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JHU projects explore contemporary ethical issues, from climate change to social justice

January 26, 2017
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts hosts the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics symposium

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts hosts the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics symposium

“Why is it that most of the university’s focus on contemporary ethical issues is concentrated on health care, public health, and the biomedical sciences? Surely other professions and other disciplines also face important real world ethical issues—shouldn’t Hopkins faculty, staff, and students be addressing these issues as well?”

That question, posed by Johns Hopkins University trustee Andreas Dracopoulos to the Berman Institute of Bioethics, helped inspire and drive the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics program, a grant program to fund research into interdisciplinary fields of ethics.

The program provided funds for nine projects—some of which are still under way—that examine issues relating to criminal justice, higher education, economics, and environmentalism. At a symposium Tuesday, those projects were presented to members of the university community.

“Andreas’ provocative question—and it was provocative—set in motion a process of exploration among university leadership initiated by [JHU] President [Ronald J.] Daniels,” said Ruth Faden, the former director of the Berman Institute, in her remarks opening the symposium. “The goal of this process is to assess whether the university should expand its footprint beyond the traditional territories of bioethics and take on the full range of ethical challenges facing society.”

Projects focused on ethical questions and dilemmas surrounding climate change and pollution, higher education, and specific societal issues.

Whiting School faculty members contributed to two projects.

  • Feilim Mac Gabhann, associate professor of biomedical engineering, along with Israel Gannot, associate research professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Debra Mathews, created an ethics course for engineering undergrads. The course requirements include an online component on the philosophies of different schools of ethics and an in-person module allowing for deep dives on rotating ethical topics. The pilot class was a success, scoring above expectations on student evaluations.
  • Mario Macis, Vikram Chib, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Berman Institute Director Jeffrey Kahn developed a lab test to measure the rates at which people will withstand electric shocks in exchange for money. Though no tests have yet been performed, they hope to extrapolate their findings to address the ethics of paying organ donors, which is currently illegal.

After the symposium presentations, JHU Provost Sunil Kumar spoke in praise of the projects.

“It is easy for us to stay away from issues like what we’re talking about today,” Kumar said. “But it is important for us to grapple with these issues in a thoughtful way, and to have our own thought leaders come together.”

Excerpted and adapted from The Hub.

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