Indigestion, Ethics, and College Protests

Sometimes, something is so hard to swallow that it causes acid reflux.  Heartburn causes us discomfort, but, unless it is truly debilitating and usually long-lasting, it tends to be quickly forgotten — especially if caused by some food we like.

Those reflections come after reading Ezekiel Emanuel’s essay, “The Moral Deficiencies of a Liberal Education,” in the October 17 New York Times.

Emanuel, who teaches bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, bemoans the “moral blinders” so prominently on display on various college campuses — especially, but not only, elite ones like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Penn — in the initial reaction to Hamas’s terror attack on Israel.  That undergraduates could demonstrate in support of barbarians who killed women and children makes Emanuel declare: “We have failed.”

Yes, we have.

But I am not sure that Emanuel knows how to stop failing.

He thinks we should require undergraduate to take at least two ethics classes, one in general, one in applied ethics.  But then he concedes that ethics classes alone won’t do the trick, so we should ramp up the overall curriculum to ensure we are “challenging students, [not] avoid putting hard questions to them[.]”  He notes that most colleges and universities have reduced (one could say minimized) their required general education courses or turned them primarily into vocational training.  He throws a compliment in passing to Catholic colleges and universities, because many still require an ethics course or two.  He opines that we must rethink what passes for being “educated” and that, once that happens, everyone associated with the school should advance that vision.  He even — hold your seats — declares that college presidents “should stop focusing on endowments and fund-raising” and focus on “what it means to graduate educated people.”

In the end, there is probably little I would substantively disagree with as goals.  That said, my conviction is that such sentiments will have the shelf life of a new year’s resolution.

Americans felt a bit dyspeptic when they saw pictures from Israel of people slaughtered, then scenes of Ivy-land students declaring “solidarity” with their murderers.  Many started asking: what is really going on at today’s American college campuses? 

That’s good.  But I suspect that the initial moral nausea will be like acid reflux: this too will pass.

Professor Emanuel is right that there is something deeply rotten on the modern college campus.  But he doesn’t identify what. 

He wants to ensure that “never again [should] we have our students make patently uneducated and alarmingly immoral declarations.” 

But, given the “dictatorship of relativism” in modern thought, I wonder how he hopes to accomplish this.

First, he proposes ethics classes.  As a moral theologian, I am all for: it guarantees me a job.  But, to be honest, teaching ethics will get you only so far.

Morality, after all, is fundamentally in the will, not the intellect.  People may be mistaken about what is right and wrong, but right and wrong is not basically a matter of knowing.  It is, above all, a matter of choosing.  All dissimulation aside, most people know perfectly well what is right and what is wrong — and they still choose the wrong.  And modern American life pays no small tribute to the “ethic of choice.”  We even have it on the warrant of a much-saluted Supreme Court justice that defining “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 at 851) is the heart of liberty.  Weren’t the pro-Hamas demonstrators merely voicing an alternate “concept of existence,” their own view of “the mystery of human life”?

Can we overcome the reduction of morality to procedural ethics: how rather than what we decide?  Casey’s sweet “mystery of human life” passage is procedural: who chooses rather than what is chosen.  The one philosopher Emanuel cites is John Rawls, the star of modern American ethical proceduralism. 

But even if we pass beyond the way station of proceduralism, what “ethic” do we adopt?  The primary contender in secular American ethics to proceduralism is some form of utilitarianism, some calculus of “benefit/bane” or “pleasure/pain.”  But every form of ethical calculation ultimately depends on what factors one considers relevant to the costs of the ethical choice.  Is the “benefit” of long-term national liberation commensurate to a few lost lives?  After all, don’t you have to crack some eggs to make an omelet?

As a Catholic theologian, I’d contend your ethics is only as good as its underlying theory of reality: is there a real world of good and value outside your head, or are good, value, and even being created and defined in your head?  That conundrum bedevils not just American, but larger Western thinking today.

So not just any ethics will do.  Nor, in the end, will just teaching it.  Ethics involves not education, but formation, a deeper and more personal process that makes me not just know, but want the good.  

That’s what colleges should be doing.  But it’s going to require the abandonment of a lot of today’s intellectual baggage to get there.  Jettisoning moral relativism.  Recapturing the college’s role as a moral formator.  A common faculty vision that means getting rid of faculty who don’t share it.

Yes, it means college presidents should check what’s going on in classrooms rather than collect checks on the rubber chicken donors’ circuit.  That change alone would be a revolution!

But those kids cheering for Hamas killers didn’t come out of nowhere.  They are very much the product of confused modern thinking — a thinking we cheer in our leaders.  Changing that is not going to come from adding some ethics classes.  It will come only from a thoroughgoing, root-and-branch readiness to examine many of today’s sacred cows...and even butcher a lot of them.

Image via Pxfuel.

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