During four decades of teaching, I have conducted undergraduate courses on ethics dozens of times. Often the class will discuss how people acquire their moral values, with students frequently giving one or more of the following answers: (1) “Religion is the source of moral values for many people”; (2) “Everybody has their own morals”; (3) “You get your values from society”; (4) “People aren’t really moral. Everything anybody does is ultimately self-interested.”
Responding to the statement that people derive their values from society, I often ask, “Do you mean that when you are eighteen you get a mailing from ‘society’ that tells you what your values are? You must mean something other than that.” Students then explain that people adopt the values of those around them to fit in with the rest of society. Students often add that different societies or even different groups in a society have different values and no values are correct or incorrect or better or worse than others. In fact, many students want to say both “everybody has their own morals” and “you get your values from society.”
In only one instance—out of maybe fifty different ethics courses over many years—did a student ever suggest that the exercise of reason could be a source of moral values. Most students seem not to regard ethical views as involving informed, thoughtful judgment. This issue has an important connection with contemporary society and politics. Moral considerations are directly relevant to current disputes concerning race, crime control, and the exercise of various freedoms, such as voting and freedom of expression. In the absence of informed moral judgment, political views are likely to be largely emotive and expressive rather than reflecting careful consideration. Higher education can—and must do so more effectively than it presently does—instruct students in skills of inquiry and habits of mind needed for reasoned understandings of political issues and their moral significance, thereby shaping students’ conception of responsible citizenship.
The political and legal culture of the United States is meant to support the openness needed for meaningful value-pluralism in the sense that people have diverse conceptions of a well-lived life and even some diverse moral values and conceptions of what is worthwhile and important. However, the political and social cohesiveness needed to support pluralism in this sense depends upon shared commitment to certain basic values. These include equality before the law, extensive but not unlimited liberty, respecting the dignity of others, and regarding others as equal participants in a shared civil society.
Currently, there is a decay in the tone of moral and political discourse and an increase in mistrust on campuses and in society generally. To an extent, this reflects a failure to educate students about norms of careful inquiry, ways to provide evidence, and consideration of views they might find uncongenial. Many students’ rush to condemn whatever is disagreeable suggests that we educators need to think hard about the ways education shapes students’ understanding of values and whether and how they take responsibility for their values. I do not mean that we should have an official strategy of teaching values. Rather, we should encourage students to regard independence of mind as requiring disciplined, informed thought. For example, in 2017, Middlebury College student protesters became violent during a lecture by Bell Curve author Charles Murray, whose arguments about intelligence and socioeconomic status have been criticized as racist and based on misleading statistics. While students have a right to protest, these protestors acted without responsibility toward the campus as a distinctively important site of education and civil society when they became violent. Murray’s methodology and views can certainly motivate serious debate, and asking Murray questions based on a grasp of his work would have been more constructive for all parties.
We have reached a point where mere disagreement leads to inadequately supported condemnations of speakers, faculty members, and other students. In spring 2021, a professor at the University of San Diego (USD) School of Law wrote a post on a personal blog, using what some saw as offensive language, that was critical of the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. USD law students campaigned to have the professor fired for demeaning Chinese people. The law dean emailed the school community, suggesting that the professor was guilty of bias and saying that the school would undertake an investigation. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the dean, arguing that the investigation violated the professor’s rights to free speech and academic freedom. Other law faculty argued that no plausible interpretation of the remarks could construe them as expressing a pejorative view of Chinese people. After a review, USD concluded that the blog post was protected by the university and law school policies on academic freedom.
This case is emblematic of what has become an increasingly common practice of condemning those with whom one disagrees or someone whose remarks or conduct have been interpreted as malicious in some way. The professor was regarded as guilty of demeaning Chinese people before an investigation took place—and even though no substantial basis existed for conducting an investigation at all. And this was at a law school.
If people have to, in effect, seek the approval of any possible audience to say what they wish to say, constructive disagreement will become impossible, especially regarding controversial matters. In fact, telling the truth will become impossible; large numbers of people find many truths unbearable. The mutual trust crucial to the civic culture of society will shrink, always at the mercy of real or perceived threats. Consequently, educators must do a better job of encouraging the intellectual responsibility and moral maturity the civility of society requires. Because if society loses sight of the distinction between “finding something offensive” and “being harmed,” or between “being harmed” and “imagining that someone could claim to be offended,” then education’s failure is a serious one with real political consequences such as rendering compromise impossible.
Too often, the corruption of moral vocabulary turns what should be contests of ideas into assaults on character. As educators, we must challenge students to use language with precision, and we should insist on support for claims rather than accommodating unrestricted political/moral subjective validity, with adjectives taking the place of arguments. Not every disappointment can be characterized as “oppression” and not every failure to explicitly honor a particular culture’s traditions is “cultural genocide.” There have been real genocides, and there is genuine oppression, and we must help students understand relevant historical realities so their perspectives reflect an informed grasp of the issues.
There will always be undergraduates claiming that “everyone has their own morals” and “people get their values from society.” Those can be starting points for reflection on significant issues of morality and on historical and social realities. Unwillingness to engage intellectually and morally with the genuine complexity of the human world precludes learning from the past and even the present, as though our judgments are the final, best measure of all things human. The answer to the question “Who’s to say whether one or another moral view is justified?” is “We are, as rational beings able to seek, attain, and enlarge understanding.” It needs to be a joint undertaking supported by the civility of a liberal-democratic political community. If educators do not lead in preparing students for that responsibility, there won’t be a durable, pluralistic democratic republic in which to participate.