Ethical Knowledge in the University Before G. E. Moore

Notes for a talk at given at the University of Texas Ethics Conference, April 16, 2005.


 "THE PROBLEM AND THE CHALLENGE: The lack of coherent and observed societal ethics, revealed by business and other scandals, challenges our culture to consider the role of education in responding to the current ethics crisis."

  1. Divorcing from the church and religion as theology.
  2. Disowning responsibility, as a professional, for guidance of life. (Part of 1).
  3. Identifying a distinctive subject matter for each of the academic fields. For philosophy and ethical theory in particular, the subject matter was no longer life as a whole. Concepts become the subject matter of philosophy, with no way back to what the concepts are about. Logic, language, meaning. The "formal mode."

John Mearsheimer on the University of Chicago’s intentions: Non-aims of education at Chicago include "providing truth" and "teaching morality." (pp. 147-151 of Philosophy and Literature, 1998, Vol. 22)

Patrick Henry’s reformulation: He takes Mearsheimer to mean "That the university of Chicago and ‘all other major colleges and universities in this country’ are "remarkably amoral’ institutions where there is ‘little effort to provide the student with moral guidance’ and where ‘courses that discuss ethics or morality in any detail…do not exist’." (p. 134 of op. cit.)

The faculty (see the published responses in Ibid.) who were shocked at Mearsheimer’s non-aim actually believe about their discussions of morality what he said about truth: "There is a powerful bias at the university of Chicago against providing you with the truth about important issues we study. Instead, we aim to produce independent thinkers who can reach their own conclusions. To put the matter in slightly different terms, we expect you to figure out the truth, if there is one." (p. 147) The "shocked" faculty believe that the "discussions" of moral matters which they engage in with their students will, on the basis of the students’ own insights, result in them behaving better and becoming better persons.

What Mearsheimer meant: In saying "the university makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution" was that the University of Chicago does not tell you what you ought and ought not to do or be along the lines of traditional moral doctrine, except, of course, where your actions impinge upon the "real business" of the university—"academic integrity," etc.

John Lyons’ statement: "It looks to me as if the university, and particularly the faculty, is today more involved, collectively, in providing moral guidance to students than at any time in the last century." (p. 156)

How morality is taught: By body language, facial expressions, tones of voice and inflections, ‘looks’, off-hand remarks about people and events; by what is presumed to be ‘automatic’ ("goes without saying"), what is permissible, by how we treat people of various kinds (in class, out of class, colleagues), by who gets rewarded or punished of "dismissed" in various ways in the academic or other context. Rarely is morality ‘taught’ by explicit statement.
Morality is never taught as a personal preference, nor as a mere social practice, but as an expression of how knowledgeable people, people ‘in the know’, deal with life and reality. Thus, people who do not follow a prescribed morality are typically treated by its partisans as stupid or ignorant or (a favorite term) "unenlightened," not just as people who have different feelings or attitudes or who happen to be misguided.

Further statement by Lyons: "I do not claim to be morally superior to my students, to have a source of moral knowledge they do not have, or to convince them by my authority as a teacher of ethics. Yet while moral guidance may be a ‘non-aim’ of my teaching, such guidance is, I am certain, a major and growing aim of most college and university faculty members." (p. 160)

The main points in the pre-Moore consensus:

The basic subject matter of ethical inquiry and understanding is conduct, understood to be inseparable from will and character.

The substance of the moral life, centered on conduct, will and character, is an object of knowledge. Ethics is or must become a science.

Normative, first level moral judgments were regarded as a natural part of moral theory. There is no logical chasm between theory and practice, between meta-ethics and betta-ethics.

What happened? Importantly, there was no discovery that there is no body of knowledge about moral distinctions and relations upon the basis of which one person might give moral guidance to another.

But a number of important things were happening in the academy:

The University/College faculty was professionalizing. That is, finding its own institutional identity. This in turn involved:

  1. Psychology is trying to become scientific. This means:
  1. Experimental, laboratory treatment of the person.
  2. Behaviorism.
  3. Theory—especially the unconscious, Freud, etc.
  4. Brain theory, computers, drugs, surgery, as approaches to the mind.

None of these deal with the traditional subject matter of ethical inquiry and understanding.


1. What has been brought out here?

  1.  University faculty are confused and ambivalent as to what exactly they do for the moral guidance of students.
  2. They do give moral guidance in large quantities, but do not recognize it as such, because it is not traditional in content, but, generally, anti-traditional, and is not given directly, by telling students what to do or be—which, pre-Moore, was easily included in course content.
  3. The peculiar position of the faculty member with regard to moral guidance of students arises from the facts that (I) their very position makes them an authority and teacher of what to do and be; (II) there is no recognized body of moral knowledge that can be referred to; (III) because the basic subject matter of moral theory, will and character, cannot be known in ways now thought to be the only sources of knowledge.

2. If we are to respond to this we must do a retake on what counts as knowledge, in such a way that will and character can be known, and what was good and right in the traditional understanding of the morally good person can be recovered to serve in the moral guidance that constantly goes on any way:

  1. On knowledge try: A person has knowledge of a certain subject matter if he or she is capable of representing it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience—not to exclude authority correctly used.
  2. On the good person try: The morally good person is a person who is seriously intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. Thus, moral goodness is a matter of the organization of the human will into a character rationally devoted to the promotion of human goods.

3. Of course all of this requires extensive and careful elaboration. But imagine it were done, in a way that university personnel had solid understanding. This would enable expression in a sensitive but clear and forceful manner, of moral commendation and censure, in class and out, of what is right and wrong, and who is good and bad, as we go about our life in our university roles, in class and out. Of course it would have to be done in an appropriate manner, in itself a moral art. But then we could reasonably expect university training to have a significant effect on the lives of students for moral good.

4. The Robert Coles story. (Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 22, 1995, p. A68)

* I am greatly indebted for comments on an earlier draft of this paper to David W. Edwards, Doug Geivett, Gregory Jesson, Brendan Sweetman, and Duane Willard, who do not necessarily agree with the views here expressed.

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