Dominican Authors Explore Ethics in Our Diverse World

People want to be ethical. They want to do the right thing. But on the way to figuring out what is right, they often compromise, rationalize, and manipulate the facts to achieve their aims, according to the authors of the new book about ethics in today's world.

August 3, 2007

Dr. Harlan Stelmach, chair of the Department of Humanities, and Dr. Robert Traer, an instructor in the Department of Humanities, have published a new book that examines these gray areas and offers a practical guide to sorting out ethical dilemmas. Doing Ethics in a Diverse World was published this month by Westview Press.

“Ethics are built into all of us,” Stelmach says. “In our book, we’ve laid out an approach for using various positions – different religious, cultural, and philosophical positions – and coming up with an approach that you – the reader – will confirm what you already know is the moral high ground.”

Stelmach, the former director of the Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkeley, is in his sixth year at Dominican. He says he brought a background in ethics and philosophy to the book, while Traer has a stronger background in religion and the law.

Traer was inspired to co-write Doing Ethics in a Diverse World when he couldn’t find a textbook to suit his classes. “Most of the textbooks offered more ethical theories than anyone could mentally sort out, and they usually left a bad taste,” he says.

Traer, who has written three other books, has taught at Dominican since 2002.

For 10 years, he was director of the International Association for Religious Freedom, an independent nonprofit that works with religious groups around the world. Traer worked, in part, at the United Nations, in Geneva.

During his tenure, he gathered people from diverse religious backgrounds, seeking common ground. “That kind of work was very much ‘doing ethics in a diverse world,’” he says, alluding to his book’s title. “It was both theoretical and practical.”

For instance, his organization worked to try to bring peace to Northern Ireland and, in one initiative, established a preschool for Catholic and Protestant children. “Catholics and Protestants had to find some way of doing things that mattered,” he says. “Kids mattered.”

“To find a place politically, they had to find a way to live with each other as neighbors,” he says. “Preschool is as basic as it gets.”

He recalls participating in a forum in Belfast in which “we talked about this issue of ethics, of finding ways to do what’s right in a society where everything is divided up.” The panel included a Palestinian Muslim, a South African Hindu, and an Israeli Jew, as well as Irish Catholics and Protestants. It was held before 150 high school students.

Panelists found common ground, Traer notes, as they discussed the importance of accepting each other’s rights for different religious traditions, and working together in support of common values.