“Persons” featured as the theme of 23rd annual gathering

The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (dCEC) hosted its 23rd annual Fall Conference on November 2–4. With 1,136 participants registered and many more students in attendance, this year’s conference was the largest thus far, according to dCEC staff. 

The title of this year’s conference was “Dust of the Earth: On Persons,” focusing on the broad topic of personhood through a wide range of lenses. According to the conference’s website, over 140 presentations were offered over the course of the three days. Subjects of presentations included artificial intelligence, Trinitarian theology, medical ethics, legal theory, and many more.

For the conference, the dCEC partnered with Stanford University’s “Boundaries of Humanity Project,” which describes itself as a “comprehensive project of interdisciplinary dialogue, scientific and scholarly research, and public education and engagement to address the important issues at the intersection of biotechnology and human identity.”

Marcelle Couto, a junior studying in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology and a Sorin Fellow with the dCEC, described the conference as “not only intellectually stimulating, but also moving and spiritually formative.” She explained, “The sessions I attended made me reflect on our approach to the Divine Persons of the Trinity and to God’s beloved persons.” 

Couto continued, “We were also moved to think deeply about how our society tends to deem people under certain conditions as non-persons, like the unborn. … In essence, the conference ‘On Persons’ invited me to think of how I may be a better person, moving beyond the merely academic discussion of the word.”

With such a diverse array of offerings, students from a broad range of disciplines were able to engage in the conversation in a way applicable to their various interests. Daniel Schermerhorn, a senior computer engineering major, told the Rover that he was particularly interested in the panels offered on the subject of artificial intelligence. 

Schermerhorn reflected on this experience to the Rover: “The most interesting session I attended was on the relationship between persons and AI. As a Catholic software engineer, I have a responsibility to respond to the unethical usage of advanced AI … I hope to further my understanding of this issue in order to become a persuasive voice for the promotion of Catholic morality in the software industry.”

The Fall Conference has also become a destination for many students and scholars from other institutions. One such individual is Anne Casey, a senior studying philosophy and political science at Ashland University, a private Christian university in Ohio. Casey commented: “I was impressed by the strong community of young Catholics that are involved with the de Nicola Center, and their interest in theology and ethics.” 

She noted a colloquium titled “Embodied Persons” as one of the major highlights of her conference experience. This panel included papers from Catholic feminists Erika Bachiochi, Theresa Farnan, Alexandra DeSanctis, and Leah Sargeant. The panel featuring this group is one of the most popular panels every year. 

Casey continued, “I wanted to hear Erika Bachiochi because I read her book last year, and it had an important role in my reversion to the Catholic Church, since until then I’d been unsure of the Church’s social teachings.”

She explained: “Something from Dr. Theresa Farnan’s talk that has especially stuck with me is the idea that educating children to believe their bodies must be aligned with their identities makes it difficult for them to understand the Incarnation and the Church’s moral teachings because these require belief in the unity of body and soul.” 

Casey continued, “I realized how detrimental a lot of the culture’s teachings around gender are to a young person’s identity, but this connection really draws out the high stakes of these teachings on young Catholics.”

An evening keynote was given on each of the conference’s three days. On the first night, the Josef Pieper Keynote Lecture was delivered by Dr. Craig Calhoun, a sociologist from Arizona State University (ASU). Titled “Persons: Created, Artificial, and Natural,” his talk explored a wide range of definitions of personhood as they related to questions about politics, culture, and economics. 

The second keynote, given by ASU professor Dr. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, was titled “Personhood, Relationality, and Responsibility: Jewish Philosophers on Contemporary Technology.” Attendees described this talk as an impressively broad survey of Jewish philosophy in relation to the presented topics.

The final keynote, given by Notre Dame philosophy professor Dr. John O’Callaghan, was titled “Are There Failed Persons? Am I One of Them?” The lecture responded to and rejected a “social-psychological” definition of personhood, which has been utilized to exclude the personhood of unborn people and the disabled. Students listed this lecture as a particular highlight of the conference.  

Couto responded to the lecture: “The idea of friendship as the natural condition between all human beings from Professor O’Callaghan’s talk will stick with me forever.” Casey framed the talk in reference to Ohio’s recent implementation of a constitutional guarantee for abortion, stating, “I wish more people could have heard this talk.”

In an interview with the Rover, Dr. O’Callaghan reflected on his lecture and on the conference as a whole: “I thought it was very good to have so many people come, there’s nothing like it on campus, certainly no other academic conference anywhere close to the size of it. It indicates the quality perceived in the conference. The keynotes were very knowledgeable, there was a very nice range of sessions arranged around different ways of thinking.”

O’Callaghan credited three sources of inspiration for his lecture: Alasdair MacIntyre’s work Dependent Rational Animals, the oft ignored history of the term “person” and its corruption within modern scholarship, and O’Callaghan’s family experience as the father of a son with Down’s Syndrome. How children with Down’s Syndrome relate to society’s definitions of “person” was a major point of concern within the lecture, as O’Callaghan believes that modern definitions of personhood leaves those with the disorder particularly vulnerable to dehumanization.

O’Callaghan remarked that there is a distinct need for a reexamination of the term “person” within modern philosophy and medical ethics, to the point where he would “banish the term” if given the opportunity. He noted, “[The term] ‘personhood’ is employed philosophically and culturally in service of killing human beings; it is almost never a point of concern in moral philosophy except in that context.”

O’Callaghan emphasized the need for a reformation of thinking around the concept of human teleology, explaining that modern science may have missed the mark in abandoning the concept. He explained that we are “developmental beings,” meaning that healthy human persons grow towards their ideal states as rational and free beings, but their identity as persons does not depend on their status as such.

Other than his own lecture, O’Callaghan highlighted Dr. Tirosh-Samuelson’s keynote as particularly impressive. O’Callaghan also praised presentations given by his former students, John Schwenkler and Bob Siegfried, in colloquia on “Metaphysics and Personhood” and “Personhood and Postliberalism.” 

At the end of the conference, O. Carter Snead, the recently appointed Charles E. Rice Professor of Law and director of the dCEC since 2012, announced that he will not be serving another term in his position at the dCEC, finishing out his last term as director on June 30, 2024. Snead reflected upon the achievements of the Center under his tenure and reaffirmed the need for the center to continue promoting a culture of life and “the counter-cultural nature of the Catholic position.”

The full list of events and talks in the conference is available on the dCEC website.

William Hunter is a senior in the joint major of theology and philosophy. If not contemplating the ascetic value of watching ND’s offense this season, he can be contacted at whunter2@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: 2023: Dust of the Earth // de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture // University of Notre Dame

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