Merciless moralism bereft of moral reasons
by Ken Myers
On Volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Steven L. Porter, who was one of the scholars who completed a book left unfinished by philosopher Dallas Willard when he died in 2013. Five years later The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge was published, compiled by Porter and his colleagues from many manuscript pages that Willard had completed, along with fragments of notes, partial drafts, syllabi, class handouts, and marginalia written in the books Willard had been reading for years.
In his 1998 book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, Willard had observed that we live in a culture “that has accepted the view that what is good and right is not a subject of knowledge that can guide action and for which individuals can be held responsible.” The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge presents Willard’s thorough exploration of the social and intellectual causes of that deplorable condition, and how it might be confronted.
Much of the book displays Willard's concern that Western institutions of higher education — once significant custodians and conduits of moral knowledge — had repudiated that role and were responsible for the loss of confidence in the broader culture, that there were reasons behind claims about morality, that the Good was True. During my interview, Porter talked about how — despite this repudiation — universities remain the site of intense moral commitments. They still want their graduates to be good and do good. They simply lack the confidence that one can examine claims about what is good with the same rational rigor that one can bring to the study of chemistry, law, or history.
As Willard explains in the following paragraphs from early in his book, the tacit assumption that moral commitments are finally irrational may account for the vicious character of contemporary political disputes.
“What most deeply characterizes the discussions of moral instruction and guidance in the universities currently is failure to understand how such instruction and guidance are actually conveyed. This is largely, but not wholly, an intellectual failure: a failure to observe and understand. Such guidance is rarely conveyed by explicit instruction or anything remotely like ‘course content,’ though these certainly do play a role. Moral guidance is communicated to others, and especially to the young, by how we live with them and around them. Aristotle noted long ago that if lectures in ethics are to be of any use to hearers, ‘they must have been brought up in good habits’ of thought, feeling, and action. It was the business of the legislator, on his view, to see to it that people are well brought up. One hears lectures in ethics, he held, as a preparation to be a legislator or ‘political scientist.’ But habits are formed by living, and a very small part of living is being ‘talked at.’ During the pre-World War II period, students in higher education at all levels were talked at a great deal — and ‘in class’ to boot — along the lines of traditional morality; and university life was fairly closely regulated by that same morality. It was assumed by the general public, as well as by university and college personnel, that there was a body of moral knowledge and that traditional moral rules, virtues, and practices fell largely, not wholly, within it. The ‘talk’ was assumed by all to be of some benefit for moral understanding and practice. . . . It by and large expressed the morality in which the students had been brought up. Higher education was at the time mainly restricted to elite social groups of little diversity; and, for all their moral failures, people from these groups respected traditional morality and thought it fairly well represented ‘how things are’ in reality. They generally acted on it and held themselves and others to it without much reflection.
“Most faculty and nearly all university students today have been formed in a different world. It is a world in which the teachings and practices of traditional morality are scarcely known, and certainly are not understood to any depth. Insofar as those teachings are thought of at all, they are regarded as irrelevant to life, at best, and at worst as oppressive of various real or imagined human goods: ‘success’ or sexual gratification, for example. Indeed, those teachings and practices are often thought of as immoral now, or perhaps just silly, because they clearly do not permit people to live however they might wish — an overriding moral imperative to the contemporary mind. That moral imperative — to allow people to do what they want (so long as others aren’t ‘hurt’) — is one major component in the moral system that is taught and relentlessly enforced in the university setting, and often very blatantly, in the classroom or tutorial situation, as well as in the hallway and the ‘mixer.’ . . .
“How is this moral system taught? Like every morality, every vision of what is humanly acceptable or unacceptable, good and bad, it is mainly taught by body language, facial expressions, ‘looks,’ tones of voice and inflections, off-hand remarks about people and events; by what is presumed to be ‘automatic’ or to ‘go without saying,’ by example, by how we treat people of various types (in class, out of class, our colleagues, and overseers and underlings), by who gets rewarded or punished or dismissed in various ways in the classroom and out, and so forth. In short, it is ‘taught’ by the fine texture of how we live together in the university setting. The implicit approvals and disapprovals by teachers and other ‘authorities,’ and simply how things are arranged in campus life, are the matters most studied by students, for they know that these are the things with which they really have to come to terms. Such things cannot be hidden or fail to have significant influence on the student and others, and they function as indications of how things actually stand in moral reality. This all lies in the 'hidden curriculum,’ well known among educational theorists.
“It should be noted that what comes over in these and similar ways as ‘moral guidance’ in the university setting is never communicated as mere social acceptability or practice, nor as mere personal taste or preference. It is always conveyed, and always comes over, as well-thought out knowledge or conviction about how things really are: in short as moral wisdom and insight — as how intelligent and informed people ‘in the know’ deal with moral reality. It comes over as the considered beliefs of experienced and thoughtful persons who occupy enviable and influential positions in life and society. This is unavoidable if the individual professor or administrator manifests the competence, confidence, and authority required to do their job well and to convey intellectual leadership. They cannot help manifesting their beliefs, and belief is an indication of presumed reality. Thus, in the university context as elsewhere, people who do not follow the prescribed (even if tacit) morality are typically treated by its partisans as stupid or ignorant or ‘unenlightened,’ not just as people who happen to be ‘different.’
“Accordingly, the abundant though non-traditional moral guidance actually conveyed in the university setting . . . is conveyed as moral knowledge, or at least as responsible beliefs about moral reality. And associated with that guidance is the range of emotions, feelings, or ‘moral sentiments’ which always characterize moral judgments among human beings. There is a characteristic type of friendliness, approval, acceptance, willingness to support and reward, and desire to see prospered and imitated, that goes out toward what is perceived to be morally correct and praiseworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally good. Conversely, a peculiar sort of resentment (even disgust and anger), blame, exclusion, willingness to avoid or to punish, and desire to see frustrated and not imitated, goes out toward what is taken to be the morally wrong and blameworthy action and toward the character and person thought to be morally bad. The continued presence of these positive and negative moral sentiments in university life, as elsewhere, alerts any thoughtful person to the fact that we remain deeply engaged in moral guidance and moral instruction and judgment, even though we may have abandoned or reversed the traditional content and manner of such guidance and instruction.
“This heavy presence of the range of attitudes, feelings, or ‘sentiments’ peculiar to morality also lets us know that what some try to pass off as political remains stubbornly moral. That in turn casts light on why, in recent years, political processes and political discourse in this country have become so morally embittered, generating a political life dominated by contempt, anger, and even hatred. Political opposition quickly degenerates into hard core moral opprobrium. Confusion of the moral with the political, perhaps fostered in part by the intention of treating moral issues as political (or legal), actually may have backfired with the effect of making political opponents out to be immoral and hence unworthy of the generous regard and cooperation necessary to successful political interactions. . . .
“The real issue, one might think, is how to be intellectually and morally responsible for the moral guidance we cannot help but give — whether we want to or not, and whether we know it or not — by subjecting it to explicit and thorough rational scrutiny and discussion, as appropriate, in the classroom and out. Taking into consideration the official ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge is one way of understanding why we cannot purposively do this now. There is no recognized body of moral knowledge to serve as a basis for such a pedagogical practice. Or so, at least, it is now generally assumed.
“Beneath the pose of moral neutrality and non-judgementalism, a powerful moral point of view nevertheless runs free and casts an ominous shadow of mindless conformity over the campus and over much of professionalized academic life. The traditional ideal of free, honest, and thorough inquiry into moral issues is not sustained, because it is no longer seen as a part of being responsible for knowledge of how things are — knowledge of what every viewpoint must come to terms with. What is morally acceptable, by rational standards, is overshadowed by emotional and political prejudices concerning what must be good and right. The ‘right’ opinions and attitudes on a fairly narrow range of topics — sexuality, gender, race and culture, social justice, etc. — serve as touchstones of moral standing for individuals, opinions, and actions. But those opinions and attitudes are not themselves subjected to traditional standards of rationality. Indeed, such standards are often disregarded because of some association they are perceived as having with ‘improper’ opinions and attitudes on the favored issues. In any case, if knowledge in moral matters is not an option, then responsible rational critique of moral opinions and practices is not something everyone must practice, and serious inquiry into moral matters is suppressed in favor of what is ‘acceptable’ so far as social pressures (left or right) are concerned.”