Professors Discuss Justice at Forum
By Shellby Fabian ’14, News Section Editor
On Wed., April 6, Amherst College Economics Professor Daniel Barbezat and University of Pennsylvania Law Professor David Skeel participated in a dialogue to answer the question, “Why be good?” Barbezat referenced his perspective of Buddhist ethics, while Skeel spoke in the perspective of a Christian.

Their discussion was part of The Veritas Forum, an international organization that holds these forums at many prestigious colleges. This forum was the first to be held at Amherst.

To begin the discussion, the moderator, Luca Grillo, Assistant Professor of Classics at the College, provided the audience with an understanding of the goals of this dialogue: to explore some of life’s hardest questions while integrating religion into the intellectual conversation. After Grillo’s introduction, Barbezat and then Skeel took the podium to present the beliefs that made up the foundations of their respective perceptions of morality.

Barbezat explained several aspects of Buddhist ethics. According to him, the Buddha teaches two ideas: suffering and the end of suffering. The path to end suffering starts with following the Eightfold Path, which includes right speech, right livelihood and right action. From this, right focus, right effort and right mindfulness arise. Mindfulness is key in the context of this dialogue; it consists of an awareness and remembrance of one’s actions. In answering, “Why be good?” he emphasized the interrelatedness of all human beings. The existence of a self separate from others is impossible.

“Whatever you do, even [the] thoughts that you have, affects the world,” Barbezat said. He explained that because of this, one must practice mindfulness by paying attention to every action, not only for oneself but because what one does can cause others suffering.

Skeel presented a Christian viewpoint of morality. First, the goal of justice was to form or strengthen relationships. According to him, justice begins with a relationship with God. If one cares about creating a relationship with God, then one will strive to live how God wants, which directs one toward being good. Christianity promotes piety by the kinds of relationships people see when the teachings of God are taken seriously, as well as the kind of justice toward which Jesus guides people. Asked, “Why be good?” Skeel answered simply:

“The Christian vision of justice is a plan to restore our personal relationship with God, and it offers a model for how we might foster proper relationships in our communities, the nation, and the world,” he said.

Skeel also explained the importance of punishment for our moral failures. An immoral act must be punished in order to restore the relationship between a person and God.

Following the opening remarks, Grillo facilitated a discussion between the two professors, asking them questions as well as encouraging them to ask each other questions. The two speakers alternated speaking.

Skeel explained his vision of the beauty of morality in the pattern illustrated in the Bible: relationship, destruction (from wrongdoing) and returning to a stronger relationship. It is difficult to distinguish what is good without the relationship.

“We have Jesus as a model to show us what good looks like,” he said.

For Barbezat, mindfulness and awareness of the implications of every person’s actions to others were the pivotal guides toward virtue.

“If we treated everyone like human beings … we would be in fact a kinder, gentler nation,” Barbezat said.

The speakers found common ground on the importance of relationships as motivation to be good. For Skeel that relationship was with God, while Barbezat explained that it existed between an individual and all people. Both mentioned that people are not good for the benefit of themselves.

The discussion was then opened to the audience, as the Red Room came to life with questions from the audience. To take an example, Barbezat had stated that Buddhists who have meditated for 10,000 hours find true compassion for other beings. In opposition, Skeel emphasized the fact that all people are naturally sinful and meditation cannot erase this. They discussed true human nature.

Near the end of the discussion a student asked about how each faith would reconcile conflicting ideas of the reasons behind piety. Skeel’s response was humility and Barbezat’s was love and kindness. Although their two perspectives did not coincide very often, they agreed on the need for universal respect of varying beliefs. Students expressed that they enjoyed the discussion because the College community was able to openly talk about religion even though it is a secular institution.

The organizers, Andrew Kaake ’14 and Reverend Timothy Jones, worked towards the discussion for four months.

“I was thoroughly impressed by Amherst’s own Prof. Barbezat and Prof. Skeel. Both gentlemen gave thoughtful presentations and responses,” Rev. Jones said. “I pray that [the Veritas Forum] will serve as a launching pad for continued discussion around different perspectives on justice and interreligious dialogue.”

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 04:24:52