Disappearance of Moral Knowledge Symposium 1 Summary

Summary of the presentations given at the first Disappearance of Moral Knowledge Symposium.
May 14-15, 2019
We are pleased to include links below to videos of the presentations and a PDF copy of each paper.

The first key activity of the Moral Knowledge Initiative was an academic symposium held at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought in La Mirada, California, on May 14-15, 2019. The aim of the symposium was to generate interdisciplinary conversation and actionable next steps that focus on the restoration of moral knowledge within our institutions and culture. Twenty-two participants discussed how to engage universities and institutions in a way that honored Dallas’s intentions when he was writing The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.

Presentations from professors in the disciplines of education, ethics, law, philosophy, and psychiatry reflected on ways in which moral knowledge is being pushed out of our culture and how moral and spiritual knowledge might be restored within each presenter’s area of specialty.

One of the surprising take-aways from the symposium was a new understanding of how morality’s disappearance from our culture is being sharply felt in the statistics of increased suicide and decreased life expectancy in the United States. This trend is being called “deaths of despair.” People have an inherent need to be cherished and valued, and to know what is good and how to become a good person. But in a culture with no definitive right or wrong, no good or bad, and no reasonable explanation or purpose for their existence, people are left with no direction and become hopeless.

Twenty years ago, in The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas called Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession “possibly the most important document of the last two centuries for understanding our current plight” (p. 8). Tolstoy had described the effect of the Russian dogmas within which “particles and progress” were the only two things that were real. This meant that each human person is only an accidental lump of something, and what we call “life” is actually only the process of that lump fermenting. So Tolstoy asked, “Why do I live?”

Dallas wrote of the continued progression of that belief system—the hopelessness of “particles and progress” still in place today (he wrote in 1998)—and how our constant consumption of media means, “The mantle of intellectual meaninglessness shrouds every aspect of our common life” (p. 9). In the 20 years since that writing, as our scientific “advances” continue, the suicide rate for young teen girls has increased dramatically. According to the CDC, suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 9 to 30. Students swept up in our culture of empty desire and despair have become hopeless, and that hopelessness leads to despair, depression, anxiety (now being referred to as “diseases of despair”) and all too often suicide.

The need for the Moral Knowledge Initiative is most deeply felt in the hopelessness that is consuming us. Dallas addresses everyone responsible for the training of students and professionals in The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge with a goal of restoring the development of “the good person.”

Symposium Presentation Summaries:

Overview of the Issues Presented in the Book
Gregg Ten Elshof

The disappearance of moral knowledge has been brought about by a dramatic shift in social facts with four major causes: 1) Failure of the church to guide, 2) Failure of thinkers to lead, 3) The emergence of multiple moralities, and 4) The disappearance of the human self due to “advances” in psychology. The book gives a very detailed history of the decline of moral knowledge, including some efforts along the way to revitalize a body of moral knowledge. Ten Elshof’s presentation included the first of many references throughout the symposium to Dallas’s teaching on moral knowledge in Knowing Christ Today.
(This presentation was not recorded. You may view this 2018 presentation for an even more detailed overview given by Gregg, Steve and Aaron at the Dallas Willard Center.)

“The Primacy of the Individual in Reclaiming Moral Knowledge"
Steven Porter

One way of understanding Dallas’s argument is this: What is needed to reclaim moral knowledge as a publicly available resource for moral life is a compelling theory of moral realism that can find its way into the field of professional ethics and the university, and, thereby, resituate moral knowledge as publicly accessible. But he is very pessimistic about any such theory finding its way into the university. His greater hope is that moral knowledge can be restored to the public area through the practices of good people in their communities. Good individuals asserting their will can make a difference, and we apply this first to ourselves. Although we don’t have a publicly presented vision of what it means to be a good person, we can still find (and be) good people.
Outline PDF
​(This presentation was not recorded)

"Jonathan Haidt and the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: How Good Intentions and Philosophical Confusions Threaten to Perpetuate the Problem"
Aaron Preston

Jonathan Haidt published The Happiness Hypothesis in 2006, and has become a leading public intellectual addressing matters of morality and ethics. Dr. Preston chose to present an overview of Haidt’s work because, “As far as the project of making moral knowledge available as a public resource is concerned, Haidt is the one who is making an impact.” Haidt observes that we have lost “a richly textured common ethos with widely shared virtues and values,” and shares many of Willard’s concerns. But he desires to restore virtue because of its importance to human happiness, and it is happiness itself, or more broadly emotion, that is the goal. While Haidt needs better philosophical grounding to sort out his own understanding of reason, intuition and emotion, Preston sees him as a potential ally for the Moral Knowledge Initiative.
Paper PDF

Response: Commentary on Aaron Preston’s, “Jonathan Haidt and the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge”
Aaron Kheriaty

Kheriaty affirms much of Haight’s work, but puts it in the category of “sociology of knowledge” which Willard says “deals with the causal conditions that bring about the general acceptance of certain thoughts and beliefs as representations of reality—moral or otherwise” (DMK 12). Any such knowledge generated by the social sciences is only knowledge by general consensus and can therefore easily disappear when this consensus changes. Studies of the human soul have fallen into this category (DMK 10). In response to Haidt’s heavy emphasis on emotivism in his moral psychology and philosophy, Kheriaty prescribes a regrounding in the part of classical platonic tradition “which we could roughly describe as the doctrine of participation: all normally functioning human beings participate by a kind of intuition in the logos – in a universal reason or ordering principle. This participation allows us both to know the world, which is rationally ordered and intelligible, and to reason and deliberate together in the pursuit of truth and goodness.” Accounts based on evolutionary psychology or the sociology of knowledge are incapable by themselves of recovering moral knowledge as a publicly available resource.
Paper PDF

"The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in Education"
Mary Poplin

Following the exclusion of Christianity and any organized moral knowledge in the academy, the focus in teacher education became stages of development (e.g., cognitive, social and moral), all deeply embedded in scientific method. There is a loss of meaning that comes with an attachment to physical sciences because they cannot deal with the big issues of life. This has created a culture of despair on college campuses. Student health centers are being overwhelmed by students struggling with anxiety and depression, as suicide statistics in young people continue to rise. In the classroom, courses that address moral knowledge and goodness are in high demand because they offer hope for students examining their lives and looking to their future. But teacher training in the last several decades barely touches issues of morality or character. Today the emphasis is largely on culture, gender, and class seen through the lens of critical theory. This is the case in K-12 as well, which is a crucial time for character formation. With this educational trend, defining “the good person” becomes a significant challenge, but one of utmost importance so that students can know how to become good people.
Paper PDF

Response to Mary Poplin’s “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in Education”
Mike Austin

The university as we know it is in trouble. It is no longer a “uni”-versity because it’s not united. It is shifting from a marketplace of ideas to a platform for social change, and the understanding of who counts as a “good person” is weak. But our secular colleagues do have some access to moral knowledge that is grounded in the character of God, though it is perhaps indirect, which Austin encouraged us to make use of as we do our work. We can find common ground, insofar as there is knowledge about morality, human selves, and human flourishing, that is available outside of special revelation. This includes using the empirical work available to us via positive psychology to make our case. As Poplin points out, “scientific findings that relate to human flourishing reveal the advantages of living Christianly”: physical and mental health, longevity, the family, education, and more. We need more of this kind of work on Christian virtues, such as faith, hope, and love, at the academic and popular levels.
Paper PDF

"Law, Discursive Distortions, and the Loss of 'Moral Knowledge'”
Steven Smith

Smith’s central concern regarding moral knowledge is found in his reframing of the issue as the “very real, non-academic question that all of us constantly face: How should I live? Or, in a communal version: How should we live together?” This allows him to write about the good person from a normative legal and moral perspective and articulate a possible way forward. He acknowledges we live in a world of “rampant normative pluralism” and identifies the challenge it presents for “modern legal and political theorizing, and in many respects for modern law.” He doesn’t hold out much hope for a “recovery through greater philosophical attention to ‘the good person’” as a merely human remedy, but recommends that ministry, rather than either law or philosophy, “is the best prospect for a recovery– if not of ‘moral knowledge,’ exactly– at least of a sensible, grounded normativity in our current society.”
Paper PDF

"The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in Law"
Robert F. Cochran, Jr.

Cochran described the ways in which moral knowledge has been disappearing from legal theory over the last two centuries, and how these changes are manifested in legal ethics, lawyer counseling, law school and law practice. His paper particularly emphasized the influence of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s philosophy that there is no “higher law,” but that law is merely the assertion of power here on earth. While not very optimistic about the prospects of the return of moral knowledge in the legal field, Cochran pointed to the possibilities present in the New Natural Law theory being championed by John Finnis (emphasizing “the good person” as Dallas does), and noted that the newest member of the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, was Finnis’s graduate student at Oxford. Cochran’s presentation ended on a hopeful note with a white board comparison of Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights (2011) with Willard’s DMK and the similarities in what both authors are promoting.
Paper PDF

Response to Cochran and Smith on Legal History and Ethics
Scott Rae

In his response to Cochran and Smith, Scott Rae provided the following analysis of law and morality: “The authority of the law depends on the moral attitudes that undergird it, giving it the competence to order society that it claims to have.” He gave an example of the loss of moral knowledge as applied to physician assisted suicide, indicating a trend toward its wholesale adoption due to the prevailing attitude around the question of who is being harmed, along with the societal position expressed by Genontologist Joanne Lynn that, “there is nothing cheaper than dead.” Rae closed his paper with a quote from James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character: “We want character, but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality, but without the emotional burden of guilt and shame; we want virtue, but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist on it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.” And his own personal assessment, “It strikes me that the death of character and the disappearance of moral knowledge go together, which lends urgency to the recovery of moral knowledge.”
Paper PDF

Additional Resources:

Select The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge from our book list for a description of the book in Dallas’s own words, the story of how the book was completed, links read abstracts of each chapter, and video of Dallas teaching on this topic in the Spring of 2010.

The Moral Knowledge Initiative Webpage

Read the Preface of The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Exploring Dallas Willard’s Parting Diagnosis of our Cultural Moment,” by Steve Porter — Talbot Magazine, June 4, 2019

Video Overview of The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge presented by Gregg Ten Elshof, Steve Porter and Aaron Preston at the "Experiencing Life With God" conference, Westmont College, May 2018.

The Evangelical Philosophical Society Website

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