G-d and Man and Sex (!) on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part II


Michelle Togut

Michelle Togut resides in North Carolina with her husband and pets. She has worked as an adjunct professor of history, contributor and writer, and small-firm attorney, among other things. These days, she's trying to sell real estate. For fun, she reads political blogs of all persuasions, practices yoga, drinks wine, hikes, reads, and volunteers for a local animal rescue.

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    I see myself as a moral realist, but Hutchins seems to espouse such a crude conservative aristotelianism that fails to acknowledge the actual diversity of thought that exists among avowed moral realists.Report

    • Avatar Michelle says:

      Hutchins was educated as a lawyer and was Dean of the Yale Law School before moving on to Chicago. I doubt he’d studied much philosophy at the time he wrote the book. At this point, he was very heavily influenced by Mortimer Adler, who received a PhD in psychology from Columbia.

      So yeah, the Aristotelianism is pretty crude, as both men were basically self-taught when it comes to philosophy and were looking for some kind of artificial conversation between philosophers in their readings of the great books.Report

      • Avatar Michelle says:

        When claims of moral relativism are thrown about, they’re usually crude caricatures of people’s actual beliefs and allow for little recognition of the diversity of those beliefs. Most such criticisms amount to moral relativism is bad and dangerous and is undermining our nation and culture because their proponents are pushing their version of the good and the true as an antidote.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        What you describe doesn’t sound like Aristotelianism at all. Wouldn’t Aristotle see observation as a means for understanding the universe? Aquinas, as well? They didn’t take a reason-only approach to epistemology. I’m having trouble with the idea that Adler would describe truth as “self-evident”. I could be mistaken here.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Wouldn’t Aristotle himself be fine with the notion that philsophy had to change with the times? It was Plato who argued for eternal truths, Aristotle was the one who introduced the idea of subjectivity into philosophy.

    American education never really had a strong classics tradition. Mastering Latin and Greek and their associated works was part of the European education tradition since the Middle Ages. During the 19th century, the Classics were stil the cornerstone of elite European education and the what the best and brightest studied during their adolescence before university. I have European friends who went to gymansium where they studies Latin, Greek, and the classics. This tradition was never incorporated into the American education system. I think thats why we have a lot of debates on whether or not kid’s should learn the classics today.Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I guess I fall somewhere between the camps.

    The sciences including the social sciences are important and they do have a place in the university. However, I don’t think you can create a perfectly mathematical world view where everything is quanitifable. Not only is it cruel, it takes away at our humanity.

    Though I am not completely convinced of certain axiomatic truths either. There is something to be said at searching for greater meaning and not needing everything to fit into a mathematical formula.

    Ideally we would be able to combine the two. Teach economics but then also ask fundamental questions of ethics, morality, and fairness.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Not only is it cruel, it takes away at our humanity.

      Humanity, a famously undefined and unidentifiable characteristic. It must be kept removed from the realm of the identifiable and quantifiable lest it be shown to be a negligible value, and humans far more akin to our primate kin than we generally care to admit.

      Or in other words, I’m a social scientist through and through. 😉 (And my political behavior class is chock full of animal kingdom examples.)Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Unsurprisingly, I’m with Hanley. Mathematics is the language of the universe. And how is mathematics cruel exactly?Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        It differentiates, then sometimes it integrates. It is calculative. It is always looking for that angle and at times it even looks for the discriminant. And very regularly, it has final solutions to its problems.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      They’re putting us in little boxes,
      No character just uniformity,
      They’re trying to build a computerised community,
      But they’ll never make a zombie out of me.

  4. Avatar Maribou says:

    My goodness, is this a fine post.

    (Yeah, sorry, I really have nothing more to say than that. However, I wanted to say it anyway.)Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Nothing is quite so dangerous to the inculcation of doctrine in a young person as to let them have the unfettered run of a good library. Mortimer Adler is his own worst enemy in this regard.

    Aristotelians they called themselves. I have elsewhere said we may measure a sage by the idiocy of his disciples: the greater the sage, the stupider the disciples. For all of that dog-priest Mortimer Adler’s high-minded appeal to the halcyon days of yore, Aristotle’s Politics condemns him. In Book II:

    And, if politics be an art, change must be necessary in this as in any other art. That improvement has occurred is shown by the fact that old customs are exceedingly simple and barbarous. For the ancient Hellenes went about armed and bought their brides of each other. The remains of ancient laws which have come down to us are quite absurd; for example, at Cumae there is a law about murder, to the effect that if the accuser produce a certain number of witnesses from among his own kinsmen, the accused shall be held guilty. Again, men in general desire the good, and not merely what their fathers had. But the primeval inhabitants, whether they were born of the earth or were the survivors of some destruction, may be supposed to have been no better than ordinary or even foolish people among ourselves (such is certainly the tradition concerning the earth-born men); and it would be ridiculous to rest contented with their notions. Even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered. As in other sciences, so in politics, it is impossible that all things should be precisely set down in writing; for enactments must be universal, but actions are concerned with particulars.

    There are no absolute truths, though we are utterly dependent upon facts remaining facts — insofar as their underpinnings have not yet falsified. Nor have we exhausted the limits of morals: new conventions are constantly needed. A British man had his computer stolen. It turned up in Iran. He was able to connect to his computer via anti-theft software installed on it: he turned on the camera and took pictures of the people who used it. Posted them to his website. Soon the mortified Persian family contacted him. They had not realised they had purchased a stolen computer. Now they’re attempting to return the computer to its rightful owner.

    The computer’s owner was a decent enough man. He took down the pictures he’d taken of the family. Fundamental decency was at work on both sides of this little incident. New times, new conventions. Human nature has not evolved as fast as our technology but the Stagirite knew actions are concerned with particulars, if Hutchins and Adler did not.

    Truth does not exist for its own sake. Truth is that which has survived the crucible of time and experiment both. If education is to have any lasting validity, it is encapsulated in this statement: we exist for truth’s sake. Men and women have died for those truths: the papers and equipment of Marie Curie are still radioactive and will be for centuries after we are gone.

    We must be people of our times. Morality and ethics do not degenerate. They adapt. One plus one will still equal two tomorrow and we are still looking at the three body problem. As we shall never reach the end of truth, so shall we never reach the end of ethics.

    I have stubbed in my own metaphysical cheat, Christianity, as Einstein stubbed in the Cosmological Constant. It works for me. Justifying my evil deeds and my simultaneous wish to do good is easier if I accept that I do evil and stupid things, knowing better. And when I don’t, I’m not operating in the light of truth and taking the short-term view of things. It should be noted Mortimer Adler was reduced to the same cheat, embracing religion and not reason. Adler reduced this debate to a false dichotomy like some two-bit preacher thumping the Bible. Sola Scriptura thundered Martin Luther. The dogmatist always falls into the trap he set for others: betrayed by his own metaphysical axioms he so rudely condemned in others.Report