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Dr. Charlotte McDaniel Reflects on Advancing Human Rights
By CSLR | Emory Law | Mar 22, 2021 12:03:00 PM

The Impact of Ethics, Law, and Religion:
Dr. Charlotte McDaniel Reflects on Creating a New Award to Advance Human Rights at CSLR

CSLR Alumna Feature | March 2021


Dr. Charlotte McDaniel is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR). Guided by her vision of a more ethical and just society, McDaniel has taught innumerable students and served on the faculties of the Yale Divinity School, the University of Pittsburgh, and Emory University. While she no longer teaches in the classroom, her life’s work of promoting human rights and serious engagement with ethical issues continues through a new award that she recently established at Emory Law School and CSLR. We asked Dr. McDaniel to share her thoughts about the fundamental role of ethics in human life, supporting the work of CSLR, and what gives her hope for the future.



You have been a Senior Fellow and collaborator at CSLR since 2005, and have now made a major gift to support the study of ethics and human rights. Thank you! Why did you decide to focus the award you are initiating on supporting those who are interested in ethics and human rights?

I see ethics as fundamental to all human interactions. Everyone is involved in ethics; it’s ubiquitous. However, it is one thing to be informed of how ethics shapes those interactions, and another to instill, support, and sustain ethical analyses and behaviors. It is critical to develop skills to take the analyses to the realm of implementation.

Ethics is not a panacea, but it has foundational influence on all of our personal and professional lives. In that sense, ethics needs to be taught and instilled early during students’ formative years, both personally and professionally. It is amazing to me how many people are surprised when someone acts ethically. I’ll give you a simple example: I recently purchased Sesame Street stamps for my granddaughters (to whom I write weekly). When I got home, I found that rather than having the two pages for which I paid, I had three. I turned around the next morning, drove back into town and returned the third one. The gentleman at the desk was stunned. He called in his work crew to see ‘this amazing act’ as he termed it. Really? For me, I have always tried not only to teach ethics, but to live by the same standards. I would be the first to say I am not perfect. However, I think this attitude is particularly important for students – serving not only as mentors, but also examples. Ethics is a challenging adventure, but also rewarding when enacted.

I know that human rights issues will not be resolved in my lifetime, but I was hoping that a clever law student would share my passion and continue this work – of course, putting her or his own stamp on the work. Besides, one of the thoughts I had is that, while ethics is foundational, law(s) help to give ethics more ‘backbone.’ It is more difficult at times to argue against legal norms than ethical norms. More than several times I have been told that ‘ethics is fluff.’ That’s not so, but I think law will help. I hope others will join in this adventurous conversation.


Over the course of your career you have taught in schools of theology, business, and medicine. How did working in these different settings shape your scholarly work?

As you know, the aim of my scholarship has been to address issues of ethics and human rights. In that regard, hearing such a creative and wonderful collection of students and faculty discuss their own accounts highlighted for me the need to find a way to understand what we, as ethicists, were doing. More specifically, I was troubled by the lack of ability to know with any certainty that what we were doing and teaching about ethics made a real difference. I refer to this as ‘empirical ethics.’ As faculty members working primarily at the graduate level and with professional students, we need to know that in the final analysis these students will become ethical professionals.

Professionals do not always have the luxury of engaging in theoretical analyses; they need to make decisions affecting persons’ lives, often in a short time frame. That’s one reason why it is so important to ‘trial’ ethical issues prior to going on-site, as it were. For example, we teach and expect physicians, religious leaders, and other professionals not to tell ‘untruths.’ However, we know it happens. Rather than moving immediately into a judgmental perspective, it might be more helpful for the students’ learning to ascertain what it was about the context, or the situation, or their own personal issues, that provoked the response. It may be their lack of experience, or simply being confronted with a truly complex and difficult case.

Thus, my aim was to find a way to measure those outcomes of learning, for instance, by developing questionnaires that reliably and validly measure ethics. When we find gaps or needs, we, as faculty and mentors, can go back and offer more support and training; an ethics intervention. That, for me, has been one of the highlights of my work – one of the most rewarding, but also one that is challenging. In the final analysis it is very helpful to know that we make a difference in terms of outcomes. Additionally, I have been able to collaborate with wonderful faculty who have contributed to a team effort, and with whom it has been a privilege to work.

To return to your specific question, these different student populations have equally different or diverse approaches and foundational concepts. However, fundamental to all of them are qualities and standards that aid in shaping their professional lives. At the core is ethics. If we can claim we ‘make a difference’ in teaching and instilling ethics parameters in our students, then I think we have moved our society forward in constructive and creative ways.


How does your expertise in ethics shape your perception of the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges it has presented to communities, hospitals, and other institutions? What have you noticed that others might overlook?  

My succinct response is to restate the well-known phrase, conspicuous by its absence. It has been troubling to me to experience the lack of attention to ethics. A pandemic, for example, by its nature is an ethical concern, especially for communities. It takes the conversation beyond what occurs between individuals, families, and groups, to macro-levels of analysis: our communities, states, and nations. A pandemic is fundamentally also a public health concern. The lack of conversation regarding ethical issues posed by the pandemic has been evident. While I have witnessed occasional conversations addressing these concerns, overall, ethical considerations have been sorely missing.

I have also wondered if this is due to the fact that the prior administration never implemented what is known as the President’s Commission on Bioethics. However, I am hopeful the Biden Administration will take that step. Emory should be aware of such since the former university president, Jim Wagner, was Vice Chair under the Obama administration. While such an organization is not a panacea, it does provide analysis of one of the most pressing and challenging pandemic-related ethical issues: the allocation of scarce resources. Even we ethicists have difficulty with that concept, allocation. Commissions offer advice and counsel on challenging ethical issues germane to our society. The U.S. missed out on that analysis during the pandemic.

This pandemic has also, in so many ways, highlighted gaps in our health care system and our concern and appreciation for some communities in the United States. We need to do a better job of engaging a wider audience in addressing those issues. Such issues also intersect with concern for human rights. One recent report noted that more than forty percent of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States does not even have running water, much less clean water to drink. That population is further handicapped by a lack of health services. Needless to say, it is difficult to address a pandemic under those circumstances.


Who are some of the most influential mentors in your life?

When one reaches a certain point or ‘chronological challenge’ there are probably going to be several mentors. However, one of the most influential on my life’s work was my paternal grandfather. He was a reserved, but solid individual with a strong and clear ethics frame. Following on him, I have been honored to work or interact with such wonderful persons as the late (Honorable) John Lewis and Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow. While here at Emory I collaborated with the delightful and very insightful Bishop Desmond Tutu. In terms of ethics, per se, I would note Dr. Ed Pellegrino, who was my mentor during my Fellowship at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. Both of the latter two individuals were very supportive of my work, for which I am most appreciative.

These people have truly shaped my efforts in human rights and ethics, and have expanded my perspective on it. They have offered challenges so that I, too, have grown from my relationships with them. I am truly grateful and appreciative of their influences on my life and career. They were/are wonderful human beings.


Do you remember your first encounter with CSLR? Who or what stands out about your earliest interactions with the Center?

It would be a tad difficult, if not impossible, to separate out the work of the Center from the strong and important influence of John Witte, of whom I heard about from an outside source as I was relocating to Emory. He shaped the Center and kept it moving forward in creative ways. Due to that I decided to ‘check it out’ and partake of the wonderful offerings in the Center – to explore and see what there was to learn. I attended many of the sessions and conferences and found them always stimulating and worthwhile.

I have not had the privilege of working directly with law students. However, I am clear about the importance of law in our lives and how future lawyers and legislators have potential to shape society for the better, or not. One example of the latter is the Racial Integrity Act, which was implemented in 1924 and prevailed in Virginia for almost fifty years. The RIA demeaned all persons of color, severely marginalized Native Americans, and disadvantaged others. The law was only overturned in the 1967 case of Loving vs. the Commonwealth of Virginia, resulting in that compelling movie, Loving. However, it serves as a good example of how laws can shape our society by regulating the interactions and lives of those living under it.

The linking of law with human rights and attention to equality were particularly evident in many of the sessions I attended at the Center. In addition to John, I well remember others on the fine Emory faculty who participated and with whom I enjoyed delightful conversations: Corey Keyes, Nick Fotion, and David Blumenthal, for instance. In fact, one of the delights I had was engaging in cross-professional conversations. It was a rich environment for students as well as faculty. In my opinion, this aspect is one of the real strengths Emory offers to both students and faculty. It enriches our learnings and adds to our own creativity.


Why do you think the study of law and religion is important?

I have noted above why law is important. However, religion, too, especially for any of us affirming the Abrahamic tradition, is a set of laws. Laws are embedded in our shared religion. Our traditions have been historically shaped by laws, and while they may diverge under current issues, there is a fundamental tradition aiding in focusing our approach to both. It also seems important to understand not only the intersection of law and religion, but their respective boundaries as well. Thus, learning about the relationships between law and religion aids in further understanding the society in which we live and learn. I think the Center is on the forefront of this exploration!


What advice would you offer to students and others who want to follow in your footsteps?

Oh my, I am not into touting myself as a person to follow. If students want to follow those of us who have engaged in ethics and paid attention to enhancing human rights, however, my first suggestion would be for them to be realistic about their work. They also need to be well prepared. In addition, I would strongly suggest they select well their peers and colleagues. Find others with whom you can engage and who will support you. John Lewis and I had such conversations, but years ago. Although I surely admire the persistence of activists like Nathan Law, it is less likely that one will make significant change without others to join in. Working in the realm of law does give one a slight advantage. Typically, laws are far-reaching. Laws typically affect many, thus they have potential for great impact. That is one of the reasons I am excited about supporting a student at Emory Law, especially related to the Center.

Those of us engaging in this work need to realize that even asking an ethical question may be perceived as a ‘challenge’ by others. You know, ‘Good trouble.’ Learning some skills related to discretion, or ways to interact, are extremely helpful. This is not to suggest everyone else is less than ethical, but folks do have their favorites and biases. As ethicists, we sometimes invade that bubble.

We also need to approach our work with humility. Even though we may have sound ethics behind our views, we are not always right. Being judgmental in that regard will not get a person too far.


In these challenging times, what gives you hope?

For me these last several years have been daunting. I have been so troubled by the tenor of interactions between persons, and by the non-truths – or, as my sweet grandfather would have said, “If it is not true it is a lie” – that have pervaded so much of our nation. In contrast, I do gather hope from the young people I see, especially students: their energy and determination, their eagerness for change. I also observe more Centers of Ethics than when I first began my academic work.

These are diverse examples, but I have hope that our country will continue to press for democracy and the fundamental values instilled in our nation at the outset. Having lived in Virginia so long after resigning from Emory, I have become more informed of the work of our founding generation – Washington, Madison, Monroe and Jefferson, also Benjamin Franklin. I am ever grateful for their foresight!