The Urgency of Global Ethics: Notions of Justice in an Interconnected World
By Avalon Fenster, Olivia Sieler, and Kayla Zhu
The Columbia University Undergraduate Committee on Global Thought (UCGT) hosted its first annual conference on April 8, 2022. The Urgency of Global Ethics: Notions of Justice in an Interconnected World aimed to equip young changemakers with the necessary skills to analyze issues of global urgency through the lens of ethics. The virtual conference brought together over one hundred high school, undergraduate, and graduate students from over ten states and over fifteen countries, including participants from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and many more.
Keynote speaker Professor Widney Brown opened the conference. Professor Brown, a professor of human rights at Barnard College and an internationally recognized human rights expert with 20 years of global, multi-regional, and multi-thematic experience, is a human rights lawyer, advocate, and activist who works on a wide range of human rights issues. She has worked at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and Drug Policy Alliance.
Professor Brown addressed each of the upcoming workshop topics and identified the importance of compassion as a central component of global ethics. Setting the tone for conference participants, she highlighted the urgency of human rights crises around the world. She stressed collaboration and the necessity of building solutions through ethical frameworks that prioritize justice.
An interactive design session that stressed the application of ethics to all disciplines followed the opening keynote address. The design session challenged participants to identify why justice is important in their particular fields of study.
Each breakout group included students from around the world and dozens of academic disciplines. From aspiring engineers to entrepreneurs, students of history to those preparing for medical school, students compared and contrasted their fields’ responsibilities to prioritize ethics and justice. Since participants joined from nearly every continent, the groups were able to have a discussion about the ways their variety of lived experiences informed their perspectives on justice, conflict, ethics, and global issues.
Participants then joined one of three concurrent workshops to explore issues of global ethics in greater depth.
State Sovereignty, International Law, and Human Impact: Translating Ethics into Law to Secure Justice for Asylum Seekers
In the workshop State Sovereignty, International Law, and Human Impact: Translating Ethics into Law to Secure Justice for Asylum Seekers led by co-Vice Chair of the UCGT Olivia Sieler (CC ‘24), participants analyzed and evaluated the laws and policies of asylum-seeking in the United States, Pakistan, and Turkey on the grounds of compassionate ethics. After considering the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, participants examined the essential components – including economic, social, and legal safeguards – of an ethical international policy that ensured the protection of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees and recognized state-specific contexts.
Tech, Ethics, and Impact: Addressing the Preservation of Freedom and Justice and the Looming Threat of Technocracy
In the workshop Tech, Ethics, and Impact: Addressing the Preservation of Freedom and Justice and the Looming Threat of Technocracy led by co-Vice Chair of the UCGT Avalon Fenster (BC ‘24), participants learned about the conceptual framework of Corporate Social Responsibility, ethical implications associated with technological innovation, and CSR theory’s real-world application in the corporate technology world. By creating a hypothetical technology company, Starburst, and allowing participants to choose positions in the Starburst business and supply chain to roleplay (such as CEO, head of CSR, and supply chain workers), the conference organizers hoped to expose participants to the myriad practical and ethical challenges that confront all who work in technology. The session finished by identifying ways participants believed leaders in the space should collaborate and what responsibilities to ethics and justice they should prioritize.
The Ethics of Reconciliation, Forgiveness, and Justice: Bringing Justice to Victims of Mass Atrocities
In the workshop The Ethics of Reconciliation, Forgiveness, and Justice: Bringing Justice to Victims of Mass Atrocities led by Chair of the UCGT Kayla Zhu (GS ‘22), participants engaged with judicial and non-judicial frameworks surrounding transitional justice. The conversations centered on the importance of prioritizing voices of victims in peacebuilding processes, non-judicial mechanisms for achieving reconciliation, multi-generational trauma, and the power dynamics within peacebuilding processes. In the session, participants critically examined the strengths and shortcomings of various activities associated with transitional justice including truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, and memorialization efforts. Finally, participants undertook a policy analysis of the combination of transitional justice mechanisms implemented in the case of Rwanda. The interactive case challenged participants to understand how social, economic, and political factors in a particular country shape the efficacy of various transitional justice mechanisms in achieving justice for those affected by mass atrocity.
The enthusiastic conversations at the conference illustrate that students are interested in discussing justice and how it applies to the larger structures that impact their lives. Not only were students interested in these conversations, but they were also eager to gain a more nuanced understanding of how they could lead their lives ethically. Ethics is often one of many considerations when discussing questions of international urgency. Through the conference, participants were able to place ethics at the center of these questions.
The conference’s interactive format allowed participants from all over the world to share their perspectives on how justice and injustice impacted their lives and how they could approach urgent global issues. For participants whose studies focus on the theoretical, the conference offered them an opportunity to contemplate the practical implications of ethical principles. For those whose studies focus on the practical, the conference enabled them to contemplate the humanitarian consequences of their work. This interdisciplinary structure allowed students to blend seemingly disparate fields and merge theory and practice. Participants evaluated the relevance of justice and ethics to many different disciplines – ranging from computer science to economics to literature – and were eager to apply the insights they gained to their future work.