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World-First Ethics: A Q&A with Leif Wenar

Photo of Leif Wenar

Ethics is sometimes seen as purely conceptual or abstract — but the best ethics start on the ground and grow from real life. So says Leif Wenar, the new faculty director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, who sees ethics as emerging from our most urgent problems. 

I sat down with Wenar to discuss his ethics “origin story” and his vision for the Center as he embarks on his faculty directorship. An edited version appears below. 

Carly Chillmon (CC): As someone who is new to the Center myself, I’ve been learning a lot about the history of the Center, its programs, and the vision and goals of its team. I’m deeply interested in origin stories, so my first question is to ask: What is your ethics origin story? 

Leif Wenar (LW): When I was a young philosopher, I feared that my career might be spent elaborating on the work of my teachers. At Harvard, I studied with some of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century, like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Tim Scanlon, Amartya Sen, Christine Korsgaard, and Michael Sandel. I’m glad to have learned from them — but then, just as I left grad school, the whole world opened up. Most of my teachers had been thinking about justice within one country's borders. Yet some of us realized that there were these huge problems facing humanity  poverty, inequality, climate change, war. Those problems seemed so urgent and so hard that they forced us to go beyond the theories that we'd all been taught. That was a very important moment for how I understand ethics.

CC: So, for you, connecting ethics to the real world and having a global perspective is essential?

LW: Yes, and this is also important for how we think at the Center. My view is that the Center is doing ethics exactly right. The motto I would use is world first

The Center is always starting with the world – world first, problems first, people first.

What are the real problems that people are wrestling with — in their research at Stanford or in their job, in their relationships or in their community, as consumers and as citizens? You start with the real problems that people are having and invite them to reflect on those issues. That's where a lot of the best ethical work starts. That's what the Center is doing already. And I think we should think of ourselves as doing world-first philosophy. We're not sitting around writing commentaries on Thomas Aquinas. We’re engaging with the most urgent problems that emerge from modern life.

CC: Having this world-first, people-first approach is so important because ethics is about how to think and relate. It’s not about telling you what to think. Can you elaborate on how you think ethics informs folks? 

LW: Ethics is definitely not telling people what to think. It's often asking people if they can draw on what they already know — to reflect in more capacious ways. For example, a Chemistry professor might be coming up with a better way of testing materials to see whether they're toxic or not. An ethical reflection would ask the researcher, “What else might be done with this test? Instead of how you intend it, which is to make things less harmful, could the test be used by terrorists to discover materials that are more harmful?” Ethics is often just asking folks to open their understanding of what they're doing, to consider factors that they hadn't thought of already — and especially their potential impacts on people.

CC: How does your academic work intersect with the vision of the Center?

LW: For many years, I’ve written about what social scientists call the “resource curse.” Countries that are rich in oil, metals, and gems often have terrible problems like oppression, corruption, conflict, and poverty — and sometimes their dysfunctions spill out into war or terrorism. Why does having a lot of resources often lead to such awful outcomes? I wrote a whole book on it called Blood Oil, which started with this big problem and how we’re all connected to the resource curse. 

For example, consider how we may be sending money to atrocious armed groups when we buy tech like phones and laptops — if the metals in the circuits were sold by militias in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or take the big example of the resource curse from the news right now. For years, we've been buying oil and gas from Vladimir Putin — and now he's using our money to invade a neighboring country and throw lots of the world economy into disarray. How can we get out of business with these men of blood? The resource curse is a big problem both for “them there” and for “us here,” and solving it will mean changing some of the rules that run the world. But unless we solve it, the crises and threats will continue, and it's going to make other problems like climate change a lot harder to solve too.

CC: These are very urgent problems that intersect in so many different ways. What are the important issues or themes you think the Center will focus on for your first year and the near future?

LW: I think several of the big “world-first” issues right now are clear. The Center will focus on artificial intelligence and the big changes in human-machine interactions that are coming. We’ll of course work on climate change, collaborating with our colleagues at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability on what may be humanity's biggest collective challenge ever. And we’ll also try to make progress on political polarization in the U.S. and in the world. As far as American politics goes, polarization really is the curse of our time. We can see the commercial models that inflame polarization, and we can see the entrepreneurs of division in our political system who sell themselves by setting Americans against each other. What can we do to counteract these forces and get to a place where we can reason together about our common problems and goals? 

I think those three issues will define a lot of the Center’s work for this year and the years to come. And when it comes to the vision, the Center’s vision really is “world first, problems first, and people first.”

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