The following response is written by Adam Woods. Adam is a 2004 graduate of Eastern University.
When I was at Eastern University, a lot of our classroom and dormroom ethical debates hinged on a point made by C.S. Lewis that “intention is everything.” The recurring example was that if you were standing on a train platform and someone accidentally stepped on your toe, then immediately apologized, no real harm was done. However, if you were standing on a train platform and someone walked up and crushed your toe in malice, maniacally laughing the whole time, then a great deal of harm was done. The offender’s intention dictated whether there was actually any offense.
My 19 year-old mind generally accepted this argument, but I always had a sneaking suspicion that C.S. Lewis wasn’t quite right. Intentional or unintentional, a stepped-on toe is a stepped-on toe.
This week, Eastern’s President co-signed a letter to President Obama asking him to provide a kind of loophole for discrimination in regards to Eastern’s relationship with its gay employees. It was a pretty hypothetical thing to do, since Eastern presumably doesn’t have any gay employees, but it was done just the same.
When pushed on the matter, President Duffett claimed his beliefs on the Separation of Church and State were what drove him to sign the letter. Acting out of conscience, he said specifically that “no government has the right to determine theological views and practices of religious institutions.” Sure. No problem. Thanks for following your conscience, Dr. Duffett.
The problem is that I don’t really care what drove President Duffett to sign the letter, he shouldn’t have signed it.
He shouldn’t have signed it because a 19 year-old kid who should be concentrating on having robust classroom and dormroom ethical debates just found out that he’s less. He’s less than his classmates, and he’s less than his teachers. In fact, he can never aspire to be a teacher, because they don’t hire ‘his kind.’ And now, his school, the place where he lives, feels unsafe. Gone are the robust hypotheticals, this young man is no longer concentrating on anything but his own safety.
When President Duffett follows his conscience, there is an unintended consequence of a student hearing that he’s not quite Eastern Material. I doubt very much that Dr. Duffett’s deeply-held beliefs about the Separation of Church and State were much comfort to the students whose safety is jeopardized by Dr. Duffett’s actions. A stepped-on toe is a stepped-on toe.
If the great moral lesson of the 20th century was that we shouldn’t be racist, maybe the great moral lesson of the 21st century will be to be mindful of unintended consequences. Oftentimes to their victims, unintended consequences aren’t much different than intended consequences. Perhaps now we’ll look farther down the road of our actions and try to see all their trappings.
Living a lifestyle that’s mindful of unintended consequences should impact what we believe, what we say, what we buy, who we vote for, and how we use energy–in short, all our choices. Admittedly, in an ever-more connected world, making an exhaustive account of unintended consequences is impossible, but there are acres and acres of grey area to discuss, and myriad ethical philosophies to be formulated. I’m sure many of them will be discussed in classroom and dormroom debates at Eastern, and I hope someday that everyone feels safe to participate.