Roundtables Provide Food for Thought Among Friends, Community
||Last Nov. 19, as American reality-TV junkies clamored to see which of two women "The Bachelor" would choose as his off-the-shelf bride, a group of community friends of the College of Arts and Sciences mulled the ethics of genetically modifying foods at one of the periodic "Ethics Roundtables" held by the college.
The roundtables, hosted by a volunteer participant and moderated by adjunct philosophy professor David Hilditch, bring a small group of St. Louis's influential and inquisitive minds to a participant's home to discuss an ethical issue selected by the host. Issues range from timely questions, such as, "What does patriotism mean in a time of war?" to the timeless, "Can an individual change the world?"
Clearly, roundtable participants are seeking food for thought more nourishing than the latest serving of "TV dinners." Joe Noelker, CAS alum and Advisory Board member, said that he continues to chew on the issues raised in the roundtable he attended, "Tyranny or Fulfillment: Are There Limits to the Pursuit of Happiness?"
"I like my daughters to be able to go to very nice schools, I like driving nice cars and living in a nice home, but I still consider myself a good person," Noelker mused. "At what point do you compromise your sense of what is morally correct to enhance your own happiness? What's the line between Mother Theresa and Donald Trump?"
Reflections and forums like these "can be beneficial in a lot of different contexts," says Hilditch, who facilitates the roundtables and first brought the idea to CAS Dean David Wilson. "There is an aspect of philosophy that is very accessible," Hilditch says. "It's really self-reflection." Both he and Wilson appreciate that the roundtables, which are sponsored by the University's Center for Ethics, provide an outlet through which friends of the College can explore fundamental issues in a unique, friendly setting.
Kate Parsons, director of the Center for Ethics, says the forums "offer an opportunity for sustained, productive discussions that most people don't take the time to engage in regularly." By providing this opportunity for discourse, Parsons says, the roundtables "give people a sense of what we're doing on campus, but perhaps more importantly, they invite people to become part of the Webster community."
|The discussions are conducted according to a general set of guidelines, or "agreements" among participants, presented by Hilditch, who is old hat at running these forums. The philosophy café, or "Café-Philo" concept, sprouted in 1992 in Paris, where there are now dozens of cafés that meet weekly. Hilditch introduced them to the St. Louis area six years ago and has facilitated the open, public conversations at local coffee shops, retirement communities, and corporations like Boeing ever since.
To help the roundtables run smoothly, Hilditch distributes a brief list of the agreements to participants, but they essentially amount to committing to: a sincere pursuit of truth, an openness to asking questions, a willingness to question assumptions, and the acknowledgment of uncertainties.
Above all, Hilditch explains, the participants must bring sincerity and honesty to the discussion. The forums are "more about questioning, not asserting; understanding, not knowing—not that those are always in opposition to one another, but philosophy is ultimately a liberating doubt," he says. "These roundtables bring together a pretty diverse group of people, and when we challenge each other's views in this way, we reach new ideas and a common understanding."
The forum on genetically modified foods, for instance, was hosted by Deborah Zorensky, a clinical nutritionist who follows an organic-food diet. In fact, the evening's caterer, also a participant, served an organic menu. But also participating that night was Rob Horsch, a Monsanto vice president who works extensively with research into genetically modified agricultural products. The diverse perspectives made for an engaging forum. "It was such a civilized and enlightening evening, with a stimulating group of people," Zorensky recalls. "I don't know if people changed their views, but at least they heard each other out."
Parsons says that's precisely the point. "The great thing about the roundtables is that disagreement doesn't stop conversation," she says. "Instead, it leads to deeper probing about the basis of the disagreements."
Whether or not participants come away having changed their minds—or the minds of others—they inevitably depart with a sense of fulfillment from the exercise.
"I loved it," said Noelker. "I would participate as often as they would have me. There are so many issues that can appear clear and unambiguous, when really they're quite ambiguous indeed," he said as he recalled some of the dilemmas churned during his roundtable experience. In that way, Hilditch—ever the philosopher—adds that the forums "can be sort of a paradox: certain things become clearer, while other things become less certain."
Such quandaries are certain to continue to ferment in the minds of invited friends of the College: six more roundtables are scheduled for the coming year, with topics—and the hosts who choose them—to be determined.
Taken from http://www.webster.edu/depts/artsci/Global_Thinking/current/ethics.htm