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A Parting Shot: The Moral Sense at Harvard

A Crimson President Reflects on the Need for Harvard Students to Listen to Their Consciences

By Ira E. Stoll

I was, when I was younger, a Boy Scout. The program appealed to me because it involved chopping down trees, building fires, getting dirty and being outdoors--things that I liked to do. The program also had a moral component, most obvious at the start or end of troop meetings, when we recited the Scout Law: "A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

I can't say that from ages 11 to 15 I thought all that much about the philosophical basis of the qualities included in the Scout Law. But I think that they made intuitive sense. They fit with what I learned from my parents and rabbis and teachers.

If Harvard tried to institute a "Harvard Law," to start off class sessions or school days or semesters or academic years with a promise by Harvard students and professors to try to be "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent," the effort would probably be doomed to failure.

First, there's a distrust of recitation as a means of character building or education. More importantly, though, Harvard people, in their hyper-educated sophistication, are for the most part uncomfortable with the notion of morality and with the public discussion of virtues and vices and their distinctions. That, I think, is troubling.

This is not to say that there are no moral people at Harvard, or that groups of people within the University never think or act or argue on moral grounds. I have been fortunate to encounter a few such people in my time here; have my gratitude for making my years here happy ones.

This is also not to say that Harvard students are morally bankrupt. Roughly 60 percent are involved in some community service activity during their four years here. Many Harvard people act morally; all too often, however, they omit morality from their justifications for their actions.

I'm not arguing that Harvard students lack consciences, only that they too often fail to listen to them. In his recent book The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson argues convincingly that, through a combination of heredity and environment, every human is imbued with a moral sense, "an intuitive or directly felt belief about how one ought to act when one is free to act voluntarily." He cites sympathy, fairness, self-control and duty as examples of the moral sense. But Wilson also argues that trends in modern intellectual history have led people to ignore their moral sense. Harvard is a case in point.

Who am I to say? It's true, I'm not perfect and I've made mistakes. Probably, the same goes for you. But we both have natural moral senses, and we ought not treat them as vestiges of pre-modern times. You'll hardly ever discuss moral issues if you only discuss them with perfect people. The point of this essay is that we all should be involved in sensing and considering and talking about the moral issues of the day.

Certainly, I don't expect Harvard to adopt its own version of the Scout Law, and I'm not sure it should. But I do think a lot of people here would benefit from more public discussion and thought about the virtues outlined in the Scout Law. And I can offer three years worth of examples of Harvard people who either ignored their moral senses or allowed them to be obscured by cynicism, ambition or greed. Consider:

Reading about Billary Clinton's flirtation with Michael Lerner and his "politics of meaning," I was sorry it was so late--that even after their inauguration, the Clintons were still casting about for meaning. But the reaction of several of my friends was worse. They were disappointed that the Clintons were worrying about such questions at all, arguing that Billary ought to worry about politics and policy, not "meaning."

Many Harvard students cheated on tests in high school. Many cheat on tests at Harvard.

Someone apparently stole tens of thousands of dollars raised in a student benefit for the Jimmy Fund cancer charity.

The Black Students Association invited notorious bigot and anti-Semite Leonard Jeffries to speak on campus; the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations sponsored a campus speech by Conrad Muhammad, another notorious anti-Semite.

Fraud in student elections is so common it is hardly even a story anymore. The Business School Finance Club, the Undergraduate Council, the Harvard Republican Club and the Asian American Association all have had election scandals. In some cases, students simply admitted to rigging the elections.

Harvard students flock in huge numbers, with lots of resume padding and little self-examination, to high-paying jobs in investment banking, management consulting and corporate law. Career choices are too often based on "where can I get a job for the most money?" rather than "where can I be most useful for society?" or even, "where can I be happy and productive?"

Governor William F. Weld '66, who enjoys remarkable popularity among Harvard students, just gave a state of the state address calling for broad-based tax cuts, with the revenue to be made up by legalized, state-promoted gambling. Gambling isn't necessarily immoral, but there are moral issues involved when the state funds a tax cut by, in some cases, taking advantage of helpless gambling addicts.

What's gone wrong? To some extent, Harvard students are just falling in with broad societal trends. We scorn religion, as Stephen Carter has recently written in A Culture of Disbelief. We are a "nation of victims" (Charles Sykes) that converses in "right talk" (Mary Ann Glendon). We live in a culture of entitlement with an ideology of self-interest that dupes us into ignoring what we know is right.

The eighties aren't dead--they live on with a vengeance. This isn't all just sixties nostalgia, either. I realize that a lot of those people protesting against the war in Vietnam weren't doing so because they thought the war was wrong, but simply because they didn't want to go fight.

Isolated moral failings go back to Biblical times (remember Adam and Eve's failure of self-control?), but what's new is the widespread cynicism, the lack of serious conversation among the intellectual elite about moral failings or even moral virtues. Wilson thinks the trend has something to do with the popularization and distortion of ideas from the fields of philosophy, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology. Whatever the causes, all I know for sure is that this moral indifference is very much a fact of life at Harvard, now.

I am proudest of The Crimson when it points out the moral failings of the Harvard community and when it acts as a spur to the consciences of its readers. News judgment is similar to (but not identical to) a finely tuned sense of moral outrage. So it's been news over the last three years that Harvard didn't pay its clerical and technical workers enough for them to afford adequate child care.

It's been news that administrators in the Expository Writing Program and in the University's security guard unit made life miserable for their employees.

It's been news that students fixed elections, that women's athletic teams were underfunded, that a tutor in Dunster House gave jobs to his friends and relatives and that some Cambridge banks don't pursue lending opportunities in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Readers sometimes complain about all the bad news in The Crimson. Of course, we do report good news when it happens (earlier this year, for example, we endorsed and wrote much about the expected move of prominent scholar Cornel West '74 from Princeton to Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department).

Yet even when we write stories about problems, ours is an optimistic undertaking. We choose to write about things when we see something that can be improved, when Harvard isn't measuring up to our moral sense. We expect better; we hope for better. Unlike the Harvard Gazette, the university propaganda organ that tells you about the perfect Harvard, The Crimson gives you the real Harvard, including flaws.

When I joined The Crimson, the comp posters advertised "make a difference." I was somewhat disturbed to see new comp posters reading "make headlines." The new appeal is to the ego; the old appeal was to the moral sense. I hope this change doesn't mean much; I know that in the time I've been reading the paper, The Crimson has, in addition to making headlines, made a difference.

There are, of course, dangers concomitant with a moral reawakening. It could degenerate into self-righteousness, tend to overly hasty moral judgments, or spawn a politically correct neo-puritanism marked by insensitivity witchhunts.

The alternative, though, is what we have now: Serbs slaughter and starve Bosnian Muslims daily, immigration officials in Florida deny asylum to Haitians fleeing political persecution, Harvard students shamelessly rig elections, and many readers pick up their newspaper and read about these things and shrug and say, essentially, "What do you expect?" and "Who am I to judge?"

Better they should ask, "How can I make things better?"

Ira E. Stoll '94 was President of The Crimson in 1993.

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