- Morality, Individual Responsibility, and the Law
I am a non-academic: a federal prosecutor in New York City who also worked for several years as a civil litigator defending the City in a variety of lawsuits raising constitutional claims. For me, it is a given that universities have the important obligation of preparing their students to become meaningful participants in social life. [End Page 178]
A democratic system committed to free expression governs social life in our country. This is fortunate, for all intellectuals wish to participate in a society with as much room for criticism, new ideas and reflection as they think appropriate. Indeed, it is by now a truism that a democratic system must have as its constituents thoughtful as well as active members if it is to survive. There is, however, more to social participation than presenting a flux of ideas. The participants must understand the country they contribute to and benefit from. They must understand what makes it work, what can improve it, and what can destroy it. In my view, universities do provide this understanding by teaching the humanities, which are nothing if not studies of what makes human life worthwhile and how we should interact with the world. This education best prepares us for participation in this country because our system of government and the United States Constitution are the legacy of Western civilization. The ethical spirit of this country’s laws are powerful, and this is not an accident of nature. The laws resulted from the lessons in Western thought, so rigorously studied at places like the University of Chicago.
Against this backdrop, Professor Mearsheimer’s emphatic message that universities do not concern themselves with moral issues is startling. His address to those who will shape this country through the next half-century could not have been more misleading. Great universities like Chicago provide a compelling moral guide to their undergraduates and they must continue to do so as long as they aspire to educate. That same guide is explicit in the Constitution of the United States and implicit in our social structure. Mearsheimer subscribes to at least one of these principles: that truth has value. While, oddly enough, he relegates the pursuit of truth to a mere proscription of plagiarism, it is a distinctly moral position that has an immeasurable practical impact on our society. There is at least one other equally profound principle our society has adopted which is critical in undergraduate programs at institutions like the University of Chicago: respect for human rights, also called, at various times, dignity, autonomy, or human spirit. From these twin moral aspirations, our nation has derived countless laws and rules of conduct that universities do and should prepare their students to understand.
Devotion to truth and human rights are among the many lasting lessons of an education in the humanities and, in teaching students about these values, universities come nowhere close to indoctrination or any other mind-narrowing process so offensive to a liberal education. [End Page 179] By studying political philosophy texts as diverse as Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Marx’s Communist Manifesto, students analyze the authors’ theories about the best way to govern individuals. Each author employs rigorous arguments based on what he deems propositions at the very foundations of knowledge and logic; truth, in short. Even as students proceed to twentieth-century thought, where rigorous scepticism challenges the very possibility of knowledge, they encounter unblinking devotion to truth in the works of tortured intellectuals like Nietzsche, rebelling against the rational heritage of Greek philosophy, or Wittgenstein, who no less fiercely plumbed the depths and limits of logic. An education composed of such courses where ideas are so diverse poses no danger of indoctrination.
Similarly, literature courses develop a student’s moral sensibilities in ways that few would deem “dangerous.” Great works as old as Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and those of more recent authors like Tolstoy, Jane Austen and Dostoevsky have shaped the modern respect for the individual spirit. Long after Romanticism died, and pragmatism gained favor in every way, Wallace Stevens’s eye for beauty in an increasingly...