'Moral Philosophy' in a Secular University

Concern for Character Necessary For Intellectual Achievement

In the Spring of 1958, the Harvard community was shaken by a heated, often bitter discussion concerning the role that religion should play within the University. The controversy focused at once on charges of discriminatory practices regarding the use of Memorial Church, and more sensational charges of anti-semitism threatened to obscure the true issues. In a deeper sense, the central problem was whether or not Harvard as an institution should be committed to a particular religion, or indeed to religion at all. When one considers that Harvard was originally founded to prepare men for the Christian ministry, it became clear how basic this problem was, not only for the present, but also in terms of the traditions and continuity of the College.

Two main arguments, each vehemently supported, emerged from the confusion of accusations and defenses. On one side, it was reasoned that a university which includes members of many different religions should not officially embrace one to the exclusion of others; and some held further that it was not within the function of the contemporary Harvard to take any formal stand whatsoever concerning religion. The opponents of this view contended that commitment to religion necessitated the choosing of one, that just as a church can not be treated as a "cafeteria," as one professor described it, neither can Harvard be religious, abstractly, without carrying this belief into practice through one particular religion. Supporters of this latter view feared that without an institutional example, students would cease to be concerned about religion, and become agnostic through apathy rather than conviction.

If religion is formally removed from the College sphere, a crucial problem arises: namely, the moral education of the student. Among those most actively concerned with the implications of secularism at Harvard is President Pusey, who last June devoted his Baccalaureate address to the subject of moral philosophy at Harvard. Describing the history of this subject in American colleges and particularly at Harvard, he went on to discuss the position of moral concerns in the contemporary college.

Pusey's Baccalaureate Address

President Pusey noted that the climax of a Harvard education was once a formal course in moral philosophy which constituted the main activity of the Senior year, and was taught by the President of the College. He described this course as "a comprehensive study of human nature, ranging over the whole field of physical, moral, and intellectual philosophy ... it dealt with the individual, the family, and the state; with law and freedom, with practical problems of economics and government, with property rights and slavery, and with questions posed in generation after generation concerning belief ... it never lost sight of a central purpose, which was, in the words of one early president, '(to teach) men their duty and the reason for it." Pusey then asked, "Where in our college has this course gone?"

The almost-graduated Seniors may have found it strange and unfamiliar to hear a discussion of this sort at Harvard. The last time they had been addressed together, as newly arrived Freshmen, talk had centered around the practical problems of college life, such as the nature of the curriculum and the optimum participation in extra-curricular activities. Four years before they had heard very little talk of ethics or character, and since that time perhaps even less.

Not Taught, But Learned

Moral philosophy is not widely discussed at Harvard, either in classes or out. But unfamiliar as President Pusey's subject was, the answer he supplied to his own question was even more surprising. Speaking of who it is that teaches the course in moral philosophy today, he said "Together perhaps--you, your teachers, all of us, with those who have been here before us--together perhaps we do. From the beginning this course set for itself aims which cannot be taught. But they can be learned, and it is my belief that as in an earlier day, so they continued to be learned here now....Surely the course in moral philosophy which you have had here, taught neither by professor nor president, but which you have given yourselves, is no contemptible course."

There are some people, including some Harvard students, for whom any given four years can be considered a course in moral philosophy. These people are concerned about moral behavior and attitude, and usually see all of life as an object lesson. But for the student who comes to Harvard lacking such concerns--and these are the ones who most need such a course--it is as likely as not that they will go through four years here without having been stimulated in this area to any appreciable degree.

Random Ethical Concern

The caricatured college "types" immediately come to mind: the scientist whose world becomes identified with the laboratory, for whom equations assume a greater importance than people; or the prep school socialites whose snobberies are merely confirmed and intensified during four years in Cambridge. These extremes, if they exist at all, are far outnumbered by students who do think about morality, and occasionally even worry over it, but whose thinking is sporadic and undirected and whose worries are easily pushed aside by more immediate problems, academic, social, or financial.

Although most of the contents of the old course in moral philosophy continue to survive--split up among the several fields which the course had integrated--they have become divorced from their original purpose of molding character and illustrating duty; one does not become ethical, for example, by studying in a course on ethics.

Reinstituting the formal course at Harvard today is almost unthinkable, not because the subject matter has become obsolete, but because the didactic nature and ultimate aims of the course would seem to conflict with other values now implicitly considered more important to the College. One of these values, that of independence, is not strictly speaking a part of the curriculum, but it is talked about often, and its significance is felt in many aspects of Harvard life. Another value, that of critical scholarship, is taught in nearly every course in the University.

If independence and scholarship merely prevented the teaching of moral philosophy, but did not interfere with the learning of its aims, and if Harvard students did show a marked concern for ethical conduct, character, and duty, there would be no reason to discuss this subject. But these concerns do not in fact manifest themselves consistently either abstractly or in practice; and while they are often excluded because of a real conflict of desired values, their absence can also be ascribed to indolence and to a communal atmosphere which agrees to ignore them.

Intellect and Moral Character