Director of Engineering Ethics Organization Delivers UTEP Centennial Lecture
Last Updated on December 17, 2019 at 12:00 AM
Originally published December 17, 2019
By Julian Herrera
Rosalyn W. Berne, Ph.D., visited El Paso for the first time Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. She spent her inaugural stop in the Sun City discussing the intricacy of ethics in contemporary society as part of her Centennial Lecture address at The University of Texas at El Paso's Undergraduate Learning Center.
Berne is an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as the director for the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society at the National Academy of Engineering. Her lecture, titled “Finding a Personal Ethics Compass in an Increasingly Unethical World,” brought into question the concepts upon which society bases its moral principles and the impact of contemporary social awareness on the future.
“What philosophy or institution has the capacity to guide us in making decisions about what is right and what is wrong as individuals?” Berne asked.
She presented Gallup poll data dating back to 2002, which gauged U.S. residents’ sentiment on the moral values of the country. In 2018, the poll that indicates 77% of respondents believed moral values are worsening compared with 18% who believe they are improving.
“There are many competing values at work in our political, economic, education, criminal justice systems, and even religious institutions,” she said. “Furthermore, those values are dynamic and subject to changing.”
She illustrated the fluctuation of priorities using examples within the American education system. Both the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) and Every Child Succeeds Act (2015) were created with the intention of providing all students a fair opportunity to obtain a higher education. But, ultimately, she said, the measures served to enforce achievement championing and standardization while penalizing schools with unsatisfactory scores rather than promoting progressive and engaging programs.
Berne elaborated on the world’s continual development of a majority consensus that it has evolved ideologically into a better global society. While she said the world is currently pressed to celebrate inclusion and diversity, especially of individuals that experience some form of disability, it was less than a century ago that the Third Reich promoted the sterilization of individuals deemed “mental defectives” in order to “eliminate neurotic disease from the European gene pool.”
“An ethical compass responds to the attractive forces of our own core values,” Berne said. “But social norms and culture have influence over individual behavior and control one’s personal moral compass.
“One definition of an ethical compass is an internal compass that becomes a core of strength and assurance when your life’s journey takes you into uncharted territory,” Berne said, before imparting her personal difficulty in discovering what moral principles and values she upheld most when she discovered she was going to give birth to an anencephalic child. The story of her struggle and conflict capitulated upon the complexity of determining where one’s values truly lie.
In closing, Berne turned to the audience and asked, “Are we losing our moral values in this country?”
She conceded it is a question that may never truly receive an answer, as contemporary attitudes are ever-evolving. But, she said, “Perhaps the more important question for the posters next time is not about America’s state of morality, but rather how well our own moral compasses are functioning.”