Professor R. Edward Freeman
Elis and Signe Olsson Professor of Business Administration, University of Virginia; Academic Director, Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics
The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society was proud to host Professor R. Edward Freeman, the Director of the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  Professor Freeman was also recently given the honor of University Professor at UVA, and the Society was pleased to have the opportunity to host such a distinguished individual so speak about ethics in the context of our current society.
     Professor Freeman opened by commenting that he was still a bit perplexed from the recent shaving of his trademark beard.  He said he shaved it for the first time in nearly thirty years after losing a bet to his Darden students over an amount they fundraised for a local non-profit.  
With a good laugh shared in Jefferson Hall, Freeman began his speech by showing the audience how ethics are present everywhere in society.  He cited dozens of news headlines he had found that day, from sports to pop culture to politics, arguing each headline embodied an ethics debate.  He then posed a question for the audience to consider: Do we have an ethics crisis in our society?  In an effort to fully answer this question, Freeman argued that society needs to take a broader view of what ethics is, going so far as to say ethics is the set of “decisions you and I make that affect each other.”
Freeman then pointed out four partial explanations to the ethical dilemma our society faces today.  The first of which he said was that people validate a broken ethical system because the world is complicated, and there’s nothing we can do to make the world simple.  Second, he pointed out that people often argue a more ethical society will be achieved through increased dialogue to take all viewpoints into consideration.  Freeman followed up the argument for more dialogue with a third point, endorsed by many leading scholars, that society needs a civic space where people can listen and reason with one another in hope to find common ground.  Freeman countered this point by noting that many spaces have had the intention of being used for this purpose, but have not been effective due to an unauthentic and exclusive selection as to who is involved in the dialogue.  Still, Freeman noted that technology in the coming century may in fact be the answer to this problem.  Finally, Freeman said many believe that society’s ethical dilemma is a result of not having strong ethical leaders, but he argued several points to the contrary.  He pointed out that why should society “leave the very fabric of what we stand for up to our leaders, especially our political leaders?” and also asked, “how can leaders be expected to make sense of the world and its ethical phenomena” when no one else has yet to do so?  For these reasons, Freeman believes neither a complicated world, lack of dialogue, lack of civic space for dialogue, nor lack of ethical leadership are reasons for our society’s ethical dilemma.
Instead, Professor Freeman argued a more precise form of dialogue is needed to come to terms with societies ethical dilemma.  He said, “I believe we need a dialogue that cuts across generations, societies—north and south, east and west—classes, races, and religions, and other contingencies of life. This dialogue must put ethics and ethics issues on center stage. In short, we need to re-moralize our conversations about what it means to live a good life and create good communities.”  It was the notion of continual “re-moralization” in our society that Professor Freeman expanded on in the remainder of his speech.  He defined re-moralization as “articulating principles for each of our institutions to help us discover, create, or recreate, their purpose[s].”
Professor Freeman noted that bringing these principles to life is the biggest challenge, but he recommended several steps we can take as a society to successfully re-moralize our institutions and achieve a more ethical society.  First, Professor Freeman argued that we should articulate ethical principles then create a dialogue about these principles.  We should expect a routine conversation about these ethical principles from our leaders, and we should teach our citizens to have better conversations about ethical principles as well.  In order to do so, we need to reorganize our institutions around building hope for a more ethical world.  He described this process as “exercising the moral imagination,” and commented, “Our ability to create a more ethical world is limited by the stories we can tell. . . by only, really, our imagination.”  To elaborate on this point, he began to ask several hypotheticals: “What would our world be like if . . .”
He asked, “What would our political institutions be like if our governments wouldn’t use force? If people could move freely throughout boarders? If generals had to be mothers? What would businesses be like if our businesses saw themselves as part of communities? What would schools be like if each school had a clear purpose? If you get committed to learning or you leave? What would science and technology be like if we could put exploring human knowledge on the same level as the war on terror or the war on drugs?
In his conclusion, Professor Freeman argued, “We need to put ethics, morals, and values in the center stage, yet have an open dialogue that avoids righteous moralizing … At the end of the day, tell our children what we did that day that we are proud of.”