Sunday, March 30, 2014

Finding the Meaning of Service

Muddy shoes, snow days, 6am yoga sessions, Lay’s Dill Pickle chips, and long van rides could easily sum up my spring break in Pendleton County, West Virginia. As a part of the Prindle Alternative Spring Break last week, nine DePauw students and myself volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in the eastern Appalachian Mountains, where sheep and cows easily outnumber the human population. The experience exceeded my expectations in every way.

The whole crew (from left to right): Julia Sobek, Kendyll Owens,
myself, Anna Nakada, Linh Tran, Kevin Yean, Hoai Pham, Jazzkia Jones, Katelyn Utz, Cassidy Melendez

The work camp where we called home for the week reminded me of a mid-range hostel tailored for kids. T-shirts from past Habitat volunteer groups lined the walls and a basketball hoop served as the centerpiece of the communal dining/rec room. We shared the space with two other student groups, one from the University ofWisconsin-Parkside, and a larger group of high school girls from Sacred HeartCatholic School just outside of Philadelphia. Personalities and backgrounds varied so much within our own group and between our group and the others, but it was poetic how we all came together for service.

Our group consisted of freshman through juniors, international students, females and a male (thanks Kevin), majors of all kinds, and almost none of them knew each other before coming on the trip. Having a common interest like community service made it easy for all of us to get along and quickly become friends.

The DePauw University group at our Habitat house
repair near Cass, WV
We worked specifically at a residence about an hour away from the work camp tucked beneath Bald Knob
near Cass, WV. According to the current homeowner, the house was a rural schoolhouse through the 1930’s, and has been with the Seabolt family since the 1950’s. The home needed more love and sweat work than we could give it in a week, but our group managed to finish the plaster work on the bathroom walls, put in the tile floor and shower, start on the ceiling ventilation system (in the bathroom), and finish up roof work around the chimney. I was struck by something several of my students commented on at the end of the week: although we were not improving the structural integrity of the house, we were making small improvements that made one person very happy, and that happiness and gratitude made our work worth it.

Habitat’s mission and organization was impressive to be a part of. They manage to organize large groups of people and teach construction skills to “green” workers with only a few construction managers on all the sites for the week. Our site manager Dave taught me patience, humility and stillness. He was able to help all ten of us with our constant questions and never complained or seemed frazzled by all of the work and minimal resources set before us.

Kendyll and Anna using a jigsaw to cut the
bathroom flooring
I initially set up the trip with a curriculum in ethics and poverty, but it wasn’t necessary. Conversations on moral obligation and service, leadership, values, and the face of poverty came easily while working in an area where these topics easily presented themselves through dilapidated houses that dotted the surrounding hills and volunteers with an eager intent to make a difference.

Only a week later, service has a totally different connotation for me. It doesn’t have to be donating to a charity or volunteering long hours for an organization, it can be as simple as bringing a smile to one person’s face. 

Habitat workers and volunteers whole-heartedly believe in the power of one person: one person doing the right thing, paying it forward, and affecting others in a way that creates a ripple effect and leads to large-scale, global change.  I think I lost this faith for a long time to cynicism or pessimism: wrapped up in all the ways that I couldn’t make a substantial difference. I cannot thank my students and fellow volunteers enough for giving this positive conviction back to me. It was a spring break that I will never forget.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

With Great KNOWLEDGE Comes Great Responsibility

I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Denver, Colorado last week to attend the University of Denver’s Transformational Voices: An Afternoon with LeadingGlobal Thinkers hosted by the Josef Korbel School and the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. The day featured lunch and an afternoon of panel discussions, which included 6 of Foreign Policy Magazine's 100 Global Thinkers of 2013. I was blown away by the caliber of the visiting speakers, and the wide array of topics that they discussed.

The speakers ranged from a political scientist, to a NOAA scientist, to economists, a filmmaker, and a social activist (full program HERE), but they all discussed an interesting moral dilemma within their professions: what responsibility do we have when we gain new knowledge?

I think I first encountered this in my own life several years ago as an overzealous and idealistic freshman at DePauw. I took several environmental science courses my first two semesters, as well as an environmental ethics course, and I felt a strong sense of moral obligation to the information I learned. I encouraged conversations with my friends on recycling and water conservation, stopped eating meat at fast food restaurants, and went through stages of not eating anything that was packaged in a plastic wrapper. Since then, my habitats have continued to evolve, guided by my moral compass and developing interests, however, parts of me feel like I have become complacent with the amount of work I apply given the amount of knowledge I have received.

Given the information base I have in social and environmental science, should I be personally striving for carbon neutrality while constantly berating my local representatives with suggestions about changing key local/national government policies? Is that annoying and idealistic, or just attempting to be an involved citizen?

Stephanie Herring, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as filmmaker Steve Elkins, and political scientist Erica Chenoweth briefly discussed this messy question during last Thursday’s panel at the University of Denver. Dr. Herring told the audience that she believes there is a moral obligation to do something with the ground-breaking information she researches, she just does not know what that something could look like.

I don’t have an answer either, but I have an opinion (and lucky for you, this blog to post it on). I believe everyone with the fortune to be able to reflect on these issues should strive to be global citizens, understanding that the small acts we do can acquiesce into something influential, both for good and bad. I have no definition on what it means to be this global citizen (I assume it largely varies by the individual), but that only makes it a more sticky and interesting topic for discussion. Why do we feel a sense of responsibility when we acquire new knowledge (do you?)? What does modeling a global citizen look like? Is there a learning experience that you felt has changed your daily routine or a particular habit? 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Goals-based vs. Values-based: My Frustration with Fixes and Checklists

A little over a year ago I decided to get a tattoo. The tree I now have inked on my right hip serves as a reminder of possibly my best and worst personality trait: my desire to fix things. For me, the tree shows the delicate balance and dichotomy of meaning to do good (living branches stretching upwards) versus the surprisingly destructive effects of wanting to fix things like character tendencies or feelings (dead lower limbs). But I continually question where this attitude comes from, particularly in the last few weeks when so many of my conversations seemed to flirt around this idea of quantifiable resolutions and fixes.

I was perusing through some of my favorite online fitness magazines this morning when it smacked me in the face. As an avid gym junkie, woman, and American, I have been slammed with media and cultural ideals telling me that there are ten ways to a perfect spring break body and five easy steps to get toned fast. Media representation will surely be a future topic, but I’m more concerned with our fixing culture, and how we think we can achieve some semblance of perfection through lists with some desired end goal.

During a Prindle reading group last week for Ken Bain’s, What the Best College Students Do, a professor made (what was for me) a revolutionary statement. She said that we need to stop making lists where you can check things off. Instead of being goal-oriented, she suggested being value-oriented. What is the value of a value-oriented list?

Setting end goals like losing five pounds, or getting all A’s is like a horse running with blinders: you see a destination and only the one path to get there. What do we accomplish for ourselves by checking off this list?

I propose instead, that we should set immeasurable goals. Ambitions that can always be worked towards and involve creativity and a network of paths towards a feeling of success. A list like: be more involved in the community, make decisions that make me feel healthy, and give more compliments. Easier said than done, but that’s the challenge, and I believe that a list like this will create habitual change instead of a one-stop fad diet.

What is the intrigue of a checklist? Are there benefits to having lists with end goals? How can they be harmful? I’m fascinated by this obsession of fixing things and making lists for ourselves, and I always hope that I can turn my attention towards the process and values learned when trying to achieve something, rather than an end goal. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Role of Social Entrepreneurship

Doug Mills/ The New York Times
I love watching the Olympics. I remember growing up, having a schedule highlighted with all of my favorite sporting events: basketball, water polo and handball for the summer, and snowboard half pipe, alpine skiing and the skeleton luge (does that still exist?) for the winter. Now, with my NBC Sochi app downloaded, I’m prepared to spend too much time at The Duck in the coming weeks in order to see my favorite events and contestants.  But in reading about the upcoming games recently, it got me thinking of another form of competition: competition in business.

Here are the top sponsors for the 2014 Sochi Olympics:

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is entirely privately funded with 45% of its revenue coming from corporate sponsorship. I know this makes sense. Usually companies with the most money give the most money, and the Olympics are a great international stage for marketing. But am I the only one who scoffs at seeing McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Dow as the leading sponsors for the Olympic games?

Yes, I am being cynical, but in social entrepreneurship (and I consider supporting the Olympics as such), do the ends justify the means? Does Coca-Cola’s 5by20 initiative or the Ronald McDonald House make up for the damaging effects of CAFO’s or oil refineries for plastic bottles?

Obviously, the demand exists for the products that companies like these provide. However, I believe that corporations cannot depend on social entrepreneurship to save face. To me, this method of business is gamesmanship rather than sportsmanship. In order to gain my support as a consumer, I need to see that the processes that create their products are done so with a healthy degree of respect and innovation towards sustainable practices.

If topics like this interest you (the reader), and you’re an undergraduate student, please consider submitting an essay or creative work to the 7th annual DePauw Undergraduate Ethics Symposium titled Virtue and Victory: Ethical Challenges in Competitive Life. The due date for submissions is coming to a close this Friday, February 7th. Essay and cover page can be sent to

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Morality in Leadership: The Key to Success

Wikimedia Commons
Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. worked against the grain. Their beliefs were a part of a subculture of society, but because of their intellect, ambition, and passion, they brought many of their dreams to fruition, and transformed lives and cultural ideals in the process. I think of the early careers of civil rights leaders like Nelson Mandela who was considered a terrorist and racist, Gandhi who was considered a socialist... How do we know if the non-mainstream decisions we make now, will be good decisions for the future?

If you receive retaliation for your beliefs, does that discourage or encourage you to push even harder to affirm your ideals? This motivation to fight through resistance is great in civil rights cases like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mandela, but what about white supremacists or anarchists? Having a large following is probably the first step to affirming one’s beliefs. Similar to a politician running for office, a large group of people need to believe in what you’re doing and who you are in order for your beliefs to float into the mainstream and become accepted to some degree.  

When I think of all of the successful, sustainable social movements across the world, I believe an accepted morality is the real key to their success (Insert shameless plug for Moral Tribes Prindle Reading Group here).
If a movement follows the golden rule (Treat others the way you would like to be treated), it seems to be correct and accepted in its thinking. Those movements that ostracize a group or groups of people tend to be dismantled, even if it takes an extended period of time to do so. So I like to think that the world is actually tending towards equality (Not in a socialist sort of way, but in a…everyone wants happiness sort of way).

My point in all this is that in being a leader, you will make difficult decisions and even question your own beliefs. Sometimes a decision will incite vicious backlash and disapproval, but if it is powered by your belief for equality, which is steeped in universal morality, then it’s the correct decision.

King was an amazing figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but it took time, audacity, and resilience to transform his dream into tangible change. Our world still fights for racial and gender equality, and struggles with accepting those with fluid or "atypical" sexual orientations. I believe in morality as the fuel behind effective leadership. Universal happiness isn't handed to us; it takes effort and determination, and leaders with value-based judgments who are fighting for equality.

With these thoughts in mind, I want to encourage you to ask yourself or your friends questions like: why is leading through morality so difficult? When might it be a bad idea to lead in this way?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Against her wishes, woman stays on life support

Happy 2014 blog readers! If you’re reading this from the Midwest, I hope you’ve stayed warm and cozy inside during this past week of snow and subzero temperatures. I was really hoping to blog about ethics and the snow, but no particularly interesting topic came to mind. Snow is white, cold, and makes it difficult to get to work. Done. So what’s the first topic of 2014 you ask? Bioethics.

While scanning the New York Times Wednesday, I read a thought-provoking article with the intriguing headline “Pregnant, and Forced to Stay on Life Support”.

Erick Munoz standing next to a photo of himself, Marlise,
and their son Mateo (Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis)

Marlise Munoz, a 33-year-old mother living in Fort Worth, TX died this past November after collapsing on her kitchen floor from a blood clot in her lungs. When her husband found her, she was rushed to a local hospital where she was pronounced brain-dead, but kept alive by machines in the intensive care unit. Her family prepared to say their goodbyes, keeping in mind Marlise’s wishes to not be kept on life support if in this situation. I can't imagine their confusion then, when a doctor came into the room and told them that she would continue to stay on life support in compliance with Texas law. Marlise was 14-weeks pregnant.

Under Texas law, a person cannot withdraw or withhold “life-sustaining treatment” from a pregnant patient. But according to the article, there is a difference from being brain-dead (as Marlise was declared) and being in a vegetative state. Brain-dead means that there is no neurological activity, but the organs can be maintained through breathing tubes, whereas brain activity still exists for patients in a coma. Brain-dead is legally dead, and therefore the hospital deciding to keep Marlise alive does not apply to Texas law.

This all brings into question end-of-life care. For the parents of Marlise, Mr. and Mrs. Machado, this is prolonging their agony. I picture them sitting next to their dead daughter whose chest continues to go up and down as oxygen is pumped into her body but whose skin is cold and lifeless. If the hospital continues to support their statement that Marlise is brain-dead, then they have misinterpreted Texas law and must abide by the family’s wishes. This treatment may be causing irreparable damages to the family psychologically.

If this fetus were to go through a full term, and brought from Marlise’s body as a healthy child, would it not be a blessing for the family? Mr. Munoz (Marlise’s husband) is a 26-year-old firefighter working full time and taking care of his 15-month-old son as a single father. Does his situation factor into your opinion of what should happen to the mother or the fetus?

This is a great topic for debate. Is the Texas hospital stepping out of bounds? Should the parents agree to their daughter’s wishes? Would Marlise’s wishes be different if she knew she would die while pregnant? With advanced medical technology, we need to be having these conversations as a member of a family, as a voter or a policy maker to ensure we have the end-of-life care we desire, while easing the pain of the loved ones we leave behind.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Why should Buzzfeed and Huffpost have all the fun? It’s time for ethics to try out a Top Ten with GIFs, photos and all the trimmings. Here are Prindle’s Top Ten suggestions for staying ethical during this busy and consumer-driven holiday season:

10. Ethical Hedonism “treat yo self!”

According to Wikipedia, ethical hedonism is the thought that all people have the right to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them. We all love being happy, right? I think this philosophical school of thought could get out of hand if your happiness is at the expense of another’s. So this holiday season, “treat yo self” responsibly, and maybe share the love with others in the process.

9. Map out a decision you’d like to make and the consequences of each path

This is a meditative process meant for one to consider the rightness and wrongness of a set of actions. Normative ethics looks at how one ought to act and the questions that arise when deciding an action. When trying to make a tough decision, I think a lot of people become obsessive over one option or another, when there are always multiple options for assessment. Don’t be hesitant to map out all of your options, and think of the ethics in play in each one.

8. Celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela

…or anyone that has made a profound impact on your life. Reflecting on the values that you admire in your role model can be a good way to create meaningful resolutions this New Years.

7. Reflect on your moral compass this New Years

By my definition, one’s moral compass is the beliefs, morals, and values that determine how we act. What guides your moral compass? Courage, integrity, loyalty? And is there someone in your life who serves as a manifestation of your moral compass? Turns out there’s a that has an interesting (if simplified) survey. Check it out!

6. Try out Naikan Meditation

I tried this meditation about a month ago and loved it. It’s a Japanese form of meditation meant for self-reflection. During my meditation, we were asked the following questions:

1. What have I received today?
2. What have I given today?
3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused today?

Any form of meditation, just taking time out of your normal day, can provide peace and health to the body and mind. Finding spiritual peace in any form is also a historical ethical theory called Stoicism

5. Declining Marginal Utility- do a little something for someone that makes a big difference

Ethics in economics?! It does exist! Think about this example: this holiday season, giving a homemade apple pie to someone struggling with food insecurity can make a dramatic impact on their happiness. Giving that same homemade apple pie to the equivalent of Dionysus is a kind gesture, but it affects his/her happiness less comparatively to the former person. My point being, do something small for someone where it will make a big difference. This might even be a kind word or a hand-written card.

4. Naughty or nice? 

Make a list of the top 5 morally just things you've done this year, and a list with the 5 things you’re not so proud of. This is another good exercise in self-reflection, and determining your New Year’s resolution.

3. Community service

Applied ethics. Think of where your services are needed. Maybe it’s serving food at a community shelter, volunteering with disaster relief, or volunteering time at a low-budget non-profit.

2. Reconnect with someone who has molded your moral beliefs

This can be a good way to reassess your moral compass, and remember the value of relationships.

1. What judgment of ourselves or others do you want to get rid of in 2014?

This is #1 on my list because making judgments is inevitable as human beings, but we do have the power to recognize the judgments we make, and change them in a positive way. Recognizing and changing one’s negative judgments can mean everything. It can mean a happier life for a kid or adult otherwise bullied. It can make a profound impact on worldwide human rights issues and help bridge racial and gender inequalities. I have faith that change at an individual level can spread and create global change.