The University’s Responsibility for Moral Guidance

In his “President’s Report” for 1986-1989, Derek Bok, then President of Harvard University, made reference to some current, well-known moral failures in financial circles and in the political life of the nation. He wondered what universities might do to strengthen moral character in their graduates. “Religious institutions,” he remarked, “no longer seem as able as they once were to impart basic values to the young. In these circumstances, universities, including Harvard, need to think hard about what they can do in the face of what many perceive as a widespread decline in ethical standards.” (For elaboration and references, see my THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY, pp. 2ff)

This statement must have appeared quite astonishing to faculty who heard it, and, in any case, no one would have been prepared, in their role as faculty, to give moral guidance in the form of correctionto their students. Persons who know something of the history of the universities would understand that Bok was, apparently, recommending return to a role of which university faculty had been intensely divesting themselves for more than a century. The role of the faculty is research, primarily, along with introduction of students to content and method of various fields of knowledge. The moral character of the faculty had long since ceased to be of any relevance to their work, and moral instruction—that is, actually telling students what is right and wrong, and who is good or evil, trying to influence them toward the right and the good—would be regarded on all hands as screamingly out of place. Being at least mildly disrespectable by old fashioned standards had, by Bok’s time, become a qualification for being heard within the university context. Faculty and others wanted, in John Dewey’s memorable words, “to be good, but not goody.” Fear of being thought goody had then and has now an absolute lock on the actions of Faculty.

This went hand in hand with the settled and socially enforced conviction that in the area of moralsthere was simply nothing to be taught. By the middle of the century, those in the know in faculty circles knew that morals was not an area of knowledge but only an area of feeling. The name of this view within the field of ethical theory was “Non-Cognitivism”:—We don’t know that things such as lying to your clients or stealing your colleagues’ data or ruining their reputation by slander or gossip is wrong, and they are not the sorts of things that could be known. They may be “against the rules,” or even illegal; but that doesn’t mean you are a bad person if you do them. Some people may not like it, and you may even pay a price if caught, but that is something else and does not mean you are a disgusting, evil human being. Indeed, evil is not a reality. No one is reallybad—except possibly those who believe that evil is real or that some people are bad. There is an explanation for everything, and such people just don’t get it. They are unenlightened and dangerous. So it goes.

As a matter of fact, however, the university constantly gives moral guidance to its students. What Bok should have said is that the universities give the wrong moral guidance to students. They give instructions about what reality is and, accordingly, what human nature and life amounts to. This vision of reality and life–constantly hammered into the student through all that the university teaches by what it says and what it does–is what guides the student in their thinking and choices about what to do and who to be.

It is our views of reality (including ourselves) that determine our understandings of who is well-off, of what is good. And our views of what is good in turn determine our views of what we ought to do and who we out to be. The view of reality that is sponsored by the universities is that human beings are animals in a completely physical environment. Social life is just a function of DNA and brain chemistry. Well-being is success in terms of power, security and pleasure. Morality is only a matter of balancing the power, security and pleasure of others with our own. (Anyone who wishes to see a fairly standard presentation of how this is now worked out might read a recent book by Owen Flanagan, THE PROBLEM OF THE SOUL.)

One of the fantasies of contemporary academic life is that you cannot deducewhat you ought to do what from what is the case. This fantasy is to be traced back to a paragraph in David Hume’s TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, which has been associated (wrongly but instructively) with the so-called “Naturalistic Fallacy” emphasized by G. E. Moore. There are significant logical issues to be discussed here, which we cannot go into now. But the fact is that no one ever derives their views of what they ought to do and who they ought to be from anything else than their views of what isthe case. This was true of Hume himself, as is clear from his writings on morality.

The Utilitarian side of Hume’s views—according to which the rightness of an action is largely determined by its consequences for good—show that you can and do derive ought from is, though a great deal more remains to be said about his views. It is precisely human nature (what it is), on his view, that sets the objects of moral approval and disapproval. It is what we are that determines what we ought to do. If we are wrong about what we are we will be wrong about what we ought to do, and will find a reasonto do what we think we ought not to do. (Doesn’t everyone do that?)

The university pretends not to give moral guidance officially because it (supposedly) does not preach and does not include moral instruction in its course content. Perhaps some faculty sincerely believe they are not giving “moral guidance.” In fact, however, a moral instruction—who we are and what good people do–is constantly conveyed by how life is organized on the campus, by body language, tone of voice, what is selected for discussion and what is not, what is rewarded and what is rebuked. It is a code as rigorous as any ever seen on earth, and you only have to get cross-wise of it to find that out.

But by pretending not to give moral guidance the university avoids having to rationally defend the moral guidance it gives. And this is convenient, because much of the moral guidance it gives (diversity, tolerance, radicalism) could find no possible basis except in a view of reality—the theistic one of the Judeo-Christian-Classical tradition—that it explicitly rejects. Efforts to find a view of reality, other than the theistic one, upon which to support the remnants of the highest known moral understanding and practice have simply failed. We now have at least three hundred years of intense effort by some of the best human minds to prove that.

On the other hand, no one has found out that the theistic understanding of reality from which the ethics of divine love (agape) arose and nourished itself is false. For all the shameful failures of “Christian” civilization, and for all the discoveries in special fields of knowledge that have been made since 1600, nothing fundamental about our knowledgeof ultimate issues—what reality fundamentally is or who we are—has changed. (Of course a different, authoritative World View has come into place—the so-called “scientific” one—but that is not the same as knowledge.) This claim requires much careful, detailed work to substantiate or render it plausible. That has to be a given for anyone really interested in and serious about these matters. But the fact is that the university does give moral guidance constantly, and with an iron hand. With reference to the distressing realities of present moral life, corporate and individual, it is precisely the view of reality and human nature sponsored by the university that now underlies them. What else would it be? That the university does not give moral guidance and that—contrary to Bok’s suggestion—it cannot do so is an essential part of that view.

We cannot simply return to the Christian past of the universities, but the honest, critical inquiry which the university at its best has always aspired to must forsake its reactionary position and devote its attention to an open and free-minded scrutiny of the claims of Jesus Christ alongside of the alternatives that now try to tell us who we are and what we ought to be.

This article was re-posted with permission from Dallas Willard Ministries at: