Topic: Professions & Institutions

Commencement Ethics 101

E. L. Doctorow, the eminent and well-honored novelist who gave us Ragtime as well as other fine works of fiction, was the Commencement speaker at Hofstra University on May 23rd. Rather than exhort the graduating students to the challenges that faced them, or to give the unique perspective of writer and humanist on the state of humanity, Doctorow chose to launch into a fairly standard anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war attack speech, the kind you might expect from Ted Kennedy or Howard Dean. The reaction from many of the parents was not good. The booing was so loud and vociferous that Doctorow had to stop speaking for a bit, although he was able to finish.

Predictably, some in attendance and several Hofstra professors defended Doctorow, saying that “he has a right to his opinion.” In this they are surely right, but Doctorow was wrong nonetheless. His conduct was selfish and inappropriate, and his remarks could only have been ethically delivered if he had alerted University officials, students and their parents beforehand. He did not, and thus joins other miscreants elsewhere on the Ethics Scoreboard, such as Janet Jackson and the American Airlines pilot who decided to give a mid-air sermon, as one who took advantage of a trusting captive audience to pursue a personal agenda.

Doctorow was not receiving an honorary degree because of his foreign policy or political acumen. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that his opinions on these topics are any more informed or enlightening than those of the Dixie Chicks. His task was to speak from his experience as a novelist, in a manner and on a topic germane to the event: graduation from college. If he were Michael Moore, Janine Garafalo, Dennis Kucinich or Howard Dean, his speech would have been both expected and justified, although even these individuals might have had the wisdom and taste to leave their political critiques for another day. As one Hofstra official put it, according to Newsday, there is an “unwritten code that college commencement speeches should inspire and unite a student body” which Doctorow willfully violated. Most ethical principles are similarly unwritten, like not betraying trust, being honest about your intentions, and having consideration for the feelings of others. Doctorow violated these as well.

Despite this, Hofstra’s jeering parents were also wrong. Shouting down a speaker is always wrong, no matter what the nature of the speech may be, or how inappropriate it is. Those who jeer and boo are asserting that one form of bad behavior justifies another. You’ll find this listed in the Ethics Scoreboard “Rulebook” section under “Twelve Ethics Fallacies,” and described in any schoolyard as “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It’s a principle as old as human civilization, but one that all of us constantly need to re-learn. It would, in fact, have been an excellent topic for Doctorow’s commencement speech.


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