The deadly violence last Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., gives all Americans pause about our country and whether we will insist on upholding our values as a nation. Ken Frazier, chief executive officer of Merck, did not pause. He acted and he led. By resigning from a high-profile White House advisory panel, he demonstrated the courage and conviction called for in response to a vague and morally ambiguous “many sides” defense of the weekend’s atrocities and, in a single moment, showed us what real moral leadership looks like.
Edmund Burke is often quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This neatly sums up the opportunity and the imperative of this moment. For two days, there was no clear condemnation of the attack from the White House that immediately called it what it was — an intense desire on the part of some individuals to terrorize other Americans in the hopes of diminishing their rights as fellow citizens. And still nothing came until a backlash from all corners of the political spectrum forced the president to make a public statement denouncing bigotry in all its forms, revising his reflexive initial comments.
In contrast, Frazier did something by publicly proclaiming, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and racism.”
I began my professional career as a physician. I took an oath to do my best to extend and save the lives of patients who entrusted their care to me. When I moved to the pharmaceutical industry, my first job was at Merck. There I learned a key corollary to the oath I took: George Merck’s famously quoted admonition to “always remember to put the patients first and the profits will follow.” This doing-well-by-doing-good contract was a cornerstone that Merck set for me and that still dictates how I think about this industry and operate within it every day.
The position Frazier has taken, that I am taking, and that many others around the country are taking, is an extension of the social contract to enhance the lives of others by standing against what is wrong and, in doing so, following the principle of personal conviction and fulfilling the great design of our nation’s most sacred values.
The sole purpose of science is to allow life to be better lived. Our politics should undergird and guarantee this, not diminish it.
There are not “many sides” to what happened in Charlottesville. There are only two: justice and the fact that all men and women are created equal on one side, hatred and bigotry on the other. The former is the cornerstone of the founding of our country; the latter compromise and erode the American values we hold dear.
I hope that the courage of one person who has taken an unequivocal stance against hatred and bigotry will inspire others to do the same thing at a moment when our tolerance for injustice and the limits of our morality are being sorely tested.
Tony Coles, M.D., is the chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Yumanity Therapeutics in Cambridge, Mass.