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by Thorsten Wagner, FASPE Executive Director

It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.

(Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010, p. 400.)

Dear alumni, dear friends and supporters of FASPE,

We are very proud to present the 2019 FASPE Journal to you. Thanks to the diligent and thoughtful editorial efforts of 2017 journalism fellows Yemile Bucay and Kate Harloe, and thanks to the creativity and dedication of a handful of alumni, we are able to offer you a set of powerful and compelling essays. Often introspective, self-critical and without accusatory finger-pointing, this year’s contributions exemplify some of the best conversations taking place in the context of the FASPE fellowships and raise a number of crucial and complex questions of current professional ethics:

How do I make sure that my language as a journalist is not inciting hatred and dehumanizing the other—whether my work actually is covered by the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression or not? How do I as a journalist maneuver the dilemmas of access? If I accept the invitation by the regime to visit and report on its institutions of repression, I might be able to uncover its crimes, but might also run the risk of legitimizing its policies and becoming complicit in its propaganda efforts.

How do I as a doctor avoid becoming socialized into structures of uncritical obedience to authority that leave me numb to ethically questionable actions? And, one might add, how do I prevent my ethical compass from gradually deteriorating, without me noticing? What if I actually get to a point, where I am complicit in unprofessional or even criminal practices, but actually still perceive of myself as a morally intact person? More generally, do we need a broader definition of professionalism, both in medicine and other areas—a professionalism, which also includes a professional responsibility for systemic deficiencies, out of a commitment to social justice?

As a lawyer or a business person, why do I stay and work for a firm or company that is complicit in ethically flawed and highly problematic practices? Is it out of a desire for a validation that comes from being good at something, which gains the upper hand over the wish to be good?

Or does the willingness to stay also originate from an authentic—but eventually flawed and self-delusional—conviction that I might be able to mitigate worse from happening? 

David Luban, FASPE Law faculty (2016) and member of our Academic Committee, elaborates on this, with regard to military and civilian officials, in an article that soon will be published: “When a regime comes to power that does awful things, or tries to, or threatens to, how should decent people in the government respond?” 

“Staying in their jobs may turn them into ‘desk perpetrators,’” he writes. “But quitting the job may take away their only chance to temper awful policies—to become ‘desk mitigators.’ Yet mitigation is often the flip side of perpetration: to implement an evil policy, but try to make it less bad, is still implementing an evil policy.” 

Luban wraps up his fascinating study of Bernhard Lösener and Helmuth James von Moltke by concluding: “Sometimes quitting is the right thing to do; but when there is Spielraum [room to maneuver], and a genuine prospect of mitigating evil, staying at the desk can be the righteous path. But only for those who actually resist.”1 

Similar to Luban’s approach, a recurring theme in several of the contributions to the 2019 Journal is the question of the relationship to power—ethics and power, the professional and power. And as Luban is embedding his analysis of complicity and mitigation in historical-biographical case studies, several of the authors here strive to give their topics historical depth and context.

I will close by recommending one of the best speeches that I have heard this past year. It addresses me as European—but it has a lot to say to Americans and other nationalities as well. You easily can find Timothy Snyder’s “Speech to Europe” online.

Snyder has in different contexts been very helpful and inspirational for our work. This speech, in particular, masterfully brings together past and present. He summarizes what he sees as central motives leading to the destructive force of the empire, culminating in the Holocaust: ecological panic, state destruction, and dehumanization. And he raises some very powerful points about the need for a critical approach to our own history, as well as the rise of the digital empire and its new, and very real, dehumanizing potentials.

Another reminder of how important it is to take responsibility and confront these challenges as professionals.


1. David Luban, Complicity and Lesser Evils: A Tale of Two Lawyers, 2019, manuscript.