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Paradoxes of Ethical Leadership

MIT students, researchers, and faculty are shaping the future. Literally. Last week in discussion group, the ethical considerations of editing the human genome came up. There’s so much at stake, it feels overwhelming.

Are technologies like CRISPR a gift to humanity, or a curse, or both? The answer depends on us, we humans. On how well our moral compass guides us through market economics. On how inclusively we break trail into new possibilities for the human race.

I was struck by the relevance of a recent conversation with humanist ethicist Sharon Welch, a professor in my M.Div. program, to what’s happening here at MIT. In a forthcoming book, After the Protests are Heard: Enacting Civic Engagement and Social Transformation, Dr. Welch outlines the paradoxes of moral leadership in today’s world:

– There is no moral safe harbor, no course of action guaranteed to be free of risk, loss and negative side effects.

– The measure of our success is not the perfection of our efforts but our honesty, accountability, resilience and audacity in the face of unintended consequences and ongoing challenges.

– Finding what enables people to thrive in ways that are equitable and ecologically sustainable is more a matter of critical experimentation and risk-taking than it is a matter of moral and theological certainty.

– We may want the same thing, but for different reasons and may have the same reasons, but want different things.

– There is a fundamental lack of parity between the moral certainty of our denunciation of existing forms of injustice and our ethically reasonable uncertainty about the justice and feasibly of our cherished alternatives.

Let’s talk. How are you wrestling with the paradoxes of leadership? What helps you live creatively out of these tensions and opportunities? Where can we move beyond “us vs. them” to find generative interdependence?

Join MIT Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, and I in the Chapel (W15) at 4pm on November 15 and again on November 29 to discuss.

–Nina Lytton

Chaplaincy Intern

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