A new debate emerging at my college is whether higher education is just about intellectual development, or whether it should also be about moral development.
Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides. Some strenuously argue against moral development. Values, they say, are up to individuals to choose. It is inappropriate for some people to impose their values on others.
There are interesting assumptions behind this line of reasoning. One assumption is that to talk about values at all is already somehow dangerous or invasive. Another assumption is that we cannot talk about values without trying to impose particular values on others. Another assumption is that "imposing" values is somehow easy! It is so easy that we have to be really really careful, lest we "impose" values unwittingly! Another assumption is that we as individuals and our culture are not already trying strenuously all the time to impose values -- and often succeeding. And the final and most fun assumption to point out is the (erroneous) assumption that the plea not to impose values is not itself a value! If those who argue against teaching about values win, then they have succeeded in "imposing" their value (of non-imposition) upon everyone else -- and, worse: to have succeeded in imposing a value of non-imposition is self-contradictory!
So, let us look at the other side: can a case be made in favor of encouraging moral development? How can we do this without falling into some very real dangers?
I myself do believe that talking about values and morality is not bad or dangerous. It is important. I also think that we institutionally impose values all the time, in many institutional contexts -- and many of the values we impose are questionable. I think this makes it even more urgent to talk about this, and to raise awareness.
For example, it is common for professors to mark down work that is submitted late. This is a structural imposition of the value of timeliness. But is timeliness always the most important virtue? Sometimes it is quite important -- responding quickly to genuine emergencies is important and often can make the difference between life and death. But we create so many artificial deadlines and artificial urgencies, and some of these can be more harmful than helpful. For example, they can destroy creativity. They can undermine good, thoughtful, careful discernment. Not always is timeliness the most important virtue. But we structure it in to so much of what we do, cultivating an unthinking obedience to this imperative. It is an imperative that serves another value: "productivity." We don't stop to question whether productivity is itself always good. We unthinkingly accept that quantity matters more than quality. We produce so much that we may well be destroying our planet in the process.
I think it could be very powerful to have discussions about all of this in our teaching. Without these discussions, our students just buy right into all of our cultural assumptions, believing that they have freely chosen, when really they remain steadfastly unaware of how many values have been "imposed" upon them already. It is only if we all talk about this out loud that there is any hope that people develop the awareness that is necessary for genuine choice of values.
In contrast, I have become aware of how hard it is to impose values directly, through conversational attempts to persuade. This is why I am not at all afraid that, if we talk about values, we will "unwittingly" impose values. As soon as they are out in the open air of free conversation, they can be critically examined. I have learned this through teaching ethics courses. To my absolute and total dismay, even though I present compelling arguments against ethical relativism and try to "impose" the value of at least taking ethics seriously (but still feeling free to identify which specific values and virtues are most meaningful to you), I find that most students leave ethics courses more convinced of ethical relativism than ever before. This is true in general, of ethics classes everywhere. I knew this before I even started and so I tried explicitly to guard against this, but to no avail. So, seeing my own powerlessness to even persuade students to take seriously the general idea of ethics, I have absolutely no fear that I -- or anyone else -- could ever impose any specific beliefs whatsoever. It really is up to individuals to choose their beliefs.
So my tentative conclusion is that where beliefs and values are imposed, it is not through teaching or conversation or reading books. Imposition happens through subtle attempts to control behavior. And these attempts abound in our society. The most effective antidote is to teach about ethics and values explicitly, giving everyone a chance to take stock and re-evaluate what their beliefs and values really are.
Having said all of that, now I would like to note: I think the closest principle that comes to an ethical absolute in our culture today is the principle of non-imposition. It often gets phrased as a statement of ethical relativism: "there are no absolutes; it is up to each individual to choose their own ethical beliefs." Put that way, it is self-contradictory, because it poses as an ethical absolute itself! The other self-contradictory form it can take is what I described above: the desire to impose a value of non-imposition!
But I cannot simply argue against ethical relativism without being open about my own take on what the ethical absolute is. After thinking about this for a long time, I came up with a single ethical absolute that I believe in completely -- and it turns out to be identical to one of Immanual Kant's expressions of his "categorical imperative" (the third formulation, for those who want to know. See Kant's Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals). My way of putting it is to say: everyone deserves respect. Or, it could be rephrased: we owe everyone respect.
I've talked about this before, but I don't think in those earlier postings I mentioned it as an ethical absolute. But I do think it is.
Of course the content of that principle hinges on what is meant by "respect." I've talked about this before as well, but I'd like to simplify and summarize it here as: looking for, responding to, and trying to draw out the goodness of others. It is a principle rooted in the belief that there is goodness in everyone. But it is also a principle that respects that people might not always be acting from their best (good) selves. And so it is fully consistent for "respectful" behavior to include calling others into accountability for their disrespectful behavior.
And this is an important point to understand. I do not think that the value of non-imposition is an integral part of respect. In general, it is respectful to let people be who they are and not to try to control others' behavior. But this is not itself an absolute rule. There are specific exceptions to this rule: when others engage in disrespectful behavior, it is respectful to call them into accountability. It is respectful both on behalf of the disrespected, but it is also respectful on behalf of the person being disrespectful, because it calls them away from their problematic behavior and attitudes and calls them back to their best selves.
Put another way: you are doing someone a favor if you stop them from doing something really bad that they will later regret.
I have offered this principle (the principle of respect) as a proposed ethical absolute in one of my classes, and my students have been doing a great job of arguing against it, trying to turn it into something inconsistent -- but to no avail. I have, so far, been able to respond effectively to each of their attempts. Will I succeed in "imposing" this value by the end of the semester? If so, will I have hopelessly damaged these unfortunate souls?
Or is this instead a supremely important principle that we need desperately to keep trying to teach each other all the time?
6 years ago