A Parting Shot: The Moral Sense at Harvard

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

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?"