'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

One might question initially whether a college in which religion has been relegated strictly to the individual can turn around and claim for itself the field of moral philosophy--or whether it should content itself with the area of intellectual inquiry. This objection cannot be answered absolutely, unless a college education be defined broadly enough to include things other than merely academic matters. As Raphael Demos, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity has observed, "The distinction between right and wrong is surely no less important than that between true and false." Professor Demos also points out that, far from being contradictory, the two fields complement one another: "Intellectual achievement is normally not possible without moral character."

Too often, these two categories--intellectual achievement and moral character--are divided from one another as if they were not only separate but also mutually exclusive. As students, we are taught to rid ourselves of biases in studying history, and to consider art as above and removed from morality. What is not so often stressed is the necessity, and desirability, of moral judgements in history, or the fact that criticism of a work of art is itself a moral action. The whole academic world is involved with morality, but the distinction between "objective" investigation and "subjective" judgment can at times serve as a pretext to ignore this involvement. If moral philosophy cannot be taught, it can at least be discussed as if it were an important topic in itself, rather than an impurity in the academic microscope to be discounted if it cannot be gotten rid of.

Indoctrination in the Classroom

It is also a mistake to pretend that students are left entirely free from proselytizing and indoctrination in the classroom, but are only presented the issues and allowed to decide for themselves. We are persuaded in many areas: the scientific method is urged upon us, as is logic and rationality; democracy is often preached, and totalitarianism almost universally inveighed against; and in the humanities, standards of taste are handed down in a fashion that sometimes approaches coercion. Outside the classroom, some teachers feel even freer in pontificating on these and related questions, but there is almost no moral guidance or consideration of conduct, character, and duty.

The entire concept of guidance is sure to grate on any Harvard student, who traditionally prizes his independence, and who scoffs at other Ivy Leaguers and more distant colleagues who are still spoon-fed by a bevy of counselors, advisors, and deans. At Harvard, freedom is an almost sacred word, with individualism only slightly less exalted. But freedom implies responsibility, which is not so often thought of. During the college years, new freedoms appear at a bewildering rate, and inevitably some cannot be immediately coped with. There is freedom of time and of action in great quantities. The student usually makes his final post-adolescent break with parental authority and many of the values of home and childhood, including often religious beliefs.

Breakdown of Values

Before the vacuum which remains can be filled with an organized ethical system, there intervenes a period in which conduct of any sort passes unchecked and uncensured. To add to this, the student is encouraged to question critically all of his ideas and assumptions, initially an extremely destructive process. He sees himself as not yet fully adult, and hence not responsible for his actions in any sense that could be termed permanent, much less eternal.

In this situation there is surely an educational problem, and Harvard's "sink-or-swim" answer may or may not be the best solution. But, without curtailing or inhibiting their freedom, students could be made much more aware of their responsibilities, both personal and social. As it is, Harvard students cannot be talked to, nor can they really be trusted. Fines, punishments, and policing are routine, and there is conspicuously no honor system of any kind at a College which has and does place so much emphasis on being a gentleman.

Although the University is often referred to as a community of scholars, the force of the word community goes largely unnoticed. There is little sense of community outside the intellectual sphere at Harvard, even in the matter of generosity toward one's fellow students.

The idea of community service receives little mention: for most people Phillips Brooks House remains an activity to be squeezed in if there is time left over, and motives often involve personal interests, such as pre-medical work, rather than altruism. Outdated and offensive. the attitude of noblesse oblige is no longer tenable, but at the same time no other incentive has replaced the feeling of obligation which this for merly produced. The four years at college can easily become an artificial vacation from responsibility toward others as well as toward oneself.

Rationale of Duty

Discussion of careers among undergraduates is surprisingly limited, and decisions concerning them are in many cases not reached even by the end of senior year. With fellowships relatively easy to come by, and graduate school always available as a last resort, the decision can be postponed until "something comes up," and no decision at all is required. Vocational guidance counselors are clearly not the answer, but a liberal arts college should counterbalance its aims in general education by stimulating its students to reflect upon "their duty, and the reasons for it."

In considering a career, "duty" and "service" are suspect terms, usually quickly discarded. And yet, how often do security, prestige, or income affect our decisions? Many times our youthful ideas and ambitions fail to materialize because they involve risks, or appear socially dubious, or, time and again, not lucrative enough.

Although the desire for success and prestige is by no means peculiar to the College, it does receive an intellectual respectability here from the aristocratic ideal which pervades Harvard thinking. More perhaps than any other college, Harvard is convinced of its superiority, not only academically--which may have some demonstrable basis--but in a sort of intangible mystique which can be felt by any Freshman during his first week here. This attitude has both its good and bad sides. At its best, it produces a drive for, and appreciation of, excellence; it maintains high standards and good taste. At its worst, however, it gives rise to cavalier disdain and snobbery, to what has been termed "upper-directed" behavior, to pride, and to false pride. Humility remains a rare quality at Harvard.

Concern for Prestige

The individual quickly assumes to himself the superiority of the institution. With this view, it becomes difficult for the student to choose a career without worrying, for example, how it will look in the 25th Reunion class book--evaluating life in a way that belies a primarily humanistic outlook.

If a student cannot absorb what he has learned in the academic curriculum, and make it a part of his life, then, to a certain extent, his education has failed. It is of no use to know intellectually what is right if he does the opposite. Attitudes, ideals, and conduct are as much the measure of an education as the quality of the mind. To believe that discrimination on a racial or religious basis is ethically wrong, and then to become a member of a student organization or club which practices such discrimination is not only hypocritical, but also, in tacitly subscribing to the policy, an unethical action.

Harvard's Exemplary Role

With regard to ethics, the University is not confined to education by precept, but is rather forced into an exemplary role every time it acts officially. When President Pusey stood firm against the late Senator MacCarthy at a time when it was not yet fashionable to oppose the anti-communists, it was an object lesson which must surely have made a great impression on the students at the College. And when a distinguished professor was forced to resign in protest against Faculty politics, it also had an effect. The current problem of the N.D.E.A. funds presents a classic ethical problem in which principles of academic freedom may conflict with acute monetary needs. If the University is concerned for the moral education of its students, it must also be conscious of the consequences of its actions.

The foregoing discussion is not intended to constitute any sort of indictment of Harvard, nor is it meant to be a description of an "immoral" college. It is rather an inquiry into the educational aims of the College, to see whether they are as complete as they might be, or whether there is a certain amount of complacency concerning the efficacy of a Harvard education.

Visions of Greatness

It is not inconsistent to assume that while college students should be treated as adults, their moral education should be attended to more closely. The banishment of religion from the formal province of the university does not remove the responsibility for moral education; on the contrary, it makes the problem more difficult. President Pusey has asserted that these things cannot be taught. Nevertheless, an awareness and concern on the part of the College is necessary if they are to be learned.

Professor Demos quotes Whitehead in connecting moral education with "visions of greatness." At Harvard we have the opportunity to come into contact with greatness in many forms, through the curriculum, and through association with professors and students, some of whom may possess greatness in one way or another. We need to look for it, and to desire to see it. But we also need to learn how to recognize these visions, and how to transform them into experience that will have both beauty and meaning for our lives.