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Juan Enriquez: Remembering His Perspectives on Race & Ethics at TEDxBeaconStreet

Juan Enriquez, Managing Director of medical investment firm Excel Venture Management joined TEDxBeaconStreet in 2015 to discuss his historical perspectives on race and ethical issues as they related to the present day. Enriquez’s talk begins with his assessment of how behaviors that are considered today to be disgustingly racist can become ingrained in people. Enriquez probes the audience with the vexing question of whether or not some of today’s societal norms might someday be looked back on in the same light as some of what we consider to be history’s worst ethical transgressions.

The foundation of Enriquez’s talk is how abhorrent behaviors can become ingrained in normal people. Psychologically, behaviors are acquired through reinforced experience, so personality development is typically reflective of the conditions people live their lives under. Enriquez cites parents, priests, teachers, and friends as probable key agents in the development of ethical precepts. Logically, a person raised in a non-religious environment would have a strong probability of having different views than somebody who was not.

Enriquez continues by listing examples of racism throughout America’s history. He references multiple past American presidents who have openly admitted racists or had espoused questionable beliefs during their time in office. He speaks of how the influence of racist ideology is still clearly present in today’s education system. Enriquez also refutes the theory that American racism is simply a north-south phenomenon, listing examples of Northern prejudice and bigotry. This barrage of history reinforces a depressing narrative about America’s historical attitude towards racism and how until very recently, racist ideology was basically tolerated by society.

The difficult part of Enriquez’s talk rests in the stark way he rattles off examples of ethically gross behavior. While Enriquez might give ten examples you know there are twenty more. Today, society is acutely tuned in to any hint of racist ideology and are enabled to vilify that person in the national media, so undoubtedly any clearly stated racism from the famous or influential will be more scarce. Yet there can be no doubt that racism is still alive in America, as are many things that might one day be considered reprehensible. Prefaced by such a scary and depressing examination, Enriquez’s question about how today’s society might be perceived in the future seems almost rhetorical, as history seems to overwhelmingly disagree that we might have arrived at an ideal code of ethics.

Enriquez describes historical attitudes towards racism upon which there is now near universal agreement about the correct opinion and contrasts them with his beliefs on how modern attitudes about various ethically ambiguous and divisive topics might be perceived by a future society. However, somebody with different opinions than Enriquez on those issues would undoubtedly be grossly offended by these examples, as they might think the way we have it now is the way it should be. A plausible argument could be made for why it’s ethically questionable or impractical to allow human euthanasia or to disarm a nuclear arsenal. Enriquez says our grandkids might ask us how these things ever were the way they are, yet we cannot know for certain if they will. We can only speculate, and the future perspective of society on issues that are today considered ethically difficult is not something we will ever have the benefit of knowing.

His talk HERE is titled “Is Right and Wrong Always Black And White?” and Enriquez provides two conflicting answers. In one sense, he gives ample support of today’s black and white, zero-tolerance attitude towards racism and bigotry. But he also raises questions about whether or not society could have any hope of knowing what is right and wrong without the benefit of historical perspective. It’s a difficult conclusion because it appears to say that right and wrong is black and white, but not until history gets to etch it in stone. It’s an exercise in the way we remember things, as the ethical interpretations of an event are independent of the event itself. The interpretation changes as time pass on, without any change in the personal details of the people involved or the societal circumstances at the time. Ethics, as we experience them, are black and white, as we all live our lives with clear ethical precepts. However, any higher ethical code is impossible to determine, as clear ideological shifts can be observed throughout history. We’re either smarter now than we used to be, which is an opinion many might have. If not that, then we are simply using the passing of time as the ethical measuring stick. If today we are at our most developed ethically by virtue of being able to condemn our actions of the past but not flawless compared to the utopian ideals of ethical perfection, then in seventy years whatever ethical trends develop will be perceived as advancements by that future society because of how it differs from the prevailing sentiments of the times.

Undoubtedly at some point in the future, there are things in modern society that will be looked upon as generally unethical or egregious moral transgressions. Nobody in today’s society will ever know what the general consensus on their actions will be, for it will be decided long after they die. In the present, those people engage in philosophical discourse with their opponents and the ultimate verdict on who was correct will only be given years after the fact if a consensus is ever reached. If no consensus is reached, then those would not be the issues Enriquez talks about, for there would be no overwhelmingly endorsed attitude towards it. People would argue that one day the American historical consensus will look back on either the Republican or Democratic parties as morally unconscionable, and they might be right. But until history gets to decide, opinions of that nature can only be seen as aggressively empirical. Ethics are not black and white, they are simply reflective of the philosophical tenor of the times. 

In many ways, it could appear as if ethics, as we see them, are not as inexorable and empirical as they seem, and rather just a reflection of the prevailing sentiment of the times. Imagining a different path as a white child raised in the strictly religious Antebellum South raises doubt about whether or not we could have stood for the ubiquitous stances on racial equality and segregation of today’s society if given a different set of experiences. Enriquez’s talk cuts right to the heart of what makes these issues so difficult. We have no better recourse for deciding what is right and wrong than our own opinion, formulated as a result of experience and condition that will be vastly different than that of those who live two hundred years from now. We can only engage in these discussions in the world that we live in, not the unknown world of the future. In essence, ethics are not black and white so much as they are a continuum, an ever-changing kaleidoscope with a subjective past and an indeterminable present.  

If you are interested in watching Juan’s talks, you can find them HERE and HERE.