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  • Introducing Professor Mearsheimer to His Own University
  • Wayne C. Booth (bio)

Everyone I’ve talked with at the University of Chicago has been shocked or angered by Mearsheimer’s claim that we avoid moral questions. Teaching about morality and how to think about moral issues goes on almost everywhere here—most obviously, of course, in the humanities, but also in the sciences. It’s hard to understand how any faculty member who talks with colleagues, or even consults the annual course listings, could fall into Mearsheimer’s way of describing the place.

It is possible that much of his misleading account can be blamed on his narrow and misleading use of the “moral” vocabulary. I hope that Philosophy and Literature will provide him a chance to respond, and perhaps even work up an explanation for what seem to us both factual errors and unethical talk about the somewhat larger question of ethical education.

It is certainly true that our course titles reveal only a few references to “moral” or “morality,” and only a few more to “ethics” and “ethical.” But it’s hard to imagine how anyone could possibly take that as evidence for his case. His claim is that there is a sharp difference between “the pursuit of knowledge on the one hand, and the study of morality on the [End Page 174] other hand,” and that at Chicago “few classes” “discuss ethics or morality in any detail,” because we are an “amoral institution” pursuing nothing but critical thinking about knowledge. He reveals here that he has fallen into the by-now totally discredited fact/value distinction: we can get knowledge only about facts, and we can only speculate or sermonize about values, and at Chicago we are much too sophisticated to do that.

Before considering Mearsheimer’s self-contradictions about just what “moral” teaching might be, I offer a few literal quotations that refute his claim. Scanning the 1997 college catalogue, I find courses like the following [italics are mine]:

—“Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities . . . mainly but not exclusively concerning ethics and knowledge . . . The autumn quarter focuses on Greek conceptions of ethics . . .”

—“Seminar: The Craft of Anthropology—Methods and Ethics

—“Science and Ethics: This course explores scientific and ethical underpinnings of the biological sciences.”

—“Cicero’s De Officiis. This work was for centuries the central ethical guide . . . We study the text closely against the background of Stoic ethics . . .”

—“Business Ethics in Historical Perspective”

—“Environmental Ethics

—“Introduction to Ethics. After studying the most influential types of ethical theory, we turn to their practical applications.”

—“Moral theory.”

—“Law and Literature” studying the relationship “between textual form and ethical content . . . the role of compassion and mercy in criminal law . . .”

—Spinoza’s Ethics

—“Politics of the Environment . . . we begin with a discussion of normative and ethical issues . . .”

—“Wealth, Power, and Virtue . . . explores how the social sciences contribute to understanding human behavior and advancing human values.”

Of course one can never tell from such listings to what degree the instructor is indoctrinating a given code of “moral values,” or genuinely [End Page 175] exploring real issues, or even teaching Mearsheimer’s most touted virtue, critical thinking. It may be that some of those courses are taught in as amoral a way as Mearsheimer claims to be our ideal.

He himself violates that claim throughout his talk. As soon as we move beyond literal language to think about what it means to teach moral or ethical behavior, not just virtues in the narrow sense but the whole range of admirable or useful human habits of mind or intellectual characteristics, we find that Mearsheimer himself is preaching an ethical code. He stresses that he wants students to learn to be like him, pursuing for example the virtue of “contentiousness” in their critical thinking. What could be a more clear demand upon students’ ethos than that—with or without openly moral vocabulary? He wants students to develop both “hubris,” and “humility”; he wants them to develop “broad intellectual horizons.” And he says that Chicago aims to “promote self-awareness” of a kind that will enable students to “deal with adversity.” In short, he’s engaged in moralizing all the way.

It is only after offering his...

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