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The Pursuit of Wise Guidance

The college welcomes Jeremy Bendik-Keymer as the Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics

By Arthur Evenchik

Published in fall 2010

This fall, philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer is teaching a course on science and engineering ethics. In Spring 2011, he will offer a SAGES seminar titled "Vocation and Life."

This fall, philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer is teaching a course on science and engineering ethics. In Spring 2011, he will offer a SAGES seminar titled “Vocation and Life.” Photo by Daniel Milner.

The Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider Professorship in Ethics at Case Western Reserve was created with one overriding purpose: to give the teaching of practical ethics a prominent role in the undergraduate curriculum. An administrative leader as well as a scholar and teacher, the Beamer-Schneider Professor is based in the philosophy department but works with faculty members across the disciplines, encouraging them to integrate discussion of ethical problems into their courses.

This kind of collaboration comes easily to Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, who assumed the professorship this fall. Since earning his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2002, Bendik-Keymer has helped to weave ethical inquiry into a freshman humanities curriculum and an international studies department. By bringing students from philosophy and social science courses together, he has fostered dialogue about the formation and realization of ethical ideals.

In keeping with his belief that “the point of ethics is to act,” Bendik-Keymer has also engaged students in service learning projects, both in their own communities and around the world. He sees such projects as opportunities to “experiment with becoming a better person.” In the process, students become aware of ethical problems and test their own capacities for ethical decision making. The most meaningful classroom discussions of practical ethics, Bendik-Keymer says, occur when students return from these experiences and reflect on them together.

As philosophy chair Laura Hengehold notes, Bendik-Keymer is well prepared to build connections across the university. His primary research area is environmental ethics—a field in which the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities all have something to contribute. He has also written on education, human rights and the responsibilities of democratic citizens. This fall, he is teaching a course on science and engineering ethics that was first offered by his predecessor, Beamer-Schneider Professor Emerita Caroline Whitbeck. Having spent four years on the faculty of a university in the Middle East, he has thought deeply about globalization and the future of higher education.

For these reasons, Hengehold says, Bendik-Keymer will be a particular asset to Case Western Reserve at this moment in its history. “As the university pursues the internationalization, ethics, sustainability and social justice elements of its strategic plan, I expect that people in many departments will be looking to him for ideas.”

Our Relation to Life

As Bendik-Keymer sees it, philosophy is simply “the pursuit of wise guidance—for personal life, family matters, work or politics, to name a few examples. And its great achievement isn’t found in oracular pronouncements, but in the development of mature, open-minded human beings.”

The theme of “wise guidance” recurs when Bendik-Keymer speaks about his family. His parents are both educators. Esther Bendik, an early childhood teacher, founded one of the first rural Head Start programs in upstate New York. David Keymer started out as a history professor and then became a university administrator. He is a reader of “everything in arm’s reach,” including philosophy and poetry, natural history and popular science.

Bendik-Keymer recalls growing up “with talk happening around the dinner table.” He explains, “In my family, we love good food, so the table would fill with experiments and staples in cooking, under a lamp suspended from the ceiling. In that circle of light, we’d talk about the day, its meaning, politics, art, books, music, family, troubles, ties, hopes, local events, school, work and more. In my family, philosophy came from the fact that we are all passionate people with interests, and we love to talk about them and discover our relation to life.”

Later, while he was in graduate school, Bendik-Keymer became involved in research on early childhood education; he contributed to a study of preschool programs where youngsters decide, through dialogue with their teachers, what they will learn. He regards his own interests—in philosophy, literature and the natural world—as a kind of inheritance. He remembers sitting with his father beside a mountain lake and discussing all the authors who deserved the Nobel Prize but never received it. And it was his father who started him reading philosophy by suggesting Sir Thomas More’s Utopia as a possible topic for his first high school research paper. “Knowing me as he does,” Bendik-Keymer says, “he thought it was a book I might like.”

Bendik also recalls being influenced by his maternal grandfather, Andrew Bendik, Jr., a son of Slovak immigrants who was born in a southern Ohio town called Ideal. To help support his younger siblings, Andrew Bendik left school at age 15 and went to work in a coal mine—a job he kept for the next 25 years. Bendik-Keymer remembers him as a pious man who rose before dawn each morning to sing Lutheran hymns but who “had his own ideas about God and religion.” He rejected the doctrine that children are born in sin. He didn’t think it was immoral to dance with a woman other than his wife, and to those who insisted otherwise, he replied, “How do you know what is in my mind?” Bendik-Keymer inherited not only his grandfather’s penchant for moral argument, but also his refusal to assume the worst about human nature.

When he encourages his students to take their education seriously, when he calls on them not to succumb to cynicism or apathy, Bendik-Keymer has his grandfather in mind. “There are billions of people living now who wish they had an education,” he says. “The least that I, or any college student, can do is to be responsible, to pitch in, in a world where most people work at less than their capabilities.”

The Content of Conscience

Soon after he arrived on campus, Bendik-Keymer met with Phillip A. Ranney (left) and William B. LaPlace (right), trustees of the Kent H. Smith Charitable Trust, which created and endowed the Beamer-Schneider Professorship in Ethics.

Soon after he arrived on campus, Bendik-Keymer met with Phillip A. Ranney (left) and William B. LaPlace (right), trustees of the Kent H. Smith Charitable Trust, which created and endowed the Beamer-Schneider Professorship in Ethics. Photo by Daniel Milner.

Utopia aside, Bendik-Keymer didn’t study formal philosophy until, as a high school senior, he spent a year as a Rotary exchange student in France. He arrived at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen with a small library of European literature in his suitcase, and was soon adding French novels and poetry collections he discovered in bookstores. “But around me,” he recalls, “people were taking philosophy and sitting to talk in cafés.” Before long, he joined the conversation. Later, as a freshman at Yale University, Bendik-Keymer balanced his interests, becoming a poet in a residential college but also taking four philosophy classes in his first year.

“For a paper on Descartes, instead of writing five pages, I wrote 17,” he says. “And for my final political philosophy paper, instead of writing five pages, I wrote 42. I was completely and utterly hooked.”

Later, as a graduate student delving into the history of ethics, Bendik-Keymer became intrigued by the different ways in which the idea of conscience had been defined. In much modern philosophy, a person of conscience is defined as someone who lives up to his or her norms of conduct. For them, conscience was primarily a matter of integrity—of keeping faith with oneself.

But this view had a serious limitation, Bendik-Keymer notes. Some people cause great harm to others, yet their consciences are clear; acting “in the name of some norm,” they become blind to other people’s needs and interests.

And so, beginning in the 18th century, influential writers on ethics turned their attention to a different form of conscience. To them, a person of conscience was someone recognized his or her connection to other human beings, who was mindful of them and related to them with empathy, compassion and respect. Integrity was still important, but now it meant acting in accordance with one’s awareness of our common humanity. To have a conscience, Bendik-Keymer explains, was to recognize “the spirit of brotherhood inside us.”

Having traced this historical shift, Bendik-Keymer took his analysis one step further. What, he asked, does a fully developed conscience tells us about our obligations to the rest of life, and to the ecological systems on which life depends? What is an ethical stance toward the environment?

To answer these questions, he argued, we have to consider all the ways in which human life is bound up with the earth. As creatures that evolved on this planet, we rely on its air and water and other systems for our survival. But we also construct ways of life and cultural traditions that are intimately tied to particular landscapes. We think and express ourselves in metaphors derived from nature. We experience a variety of powerful emotions as we encounter the diversity and abundance of life.

To Bendik-Keymer, these examples suggest that our identity and well-being are more profoundly dependent on nature than we often realize. As he puts it, we are “greener than we think.” From this, he concludes that our relationship with the Earth must be central to any description of what it means to flourish as a human being. It provides one reason for thinking of respect for life as a virtue. And it helps us recognize the ethical issues posed by environmental destruction.

Bendik-Keymer wrote about the ethical dimensions of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in May 2010, even as oil was coming ashore on the Mississippi Gulf coast. Istockphoto.

Bendik-Keymer wrote about the ethical dimensions of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in May 2010, even as oil was coming ashore on the Mississippi Gulf coast. Istockphoto.

Bendik-Keymer had these ideas in mind earlier this year when he responded to news that a disabled well was spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. On May 28, in one of a series of “Earth Thoughts” he has been writing as a daily exercise over the course of a year, he asked his readers:

Can you wrap your head around that—all the fishermen, all the coastlines, the teeming ocean bottoms, the life that would migrate through, the breeding and hatching grounds, the birds depending on the ocean life—all of that? And then wrap your head around human culture, around the communities and visitors who depend on the teeming Gulf life for their rituals, their sense of beauty and meaning?

By focusing moral attention on the possible impact of the spill, Bendik-Keymer sought to counteract the “thoughtlessness” that led to it in the first place. But such an exercise is only the beginning, he says. Next comes the work of practical ethics: thinking creatively about institutions, policies and individual choices, so that we can find ways to translate the voice of conscience into action.

Unseen Possibilities

In recent years, Bendik-Keymer has devoted much of his thinking to one institution in particular: the university itself. Ethical study, he believes, should be part of a “broad, innovative education aimed at helping students think for themselves, develop a holistic picture of their role in life, and become lifelong learners.” But how does a research university go about providing this sort of education? And how can a professor in ethics best contribute to its mission?

Bendik-Keymer had an unusual opportunity to test out answers to these questions. In 2004, he joined the faculty of the American University of Sharjah (AUS), an independent, coeducational university in the United Arab Emirates. Founded in 1997, the university was still defining itself when Bendik-Keymer arrived, and he took an active role in developing curricula and obtaining accreditation for the international studies department in which he taught. Because the university enrolls students from 70 countries, many different ethical outlooks and traditions were represented in his classroom.

It was at AUS that Bendik-Keymer developed a technique that he calls “cross-class questioning.” In his course on environmental ethics, his students had concluded that it was irrational for human beings to continue consuming natural resources and polluting the environment as they had for the past half-century—that such behavior made “no good sense for themselves or their descendants.” But they didn’t have a good explanation for why individuals and societies persist in such behavior.

Then Bendik-Keymer noticed that an environmental sociology course was meeting at the same time, so he brought the two classes together. His students asked what sociologists can tell us about the factors driving production and consumption in contemporary economies. But it turned out that the sociology students had questions, too: “They wanted to know what we thought our responsibilities should be when it came to protecting the environment.”

During his four years at the university, Bendik-Keymer wrote his first book, The Ecological Life: Discovering Citizenship and a Sense of Humanity. But he also found time to organize activities all over campus. He initiated reading groups and coordinated a video art project that was later exhibited at the Tate Modern in London. When he noticed that students weren’t gathering for intellectual discussions outside of class, he began holding weekly “conversation circles” on the steps of the university’s main building. Then he designed courses around the topics the students had raised.

Acting on his belief in service learning as a mode of ethical study, he led a group of student volunteers to Dhaka, Bangladesh. There, they worked in a program that houses and educates the city’s poorest children while providing job training to parents. In another project, he prepared undergraduates for a Model United Nations at Harvard University. The following year, the undergraduates turned around and created a Model U.N. for high school students from Sharjah and Dubai.

Finally, Bendik-Keymer sparked conversations beyond the university about environmental ethics. He wrote a column, “Down to Earth,” for one of Dubai’s daily papers and hosted a talk show on Dubai Eye Radio. “I thoroughly enjoy finding ways to make philosophy part of public life, part of everyday life,” he says.

As he carried out these different projects, Bendik-Keymer found it rewarding to work outside the limits of a conventional academic career. “I broke free of a view that says that the possibilities are already laid out and that you have to follow them,” he explains. “I found that there are unseen possibilities that radically open up one’s perception of the world and fill one with the satisfaction of having done something undeniably useful and real.”

Ethical Work

In his first year as the Beamer-Schneider Professor, Bendik-Keymer’s primary goal is to build relationships. Even before he arrived on campus this fall, he was calling in to meetings of the Sustainability Alliance, directed by physics professor John Ruhl. The alliance brings together faculty members from the sciences and humanities, engineering, medicine and management. In addition to promoting research, it works with Campus Facilities, the University Farm and the Office of Student Affairs to foster dialogue and engagement around sustainability issues. “I look forward to helping the alliance move Case Western Reserve toward a rich and pervasive culture of sustainability—a sine qua non of 21st-century universities,” Bendik-Keymer says.

Describing his teaching style, Bendik-Keymer stresses the importance of discussion. "I almost never lecture," he says.

Describing his teaching style, Bendik-Keymer stresses the importance of discussion. “I almost never lecture,” he says. Photo by Daniel Milner.

“I plan to meet with a range of departments, alliances and programs that I might serve or that have something to teach me,” he continues. “These include student life programs—they need not be narrowly academic.” And he is equally committed to outreach beyond campus. ” Ultimately, he says, “I want the professorship to develop a reputation for ethical work in a broad and real sense—work that is actually relevant for people in our community.”

Part of this work will involve having students learn practical ethics through service. Bendik-Keymer plans to take them “out into Cleveland and Northern Ohio, and overseas, starting with the United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh,” where he can draw on his existing contacts. In these settings, he says, students will gain “a nuanced understanding of social reality and human values.”

In his view, this approach to ethics couldn’t be more timely: “We are in an age when undergraduates seek experience-based education, service learning and a sense of integration with a way of life—not just a textbook,” he explains. Yet he also sees his proposal as reflecting an ancient theme in Greek philosophy.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that just as “men become builders by building houses, harpers by playing on the harp,” we acquire virtues by practicing them. And he further says that ethical inquiry is of no use unless it achieves a practical aim: “The purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is but to become good.”

Bendik-Keymer often reminds himself of this line and quotes it to his students. It expresses an idea that will guide his approach to undergraduate education at Case Western Reserve.

Page last modified: July 27, 2015