by Thorsten Wagner, Executive Director for Strategy and Academics
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.1
Dear alumni, dear friends, and supporters of FASPE,
It is with a strong sense of gratitude and relief that we are able to present the 2022 FASPE Journal to you. Dramatic global as well as domestic events in the course of the last two years have had significant implications and consequences for our work, ranging from the COVID pandemic that made fellowships in Europe impossible in 2020 and 2021, to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent higher awareness of the need for a reckoning with America’s racist past and present, to the current moment of Russia’s murderous war of aggression in the heart of Europe. The resolve to end this aggression and hold Putin’s regime accountable for its mass crimes in Ukraine will arguably be the ultimate ethical litmus test for the leaders of the West for the foreseeable future—including our legal professionals and business executives.
All the more, we are grateful that this summer we were able to take more than 80 fellows to Europe. The essays in this volume represent an impressive cross section of the thoughtful conversations and reflections engendered by this year’s fellowships in Germany and Poland. They are a powerful reminder of the importance of critical introspection and self-reflection, focusing on the fellows’ roles as future professionals and leaders. It is easy to lose sight of this dimension. Work conditions for young professionals, especially for women and people of color, are often challenging; the structural flaws of society and its systems of justice and medical care have only become ever more obvious. And, in both domestic and global contexts, the fight for social equity is even more urgent. It does not come as a surprise that there is a growing desire to become activists and advocates for social and racial justice.
Against this backdrop, it takes a very conscious decision—not only or primarily to focus on the necessity of systemic change but also on the agency, responsibility, and potential of the individual professional. What are my shortcomings, in what areas do I need to reflect on my ethos as a professional? Needless to say, the fellowships very much aim to foster and promote this process of professional formation and its ethical implications, embedding it in the context of historical experience and reflection. FASPE’s Academic Director, Eric Muller, has put it powerfully:
When we take fellows to atrocity sites in Europe, we do this not just to honor the memory of the victims of those atrocities, but to present fellows with the chance to try a tough act of imagination. Can we look at professionals who used their skills to plan and support all the steps along the path to terrible ends and recognize in them something of ourselves? Can we look at what tempted them, what motivated them, what dulled their vision, and see some of our own temptations, motivations, and blinders? [FASPE is inviting the fellows to relate to] the professionals of the 1930s and 1940s, who, eagerly or reluctantly, devoted energy to developing and maintaining a system that had every reason to trouble them.
Karl Wallenkampf’s compelling reflection piece, “Mengele and Me,” is, as you will see, a remarkable example of exactly this endeavor. As Karl discusses the appreciation of the infamous SS doctor’s research by his contemporaries and explores what drove him, he comes to an unsettling conclusion: “It is this which disturbs me, the thin but real continuity of his motivations and mine. […] I consistently found the same themes again and again. I noticed points of agreement between their motivations and those in my personal statements for medical school and residency.”
Moving from a tempting identification with the victims to a focus on the complicity of the professional is central for FASPE. The historical example illustrates how this complicity became possible by a comprehensive transformation of the normative orientations in German society. The change of the ethical horizon—frequently exacerbated by professionals and other leaders—seems often to go unnoticed. The ethical values dominant in a given society at a given point in time seem to constitute something like the often-unexamined framework of our private and professional existence, almost like the operating system of a computer. This observation resonates with what Emma Dunlap writes about normalization in her essay: “Prior to FASPE, I thought of the Nazis as a cohesive, impassioned majority associated with the images in Triumph of the Will: imposing displays, marches, and book burnings. My FASPE experience challenged this perception and re-directed my attention to people who accepted this new reality as ‘normal’ and lived their lives accordingly.”
The moral norms and standards we share with our community or even significant parts of our society have the potential to make us believe that we are morally intact individuals, while we are actually contributing to deeply flawed policies. This sense of shared norms means that morality is not necessarily the barrier that needs to be overcome to do harm, but rather can be the enabling factor.
So why does this history matter? The history of Nazi society and its complicit professionals matters to us because it shows how our moral code can change surprisingly easily; within that changing ethical universe, ordinary professionals and quotidian motivations can become instrumental in causing harm—big and small – for others. Reflecting on her FASPE experience through the lens of David Graeber’s critique of bureaucracy, Jessica Dai concludes in her contribution:
If there’s anything that stands out from the trip, it’s that the capital-h Holocaust was enacted by thousands of human beings, each with their own feelings, desires, and personal stories. […] What I ask of myself is that I care, that I continue to care; that I do the best with the information I have, but maintain skepticism that I’m “right.” The sphere of our personal influence, the radius over which it’s possible for us to exert power, is always wider and more elastic than we first assume.
Several essays circle around the issue of having a certain skepticism towards one’s own self-righteousness as a professional, and therefore call for reflection on what the role of the professional vis-à-vis the system is: Under what circumstances can you trust the (legal) system to lead to ethical outcomes? (Lisa van Dord) In what situations might it be the right thing not to do what the system expects you to do, e.g., perform a meaningless surgery (Claire Rosen)? And when do professionals have the ethical obligation to work for systemic change? (Tessa Adzemovic) Furthermore, you will find thought-provoking pieces reflecting on dilemmas of journalistic work and their broader implications for professional ethics: How do I report about racism and white supremacy without providing inhumane voices with a platform and loudspeaker? (Regin Winther Poulsen) And Sofia Tomacruz, working as a journalist at Rappler, the important Philippine(!) digital media outlet, discusses the crucial question: What trade-offs and compromises are acceptable for a journalist working under an increasingly repressive regime such as in Russia?
I hope that this brief panorama of this year’s contributions has whet your appetite and that you will enjoy this journey through the current landscape of professional ethics.
- Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010, p.400.