Lincoln Ethics Symposium weighs sustainability, human rights questions

Hundreds of students and community members will question their collective conscience about timely and troubling human rights and sustainability issues during Arizona State University’s 4th Annual Lincoln Ethics Symposium. This year’s popular forum is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon, Nov. 12, on the Tempe campus.

“The real take-home of the symposium is that ethical issues are challenging, but also fun to engage,” said professor Jason Robert, interim director of ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. “And there are no easy answers, no matter how simple the questions might appear.”

According to Robert, the Lincoln Ethics Symposium inherits its topics annually from the high-profile summer education series at Chautauqua Institution. Chautauqua is a not-for-profit community in southwestern New York dedicated to exploring the best in human values and the enrichment of life.

“Every summer, a group of Lincoln professors and fellows spend a week at Chautauqua engaged in a series of conversations,” Robert said. “Last year, we looked at the ethics of cheating, while this year, we had the opportunity to explore markets and morals through the lens of human rights and sustainability. Next year, our focus will be the ethics of privacy.”

Designed for students and the community, the 4th Annual Lincoln Ethics Symposium at ASU is free and open to the public with limited seating in Memorial Union’s Ventana Ballroom. Interested persons should contact Programs Director Kelly O’Brien at with questions and to confirm attendance. Information about the Lincoln Center is available at

Four distinguished ASU Lincoln Professors and Lincoln Fellows lead this year’s discussion, themed “Are We Smart Enough to Save Ourselves? Are We Kind Enough to Save Each Other?” Robert, also the Franca Oreffice Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, serves as master of ceremonies. The four academics frame the discussion by presenting each of their ethical questions briefly and then opening it up to the audience for an interactive exchange about all four issues on the table.

Members of the Lincoln family provide the symposium’s opening and closing remarks. David C. and Joan Lincoln of Paradise Valley, Ariz. founded ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics in 1998.

Kicking off the symposium is Daniel Rothenberg, Lincoln Fellow for Ethics & International Human Rights Law, who asks, “Is Your Cell Phone Linked to Atrocities in Africa? Ethics, Markets and the Global Trade in Conflict Minerals.” He also serves as professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

Rothenberg points out that anyone using a cell phone is connected to the 15-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where over 5.5 million people, mostly civilians, have died.

“While the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has trillions of dollars in mineral reserves,” he said. “These raw minerals mined by hand under the brutal control of armed militias are found in our cell phones and other consumer electronics. Does that make us responsible for what occurs in in these far-off mines?”

Next on the agenda is LaDawn Haglund, Lincoln Fellow for Human Rights and Sustainability and associate professor of justice and social inquiry in ASU’s School of Social Transformation in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She poses the question, “How Well Do We Take Care Of Ourselves and Each Other, Really?” that examines how our current production and consumption patterns impact sustainability, social justice and human rights, and she challenges audience members to explore potential alternatives.

“In the West in particular, we view ourselves as separate from and destined to dominate nature, and our economic system is organized around this domination,” Haglund explained. “An ethical orientation that takes seriously the ramifications of our reliance on fossil fuels, toxic and volatile systems of food production, unchecked extraction of resources and mindless materialism is long overdue.”

Lincoln Fellow for Sustainable Development and Ethics Amy Landis tackles the controversial issue of greenwashing – when companies and organizations mislead consumers regarding the environmental benefits of a product or service. She serves as associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and The Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Her talk will drill down to what it means to be green, or sustainable.

“Can you measure greenness?” Landis asked. “I want audience members to think hard about where responsibility lies for greening products and services. Are companies responsible for clearly reporting on the greenness of their products, or are consumers responsible for understanding green marketing and labeling and determining if that information is accurate?”

Compelling questions about conflict and its impact on civilization will be raised by Lincoln Professor of Sustainable Engineering and Ethics Braden Allenby. He is President’s Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and The Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, a professor of law in Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, distinguished sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and director of the Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management. Allenby suggests we have been trained, for the most part, to view all conflict as undesirable.

“But history, if anything, tells us the opposite,” he said. “Conflict has always been part of the human experience and, in fact, is necessary for social and cultural innovation. But we are also constantly reminded of conflicts that are nothing but destructive. So should we conclude that both destructive and constructive conflicts exist?”

Several high schools from throughout Arizona send students to the symposium each year, O’Brien said. Students who will be attending complete a series of pre-event exercises in their classrooms in order to prepare. They research the issues and share their opinions with each other before joining the larger ASU forum. O'Brien notes that “this is where some of the symposium’s most beneficial work takes place."

Arcadia High School’s Kevin Mooney, assistant principal of student services and athletic director, attended the 2012 symposium. He called it “an extremely meaningful, thought-provoking exercise” for his Scottsdale students.

“The first thing I did after returning to the Arcadia campus last year was to reserve our spot for this year,” he said. “I have become convinced that applied ethics should be a required course for all high school students.”  

The symposium also will be broadcast online; details are pending.

The Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics is a unit in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.