Duke University Alumni Magazine

Thirty Five Years of the Examined Life
by Paul Baerman

Building foundations: In his undergraduate ethics class, McCollough urges students to "press the moral questions"
photo: Bruce Feeley

hey sprawl on the grass and talk about saving the world. People lean forward, listening intently, their brows knitted in concentration. No one gets cut off, but no one hesitates to test an assumption, challenge a conclusion. And over and over again they want to know: Are we asking the right question?

Forget what you're thinking. This is a reunion.

A reunion?

Like no other. On a balmy September weekend, some 150 former and current students of Professor Thomas McCollough gather from around the country to celebrate his retirement from the religion department, and the way his teaching of practical ethics changed their lives. But the McCollough Reunion Ethics Symposium is no picnic: Attendees are expected to submit a paper, attend a lecture, join small-group discussions for the better part of a day, and attend a final class on Saturday night.

These alumni, representing a thirty-five-year chunk of Duke's history, are here to work. On Friday evening we are to hear a talk from Douglas Hicks M.Div. '93, now a doctoral candidate at Harvard, about the misuse of economic imagery to define our relationship to time.

I find myself sitting next to Katie Henderson '99, a pre-med majoring in biological anthropology and a student in McCollough's current (and last) class, "Ethical Issues, Social Change, and Public Policy." Will she be writing a paper on this talk? "No," she says without irony, "I'm just here to be enlightened."

And we turn to the speaker. Hicks advocates "down-shifting": not keeping up with the Joneses but "letting the Joneses go to the mall without us." As if on cue, as the speaker deplores the sacrifices we often make in order to work harder and longer, someone's pager starts beeping.

The someone turns out to be Kimberly Blackwell '89, a physician and fellow in hematology/oncology at Duke, who's on call at the VA hospital tonight. One of the conference organizers, Blackwell had an undergraduate ethics education that later tempered her medical school experience. As she moved into a specialty in cancer medicine, she says, she began reframing the questions she had been taught to ask --"What is disease?" Instead she began to ask herself, "How do I help the patient cope with their disease?" and even "How does this patient want to die?" For Blackwell, these were profoundly ethical questions.

"Very quickly," she concludes, "my so- called 'war' on cancer was finished." And her vocation had begun.

Saturday begins at 8:30 a.m. with the reading of more essays. Several attendees recall the shock of awakening to The Ethical Question: "My first course in ethics--which I assumed would be a glorious intellectual game--was a kick in the ass," wrote Jeff Georgi '71, now a clinical associate in Duke Medical Center's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "I owe [Professor McCollough] many sleepless nights, long periods of confusion and ambivalence, and the profound satisfaction of engaging an issue honestly."

Georgi gives one example, a hard one. A few years after helping launch an exciting substance-abuse treatment program for mothers addicted to cocaine, the ethical question arose about his own position: "Was it ethical, given the racial and gender imbalances of power in our culture, for a white, middle-class male to be the primary clinical and administrative director of a woman's program administering services to black women caged not only by their poverty but by their addiction?"

No, he decided, it wasn't. And with great sadness, he did what he had to do: He stepped down as director.

McCollough "has been, in all candor," says Keith Harary '75, "personally responsibleノfor my having made some of the most painful decisions of my life." As a researcher in the politically and emotionally charged field of parapsychology, Harary found his name being used in two research reports whose underlying data had been cooked--crediting him with achieving certain results he knew were being misrepresented. The researchers who were making those claims wanted definitive results--if not scientific proof of the validity of parapsychological phenomena, then scientific endorsement to impress both their colleagues and those who provided the money for the research.

Harary wanted only the truth. "If you torture the data to make it confess, you will get a false confession," he says simply, "and that won't lead you to the truth." His fellow researchers became alarmed when he insisted on exposing the deception--and even many of those who had not been involved tried to persuade him to sweep the matter under the rug to protect the field's public image, or face being ostracized if he objected. They cornered him and demanded to know why he was being so stubborn.

"Because I'm responsible for what I know," he replied. The idea had been so basic to students in his ethics course that Harary was shocked to discover it could not be taken for granted in the wider world. While at Duke, he notes, "making difficult choices based not upon expediency but upon our own personal relationship to what we know to be true became an absolutely inescapable part of our lives. If I lie about something I know, my life becomes meaningless."

Seems melodramatic.

"Listen," he says, "science itself is an ethic, a way of looking. I'm going to observe this and try not to fool myself or you. Adding anything on to that is crazy. If you approach science only as a career and not as an ethic, you're not a scientist. God knows, it's utterly tempting. The money's there. All the rewards for producing certain results, for going along with the cause. But science isn't just a business: It's a responsibility. In my particular case, allowing myself to be used in that way would have entailed abandoning all that I knew to be true and good and right, based upon my own lifelong personal experience. What I did not know was how agonizing it would be to have to challenge a whole community."

But after Harary decided to quit, thinking he'd reached the end of his scientific and research career because he had refused to play the game, others who had been watching in the mainstream community of scientists approached him. He had credibility, they said. There was still room for an honest man. Could they cooperate with him in future research? The mainstream science-journalism community also supported his position, and Harary was asked to report on parapsychology and other controversial fields for Omni magazine.

Harary now works as research director of the Institute for Advanced Psychology in Tiburon, California; he continues to serve as Omni's editor-at-large. He shakes his head. "Finding a balance between community and your own integrity is hell on Earth."

Illustration by John S. Dykes

Ethical reflection consists, then," writes McCollough in The Moral Imagination and Public Life: Raising the Ethical Question, "not of analysis and application of principles derived from historical texts, but of critical analysis of what we say, what we do, what we are. To state the ethical question as What is my personal relation to what I know? is to relate knowledge to its human, historical context and to assume responsibility for knowledge within that settingノ. It leads me to press the moral question beyond 'What ought I to do in this situation?' to 'What are my deepest intimations of what it is to live a well-lived life? What do I know about what it means to be human that would point me in the right direction here and now?'"

"The lesson," repeats Moe Sandstead '64, "is not in an answer but in the question. What in fact is the right question when wrestling with an ethical decision?"

The attempt to formulate the right questions led Sandstead first into law school and a private firm--"I thought it was a profession of public service and ethical decision making, a savior of the poor and downtrodden. I was na夫e." But in 1983, he was called into jurisprudence, where he found his niche, working hard and loving it ever since. Today Sandstead is a respected District Court judge in the 20th Judicial Circuit of Boulder, Colorado, where, he admits sheepishly, he often sits up at night reading probation reports. "I'm no longer attempting to 'save the world' each day," he says. "But I do take satisfaction in managing a fair process that, whatever its limitations, is better than other last-ditch efforts at conflict resolution."

Like many at this conference, Sandstead's self-effacing style belies the critical impact of his work. A Colorado attorney who has appeared often in Judge Sandstead's court reports, "One of the things I like best about him is the sensitivity he brings to bear on family law. For instance, we sometimes have to deal with what's called a 'removal,' meaning that a parent is leaving the state for good after a divorce, taking the kids. They're going to grow up without one parent, whom they may never see again. Time and again, I've watched Judge Sandstead agonize over these cases because he knows the repercussions his decision is going to have on the children. It's definitely hard on him--but good for society to have a judge of that caliber making such crucial decisions. He never, ever, trivializes the cases that are in front of him."

Like Sandstead, physician Meg Word-Sims '79 flinches at talk of heroism. A zoology major, she found that one of her preoccupations during college was fighting against the highway department when it pushed through a plan to build roads obliterating poor neighborhoods in Durham. Today she practices internal medicine for an impoverished, under-served, rural population in mountainous Madison County, North Carolina. "I don't think about saving the world anymore," Word-Sims says with a smile. "I'm just a dirt doctor."

Why does she do what she does?

"You can't lose your passion or you lose your vision," she tells her discussion group. "We have to call on the common good and sacrifice some of our self-interest, or it ain't gonna work."

Psychology major Betsy Taylor '76 nods in agreement. Taylor is executive director of the Merck Family Fund, a private foundation established by grandchildren of the pharmaceutical giant. Her latest passion is an effort to look at how Western lifestyle choices can undermine both our spirit and our environment. In an age when watching TV and shopping are our main recreations, Taylor challenges the idea that everything is and should be about The Market. Enter the Center for a New American Dream, on whose board of directors she sits; the center fosters critical discussion about the good life, and promotes new consumption patterns and sustainable practices to ensure a healthy planet.

Returning to Duke for the first time in twenty years was easy, Taylor says: She knew that those attending such a symposium were here not to party, not to reminisce, but "to get good work done."

Work they did. Many left renewed, inspired by one another's courage and compassion, with rekindled enthusiasm for the questioning life. And if they didn't save the world that long fall weekend, maybe it's because they'd been saving it all along.

Baerman M.B.A. '90, a Buddhist, oboist, and businessman, lives in Durham. His e-mail address is . Inquiries about ongoing efforts to honor Tom McCollough can be directed to Fred Bonner '79 at .

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