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Stanford launches new ‘Ethics and War’ series

When is war justified? What can we do in the name of war? What do we owe to people who fight in war? Who decides who should fight?

(Anastasia Yee/The Stanford Daily)

Bringing together different academic units on campus, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society has spearheaded a project that is set to discuss such ethical questions surrounding war in a wide range of academic disciplines. The year-long series will continue until mid-May, concluding with two culminating drama performance events. The first event, “War Photographer,” took place on Oct. 14.

Aiming to bring the issues of war closer to home, Ethics in Society Center director and philosophy professor Debra Satz developed the series to provide a wider understanding of the ethical issues surrounding war.

“We’ve outsourced the fighting in wars to other countries and other people so that you can walk around Stanford, and really, there isn’t much presence on campus of people who are fighting in wars, or have fought in wars, or have relatives who are fighting,” Satz said. “We’ve tended to outsource it to one part of the population, and there aren’t very many courses on war.”

“So, a lot of us thought we should do more to raise these issues on campus because they’re very important,” she added.

The project will provide a look at war through different academic lenses. Though Satz is heading the series, faculty involved come from a wide range of departments, including drama, political science, philosophy and English.

“It puts together a very rich menu of people for the arts, from the social sciences, from philosophy, and so on, all speaking on different conflicts and ethical concerns that are raised in this topic,” said Scott Sagan, political science professor and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), one of the centers involved in co-sponsoring the series.

Sagan cited the panel discussion scheduled for Dec. 2, which will discuss the ethics of the draft. He emphasized the interdisciplinary approaches to discussing war topics.

“CISAC is actively engaged in teaching questions of war and peace, but we don’t have a lot of direct discussion of ethics,” he said. “Ethics come in all the time in these issues, but since we’re mostly scientists and social scientists, the ethical dimensions are not directly focused upon.  So, I thought it would be exciting to do more in these areas.”

English professor Tobias Wolff agreed.

“One of the ways in which people discover the nature of war and the effect it has on people is through literature,” Wolff said. “There are many different ways of approaching this project. Literature is a very important one.”

Wolff and the Creative Writing Program will contribute to the project by bringing in different writers and authors of works on war.

Besides bringing together English, philosophy, and political science, the series will additionally include Stanford Summer Theater. Drama professor and director of Stanford Summer Theater Rush Rehm became interested in the project because of the “material.”

Though not directly involved in the planning process, students will be involved in one of the two culminating events of the series: a performance of “Betrayed,” the 2009 play written by New Yorker journalist George Packer.  Rehm is in the process of coordinating this spring’s May 20 show.

“Stanford Summer Theater has done many political works in the past,” Rehm said. “And I thought that George Packer’s play would be important to be a part of this series.”

“We’re involved in two wars, we overtook the country, and we’re probably directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and we’re probably just going to leave the country, or a lot of it, in shambles,” he added. “Packer’s play will bring to light some of the issues involved in war.”

The other event, a performance of “The Gurs Zyklus” by MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner Trimpin, is scheduled for May 14.

The next event of the series, “The Changing Face of Photojournalism, the Changing Face of War,” will take place on Thursday, Oct. 28 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Tobias Wolff was incorrectly described as the director of Stanford’s creative writing program. In fact, the program’s director is English professor Eavan Boland.