When was the last time you thought about the ethical implications of a decision you were about to make? More importantly, when was the last time you thought about ethics at all?
If you ask Michael Burroughs, director of the Kegley Institute of Ethics at Cal State Bakersfield, why ethics matters, he'll tell you that, at the end of the day, it's "part of the human condition."
"To the extent that you’re living or breathing, you’re asking or encountering an ethical question daily," Burroughs explained.
Though times have changed since Plato and Socrates offered their wisdom, KIE, throughout its 33-year history, has strived to show the importance of ethics through its programs for all students, faculty, staff and community members. But, in recent years, equally engaging a traditionally conservative community and liberal university has been challenging at times.
KIE was founded in 1986 in memory of Charles W. Kegley, the first chair of the CSUB Philosophy and Religious Studies Department who died from cancer. He believed philosophical explorations found richest development by incorporating and discussing real people and real problems, according to KIE's website.
What made the institute unique then, and still to this day, was its goal of being as inclusive as possible, Jackie Kegley, co-founder and philosophy professor, explained.
"The idea was to make it free to the public. We didn’t want to charge," Kegley said. "We also wanted it to be open in terms of the types of speakers and panels we have. We wanted to have dialogue among various groups on issues, and we didn’t want to limit it on one point of view."
As a result, a wide range of speakers have participated in the institute's annual Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture and others: the former president of Ireland, Pulitzer Prize winners, an Algerian refugee and a Rwandan humanitarian. That growth, Kegley said, impressed her the most with KIE.
Christopher Meyers, who served as the first KIE director, passed the baton to Burroughs in 2017, and he has tried to maintain the traditions and values set by the institute's founders.
KIE has continued to expand by adding new initiatives each semester. Burroughs and various campus collaborators have created programs such as the SEEDE Institute (which promotes social emotional learning among schools), Humanities Beyond Bars (which includes ethics debate programming and philosophy seminars in various prisons) and sponsorship programs for student and faculty events.
"One of the things endlessly fascinating around a position like this is the ability to collaborate with so many campus and community partners and be in a position where we can support different conversations," Burroughs said.
One aspect of tradition he takes seriously is being a non-partisan institute. It's an interesting challenge for him because depending on which speakers are brought in and what issues are covered, many people might think KIE is pushing a certain political agenda.
The most recent example was the announcement that David Hogg, survivor of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and activist, would be giving the 34th annual Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture. Several community members felt the decision was pushing a liberal stance. Burroughs views it differently.
"Whether you’re conservative or liberal, gun violence is a problem. The fact that we have lots of mass shootings is an issue," he said. "Can we come together to have a conversation across differences on how to respond to that problem?"
"The most important thing is disagreement is fine, it’s actually good, but what’s problematic is when you can’t speak to each other about why you disagree without hating each other. We try to model civil discourse and the idea of creating opportunities for people with different views to come together respectfully to have important conversations on pressing issues in our region and world," he added.
What people didn't see, Burroughs said, were countless emails he received from CSUB students thanking him for inviting Hogg to campus.
Other than that, various students have taken part in KIE events that have expanded their views on ethics.
"In terms of the discussions and conversations brought upon by the Institute, the students have always walked away from each event thinking about the nature of the conversation and trying to apply both equity, civil discussion, and practice into their lives," Monica Figueroa, a member of the Junior-Year Experience program, wrote in an email.
As KIE plans future events, CSUB and community members can expect tough conversations to continue. Key ethical issues that are important to discuss in Bakersfield and Kern County, according to Burroughs, include homelessness, discipline in schools, free speech and the environment/water.
"There’s the policy response, but there’s always the ethical dimension which is how ought we act to be good," he said.
Though many might not agree with every speaker or topic covered by KIE, Burroughs still believes engaging in ethics is beneficial and important to everyone.
"Learning how to live well in a community with others is really important. Learning how to respect myself and what I believe, but learning how to be an ethical community member and respect others is also important. It’s not only about ethics, but part of ethics is about that."
To learn more about KIE, visit www.cs.csubak.edu/~kie/.