem of Forceby Simone Weil (1945) when I was eighteen years old and enrolled in an Introduction to Humanities course. The prose, as well as the political and personal conditions surrounding it, affected me deeply. I would not purport to possess the faintest grasp of the beauty and intelligence with which Weil argued against injustice and for common humanity inThe Iliad. I do claim that this essay is a devotion to that most powerful work; the structure of both the essay and its sentences is inspired by and a...

    • Of Borders, Infidels, and the Ethic of Love
      (pp. 57-65)

      One march evening in 1987 I crossed the border that separates Morocco and Algeria. Borders involve an unreal step through a vertical sheet of particles, an atomic space that belongs to no one.

      These arbitrary lines in soil engender the demarcation of culture and politics, a place where identity shifts because of two connected points and where one crisis after another emerges over several inches of map space. At a border you must readjust your logic, shift gears, pay attention. Profound lessons that can change your life occur here. When I crossed that line in northern Africa—and the event...

    • Justice—For Whom? Reflections on the Persian Gulf War
      (pp. 66-78)

      “The war in the gulf is … a just war.”¹ In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters George Bush invoked traditional just war theory to legitimize the United States’ role in the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War. George Bush, using classical just war criteria, claimed that therewas just causefor violence, that Operation Desert Storm was conducted withlegitimate authority, that the coalition hadjust intent, that war was alast resort, that there wasreasonable prospect of success, that the good accomplished outweighed evil perpetrated (norm of proportionality), and finally that discrimination was exercised so as to...


    • In Times of Darkness The Responsibility of the Individual
      (pp. 81-90)

      I remember a bosnia Herzegovina that most people in the world will never know. I remember the smell of the pine forests that cover the dark mountains. I remember the minarets of Sarajevo’s Begova Mosque and the black birds that dove around them in the grayness of sky. When I was a baby, my parents pushed my stroller over the cobblestoned streets. When I was old enough to walk, I held my mother’s hand tightly as we wove our way through the souk, where merchants sold embroidered cloths, leather goods, and filigree jewelry. It was in this market that we...

    • The Secret of Redemption Memory and Resistance
      (pp. 91-105)

      The opening passage of Milan Kundera’s bookThe Book of Laughter and Forgetting(1979) demonstrates the absolute power but also the absolute fallibility of totalitarian rule. At the root of this political and psychological paradox is the persistence of memory. Yet given what we know of Stalin and his legacy, how can I suggest that a system whose very nature is so violently methodical be considered fallible? The totalitarian state surely knows no bounds on its own behavior, knows respect for no authority other than its own—where, then, is its weakness? Its weakness, Kundera reveals, lies in the fact...

    • Memory, Loss, and Revitalizing Democracy The Mothers of Plaza del Mayo
      (pp. 106-120)
      TRACY KE

      Every thursday afternoon at 3:30 pm, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo march in front of the Argentine presidential palace. They cover their heads with white handkerchiefs, embroidered with the names of theirdisappearedsons and daughters. The Mothers, who first came to the square as housewives searching for their lost loved ones, have created a political space for themselves as activists, confounding the Argentine government with their persistent unmasking of the truth behind its contrived political facade. What began as a private work of mourning has transfigured the corpses of thedisappearedinto epochal emblems, the unresolved reminder...

    • Toward a Civil Society Memory, History, and the Enola Gay
      (pp. 121-134)

      The united states is a nation that has always had a particular sense of destiny. From the religious reformers who carved a life out of the New England forests to modern voices who call for foreign intervention, the American people have believed that the United States has a special mission to be a lighthouse of freedom and hope for other nations.¹ This mission is revealed in history and is especially clear in conflicts; the national vision was articulated in the Revolutionary War, tested and strained during the Civil War, undermined during Vietnam. World War II, a war fought to “save...


    • Tatyana’s Glory
      (pp. 137-148)

      On a ride from moscow to Petersburg, a lone traveler can hardly forgo the opportunity to awaken before his compartment mates, and, after beating a queue to the washroom, after asking for a glass of tea from the train manager, to prop himself on a windowsill of a speeding train. One then can savor the final hour of travel, when other commuters roll out of bed and prepare to disembark at the train station of Russia’s second capital city. In that hour, the nocturnal landscape of endless forests and lakes gradually changes as the train enters the universe of industrial...

    • Made by Us Young Women, Sweatshops, and the Ethics of Globalization
      (pp. 149-160)

      On the night li chunmei died, there wasn’t a single toy in sight. No Buzz Lightyear, no Pocahontas, no Minnie Mouse. The grinning stuffed characters that Li brought to life each day in China’s Bainan Toy Factory weren’t around to see her frail body rocking back and forth on the bathroom floor. Nor did they hear her coughing up blood. They were already on their way to Disney stores in America, waiting to be wrapped in brightly colored paper for the holiday season. It was Li’s roommates who discovered her bleeding from the nose and mouth; they immediately called an...

    • The Mask The Loss of Moral Conscience and Personal Responsibility
      (pp. 161-173)

      In william golding’sLord of the Flies, proper English schoolboys in uniforms and choir robes become savages who forsake ethical principles and commit murder. What allowed this deviation from civilization to savagery? It was not the creation of weapons; it was the creation of the mask. It was a painted face of colored clay and charcoal that facilitated the abandonment of ethics by the boys.

      Jack and the hunters inLord of the Fliesfind a freedom behind the mask that allows them to commit savage acts that otherwise, ostensibly, their moral consciences would not allow. Of all of humanity’s...

    • Choices and Challenges Issues of Conscience in Jewish Literature
      (pp. 174-183)

      I am a student at a prestigious and wealthy institution where I have been taught that there is little of higher value than prestige and wealth. I am studying at a school that has millions of dollars invested in South Africa, a school that has on its faculty a tenured professor who has published a book calling the Holocaust a hoax. I and my peers have lived our entire lives conscious of the menace of the nuclear threat. It is we who have attended substandard schools because the defense industry was deemed to be a more worthy recipient of tax...

    • Public Sins and Private Needs
      (pp. 184-195)

      Big brother has loomed as one of the most-feared folkloric monsters in our society for almost half a century. According to the mythology, the ogre will arise when citizens relinquish too much of their personal freedom for the sake of the common good. The government will then invade our privacy, dictating what we think and do, in the name of public well-being. The so-called conservative wing of American politics has imagined the harbinger of this terrifying oppressor to be communism and has focused on such preventive measures as waging anticommunist campaigns at home and abroad and fighting against any governmental...

    • Ethics Through a Cracked Windshield
      (pp. 196-208)

      I thoroughly agreed six weeks ago until the owner of the shop said, “All you have to do is make a crack in the windshield with a hammer,” as he walked around toward the front of my car.

      With some calculation, he stopped to line himself up with deformed plastic and rumpled sheet metal that had once been a hood and bumper. He squatted, baseball catcher–style, eyeballed a line toward a spot on the windshield. Walking to the passenger side of the car, he pointed out the imaginary dot, relative to the area that should receive the hammer’s blow....


    • Bridges
      (pp. 211-218)

      My ethics have been about building bridges. Given the increasing diversity of ideas and orientations in this society, it seems to me that there is a concomitantly increasing need for mutual support among different groups. It starts with discussion and with tolerance of differences, and progresses toward understanding, celebration, and pride in those differences. And it starts, like most large projects, locally.

      One afternoon sometime during the middle of an unusually warm Berkshire September, I nervously prowled around the floor outside the recital room after my audition, waiting to hear whether I would be accepted into the Williams College Gocpel...

    • Forty-three Cents Learning to Share in Ladakh
      (pp. 219-230)

      Located in the remote trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir, Ladakh or “Little Tibet” has been an enclave of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism since 200 BCE. In Ladakh it is polite to decline any offer several times before accepting. Sometimes it is necessary to cover your cup or even veer away from your hostess as she approaches bearing a warm teapot and a plate stacked with homemade bread. If you do not decisively refuse, a Ladakhi host or hostess will never stop showering you with gifts of food, tea, and time. Even children know no other way.

      In Ladakh, if a child whose...

    • The Ethics of Transformation
      (pp. 231-239)

      An aggressive hand shot up on the right side of the classroom. It belonged to Vuyiseka, a slender young woman with a perfectly oval face and an almost completely shaven head. There was a fire in her eyes.

      “Yes, Vuyiseka?” I asked.

      “I want to read my poem today.” She was adamant.

      The class miraculously quieted down, shifting back into their wooden seats and putting their bags into their laps. It was the first day of the poetry workshop that I had initiated, and no one thus far had volunteered to read any of their work out loud. Vuyiseka was...

    • Who Killed Superman?
      (pp. 240-248)

      Wouldn’t you rather go to a costume party as the devil than as God?

      Intellectually, most people know that one should admire and try to emulate figures who represent goodness: the hero or heroine of a story, the officials who maintain order and justice in society, or the characters who personify virtue in religious legends and tracts. Nonetheless, all too often one feels the thrills and longings of hero worship, not when one contemplates resembling these figures, but when one imagines one’s self as a gangster, a tyrant, or a femme fatale. Of course the mad scientist who plots to...

    • Ethics Education Toward a More Moral Society
      (pp. 249-264)
      KAREN HO

      In the touch-and-go bustle of modern-day life, in a world grappling with chaos and the uncertainty of an unknown and unpredictable future, in a fragile society struggling with conflicts between technical know-how and long-established values and beliefs, ethics is a key at the crux of the problem of forging a new and more harmonized future for humankind. The nature of ethics, and the education of the general populace in ethical principles, addresses a question at the heart of the human endeavor: “How best may I live, endure, and achieve, in the presence of and in conjunction with my fellow human...


    • Tearing Down the Lazaretto
      (pp. 267-276)

      “Illness,” susan sontag writes, “is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.”¹ Sontag uses the wordcitizenshipwith reason; we consider those afflicted with a malady to be citizens of another realm, another culture. We romanticize some conditions, at different times having linked mental illness, tuberculosis, and neurosyphilis to bursts of creative genius. Or we pull illness out of the world of biology and credit it to spiritual injury, as did D. H. Lawrence in saying: “I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self.”² To the ill are ascribed qualities, characteristics, abilities that...

    • Identifiable Lives AIDS and the Response to Dehumanization
      (pp. 277-292)

      Charles Fried, Guido Calabresi, Thomas Schelling, and other legal and ethical theorists have elucidated the conceptual distinction between “identified” and “statistical” lives. Although the authors differ on their exact definitions of these concepts, it can be generalized that identified lives belong to individuals whose suffering or flourishing exists and is recognizable. An identified life is saved when we respond to a specific person in need. We need not know individualized facts about this person, only that he or she is a specific, knowable person.

      A statistical life, on the other hand, is not attachable to any one individual; policy makers...

    • Their Lives in Our Hands Fulfilling Our Ethical Obligations to the Terminally Ill Enrolling in Research Studies
      (pp. 293-307)

      Anne has been diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer: her cancer has spread, uncontrollably, beyond the original tumor site to her lymph nodes and several other organs in her body. At this point, she is no longer in remission, and standard therapies have been unsuccessful in treating her condition. Anne has a prognosis of approximately twenty-four months to live. She has a thirteen-year-old son and financial problems, and the recurrence of the cancer has placed a considerable amount of strain on Anne’s marital relationship. Anne’s oncologist, Dr. Norman, has overseen her case for several months. Dr. Norman is also...

    • Suicide and Public Speaking
      (pp. 308-316)

      When i was eighteen years old, I decided to leave this world. When I awakened to the same realm that I had tried to depart, I was underneath a haze of drugs, angry, disappointed, and despondent. Killing myself wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, I’d been grappling with it since about the time when I reached the age of reason—or maybe puberty. I started keeping a journal seriously when I was sixteen. Now I am almost twenty-two years old. I have about six full diaries now, and I consider them to be works of art. If that sounds pompous,...

  11. ON GOD

    • The Duty of Cock-Eyed Angels
      (pp. 319-331)

      Three and a half years ago, in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, an expressionist, earth-toned watercolor of an astigmatic birdman called out to me. It was Paul Klee’sAngelus Novus, acquired by the German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin in 1921, a year after its composition, and a focal point of his philosophy of history. After his tragic suicide on the Spanish-French border in 1940, Benjamin left the painting to his beloved friend Gershom Scholem, the historian of the Kaballah. Upon his own death in 1983, Scholem bequeathed the piece to his neighborhood museum, where I came upon it twenty-two years...

    • God in Our Ethics
      (pp. 332-343)

      When i was thirteen years old, I started attending church in my small Southern town. I would like to believe that I had begun my church-going in an effort to seek out God and Goodness, but I do not think this is true. If my memory serves me correctly, I went to church because it was a place where I was liked—not for my scholastic abilities, not for who my sister was, but for myself. And I’m sure that I also comforted myself with the notion that I was doing a supremely Good thing by independently attending church each...

    • Muhammad Is Not
      (pp. 344-356)

      I sold my soul for the liberal arts. I came to America to study what I could not have learned in my home country. But before I got on the plane to attend Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, I had chosen to sign a piece of paper, the contents of which continue to haunt me to this day. The voluntary act of my signing that document, however, is much more of a nightmare to live through than the printed subject matter itself. In signing under that print, I gave up my soul’s right to breathe, to move about freely in...

    • Raising the Shield of the First Amendment
      (pp. 357-368)

      “Your children are going to burn in hell,” a woman said to me. I didn’t think so. But it was not the time to argue with more than five hundred people shouting and ranting biblical phrases at me.

      “I get my dander up when one or two people decide they can rule the world,” a man said over the microphone. “If Congress can make rules to give the rights to one, and take away from the majority, then it’s time to stand up.”¹

      That night, in Adrian, Missouri, the high school gym was packed to the hilt with angry people...

    (pp. 369-384)