Mudd Center for Ethics kicks off new programming

Emma Malinak, Arts & Life Editor

Dr. Helen Weng stands at a podium, gesturing and speaking. Behind her is a screen with the words "Compassion Brain Changes" with diagrams of a brain titled "Empathetic Concern" and "Personal Distress."
Weng explained the neuroscience behind the emotion of compassion, connecting her research to the Mudd Center’s annual theme. Photo by Emma Malinak, ’25.

The Mudd Center for Ethics is inviting students to explore what it means to care well for others this year through a series of public lectures, CareLab events and other programs.

Every year, the Mudd Center selects a theme that unites their events under one ethical concern. The 2022-23 theme, “Beneficence: Practicing an Ethics of Care,” has been designed to help students, faculty and staff of Washington & Lee University learn how to help others respectfully and effectively. 

“The time is right for us to think about this issue of caring, and caring well, for other people,” said Professor Karla Murdock, director of the Mudd Center.

The keynote speaker for this year’s theme was Dr. Karen Stohr, an author and professor at Georgetown University. She gave her presentation, titled  “Good and Bad Helping: Moral Challenges with Beneficence,” in Stackhouse Theater on Sept. 15. 

Stohr utilized philosophical theories and real-world examples to explain why it is often hard to help others on their own terms while respecting their dignity.

Stohr encouraged members of the audience to always try to be both beneficent and benevolent—to do good things for the right reasons —when faced with ethical challenges. She also explained the key balance between love, which she defined as helping others meet their needs, and respect, which she defined as honoring others’ boundaries.  

“If beneficence is done right, it would be done in a way that is perfectly loving and respectful,” Stohr said.

Stohr was the first of seven lecturers that will visit campus this year to discuss the theme of beneficence. The public lectures will be accompanied by seven interactive CareLab events in which students can personalize their consideration of beneficence through hands-on activities and experiences. 

The public lectures and CareLabs are interdisciplinary in nature, and Murdock hopes that students, no matter their interests or areas of study, can connect with this variety of programming that she says is “at the heart of the liberal arts mission.”

This interdisciplinary approach to ethics was evident in the second lecture of the year, titled “Intersectional Neuroscience: Bringing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to the Neuroscience of Meditation.” Dr. Helen Weng, clinical psychologist and research associate at the Osher Center for Integrative Health, presented this program on Sept. 22 in Stackhouse Theater. 

Weng has pioneered the field of intersectional neuroscience by conducting inclusive research that accurately represents how every brain is different. By acknowledging the various experiences, memories, relationships and biases that every person has, Weng has developed a more nuanced understanding of the effects of meditation.

One type of meditation that Weng has studied is called compassion meditation, which allows people to focus on wishing safety, health, and happiness upon others. The goal of this form of meditation and many others is to encourage internal reflection, which helps people to break out of negative cycles in order to cultivate healthy habits.

“We have a window into our physical and emotional state if we practice looking inward,” Weng said. By making statements like, “I will examine my behavior and correct it,” Weng said that people can begin to recognize how they can become more kind to themselves and others.

In addition to attending Mudd Center events such as Weng’s lecture, students can contribute essays to the Mudd Journal of Ethics, a publication completely curated and edited by W&L undergraduates. The Mudd Center also recently launched a new avenue for student participation called the Mudd Center Student Ethics Society.

The Student Ethics Society was created this year to bring together students who are interested in exploring and finding solutions to ethical concerns. Members gather to go to the public lectures together, get special opportunities to meet the speakers, and participate in discussion groups. More than 100 students are members of the society now, but applications are still open on the Mudd Center’s website (

“Students, especially coming through the past two or three years, are ready to think about these big issues that are important in our lives,” said Murdock.