Is Tolerance A Good Thing?

I have encountered few minds I would readily call “brilliant.” I must confess a prejudice on my part to restrict the term to those who lived and wrote long ago; contemporary writers seem to be satisfied to skim the surface for the most part. One exception is Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to repeatedly in these blogs. I find myself drawn back to his books when I feel the need for insights into our current cultural malaise. I have read no one who seems to have his finger on the pulse of today’s difficulties more than this social historian who seems to have read, and understood, everything. He has a great deal to say about what bothers us most these days and in his book The Revolt of The Elites he talks about intolerance in the context of the question whether our democracy is worth saving — an interesting question in itself. Lasch is convinced that our democratic system is in serious trouble and while democracy is in principle certainly worth saving, it is not clear that today’s version of democracy in this country is. He is especially critical of the shallow relativism that is widespread today together with the growing tendency to refuse to critique other cultures; he worried about the tendency of intellectuals to avoid the really important questions, such as the place of religion and belief in today’s world. On the subject of tolerance, which we like to think is the major virtue of our democracy, he has much to say and I can do no better than to record him at some length.

“In the absence of common standards . . . tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of the connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. The suspension of ethical judgment, in the conception or misconception of pluralism now current, makes it inappropriate to speak of “ethical commitments” at all. Aesthetic appreciation is all that can be achieved under current definitions of cultural diversity. . .  The deeper question [we should address] is the question How should I live? [which today] also becomes a matter of taste, of idiosyncratic personal preference, at best of religious or ethnic identification. But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood,requires us to speak of impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for our adversaries. If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a ‘plurality of ethical commitments’ means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one’s right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.

“Democracy requires a more invigorating ethic than tolerance. Tolerance is a fine thing, but it is only the beginning of democracy, not its destination. In our time democracy is more seriously threatened by indifference than by intolerance or superstition. We have become too proficient in making excuses for ourselves — worse, in making excuses for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We are so busy defending our rights (rights conferred, for the most part, by judicial decree) that we have given little thought to our responsibilities. We seldom say what we think for fear of giving offense. We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative life-styles and communities.’ This is the tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed character, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance.

“There are far more important issues confronting friends of democracy [than the issue of cultural pluralism]: the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy and a suffocating cynicism; the moral paralysis of those who value “openness” above all. In the 1870s Walt Whitman wrote: ‘Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.’ Those words are as timely as ever.

“. . .it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. . . Democracy in our time is  more likely to die of indifference than intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”

Lasch owes much to his reading of Hanna Arendt. Indeed, she insisted that our failure to exercise judgment is one of the most serious shortcomings of an age in which “being judgmental” has become a thing to avoid at all costs. As Arendt pointed out in her writings, if the Germans in the early years of the last century had been more judgmental, (and therefore less tolerant) then perhaps Hitler would never have risen to power. Like Arendt, who is another brilliant mind, Lach gives us all a great deal to think about. And that is what great writers do.

At year’s end, then, it might be a good thing for us all to resolve to be tolerant only of those things that do not warrant condemnation in ourselves and in others as well. We must beware that our tolerance not degenerate into indifference and apathy, lacking any sense of real concern about the world in which we live. Lasch reminds us that we must have convictions, and have the strength to speak out about those convictions. Otherwise we are simply taking up space in an increasingly crowded world.

Happy News

My buddy, the “old fart,” insists upon looking at the glass half full. When I question him about it, he insists that I look again. As he likes to remind us all, there are good people out there who never make the news and there are good things that happen that don’t make the headlines. This is certainly true, and in the spirit of the old fart’s pointing finger I have culled the Sierra Club magazine this month and pulled out the bits and pieces of good news about the things that are happening to protect our environment and help our planet to survive. I have skipped the bleak news as that only muddies the waters (no pun intended).

• Solar power is hot on the heels of fossil fuels. In 2013, residential, non-residential, and utility-scale solar installations in the United States added 4,863 megawatts of electricity to the nation’s generating capacity, second only to natural gas, at 6,861 megawatts. (Left in the dust, appropriately, was coal power at 1,507 megawatts.) Through the first half of 2014, 53 percent of all new electric capacity installed came from solar power.” [And this despite the fact that Big Oil gets the major subsidies from the U.S. government and solar and wind power get very little and must beg for what they get.]
•California banned single-use plastic bags. It is the first state to do so. [Taking the lead again, as usual.]
• Statoil, Norway’s national energy company, shelved its plans for a multibilion-dollar investment in Canada’s tar sands.
• President Barack Obama designated 350,000 acres of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains as a new National Monument.
• The Massachusetts District Attorney dropped charges against climate activists who used a lobster boat to block a load of coal bound for the Brayton Point Power Plant because he said he agrees with the protesters.
• More than 400,000 people in New York City joined the People’s Climate March, the largest such demonstration ever.
• Another major investment company has emerged, the New Alternatives Fund, that encourages people to invest in solar and wind power exclusively, investments that have been extremely profitable for folks like T. Boone Pickens, Warren Buffet, and Al Gore. [One wonders if and when Big Oil will climb on board. The train is picking up speed.]
• Denmark supplies three out of four of the world’s offshore wind turbines and is on track to be free of fossil fuels by 2050.
Happy New Year to all and to all a good night!! (And thanks, BTG, for being so positive in a world that drags so many of us down.)

Peace On Earth?

[This is a somewhat modified post I wrote just before Christmas in 2011.  I will simply add my best wishes to all for a very happy holiday — and urge that we continue to hope there can be peace on earth and good will among men and women.]


Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited by their wealthy bosses who did little actual work. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that has echoes in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: there are still those who are aware that there are the few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund and they go way back. The difference between the two is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Joe Hill has blinders on: all issues are black and white, the poor are good and the wealthy are evil. There are no shades of gray.  Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. And while there are many good and decent people on this earth, our urge to violence seems ever at the ready: quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we turn up the sound on our TVs as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies in the name of American “freedom.” There’s a bit of Joe Hill in many of us it seems: would that we could take a page out of Lund’s book.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. He puts me in mind of the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot who tries mightily to live a good, Christian life in a world filled with greed, deceit, and animosity. It is small wonder that idealists often becomes cynics in their old age. With this in mind, while I sincerely wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing our navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel in the end pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the fat-cat bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Nor would they today (did I hear someone mention Walmart?). Sometimes it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace; however, it would be a good thing for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund urging “reasonable cooperation” — especially if we are at all serious about “peace on earth.”

Perennial Question

One of the most perplexing questions to have worried thinkers for centuries is the question whether humans are truly free. Or are we determined? One of the people to have given the issue a good deal of thought was, of all people, Leo Tolstoy. In War and Peace, he takes time to ponder the question of freedom, suggesting that it is an illusion: everything that happens is pre-determined:

“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action. . . .

“When an apple ripens and falls — what makes it fall? Is it attracted to the ground, is it that the stem weakens, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it? . . . No one thing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions under which every organic, elemental event of life is accomplished.

“[The major figures involved in Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Moscow in 1812] feared, rejoiced. boasted, resented, reasoned, supposing that they knew what they were doing and that they were doing it for themselves, and yet they were all involuntary instruments of history, and performed work hidden from them but comprehensible to us. . . .”


In this passage, Tolstoy provides us with what appears to be a quasi-scientific account of the deterministic hypothesis. Any action a person commits is inevitable, it is the consequence of thousands and millions of previous actions of which he is simply unaware. The person thinks he is free, but he is not. Later in the novel he will tie this view to the theistic view, which makes the case even stronger. He says, for example,

“To the question of what constitutes the cause of historical events. . .[the answer is] that the course of world events is predestined from on high, depends on the coincidence of all the wills of the people participating in those events, and that Napoleon’s influence [for example] on the course of those events is only external and fictitious.”

After all, if God is omnipotent and omniscient, which is axiomatic in Judeo-Christain theology, then human freedom is clearly an illusion: God not only knows what we do, He brought it about when he created Adam. From God’s perspective, everything that happens is predictable. Leibniz embraced this view, calling it “pre-established harmony.” He insisted that we simply act as though we are free whereas, in fact, everything we do or will do has been determined from the beginning. Calvin also embraced this view, insisting that it is the only possible view of human actions compatible with a Christian God.

Couple these arguments with what we now know about DNA and the effects of the environment on human behavior and it is virtually impossible to escape the deterministic view. In fact, even though they would hesitate to bring God into the discussion, many a social scientist today embraces a deterministic view of human conduct — especially when they excuse a known criminal’s behavior on the grounds of his parentage and upbringing. The problem is that in the deterministic view there is no room for human freedom. As noted, freedom becomes an illusion. At best, in the words of Boethius, freedom is a “profound mystery only a theologian can grasp.” Calvin said we must act “as if” we are free; we are not. But if we are not free, then we cannot be responsible for our acts, either — as the social scientist suggests.

This problem bothered Immanuel Kant so much that he spent his life trying to solve it. Because he wanted to insist that we are free and responsible for our actions he wrote the first of his “critiques” of human reason in which he developed antinomies showing that human freedom can be both proved and disproved by impeccable logic. Thus, freedom is, for Kant, a postulate of practical reason. In a word, we take it on faith, since we can neither prove it nor disprove it, and after positing human freedom we can proceed to develop an ethic based on freedom and human responsibility. And this is what Kant did in his later writings.

The determinist would insist that Kant’s arguments were developed long before revelations about DNA became known. Within the scientific community I doubt there is a person who would allow any wiggle-room for human freedom, convinced as they are that our DNA makes our development and future behavior totally predictable, in principle. Coupled with what we know about the effects of upbringing on the young, prediction becomes simply a function of how much we can know about every individual.

In the end, despite the strong case that can be made for determinism, there are those of us who still insist, as did Jean Paul Sartre in the 1950s, that we have a deep feeling that we are free and that no matter how much is known about us, we are capable of totally spontaneous actions. Sartre insisted that freedom is the fundamental fact about human existence and it implies complete responsibility for everything we do. The feeling of freedom somehow still hangs on despite the arguments of determinism of the scientific or the theistic variety, though we hear very little about the responsibility that goes along with it.

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Failing To Deliver

I have from time to time bemoaned the fact in these blogs that our schools are failing to educate students. I have also noted that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D. C. has decided to do something about the failure of the colleges and universities, in particular. I would argue that the lower grades are failing their students as well, but the approach of the ACTA is to embarrass higher education into cleaning up its house in the expectation that this will require that the lower grades do so as well. If, for example, colleges and universities required two years of a foreign language upon entrance (as they once did), then high schools would have to provide such courses for those students who plan to attend college (as they once did). And this is true even for such basic things as English grammar which is now being taught in remedial courses in a majority of the colleges across this great land of ours — and a few professional schools as well — if you can imagine.

In any event, the ACTA recently sent out a mailing to help raise monies to further their cause. In that material they sent along some disturbing facts that help them make the case for a solid core requirement in all American undergraduate colleges to provide their graduates with the basic tools they will need in order to be productive citizens in a democracy and better able to advance in whatever profession they chose to follow after college. They identify seven areas from composition and literature to mathematics and science which all colleges need to cover; moreover, they have found after an exhaustive survey over several years that the vast majority of American colleges get failing grades. My undergraduate college received an “A” grade, but my graduate school received a grade of “D” because their undergraduate core includes only foreign language and science. If you want to know more you might check out their web page ( The only question that is not raised in their material is why the high schools aren’t teaching these basic courses. One does wonder. In any event, here are some of the facts that they bring forward to make their case against so many of our colleges today:

Even after the highly publicized television series on the Roosevelts, “recent college graduates showed, in large numbers, that they simply don’t know or understand what the Roosevelts did or even the difference between Teddy and Franklyn.” Further, one of the ACTA’s recent surveys showed that “More than half of college graduates didn’t know that Franklyn D. Roosevelt served four terms in office; A third of college graduates couldn’t pick FDR out from a multiple list of the presidents who spearheaded the New Deal; Barely half of the college graduates could identify Teddy Roosevelt as leading the construction of the Panama Canal.” The problem extends much further than failure to know about the Roosevelts. In general terms, quoting from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal,

“A majority of U.S. college graduates don’t know the length of a congressional term, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or which Revolutionary War general led the American troops at Yorktown. . . .The reason for such failures, according to a recent study: Few schools mandate courses in core subjects like U.S. government, history, or economics. The sixth annual analysis of core curricula at 1,098 four-year colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that just 18% of schools require American history to graduate, 13% require a foreign language, and 3% require economics.”

The truly astonishing (and distressing) thing is that an increasing number of American colleges and universities allow “Mickey Mouse” courses to count as core courses: the University of Colorado offers “Horror Films and American Culture.” UNC-Greensboro considers “Survey of Historic Costumes” a core course, and Richard Stockton College of New jersey lets students satisfy the core history requirement with “Vampires: History of the Undead.” I kid you not. These are examples picked at random from a list that continues to grow as college faculty seek to draw students to their classes (and thereby guarantee their jobs) without any consideration whatever of the benefits of such courses — or lack thereof — to the student. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. As former Harvard President Larry Summers wrote recently:

“The threat today is less from overreaching administrators and trustees than it is from prevailing faculty orthodoxies that make it very difficult for scholars holding certain views to advance in certain fields.”

What Summers is speaking about is the determination of a great many faculty members at our colleges and universities to teach courses they want to teach simply to increase enrollments or, perhaps, to remedy what they perceive as past injustices; most are unwilling to teach courses that draw on Western tradition, the subject matter that has informed generations, because they firmly believe the works of “dead, white European males” are at the core of what is wrong with the world today. Worse yet, they discourage their students from taking such courses and disparage their colleagues who want to teach them. In my experience, many of these same people reveal their own ignorance of the very tradition they turn their backs upon and deny to their students. And they certainly don’t care whether the courses they teach instead will benefit their students in the long run — which would appear to be the central question.

The ACTA seeks to publicly embarrass trustees and alumni at American colleges and universities into putting pressure on the administrations and governing boards to remedy this situation. And it is working. The organization has attracted a great deal of attention to the problem and keeps a list of the colleges and universities that have modified their core requirements; they annually gives grades to all in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that in so many cases parents and students are simply not getting their money’s worth — especially given the escalating costs of college tuition these days.

Wrongs That Are Right

A recent blog I posted elicited a most interesting comment from my blogging buddy “BTG” (“Big Tall Guy”). I argued for the objectivity of moral judgments, when well-reasoned, and he raised the following issues:

Hugh, I can think of a few examples where an act can be right, but also have some wrongness attached. A domestic violence victim who finally lashes back and kills her abuser. A man defending his home and kills the intruder. A mother defending a child who kills the assailant. All actions are justified and have a rightness about them, but killing someone is wrong. I recognize these are extremes, but there is a lot of gray in our lives.

I made a brief, but altogether unsatisfactory response — as one does with comments on a blog post — and then realized that the issues BTG raised deserve extended response. So here goes. Let’s begin with one of his examples. Let’s take the case of Mrs Jones who has been repeatedly battered by her husband, several times seriously enough to require trips to the hospital. After a series of such events, including one beating in a hotel elevator that was caught on CCTV and  “went viral” arousing the ire of millions of people around the globe, she reaches out during one such beating, grabs a bronze statue on the bedside table and kills her husband. Assuming that the case ever goes to trial, there is little doubt that a jury would consider this a case of “justifiable homicide.” It is wrong to kill, but under the circumstances one would almost assuredly regard the killing as “the right thing to do” — or if we hesitate to use the word “right,” at least we must admit it was expedient and therefore justified in the circumstances. That’s my point: killing is wrong, but in this case, within the context of this event, it is justified because there is a reasonable case to be made that if Mrs. Jones had not killed her husband he would eventually have killed her. It was self-defense.

My point is that we can reason about such events. We need not just rely on “gut feelings” or “intuition.” It’s not just a question of personal opinion. We can try to distance ourselves from the event and examine it as objectively as possible, separate out its grisly elements and render a  judgment. It’s what would be done in a court of law, and it is what we can do on a daily basis if we choose to venture beyond the realm of grunts and hunches. Ethics need not be reduced to the level of personal feelings, simply.

But there are cases which are even more troublesome. Take the case of Henry Smith who has joined the U.S. Army and is now in Afghanistan where he is called upon to kill people regarded by his country as enemies. He has no bone to pick with these people, and in the case of the war in Afghanistan it is not clear that the folks who fall before his automatic weapon are in fact enemies in any real sense of that term. And even less clear is the case of the airman who sits in a room somewhere in Nebraska and directs drones half-way around the world to “take out” presumed enemies of Freedom.

St. Augustine argued that the only justification for killing in war is in the case of defense of home and hearth, a defensive war. It’s not clear that the so-called terrorists Smith is killing pose any direct threat to Smith or his home and hearth. In other words, it is not clear that this is a “just war,” in Augustine’s sense of that term. He is simply ordered to kill and in many cases because of his situation, the men he kills are trying to kill him. Unless he is guiding a drone, his act is one of self-defense. But this act is complicated by the fact that Smith might well have chosen to take a job at Walmart rather than to enlist in a war that might be over nothing more vital than the country’s supply of oil — or poppies. He made a choice, presumably. It’s not as clear-cut as the former case — though we might revisit the former case and ask why Mrs. Jones didn’t simply leave her husband before putting herself in a position to have to kill him rather than be killed herself.

The point of this extended discussion is that we can pick out the various elements of each and every situation and examine them in the air of dispassionate scrutiny and render a judgment that stands up to criticism. To the extent that it can withstand criticism we can claim it is true — so far as we can tell at present: we have no absolute knowledge. We can say that Mrs Jones, for example, was trying to work through the domestic violence because deep down she loved her husband and leaving him was never a real option — she genuinely believed that things would work themselves out. But Smith is more culpable, despite the fact that our country keeps telling us that these young men and women are heroes, they have all made a decision to engage in a war that is of doubtful legitimacy: it is not clear just how those “enemies” in Afghanistan pose a direct threat to Henry Smith or anyone else in the U.S. of A. If he had been drafted the situation would be entirely different, but as it is his killing raises a number of problems regarding the rightness of his actions.

But in the end, the point I want to make is that we can discuss it: we can draw out the particulars and try to determine whether his action is right or wrong. I would simply note, again, it cannot be both. It’s either right or it is wrong. The problem we have, if we decide to think about such things rather than dismiss them with a grunt, is deciding which it is.

Lost Certainties

It is generally agreed that medieval men and women in Western Christendom were firm in their convictions about Good and Evil and the certain fact of reward and punishment in the afterlife. Indeed, theirs was a world filled with suffering and superstition, but none the less solid beneath their feet — and in Heaven above. Carl Jung paints a rosy picture:

“for [medieval man] the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence.”

But when the church began to question itself, when Luther and then Calvin began to ask question about such things as the fallibility of the Pope in Rome, and the papacy itself experienced a schism in which two men simultaneously claimed to be infallible, the medieval world began to totter. Later, following innumerable plagues, the industrial revolution following closely the revolution in science, the invention of the printing press, and the Protestant Reformation, all of which threw folks back on their own convictions; they began to have serious doubts about former verities — and this accelerated the questioning about the possibility of absolute Good and Evil. In a word, ethical relativism was born and the doubt about moral values became a contagion, especially following the War to End All Wars, fostering considerable fear and uncertainty. Suddenly men and women were cast adrift without the verities that gave them spiritual mooring and helped them make sense out of a bewildering world.

The problem is that this movement away from absolutes is based on a false dichotomy in the minds of so many people: either there is an absolute Good and an absolute Evil fixed forever in the heavens above, or it’s all relative. Good and evil in the latter case become matters of opinion, simply. The fallacy in this dichotomy resides in the fact that there is a middle ground that a great many people have ignored. Good and Evil may not be absolutes, but it does not follow from that that they are merely subjective. The middle ground is an ethics that insists that there are things that are truly good or evil, but we are not in a position to know these things beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, we can assuredly thinks about them and discuss them together.

It has frequently been said that the conviction one has about absolute good and absolute evil invariably leads to intolerance, a sense of superiority among those in the know, whether it be the church and its Authorities or philosophers in their closets. But once one finds the middle ground sketched above, the intolerance disappears, since no one can claim to know with certainty what is good and what is evil — only that some things are truly good and others truly evil. It is possible to discuss the question of whether a specific act is good or evil and for reasonable people to come to agreement about certain things — such as rape and premeditated murder, perhaps, and the exploitation of workers by wealthy CEOs who make 400 times as much money as the people they employ. But even these claims are not absolute: they are contextual. One must take every case one at a time and consider all the ramifications. This is why debate and discussion is essential in ethics; two or three minds are better able to see the various aspects of complex issues than one mind alone in its closet — or on its throne. The rejection of absolutism in ethics does not imply the acceptance of relativism or subjectivism. It allows for the possibility of what is called “objectivism.”

This is the view sketched above that allows for the resolution of complex moral issues without resorting to despair, on the one hand, or blind, unswerving conviction, on the other. It allows for a sense of assurance that the issue has been examined and discussed and so far as we know at the moment, the act in question is either right or wrong — it cannot be both. The procedure here is much like that of a criminal trial: we proceed by weighing the evidence, listening to the arguments, and then we make the appropriate judgment. The defendant cannot be both guilty and innocent — he must be one or the other. This procedure certainly does not entail intolerance, but it does require judgment and an open mind. And it holds open the possibility of resolving moral conflict amicably which is not possible if we insist that moral judgments are nothing more than matters of opinion. In the latter case people simply stop talking or resort to violence.

The Tail Still Wags

A recent story caught my eye. The headline made me wonder if there was still hope for the education of students at major football colleges:

The University of Alabama-Birmingham will officially shut down its football program at the end of the season, the school announced Tuesday.

UAB becomes the first Football Bowl Subdivision/Division I-A school to drop football since Pacific in 1995.

A release by the university cited the results of a review conducted by CarrSports Consulting that said in order to preserve the greater good of the athletic department, UAB needed to end football, bowling and rifle at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.

But after I read a bit I realized a couple of things. To begin with, this university’s football team is not a “major player” as they  say. It’s among the lesser lights of college football. Further, they shut down the football program to “preserve the greater good of the athletic department,” whatever that means. I did think it funny that they also shut down the bowling and rifle teams — I mean, seriously, what do such activities have to do with education? And that’s the point here: major college sports have allowed the tail to wag the dog, as I noted many years ago. The higher purpose of education, to help young people gain control of their own minds, has been lost in the tizzy to (a) get into the fast lane and make big bucks, and (b) make sure the kids have fun and don’t transfer elsewhere. This is why so many colleges and universities have become summer camps, with recreational facilities that are designed to make sure the students are happy and continue to pay their inflated tuition fees without flinching. (They can pay back the loans later on. For now, let’s just make sure they come to our place and stay.)

When Robert Hutchins dropped intercollegiate sports at The University of Chicago back in the dark ages, it was done for the right reasons — to guarantee the integrity of the educational program at the university which Hutchins recognized as the only real purpose of the university. Despite the hue and cry that followed his outrageous move, the university not only survived, but it thrived and is among the best academic institutions in the world today, recognized everywhere for its commitment to the students’ “greater good” and not the “greater good of the athletic department.” The former is what is important here, and while UAB did the right thing, it did so for the wrong reasons. Thus, while I had hoped it might be a sign of good things to come, I returned to earth after a moment of euphoria and realized that it means little given the relative size of the program and the fact that it was all about costs and not in the least about educating young people.