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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics is the Act of Seeing

Sun revealed through window blinds

Sun revealed through window blinds

Don Heider

Don Heider is the Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and is the John Courtney Murray, S.J. University Professor of Social Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized… Acts 9:18 NIV

The death of George Floyd may be a moment when we, as a nation, can finally see. As someone who cares deeply about ethics, I hope this is the case. I hope the scales have fallen away from our eyes as a nation. We need 20/20 vision to face what’s ahead.

When we teach folks about ethical decision making, one of the first steps is to ask people to step back and try to make sure they have all the information needed to make a good decision. We want them to try to see the facts clearly.

However, you cannot gather the facts if you refuse to acknowledge them.

In light of the killing of George Floyd, if your first impulse is to offer some justification for police violence, I believe you are blind to the facts.

In the U.S. for hundreds of years, we have not had all the facts. We think police killing an unarmed suspect is an isolated incident. It’s not. If the suspect is Black, the chance of police violence goes up.

The Washington Post reports there have been close to 1,000 fatal police shootings a year since 2015. The majority of people shot are armed, but “armed or not, Black people are still shot and killed at a disproportionately higher rate than white people.” 

The only way to fix a problem is to first acknowledge it. We have to stop being blind to the issue. There is an issue over time, despite place, despite police force, that continues. To begin changing it, we have to acknowledge it.

When I hear someone say, “All lives matter,” I see and hear someone who refuses to acknowledge the facts. This is someone who is blind to the lived experience of Blacks in America. We want to believe in this country that all people are treated equally, but to believe that, you have to ignore reality. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, going back to 1972, no matter the state of the economy, the Black unemployment rate has been roughly twice that of the white unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even as businesses began re-opening from the pandemic, the seasonally adjusted white unemployment rate dropped from 14.2% in April to 12.4% in May, whereas the Black unemployment rate rose slightly, from 16.7% to 16.8%.

Economic disparities are rooted to a number of factors, including job opportunities, education, inherited wealth, and so on. In almost any statistical category examined, whites in the U.S. have an inherent, systematic advantage over Blacks

If you believe your lived experience as a white American is the same as a Black American, you are blind to the facts. You have never been followed in a store by a security guard, you have never been questioned by police for walking through your own neighborhood, and you have never been stopped by a police officer while driving for fitting a “profile” of a suspicious person, i.e. driving while Black.

I’m hoping though, that while watching George Floyd, suffocated, die under the knee of a police officer, this might be a moment where you allow yourself to see. To see like John Newton finally saw the pure evil of the slave trade and inspired him to write; “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

We have a moment now when we can all try our best to see things clearly. To see and understand and no longer ignore systematic racism. To see and understand and acknowledge white privilege. To have a clear head as we grapple with these issues and commit to work for a more ethical country.

A country where we all work toward social justice, toward equality, toward fairness, toward a common good. Toward an ethical country. 

There are times it seems like we are all blind, muddling around in the dark, trying to find the light of truth and hope. Perhaps George Floyd can help us to see a light toward a better path.

I’ll give the final word to someone more articulate than myself: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Martin Luther King.


Jun 9, 2020