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A philosophy that puts ethics into everyone's hands

How do we make ethical decisions? 

Some schools of thought in philosophy propose following a system of morals or beliefs. Existentialism, on the other hand, suggests every person has the freedom—and responsibility—to choose the most ethical way to live. 

This spirit steered all 15 presentations at the inaugural International Summer Conference in Continental Ethics, hosted at West Virginia University from June 19 to 22 and sponsored jointly by WVU’s Department of Philosophy and the Emmanuel Levinas Centre at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences in Kaunas, Lithuania. 

David Hoinski
David Hoinski
In its first year, the conference focused on existentialism, which includes thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. 

“Continental ethics is very diverse, and because of its complexity it hasn’t really been distilled to the point where the general public can use it,” David Hoinski, teaching assistant professor of philosophy at WVU and co-organizer of the conference, said. “The goal of the conference is to gain greater clarity about these ethical discoveries and teachings with the intent of making them more accessible, for the good of society.” 

The idea for the conference originated in the California mountains in the summer of 2018. Hoinski and Viktoras Bachmetjevas, head of the Emmanuel Levinas Centre, had been friends since their doctoral studies in Belgium. They were driving from Santa Cruz to San Jose after a philosophy gathering when they realized there was an opportunity to more clearly define continental ethics by gathering scholars from around the world. 

The two made a ten-year plan of summer meetings, alternating between West Virginia and Lithuania, with complementary themes for each year.
Viktoras Bachmetjevas
Viktoras Bachmetjevas

“The field of continental ethics is really under-researched,” Bachmetjevas said. “The idea was to approach it slowly and look at its different strands.” 

Broadly speaking, there are two major schools of thought in modern philosophy: continental and analytic. Analytic philosophy is associated with Anglo-American scholars and emphasizes argumentative clarity and logic. Continental philosophy is associated with European thinkers, though the agreed-upon definition ends there.

“The label continental philosophy doesn’t say much of anything about the specifics of any philosophical views at the level of content, method or even style,” David Cerbone, professor at WVU, said. “The label emerged and is sometimes still used as a term of exclusion to indicate all philosophy that’s not analytic. The suggestion is that continental philosophy is in some way obscure, irrational or behind the curve.”  

Enter the conference. 

“Continental philosophy has been seen as the ‘minor’ tradition in the U.S.,” Hoinski said. “More and more philosophy departments, like WVU’s, are recognizing the value of pluralism—hiring faculty with backgrounds in continental philosophy and taking those perspectives into account. We’re entering a period where we’re thinking, ‘Hey, we might have something to learn from each other.’”

Sharon Ryan, chair of the WVU Department of Philosophy and an analytic philosopher, shares Hoinski’s enthusiasm. 

“The International Summer Conference in  Continental Ethics is a stellar example of the department’s commitment to supporting philosophical research that has the potential to improve lives,” Ryan said. “Providing opportunities for careful and respectful discourse about ethical issues is fundamental to the mission of a land-grant research university and is essential to a healthy, humane and just society.”

The goal of the conference is not merely to expand academic discussion but to help inspire changes to public policy, social movements and even medical science. 

“Part of our vision is that we’d like to demonstrate that there are resources within continental ethics that might be useful for people in government, corporations and other institutions,” Hoinski said.

“There is a certain obligation for philosophers who work in the field of ethics to try and get out of our classrooms and share the thinking which we have the privilege to have access to,” Bachmetjevas said. 

Clayton Bohnet, philosophy lecturer at Central Washington University, presented his research on the existential ethics of communication. He recently finished a book dedicated to ethics and protest. 

"The conceptual and practical commitments of continental ethics have much to contribute to the future of democratic, workers’ rights and environmental movements," Bohnet said. "Continental ethics also provides the critical resources necessary to undermine exploitative, objectifying or exclusionary discourses."  
Mélissa Fox-Muraton
Mélissa Fox-Muraton

Mélissa Fox-Muraton presented her paper on a positive theory of existential ethics. She sees her faculty position at the ESC Clermont Graduate School of Management in France as part of her calling. 

“It’s satisfying to teach business students about ethics and help them to see that these are real issues that have a huge impact on not just their future careers but also how they interact with others,” Fox-Muraton said. “It’s really important that philosophy not be kept in a drawer.”

Hoinski is using the WVU Libraries' Research Repository to build a site for the conference that will include contributions from all participants. He also hopes to increase broader community discussions, from talks at public libraries to offering more K-12 philosophy instruction in public schools. 

Hoinski said, “I think there’s real potential social benefit if we gave elementary and middle school students more opportunity to think critically, to discuss questions like, ‘What is a friend?’”

The International Summer Conference in Continental Ethics was supported by a grant from the WVU Office of the Provost.