Public Policy Studies 195.05: Ethics in an Unjust World

Making Decisions to Live Lives of Consequence
April 1, 2010
The Long Lonliness

Sam Wells remembers distinctly what it feels like to be a university student wrestling with an acute awareness of the world's inequalities. As an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, he had a difficult time reconciling that, as he puts it, "there was a bottom billion who couldn't have what I had, and my powerlessness to do anything to make it better."

"I take it for granted that the students walking in my classroom have that same unsettled feeling about the kinds of issues that bothered me then, and that still bother me now."

"Ethics in an Unjust World" begins and ends with a simple, five-word question: How can we fix poverty? At the first class meeting, Wells asks his students to imagine a person who represents for them the face of poverty, and to keep that person in mind as the course unfolds. For some, it is a person they met on a mission trip conducted through a campus ministry or through a DukeEngage experience. For others, who may not have encountered poverty directly, it is an imagined individual struggling with a complex set of interrelated socioeconomic challenges.

Introducing Christian Ethics

Wells leads the class through an exploration of the nature of poverty, the ethical implications and challenges of engaging with social disadvantage, and whether it is possible to use the word "fix" when considering solutions to a seemingly intractable global problem.

"We examine three models for 'fixing' the problem of poverty: working for, working with, and being with," says Wells. "The 'working for' model is the one that is familiar to most Duke students, but that is not always the best model. Always being on the receiving end [of help] makes people not feel very good about themselves."

Alternatively, he says, working with individuals or communities assumes a different approach—that "you become one of a number of people, each of whom brings their skills and experience around the table." This section of the course includes readings about micro-financing efforts of the Grameen Bank, and visits to TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers), where people in recovery talk bluntly about addiction and their efforts to find pride and dignity as they rebuild their lives.

For the "being with" portion of the class, students explore what it means when "you don't have the answers, and you are not an agent of change, but you are specifically engaging people for their own sake, rather than seeing them as what they could become," Wells says. Students discuss living with disability, living in poorer neighborhoods, and addressing issues of gun violence in Durham. They are required to attend one of the gatherings sponsored by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, which marks every murder in the city by holding a candlelight vigil.

By the time students are ready to write their final paper, answering the course's framing question, Wells says, the class has often become somewhat polarized. "There are those who fall in love with the idea of 'being with' and who can imagine their lives shaped by that model," he says. "There are others who can become hostile to the idea of 'being with' because they don't see it as effective. They instead look to market- driven solutions. And then there are those in the middle, who have formed a deeper sense of community engagement.

"My hope is that regardless of where they fall in that distribution, students will have gained a better understanding of which model they identify with. While it may be that they don't choose the 'being with' model, I want them to understand that sustainable social change has to have a dimension of that."

Wells is dean of Duke Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at the divinity school. He holds degrees from Merton College, Oxford; the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland; and Durham University, in England. Before he was ordained, he was a community worker in inner-city Liverpool. While spending ten years living in impoverished neighborhoods as a pastor, he helped establish an organization devoted to community-led urban regeneration and established a nonprofit organization offering opportunities for disadvantaged children.


Saul Alinksy, Rules for Radicals; David Bornstein, The Price of a Dream; Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion; Jim Collins, Good to Great; Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness; William Easterly, The White Man's Burden; Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed; C. Scott, Seeing Like a State; Samuel Wells, Improvisation, Introducing Christian Ethics; Cornel West, Race Matters

Two short papers and a final paper