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Sonoma State University launches ethics center

Joshua Glasgow is a lecturer at Sonoma State University.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 6:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 7:45 a.m.

In a world of change, upheaval and conflict, in other words, the world as it always has been, Sonoma State University philosophy lecturer Joshua Glasgow hopes to help guide an exploration into what is right or wrong and why.

Although not on some issues close to home, at least just yet.

But take, say, illegal immigration and the estimated 11 million to 12 million people in the country without permission. On that thorny issue, Glasgow, director of SSU's newly hatched Center for Ethics, Law and Society, posed questions that give rise to more questions.

"By what right do we exclude people from immigrating in the first place? We set up borders and say some people are allowed to come in and others aren't. There's a real question there as to whether that's a legitimate thing to say," he said.

He suggests applying philosophy's famous "luck argument."

"It says, 'We were lucky to be born in a nation with a robust economy and various freedoms; we didn't do anything to earn that, so why do we think we get to enjoy these privileges and not extend them to others?' "

He concluded: "This is a question about what we're morally entitled to. Why are we morally or ethically entitled to the goods of living in the United States and . . . to prohibit others from receiving those same rights and goods?"

As for himself, he acknowledges, "I'm conflicted about it."

So goes a conversation with the head of an academic venture intended to engage SSU students, faculty and the larger community in addressing a range of complex subjects.

Initially, the center is planning a series of events, the first of which is Feb. 6: a lecture by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman, "Big Law, Small Law: Old and New Civil Rights in the 21st Century."

"The grand ambition is to reach a bunch of different constituencies," he said, and to wade into issues including water use, food ethics, clean technology and income inequality.

"Issues that seem to be of pressing concern to the Bay Area interest me as possible topics of focus to the center," Glasgow said.

The center, contemplated since the philosophy department started offering a pre-law concentration a few years ago, was launched in December.

Perhaps because of its fledgling status, there are some things around which Glasgow treads delicately. They include the center's $16,000 first-year budget, two-thirds of which came from American International Group, or AIG.

The insurer's risky, lightly regulated bets on financial derivatives were implicated as central in the 2008 economic crisis, and it got a $182 billion taxpayer bailout that it has since repaid.

But Glasgow declined to discuss AIG's role in the crisis, and if it deserves the infamy heaped upon it.

"I don't feel I should comment on that. I just feel I have a conflict of interest," he said. "First of all, I'm really grateful, and I hope we get more support."

But he said he had no qualms about accepting the grant and that AIG was acting as it, or any big business, should.

"The way we distribute money in our society is (that) it funnels toward corporations; that's just the way it flows," he said. "It's imperative that corporations do return that, in some sense, to the community."

Philosophers' thoughts are, well, extended, and Glasgow added: "The only question in my mind would be what counts as a worthy cause, not who it's coming from, but who it's going to."

"If they were saving lives with it instead of helping our center, that's an argument I would consider pretty powerful. But the fact that it's coming from one corporation rather than another doesn't really concern me," he said.

AIG did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Neither did SSU Provost Andrew Rogerson.

Glasgow also shied away from another subject that last year convulsed the campus with questions about the influence of money and the ethical questions it raises.

That controversy revolved around whether financier Sandy Weill (a part-owner of The Press Democrat), whom Time Magazine listed as one of "25 people to blame for the financial crisis," should receive an honorary doctorate for his $12 million gift to the Green Music Center.

"I hate to do this to you, but, again, I don't think I can comment," Glasgow said. The center might well sponsor a discussion on that topic, he said, "but I want to be able to reach all members of the SSU community and I don't want to take a stand on campus controversies."

"Especially given that we're in our infancy and I really want the first note to be really positive and strong and welcoming for everybody. It's not the right time," he said.

While Weill's honorary degree roiled the campus, the AIG donation is not being discussed, probably because it's not known about, said anthropology professor Margaret Purser, chairwoman of the academic senate, who learned about it from a reporter.

But at a time of much-diminished state funding, the center is the right forum to discuss issues of the exact nature raised by its funding, she said.

"As faculty chair, I want to see that is one of the first issues the center takes on," Purser said. "What are the the issues with a public university accepting corporate funding in this new world? What are the rules of the game? what are the ethics involved in this?"

"I think we need to have this conversation out loud and in public and ironically, that's the center we just built to do it," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jeremyhay.

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