Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions.
What a society counts as moral or immoral is subject to the particular zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. “At the time of the slave trade, for example, most people who were slave owners thought it was moral. Even a few blacks, once they were freed, had slaves,” explains Sharon Welch, Professor of Religious Studies. As a social ethicist, Welch researches not just the way individuals make moral choices, but how a whole society begins to decide “what counts as moral.” To that effect, all of her projects coalesce around such issues of social morality.
MU philosophy professor Robert N. Johnson found himself drawn to philosophy as a child who was always “lost in his thoughts.” Then, in high school, Johnson happened upon the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and just “got hooked.” The “Zen” part of the book was not what grabbed his attention; it was the discussion of Plato’s dialogues that framed the story. That encounter led him to check out the Collected Works of Plato from his local library. “I was obsessed… I still am obsessed,” he admits.
As a museum director and archaeologist, one of Barker’s most pressing research agendas concerns ethics and the question of who owns the past. Although many objects in the museum’s collection predate modern acquisition guidelines, this remains a real concern for museum staff. Finding himself torn between competing and often contradictory claims to the past’s remnants, Barker struggles with how to ethically handle the acquisition of antiquities in a way that seeks to protect the archaeological record and the sovereignty of the countries from which the objects originate, but also to benefit the public today.
Barker takes us into the Museum of Art and Archaeology, heading immediately to a Mayan vessel that dates from sometime between about 600 to 900 CE. He is confident about the vessel’s authenticity because of the glyphic inscription across its lip describing the fruity cacao that the vessel’s owner would be drinking. The Mayan glyphic code was not broken until after the vessel was accepted and accessioned into the museum’s collection, he explains, and only because of subsequent scholarship are they able to read the inscription. That the vessel was created for cacao—chocolate—is also interesting, for cacao was one of the most important economic resources, along with salt, circulating as valuables in complex societies in Mesoamerica, even though cacao is not native to the region but to areas further south.
Gone are the days of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, who could raid tombs without consideration of ethics. Part of Barker’s work concerns museum and cultural property ethics. Both as an archaeologist and as a museum professional, he is concerned about who should own and control cultural treasures. From an archaeological standpoint, cultural property largely concerns the prevention of looting and curbing illicit trafficking in antiquities. The rate of site destruction is huge, and archaeologists worldwide are working to protect the integrity of remaining sites.
Following years principally involved in research, Wu now spends more time working with both students and the public on energy efficiency and the environment. As he puts it, “I feel very strongly that every one of us needs to do something and behave in responsible ways, individually or collectively, [to] do something about it.” As an educator, Wu gets the message out to his students, who he says are the future: , “It’s really a very fulfilling thing to do. I have been a professor for all of my professional life—doing research, writing books and other publications, and teaching. I can honestly say that what I’m doing now regarding energy efficiency is absolutely the most fulfilling.”
Koller observes that one of the biggest obstacles is getting people to do more than just nod and agree that mental health is important. “Of course, it’s important: but what are we willing to do to encourage it in our youth?” he asks. “We have to do something that’s more proactive than reactive. Mental illness is continuing unabated in our society in particular,” thanks in part to high levels of stress and the drive to succeed. He perceives this challenge as an ethical and moral responsibility: “When you have a chance to do something about it, when you have people who are willing to look outside the box at a different world, why not take it? At least you can’t be judged that you didn’t try.”
The real challenge for Welch is how “to help people see that they too can be the agent of evil.” Given that most of our stories involve “good guys versus bad guys,” those are the cultural scripts we are given. Taking some ideas from Theophus Smith’s Conjuring Culture (1995), Welch argues that “it’s not just a simple divide of oppressor/oppressed.” While clearly there is blatant oppression, sometimes excessive shaming occurs—“the people who have been oppressive need to be shamed, need to be called to account,” yet, “there’s no way all that suffering is going to be redeemed.” When a single event or person becomes a scapegoat for all the suffering groups of people have experienced historically, “it becomes a way of driving a deeper and deeper wedge.” The goal is to find a way of balancing accountability without demonizing the oppressor.
“What I’m really interested in is called social ethics,” Welch explains. What a society counts as moral or immoral is subject to the particular _zeitgeist_—the spirit of the times. For example, at the time of the slave trade, “most people who were slave owners thought it was moral. Even a few blacks, once they were freed, had slaves.” As a social ethicist, Welch has been trying to understand not just the way individuals make moral choices but how a whole society begins to decide “what counts as moral.”
One of Welch’s projects involves the Center for Religion, the Professions, and the Public: “As the professions become aware of the different religious traditions with which people work, it raises questions about what constitutes ethical behavior. People have different meanings of what counts as ethical. How do we learn to adjudicate these in a better way?” CRPP’s ethics consortium brings people from multiple disciplines together to look at deep ethical issues. Another project with which Welch is active is MU’s Difficult Dialogues Project, a collaborative initiative that joins the forces of various administrative, faculty, and student groups. Using interactive theater, the project aims to address difficult multicultural issues in “an environment in which differing views are defended, heard, and considered by those who hold conflicting ideas and values across cultures.”
“One of the most dangerous stories that as Euro-Americans we tell ourselves is that we can defeat evil,” Welch explains. “Whether we think we defeat it through violence, or persuasion, or coercion, the notion of defeating evil is often the cause of some of the greatest evil.” This becomes most obvious in the case of war, “where in order to defeat the enemy we become the enemy. In order to stand up to torture, we ourselves become torturers. To protect the rule of law, we give up the rule of law.” Welch contends that “a great deal of evil is done by people who are just doing their jobs, being efficient, following orders.” The Holocaust is a painful example of this syndrome. Welch seeks a way for our culture to break through this moral disengagement, observing: “It’s really easy to see someone else doing it, but much harder to see it when we are the ones doing it. How do we begin to see through the rhetoric that justifies evil—the euphemistic language, the demonizing, and the dehumanizing that goes on?”
In After Empire Welch offers practical suggestions for moving toward an international rule of law: “A lot of people are opposed to war, but really don’t know what the alternatives are. They don’t know that there are millions of people all over the world trying to put in place those alternatives.” She speaks especially about one group of which she is a part, Global Action to Prevent War, an international consortium of NGOs and peace studies programs in over thirty countries. Having worked with the coalition that established the International Criminal Court, they are now working on the formation of a United Nations emergency peace service. Although Welch describes many “little successes,” they are not given much attention in the crisis-driven media. “We don’t really have a cultural script for the little successes,” she observes. “It’s not as glamorous to prevent a war. And how do you know you’ve prevented it? Maybe it wouldn’t have happened anyway.” Moreover, while war may be averted, racial and economic problems still remain: “With war, there’s a least the illusion of a definite end—one side surrenders,” whereas, with peaceful solutions “there’s no defined end; the struggles are ongoing.”
Regarding her book After Empire (2004), Welch says: “One of the things I’ve always been very interested in is the ethics of peace and war and the kind of debate that is going on now about whether the United States should take on proudly and without hesitation the mantle of empire.” Examining both sides of the issue Welch notes that “every empire becomes one of domination and coercion. And a basic lesson of history is that people don’t like to be dominated, and they’re going to resist. There’s a cost to empire. There’s a cost not just to the people who are controlled, but there’s a cost to us who are the empire.” Hence, it is crucial at this uncertain historical juncture that “rather than use our power to be an empire, we use our power to put in place a kind of world order that we would like to see when we’re no longer the dominant political power, bringing the rule of law to the international sphere” between nations.
Johnson discusses his courses and teaching at Mizzou.
The state of contemporary debates on the nature of right vs. wrong and on virtue. Johnson discusses the shift of focus from the two primary camps of ethics, utilitarianism and deontologists, to virtue ethics, which takes human psychology into greater account. What place do circumstances and empirical studies on character traits have in the debate?
Many experiments in social psychology have shown that we overestimate the importance of enduring character traits in the explanation of people’s behavior. Johnson discusses some examples.
Johnson discusses how ethicists today form their assumptions and draw conclusions.
How much we can know simply by reflecting? What is the nature of moral judgment? Johnson discusses practical reasoning and whether it really has an effect on our behavior.
Johnson discusses the discipline of philosophy and its subfield of ethics