The Marginalisation of Morality

Since effort to find a scientific basis for morality has failed, it is necessary to re-think the university curriculum


Dr Asad Zaman June 14, 2015
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

Harvard professor Julie Reuben has documented an important historical transition in the life of US universities over the period 1880-1930 in her book entitled, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Rueben describes a variety of intellectual and historical developments that led universities to abandon their longstanding tradition of building character as well as imparting education, and makes the argument that universities’ abandonment of morality caused great social damage to Western society.

Most colleges in the US started out as religious seminaries. The concept of the unity of knowledge led them to embrace scientific and technological teaching within their curricula. Since all knowledge illuminates the Divine, in teaching physics, astronomy etc., teachers were expected to attend to the beautiful truths to be read in the works of God. Many difficulties arose in the execution of this educational programme. One source of difficulty was the conflicts among different denominations of Protestant Christianity.

To resolve such conflicts, scholars with an implicit faith in unity of knowledge proposed a purely scientific approach to morals in the hope that this would lead to scientific support for traditional Christian morality. Courses were developed to “arouse in (the student) a consciousness of his relationships and a realisation of his responsibilities,” in many universities. The promotion of social sciences became, on this view, a moral mission. In the early 20th century, social scientists portrayed themselves as agents of moral progress. World War I reinforced these views as many thought that these awful calamities were a result of ignorance about the social and political sciences. The phenomenal growth of social sciences provides evidence of the university reformers’ strong desire to continue the traditional association between higher education and moral leadership.

The development of the philosophy of logical positivism dealt a deadly blow to the desire to integrate moral, spiritual, intellectual and scientific traditions within the university curriculum. According to this philosophy, which became widely accepted, facts and values are sharply separated. Science is based only on facts, while there is no empirical basis for values. The moral, spiritual and humanitarian traditions fall outside the boundaries of science. As an additional blow, the philosophy of emotivist ethics relegated all such human concerns to being mere emotional responses, not subject to intellectual discussion. Under the influence of these ideas, social scientists hid normative concerns within apparently objective frameworks. Increasingly, specialisation and fragmentation of knowledge became the norm for a university education.

Reuben describes the multidimensional efforts made by the universities to retain an element of character building, moral and spiritual training within their curricula. All such efforts failed, and gradually and reluctantly, universities chose to focus solely upon providing technical knowledge, abandoning moral goals.

Hilary Putnam, and other contemporary philosophers, have shown that facts and values are inextricably entangled — they cannot be separated. Logical positivism has collapsed. Since the effort to find a scientific basis for morality has failed, it is necessary to re-think the university curriculum and to re-introduce spiritual and moral training alongside the scientific and technical. Failure to do so has led to university graduates who have committed great crimes against humanity without recognition or remorse. David Halberstam’s classic, The Best and Brightest, shows how graduates of elite universities bombed Vietnam and Cambodia, killing more than two million civilians without compunction. Loss of a moral compass is also illustrated by the secret Congressional testimony of the physicist Oppenheimer who described the brilliant fireworks that would result from atom bomb first, and the carnage in terms of human lives later. Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century documents genocide, mass killings and levels of barbarism unparalleled in human history. The necessity of re-introducing moral training is evident from the fact that elites educated in the finest universities have participated in, and crafted, strategies for killing millions of innocents. The key to the lost knowledge for character development lies in recognising that the ties of shared humanity which bind us all are much stronger than the crafted identities (ethnic, national, linguistic, religious, and others) which separate and create hatred.  These lessons are available in a rich literature which has been dropped from university curricula in favour of technical training.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th,  2015.

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COMMENTS (3)

Harris | 5 years ago | Reply The author is spot on with this. I remember Professor Chomsky saying that the more elite the institutions, the more its students adhere to concepts of conformity. This can be conformity to the supremacy of their ideas, knowledge, etc. over others'. Intellectual humility has become a thing of the past through the commodification of education. Excellent article!
Tousif Latif | 5 years ago | Reply Killings and carnage has nothing to do with education.The innate overriding desire to overwhelm and occupy others,particularly weak and vulnerable to extort and exploit has always won traction of powerful and mighty.Alaxander the great ,Tambarlaine ,Aurangzeb"Napolean,none of them was among the university wits,but their actions claimed the lives of millions,even father and brothers were not spared.Only way out of this conundrum is in unflinching faith in creating a more pluralistic,democratic and an equal opporunity providing state structure that none other but our own country need the most.
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