FLC professor discusses an ethical life

Saturday, Feb. 14, 2009 1:41 AM

Morals must come from religion or education, Katherine Burgess says in her “Beauty of Ethics” lecture Thursday at Fort Lewis College’s

Noble Hall. This slide illustrates the point with art

featuring Michelangelo’s image of God in “Creation of the Sun and Moon” from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and a mother reading her child 

a  book.

A study of almost 30,000 high school students released in December showed 62 percent had cheated on an exam and more than 30 percent had stolen from a family member or friend. What does that mean for American ethics and morals?
"You can be my age and decide we're going to hell in a handbasket," ethics professor Katherine Burgess said in a lecture Thursday night at Fort Lewis College. "Or you can say that they have young, immature brains and are learning as they go along. Those figures are probably pretty typical for that age group. But it does make us say we don't want to live in a world where we don't at least think we can trust other people."

Burgess earned her doctorate in interdisciplinary humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2006.

Her studies focused on ethics, aesthetics and the philosophy and culture of ancient Greece. She teaches at Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College.

"It all comes down to 'What do we value?'" she said. "A lot of modern troubles come because we have monetized our values."

When people ask what their worth is as a human being, many think it has to do with how much they make, she said. But values based on money aren't a new phenomenon.

"By the end of the Middle Ages, if someone was obligated to serve as a knight, they could buy their way out," she said.

Burgess went even further back in history for her lecture, which she based in part on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

"It's pre-Christianity, pre-Islam and contemporaneous with Judaism," Burgess said. "The Greek gods didn't really care what the Greeks did, so Aristotle had to make up his own ethical values."

The philosopher's core concept was that human beings should seek the Golden Mean.

"For example, the Golden Mean in courage means that if you have too much, you are foolhardy, and if you have too little, you're cowardly," she said. "When it comes to money, if you spend too freely, you are profligate, and if you are too extreme the other way, you are stingy."

Moral and ethical values can be learned two ways, Burgess said, externalized through religion from the top down or internalized from the bottom up through education.

"God has been with us a long time and we're still misbehaving," she said. "We have, 'Thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that.' ... But what we do isn't often for a logical reason, but an emotional one."

When Burgess sees a young man doing something she thinks isn't considerate of others, such as spitting on the sidewalk downtown, she doesn't tell him he shouldn't do it.

"I say, 'You know your mother would be so embarrassed if she saw you do that,'" Burgess said. "That seems to be what stops them from doing it."

Students in her classes seem to be seeking a center and purpose, she said.

"There's an interconnected web of obligations in a good society that counts on every member doing what needs to be done," she said. "'Blessed be the tie that binds' is in our language for a reason. Unless bonds are what we're holding in our IRAs and are now worthless."

To learn more

Katherine Burgess’ lecture about the beauty of ethics was part of the Life-Long Learning series put on by the Professional Associates of Fort Lewis College. The lecture was taped and will air at a later date on Durango Community Access Television, cable Channel 22.

Schedules are available online at or on the back page of SW Colorado TV Times, which is inserted into The Durango Herald every Tuesday.