They raised more questions than they delivered answers.
When it comes to a conference on knowledge, this could be considered success.
More than 200 ACS International Baccalaureate (IB) students and their counterparts from IC, Sagesse and WellSpring Community converged on the American University of Beirut campus for the 7thannual Theory of Knowledge Conference, which was organized by ACS’s IB Diploma Program Coordinator Nada Chatila. Some 107 IB students from the four participating schools gave nearly 50 presentations over a two-day period, in which they were evaluated for their persuasive skills.
They questioned themselves; they questioned a professor of biology, a theologian, and a human rights activist. They also questioned common ideas related to knowledge and whether our sources of knowledge are reliable enough to help accurately shape our decisions, our history, or our emotions. They argued and debated. They proposed claims, counter claims, supporting them with examples from real life before making their rebuttals and conclusions.
They did all that after preparing rigorously with their teachers on how to argue a point, how to use logic, and how to study knowledge, as part of the Theory of Knowledge course, which is a core requirement in the IB program.
Some questions raised by the students included:
Do we create an accurate account of history? Can we quantify human actions?
How have religious knowledge systems traditionally impacted standards in the arts?
Is the photo-journalist’s role only to take photos, or should he help if he sees someone in need?
Does a photo spread compassion for the victim of violence, or does it give power to the perpetrator of the crime and spread fear?
Does the viewer become immune to violence when exposed to it through the media?
“The conference is an opportunity for the students to sharpen their presentation skills and to learn how to argue a point in front of a live audience of people they do not know,” said Chatila. “It is a learning experience on multiple levels.”
Keynote speaker Father Boulos Wehbe noted that the conference, whose theme was “Origin of Ethics,” attempted to understand where ethics come from. Fr. Wehbe was one of three keynote speakers, each addressing the theme from his own perspective: the theological, scientific and human rights perspectives.
“In my opinion they stem from need; from the need for standards, commonality, and concerted behavior, or to maintain order where and when chaos may prevail,” said Father Wehbe. “From a religious point of view, mainly taking Christianity and Islam, Ethics rest on Love in the case of the first and Mercy in the case of the second.”
From the scientist’s perspective, AUB biology professor Imad Saoud argued in his keynote that moral standards are not universal, but cultural.
“There is no single set of moral values; they change with societies,” he said, citing the example of how many African women expose their breasts in public, something which other cultures might consider immoral.
“Morality is a struggle between evolutionary traits that reward altruism and fairness, and traits that reward selfishness and greed,” he added. “If there is a winner, our society will disappear.”
Saoud explained that our genes have evolved to make us feel good when we do something good, and this is how morality came to be. He added that morals developed with the growth of societies to help humans regulate interactions.
He also argued that religions only came to reinforce the set of morals humans had developed. “95% of the lifetime of human beings has been without religion; does that mean we were without morals?” he asked.
Meanwhile, human rights activist Fateh Azzam discussed ethics from a realistic, on-the-ground perspective. During his keynote address, he said that ethics in the real world are tainted by politics and influenced by social contexts.
He gave the example of how women’s rights might take a back seat in societies where honor killings are part of the prevailing culture.
In parallel, ethics become bendable in wars; nevertheless the UN Declaration of Human Rights remains the best protection against abuses, despite shortcomings.