A moral,” in ordinary usage supported by the dictionary, is used in two ways. It means, in Professor Mearsheimer’s words, “mum on ethical issues,” morally neutral. But it also means “morally insensible,” verging on immoral. The University of Chicago is, he says, a “remarkably amoral institution.” But is an amorality that does not shade off into immorality thinkable? And if it is, is it livable? For long? That is the first question his choice of words raises.
Mearsheimer’s exposition of the university’s ethos (which reads like an unwitting exposure) is so forthright and probably factual, that it seems misplaced to attack him for it. Isn’t he accurately and candidly describing the trend at “elite” universities? Isn’t it in want of clear-headed articulation? Shouldn’t the freshmen be told what their school stands for?
And that raises another question. It seems—I would even say, it is—a moral fact that observations of trends imply two possible responses. We may feel a kind of obligation to the current fact and the likely future to go along and even to engage in the buoyant activity of expediting the inevitable. Or we may acknowledge the fact, discern an evil, and resist. The second question that Mearsheimer’s address implicitly raises is: Which of these does the ethical condition of the universities require?
Well, I am for resistance, but resistance by disengagement. The great universities are colossi on the educational scene and irresistible, the more so since they probably have to be just what Mearsheimer says they are. In such cases, the thing to do is to go to the margins and carry on there against a future turnabout. At the margins of the topography of higher education in America are the colleges and small universities. In them a non-amoral community can still be realized
But is the moral neutrality to which the freshmen are introduced really an evil? “Evil” is much too strong a word for a condition that fits the institutional type. The elite universities are not unitary communities but disparate collections of atomic individuals joining in shifting patterns to accomplish various goals, among which the education of the young is not the least, but not the first either. First is the discovery of new knowledge (which the students are allowed to witness) and the [End Page 166] productivity and reputation of the professors (whom the students are encouraged to emulate). The good of the students probably comes second, and the cherishing of the institution is a distant third. Under these circumstances any attempt at moral commonality is bound to end in contention-producing nullity.
Moreover, since the contemporary university is not, as was its medieval avatar, committed to a hierarchy of knowledge, but shelters assertively equal and vigorously competing disciplines, there is an inevitable multiplicity of intellectual and ethical standards. What holds it all together are reciprocal hands-off agreements, though the intra-disciplinary ethical standards require periodic individual soul-searching from the professors.
Now Mearsheimer tells the students that they too, as students, have certain—limited—moral obligations. Cheating and fraud are unacceptable. And here the problem lies. The students’ morality seems to be conceived on the analogy of the professional standards. It is an institutional necessity subject to personal, even lonely, adherence and review. This view of morality does not seem quite workable to me. A professor is part-professional and part-human, but a student is still all-human. To expect a young human being to maintain professionally defined, narrowly delimited morals within a context of amorality seems somewhat unconsidering to me. Simply put: the amoral university does in fact require morality, but it is a specialized, atomized morality. Such a thing appears very precarious. Besides, these sanctionable offenses do not seem quite as bad as shallow brilliance and intellectual operating. Yet these are evils an environment bare of sustained public moral conversation is unlikely to bring home to students.
To be sure, in Mearsheimer’s account the university does provide opportunities for the exercise of virtues—of intellectual as distinct from moral virtues. But they all have a dubious and dangerous edge, mostly because when...