Peter Karsten is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, with joint appointments in the sociology department and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of the prizewinning The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (1972); Law, Soldiers, and Combat (1978); Heart versus Head: Judge-Made Law in Nineteenth-Century America (1997); the prizewinning Between Law and Custom: "High" and "Low" Legal Cultures in the Lands of the British Diaspora, 1600–1900 (2003); and The Magic Mirror: Law in American History (2nd edition, 2009), among other books. He is also editor-in-chief of the prizewinning Encyclopedia of War and American Society (3 volumes, 2005). He has held visiting chairs at University College Dublin, Augsburg Universitat, and The Citadel.
This talk concerns the moral dilemmas that professionals sometimes face -- that is, persons with special training and expertise and a publicly-professed commitment to peer-set standards of conduct, performance, and service. Many of us have faced, or will face ethical dilemma as adults: Whether to serve in a war we regard as morally wrong; whether to represent a rich but reprehensible client; whether to have an abortion. Some of us face more difficult, and more frequent, ethical dilemmas than others, because some of us have less choice than others. Karsten explores several types of professionals who face the kinds of crises of conscience in varying degrees, focusing on dilemmas faced by both military officers and jurists in the nineteenth century. A distinction between the moral dilemmas faced by the self-employed professional, and those faced by all others, is one of the issues that inform this talk. The other issue concerns the ethical challenges themselves. Many moral crises result from having ethical considerations that pull in different directions -- dilemmas akin to the ones that jurists face in resolving “conflicts of laws.” The challenge is how one reconciles these divergent considerations when it is not at all obvious that one should simply apply one and ignore the other. One jurist may privilege a states’ “police powers” over the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause more than her peers; one judge may find the imposing of stiff sentences in certain sorts of cases more problematic than another; one senior public servant may be less willing to resign or otherwise risk his career to protest an order or policy-decision the finds unconscionable than another, who may feel that such protest is simply inappropriate from one who has not been chosen by the voters to make such decisions.