More than two millennia ago, Aristotle stressed the importance of education in developing ethical character. For the ancients, virtue was an activity that could — and should — be taught. A recent column in the News (“Forgetting our roots,” Nov. 12, 2014) echoed Aristotle’s sentiments, proposing Yale institute a theology requirement as a way of providing students with a moral education.
Though this last recommendation is unlikely to come to fruition, amoral pedagogy is ahistorical. It is difficult if not impossible to separate the study of the liberal arts from some notion of “the good” or “the right.” Even those who view the end of education as high earnings or technological innovation must eventually ask, what does it mean to live a good life? (They are alive after all.) The popularity of courses like “Life” demonstrates the ubiquitous appeal of this question. Yale students and most thinkers throughout history have certainly been interested in finding the answer.
But, the complete lack of consensus among the men and women who have sought to give an account of what makes life meaningful raises a further question: How ought Yale to go about instilling moral virtue when there’s no agreement about what moral virtue is (or whether it exists at all)?
Philosophy class is not enough. We put up with endless permutations of the trolley problem for intellectual stimulation, but most of us would prefer to live, not just know, the good. Moral education, then, transcends the study of Korsgaard and Parfit. A true moral education forces us to question every choice, habit and custom of daily life. In short, it concerns not only how we think, but how we act.
To its credit, Yale does make a few efforts to get students thinking about practical ethical dilemmas, most notably the “fro-yo” workshop on navigating the minefield of college relationships.
But it would be a grave mistake to call this exercise a serious instance of moral education. For one thing, most students already know, at least on a cognitive level, what consent is and why it matters. Some psychological factoids and statistics give these workshops the veneer of instruction, but most of the conversation ends up reinforcing norms that we all agree upon. The entire enterprise, in fact, only makes sense with the assumption that students already agree with its conclusion — no one could seriously think that an hour-long session would be sufficient to instill a new and binding morality.
There’s a deeper problem, though, that belies Yale’s façade of ethical tutelage. The consent workshops, the admonitory emails before every major event, the Camp Yale remarks on mutual respect and good choices — none of them makes any attempt to disguise their preconceived moral minimalism. As long as you consent and don’t end up at Yale Health, the administration ostensibly cares little about your day-to-day decisions. The programming of opening days seems to hinge more or less on a single axiom: There’s no use in judging or even questioning the choices and lifestyles of college students. As far as the powers that be are concerned, they have fulfilled whatever obligations they might have to our moral and spiritual well-being by making sure we can do whatever we want without obviously damaging anything or anyone.
I do not want to dismiss this view. It could (maybe) prove correct. But promulgating any ethic as gospel is antithetical to the objective of moral education. The predominance of social progressivism crowds out real discussion about the best way(s) to live, a serious problem in light of how complex life can be.
Yale should not try to habituate us to any one paradigm of the good. If the history of philosophy has shown us anything, it is the difficulty of such a task. But the expectation that Yale provoke a real discussion about how we live our lives, beyond the obvious prohibitions, is not unreasonable. Why not include a post fro-yo addendum on sexual ethics beyond consent? Or, for that matter, a discussion on the moral status of pursuing a consulting job?
A school that considers itself a leader amongst universities should not have as its main project the reification of the status quo. True innovation — material and moral — comes from dialogue, not dogma.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.