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  • Mearsheimer’s Response: “Teaching Morality at the Margins”
  • John J. Mearsheimer (bio)

I appreciate the opportunity to reply to the responses to my Aims of Education Address. I am especially pleased to have a chance to expand on my claim that colleges and universities like the University of Chicago are fundamentally amoral institutions. I had no idea when I prepared my address that it would generate such controversy. But I am glad it did, because the subject is of central importance to the academy and it is certainly open to different perspectives. Indeed, I was impressed by the varied responses to my talk and intrigued to see how others think about universities and moral education. In the end, however, I remain convinced that teaching morality is a non-aim at Chicago as well as its peer institutions.

Let me begin by noting where I agree and disagree with my interlocutors. As noted in my address, I was mainly trying to describe how Chicago and other like-minded schools deal with ethics. I was not laying out my own thinking on whether and how universities should teach morality, a matter I leave for another day. Thus, I do not accept Daniel Gordon’s assertion that I view “moral discourse as an outdated residue of theology—something that has no place in the modern university.” I did not say that, and moreover, I do not believe it. Nor do I accept his claim that my “picture of the University of Chicago is nothing other than a projection into the educational sphere of [my] amoral vision of how politics operate.” For what it’s worth, I believe that morality has an important role to play in politics. But again, my aim was to describe Chicago as I saw it, not to offer my own views on what Chicago should look like in an ideal world.

Patrick Henry and Wayne Booth are obviously shocked by my claims about morality and the academy. Booth seems to think I have been living on the planet Mars for the past sixteen years. Yet the fact is that many students of the modern university share my viewpoint. At least one of the symposium participants, for example, appears to agree with me. Eva Brann writes: “Mearsheimer’s exposition of the university’s ethos . . . is so forthright and probably factual, that it seems misplaced [End Page 193] to attack him for it. Isn’t he accurately and candidly describing the trend at ‘elite’ universities?” Moreover, there is a substantial body of academic literature which makes my point about the separation of knowledge and morality at schools like Chicago. This is a central theme of Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (University of Chicago Press, 1996), which is probably the best book on the subject. I would also note that more than a few of my colleagues at Chicago agree with my perspective, and not Booth’s. None of this is to say I am right and my critics are wrong, but only to point out that I am not alone in my views.

Furthermore, I am not saying that universities are immoral institutions, but rather that they are basically amoral. Of course, there is an important distinction between those categories. Therefore, I do not agree with Eva Brann’s claim that “an amorality that does not shade off into immorality” is probably unthinkable. This same kind of shading is present in Michael Hall’s discussion of amorality, which is based largely on his experiences teaching Machiavelli to undergraduates. Although he emphasizes “the amorality of Machiavelli’s advice” throughout his response, his opening sentence quotes Machiavelli’s famous dictum that “a ruler must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.” Thus, there is a blurring of amoral and immoral advice in Hall’s discussion of Machiavelli. I want to disassociate myself from Machiavelli’s views about the necessity of immoral behavior, and emphasize again that I am not arguing that universities actively encourage it.

Finally, I fully agree with Tai Park’s argument that societies only work well when their citizens possess strong moral beliefs. I also agree with...

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pp. 193-198
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