by Michael Connor
Editor, Business Ethics Magazine

Ethics_Magnifier_iStock__Feature_000016707944XSmallThere’s an understandable tendency, in today’s complicated and strife-filled world, to grow weary of discussions of right and wrong. As many of us struggle to manage the daily challenges of family, friends, jobs and life – while maintaining some semblance of emotional equanimity – broader ethical questions often seem unapproachable. So we seek out shortcuts. An ice bucket challenge on Facebook to fight the ALS disease can resolve a lot of internal conflict: Boom! – pour a bucket of cold water on your head, maybe contribute to the charity, and you’ll feel a whole lot better about the state of the universe.

Young people frequently get a bad rap in this regard. The stereotypical leaders of tomorrow are more likely to tweet commentary in 140 characters or less than to explore at length the intricacies of pressing societal issues. In the stereotype, they shoot from their smartphones and take no digital prisoners.

One counter to that stereotype is a set of essays on ethics written this year by a disparate group of American college students as part of an annual contest conducted by the The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Wiesel, an author and humanist, survivor of Nazi concentration camps, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, says that “whatever the answer to essential questions of society and individual human beings may be, education is surely its major component.”

The essay contest is intended for undergraduate full-time Juniors or Seniors at accredited four-year colleges or universities in the United States. Students may write about any topic they wish, as long as their essay explores the theme of ethics. The Prize in Ethics Essay Contest was established by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity in 1989; cash prizes are awarded to each of the top three winners and two honorable mentions. LRN is the exclusive corporate partner of the prize.

With the permission of the Foundation, Business Ethics is republishing the top five winning essays in the 2014 competition. They are:

First Prize: The Ethics of Intrusion by Christiana Whitcomb

Second Prize: The Silenced Voice: Examining the Evolving Debate on Pediatric Cochlear Implantation
by Jennifer Hu 

Third prize: Exploring the Ethics of National Loyalty: The New Compromiso – Mexican Students Abroad in the U.S. by Alejandro Camacho

Honorable Mention: The Invisible & Voiceless: The Plight of the Undocumented Immigrant in America
by Jean-Claude Velasquez

Honorable Mention: Hi, My Name is White Foreigner: An Essay on Being the Other by Katelyn Edwards

These essays are notable for a number of qualities, notably their intelligence, clarity, logic and emotion.  What’s striking is how each of the young authors addresses the broad question of culture and their own personal ethics and role in the world.

First prize winner Christiana Whitcomb recounts her volunteer work on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota but admits that “I cannot quell the fear that my presence might hurt the very people I wish to help.” Second prize winner Jennifer Hu relates the story of her deaf sister and examines the potentially negative impact that cochlear implants could have on Deaf culture.  Alejandro Camacho and Jean-Claude Velasquez – Third prize winner and Honorable Mention, respectively – both touch on issues related to immigration and leadership. Camacho asks: “What responsibilities do individuals have toward to their country of origin after being exposed to experiences and opportunities that provide them with an advantage over their fellow citizens?” And Katelyn Edwards, founder of the Smile Initiative for cleft children, whose essay was awarded an Honorable Mention, explores the meaning of “being the other,” recounting a trip to Ghana during which she was consistently referred to as “White Foreigner.”

The essays speak for themselves. They offer insights into a number of specific ethical challenges. Maybe more important, they provide some encouraging evidence that young people now graduating from American colleges and universities understand the imperative of moral leadership and are prepared to assume that responsibility.

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