2: Teaching Values and Ethics in the Modern Academy

(The following is adapted from a short piece I was asked to write a number of years ago for an alumni magazine of my university—The University of Texas at Austin—one of the largest and most diverse public universities in the USA. The piece expresses in a more personal way many of the themes about values, ethics and education described earlier in this website.)

1. Teaching Values in the Academy: A Personal Odyssey

How do you teach values in the modern secular university? That question has haunted me for years. I don’t mean merely teaching what individuals or cultures or societies or religions have said or believed about what is good or evil, right or wrong. We do that all the time in our uni­versities; it is one of the on-going tasks of the liberal arts, the humanities and the social scien­ces.

We can give you some idea of what the great philosophers and literary figures have said about good and evil, what the major religions believe, how values differ from culture to culture and society to society, how ideas about right and wrong have changed through history (usury, or lending money for profit, was thought to be an sinful in medieval times, but a great good in our own), how people’s values influence and are influenced by their religion, politics, biology, culture and environment.

No, that was not my problem. Of course we can teach what individuals, cultures and societies have said about values; and there is much wisdom to be gained by doing so. But can we also go on to say what really is good or evil, right or wrong objectively speaking—not merely what has been believed, but what is worth believing—without seeming to be merely adding our own subjective bias or point of view to the mix?

It is a daunting problem, but an important one. Students hunger for direction in matters of va­lue, as everyone does—especially in these times when we all live in a Tower of Babel of con­flicting points of view about fundamental matters. For me, this was not just a problem of teaching or research, but a personal problem. I could scarcely convince students there was something objectively worth believing in the welter of conflicting messages they heard in the academy and in society at large, if I could not convince myself. Nor were teaching and re­search separable in this case. Knowing what to say in the classroom depended on finding my own way through the Tower of Babel; and finding that way depended in part on answering tough questions from students who would not accept simple or facile answers.[1]

It is ironic that the very qualities of open-mindedness and objectivity that are so valued in the universities make it difficult to pronounce on what is “objectively” or universally right or wrong. But what this means is that, paradoxically, the ideal of “objectivity,” which works so well in the natural sciences, when transmuted into the social sciences and humanities actually inhibits pronouncements about objective and universal rights and wrongs (those that hold for all peo­ples and all cultures). As a result, when it comes to values, the university, in its “open­ness” and its striving for “objectivity,” can end up standing for nothing in particular.

2. Pluralism and the Larger Problem

As a philosopher, I thought this paradox worth pondering because it reflected a problem that pervades not only the universities but the whole of modern culture. We live in a world of conflicting points of view about fundamental values—a modern Tower of Babel, if you will. In such a world, there is a deep philosophical problem involved in trying to defend the claim that one point of view is right and all others wrong.

To argue that one view—your own, for example—is objectively right and others wrong, you have to present evidence. But the evi­dence must be gathered and interpreted from one’s own point of view. If the dispute is about values, some of the evidence will include beliefs about good and evil that are not going to be accepted by those who have fundamental disagreements with your values in the first place. Values must be defended by appealing to other more funda­mental values and beliefs that are also yours (perhaps you will refer to the Bible or the Qur’an or some other sacred text) which are not going to be accepted by those who have basic disa­greements with your point of view in the first place. Even those who share your sacred text may not interpret it as you do.

There is a troubling circularity involved in such debates—the circularity of defending your own point of view from your own point of view, of defending your values in terms of other values you also hold, but others may not. The problem arises because, as finite creatures, we inevitably see the world from some particular point of view limited by culture and history.

How can we climb out of our historically and culturally conditioned perspectives to find an objective standpoint on value above all the competing points of view? Natural science seems to have the requisite objectivity, but this is in part because, and to the degree that, it remains neutral about values. This problem haunts the modern intellectual landscape. One sees varia­tions of it in many fields of study and everywhere it produces doubts among reflective people about the possibility of justifying belief in objective intellectual, cultural and moral standards.

One natural, but controversial, reaction to this problem, which is common in free and demo­cratic societies like our own, and has appeal for many young people, is the fol­lowing. Persons think to themselves that since it seems impossible to demonstrate that their view is the right one from their point of view, and since everyone else is in the same condition, the only proper stance to take is an attitude of “openness” or tolerance toward other points of view. Judgments about good and evil, right or wrong, they reason, are personal matters and should not be im­posed on others against their will. Hasn’t much of the evil of human history come from those who thought they had “the correct view” and had the right to impose it on others?

But such an attitude of openness or tolerance, though it comes naturally to persons reared in free and democratic societies, has its critics. For example, Allan Bloom, in a widely read book of some years ago, The Closing of the American Mind, argued that such openness (an “open­ness of indifference,” as called it), is the scourge of our times, infecting society, education and young people in perverse ways because it leads to relativism—the belief that no point of view is any better than any other—and hence to an indifference to objective truth and absolute right.

Anyone who teaches thoughtful young people these days knows that the temptation to such relativism is real. But I think Bloom is wrong about the consequences of such openness. Pro­perly conceived, it does not lead to relativism or indifference, but (quite the contrary) to a belief in some universal values. This may seem a surprising thing to say in the current intellec­tual climate, but I think it is true. To see why, the first step is to view openness to other points of view on matters of value not as an invitation to indifference, but as a way of expanding our minds beyond our own limited per­spec­tives to find out what is true from every perspective (objectively true), not just from our own perspective.

Openness is thereby viewed as a way of searching for the objective truth about values, not a de­nial of that objective truth. This is the proper role of openness in the universities. It is how “openness” and “objectivity” are supposed to function in the natural sciences where they func­tion well, requiring consideration of theories opposed to one’s own and restricting undue bias in favor of one’s own—all in the interests of limiting narrowness of vision and finding the objective truth about nature.

Why not think of openness in the search for objective values in the same way? The thought may seem strange at first, because the obvious differences between fact and value. In the first place, systems of value (as great sages, like Confucius and the author of the Bhagavad-Gita, remind us) are not just abstract theories that can be tested in a laboratory; they are ways of life that can only be ultimately tested by being lived. So openness to systems of value other than one’s own (in the interests of finding out what is true about values from every point of view) would mean respecting other ways of life, letting them be lived or experimented with or tested in a way that is appropriate for values, that is, in action or practice.

But once the matter is put this way, we can see why people have shied away from this line of thought. Does it mean respecting or tolerating every point of view and allowing it to be lived, which would include (among others) the ways of life of the Hitlers, Stalins, ruthless dictators, killers and other evildoers of this world. Then openness really would amount to a relativism of indifference, as the critics contend.

But the fact is that such openness does not imply respect for any point of view whatever. To the contrary, it turns out that you cannot open your mind to every point of view in the sense of respecting every way of life. There are situations in life in which it is impossible to respect every point of view. The idea is to “open your mind to all other points of view in order to find the (objective) truth about values.” But the truth you find is not that “you should open your mind to all points of view.” Openness of mind is an initial attitude in the search for truth. But openness of indiffe­rence or relativism is not the final one.

Why is this so? Consider a situation in which you are walking down the street and see a man being assaulted and robbed in an alley. If you do something to prevent the assault (by inter­vening or calling for help) you will not be respecting the point of view of the assailant because you will be interfering with his desires and purposes. But if you just “walk on by” when you could have done something to help, you will not be respecting the point of view of the man being assaulted. If you doubt that, the look in his eyes when you turn your head and ignore the situation (if you could have seen that look) would have told you that you had chosen not to respect his desires and purposes.

The fact is that you cannot have it both ways in such situations; you cannot respect both points of view. When pirates under the command of William Kidd attacked Philadelphia in the 18th century, pillaging and raping, some of the resident men with pacifist beliefs would not protect their women. They were not thereby choosing a non-violent world in which everyone’s desires and purposes would be respected. They were in effect choosing that it be the desires of the pirates that would be respected and not the desires of their own women. They had not chosen a world without violence, but a world in which violence would be directed at their women and not the pirates.

So there are situations in life in which, when you are thrust into them, you cannot treat every point of view or way of life with respect, no matter what you do. You cannot be “open” to every point of view. When such situations occur, let us say that the “moral sphere” has “broken down”—the moral sphere being the sphere in which every way of life can be respected. When this moral sphere breaks down, we must treat some ways of life as less worthy of respect than others. But which ones?

At this point we must return to the original ideal of respect for all, or openness, for guidance. Recall that this ideal was not assumed to be the final truth, but was to guide us in a search for that truth. The Renaissance essayist Montaigne said that ideals are like the stars to the ancient mariners. We never reach them but we guide our path by them. When the moral sphere breaks down, we cannot follow the ideal of respect for all to the letter, but we can continue to follow it in spirit by trying to restore and preserve conditions in which the ideal of respect for all can be followed once again.

Making efforts to restore this sphere when it has broken down is thus as close as we can come to maintaining the ideal of openness respect to all points of view and ways of life in adverse circumstances when we must depart from that ideal to some degree, no matter what we do. And maintaining this ideal to the degree possible is our way of expanding our minds beyond our own limited points of view to find out what should be recognized as good a valuable from all points of view, not merely from our own.

In our examples, restoring and preserving the moral sphere when it has broken down, would mean stopping those who have broken it and made it impossible for others to follow the ideal. It would mean him and stop­ping the assailant and the pirates, by force if we must, since their actions broke the sphere—which answers the original question of who is to be treated as less worthy of respect when the moral sphere breaks down and it is no longer possible to treat everyone with respect.

3. Two Ways of Searching

Needless to say, there are many complications and questions about this line of reasoning that have to be addressed. But lest we miss the forest for the trees, let us stand back for a moment to see what it all means. It means that the attitude of openness to all ways of life, when put to the test in practice, does not lead to relativism and indifference, as critics like Bloom suggest, but actually leads to the conclusion that some ways of life are less worthy of respect than others. Or, putting it another way, relativism—or the belief that every view is as good as any other—like openness, turns out to be an impossible ideal when put in practice.

And what was said of the assailant in the alley and of the pirates, can be said of all the Hitlers, Stalins, murderers, rapists, oppressors, exploiters and other evildoers of the world. We do not have to say their ways of life are just as good as everyone else’s. By their actions, they place themselves “outside the moral sphere” so to speak, and make their ways of life less worthy of openness respect by making it impossible for others to respect them and everyone else too.

Another way of looking at the above reasoning is this. I’ve argued elsewhere that there are two ways of searching for universal values (those that hold for all persons and all points of view) in a pluralist world of conflicting points of view. The “old way” was to position yourself in one of those points of view—your own—and argue that it was the right view and every other view wrong. But this way founders on the circularity problem discussed above.

The other way is to open your mind initially to all points of view in order to find out what is true from every point of view, not just from your own (the way of openness). In this way, you lift from yourself the burden of proving your view is absolutely right and every other wrong, and place the burden of proof on everyone equally to prove themselves right or wrong by their actions. Some ways of life then make themselves less worthy of respect by breaking the moral sphere and making it impossible for others to treat them and everyone else with respect.

What then can be said about the respect due your own point of view? It is to be treated no dif­fe­rently than the others. If you break the moral sphere then you make your view less worthy of respect by others. This is burden of proof enough for anyone. For the “proof” (whether for your way of life or for others) is not carried out by “arguing” in the abstract that one view is better than others, but by how you live and act, just as we should expect for a theory of ethics or values.

Do we then have to wait till someone actually breaks the moral sphere and shows themselves less worthy before intervening? No, because you may recall that respect for the ideal requires not only restoring the moral sphere when it has broken down, but also preserving it from breakdown in the future. We would not be respecting the ideal to the degree possible if we failed to take reasonable steps to forestall future breakdowns.

Thus, we punish criminals not only to stop them here and now (restore the sphere), but to deter them and others from com­mit­ting similar acts in the future (to preserve the sphere). Likewise, we can act preemptively if we see that the moral sphere is about to be broken. Those who read Hitler’s Mein Kampf could see that his life-plan was a moral sphere breaker and they had every right to intervene by force if they saw he was about to carry it out. Unfortunate­ly, we know that too many of Hitler’s contemporaries could not believe he meant what he said.

4. Exceptions to Moral Rules

In addition to showing that relativism fails in practice, this line of reasoning shows something else of enormous importance to ethics. It shows why there are exceptions to many traditional moral commandments—Thou shall not kill, lie, steal, cheat (e.g. self defense and just wars are commonly recognized exceptions to the rule against killing).

The existence of exceptions to traditional moral commandments (recognized even in the reli­gious traditions) is another source of confusion about values in the modern world, along with relativism. The thought is that if moral commandments have exceptions they cannot be univer­sal or absolute. But the above line of reasoning shows that exceptions to moral rules can be dealt with in the same way that relativism is dealt with. For the exceptions to rules arise at just that point where relativism fails—where the moral sphere breaks down. Violence and force are not usually allowed (inside the moral sphere), but when the moral sphere breaks down (as in assaults or warfare), violence and force may be needed to restore it.

Consider another traditional commandment—thou shall not lie. Lying usually means not trea­ting others with respect, using them as means to one’s own ends. But there are exceptions. A common kind of example used by teachers of ethics is this. In Nazi Germany, the Gestapo arrive at your door and ask whether you are hiding a Jewish family on your farm. You are in fact hiding a family; but should you tell a lie? Here is a case where most people feel an excep­tion to the rule against lying may be in order. But if so, why? Well, notice that this case is structurally similar to the assault in the alley.

The moral sphere has broken down because you (the farm owner) cannot treat everyone with respect for their purposes and desires in this situation. If you tell the truth to the Gestapo, you are choosing to favor their purposes over the Jewish family’s. If you lie, you respect the Jewish family’s purposes, but not the Gestapo’s.

Again, you cannot have it both ways. The only ques­tion is who will be treated as less worthy of respect, not whether someone must be; and that should be the ones who broke the sphere, the Gestapo. You should lie. It is not that lying is merely permissible in this case. It would be the right thing to do. The very same ideal which tells you that lying is usually wrong (inside the moral sphere) tells you that it can be the right thing to do when the moral sphere breaks down. And so it would be also if someone forced you to play a game of cards threatening to kill your children if you lost. Cheating is usually wrong (inside the moral sphere) but in this case (where the moral sphere has badly broken down) it would be right to cheat in any way you could.

In such ways, the above line of reasoning supports many of the traditional ethical command­ments endorsed by the major world religions (against killing, lying, cheating, etc.) and many of the commonly recognized exceptions to these commandments as well. And the exceptions are not ad hoc; they follow naturally from the principles themselves.

The above line of reasoning also leads to the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) in one of its most plausible traditional readings (respecting the ways of others as you want your own way of life to be respected)—up to the point of course where the moral sphere breaks down. And one can also derive in the same way the Jeffersonian rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness upon which our Constitution and those of other modern democracies rest (to respect others’ ways of life is to respect their right to live and pursue happiness as they wish)—up to the point again of moral sphere breakdown.

5. Openness in the Search for the Truth

These are remarkable results. Starting with “openness” and “objectivity” toward all points of view and ways of life (the very ideals that are suppose to motivate the search for truth in the universities and which work so well in the natural sciences)—starting with these very modern attitudes—we do not arrive at relativism or indifference but rather at ethical principles like the Golden Rule and the Mosaic commandments that are deeply embedded in virtually all the ma­jor religious and wisdom traditions of human history. And we also arrive at ideas of universal human rights (to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) that underlie modern free and demo­cratic societies from the very same principles.

In his classic treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill expressed the belief that by maintaining a condition of openness and allowing all points of view to be heard, the truth would emerge. The preceding argument is a version of this claim: By being initially open to all points of view, the “ethical” truth emerges that some ways of life are more worthy of respect than others, and some less worthy.

So even while we allow all views to be heard in the universities, we need not stand by mutely testifying to the doctrine that no view is any better than any other. Indeed, we cannot do that if our goal is to remain as open as possible to all in the search for truth. The cherished commit­ment to openness and academic freedom in the universities is not a prelude to indifference or a way of standing for nothing in particular; it is ultimately a ethical commitment.

“Be open if you wish to other points of view. That may be the correct attitude to start with if you want to find the truth. But remember that this attitude does not mean anything goes. You cannot take such an attitude of openness and not be willing at times to stand up and affirm that some ways of acting really are right and others wrong, and some ways of life really are better than others, more worthy of respect, and some less worthy. You cannot cherish openness and tolerance and say anything less.”


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