The University's Responsibility for Moral Guidance

June 26-27, 2004
National Faculty Leadership Conference

The National Faculty Leadership Conference was held June 24-27, 2004, in Washington, DC. Dallas had the privilege of addressing this conference on higher education three times (June 26 & 27). All three of his talks dealt with the disappearance of moral knowledge. 

National Faculty Leadership Conferences took place between 2000-2008 and were sponsored by Christian Leadership Ministries.

Resources

1: Who is a Good Person According to the University Now?

Dallas discusses the disappearance of moral knowledge, especially as it relates to academia. He critiques the loss of moral knowledge and the resultant societal confusion, emphasizing the importance of integrating an ethic of love and Christian principles into an education that addresses the whole person. In particular, he deals with faculty and the role they play, often unwittingly, in determining who a good person is on the university campus.

2: Nihilism and Moral Theory in the 20th Century

Join Dallas in following the historical progression that has gotten us to the point where moral knowledge has disappeared. He illuminates the complex developments in 20th-century ethical theory, highlighting the challenges posed by nihilism and the erosion of objective moral standards. His critique of empiricism and the shift towards language and social constructs as the basis for morality calls for a reassessment of how values and ethics are understood and taught in society. 

3: Recovery of Self-Knowledge and Moral Insight Today

Dallas Willard examines the relationship between knowledge, moral insight, and the teachings of Jesus. Addressing the challenges of authority and the modern misunderstandings of knowledge, he offers a vision for integrating spiritual and moral dimensions into our pursuit of truth. He sees Jesus, the master of knowledge, working in communities of his disciples, teaching them to live in the “knowledge of moral reality that he brings” as the way forward in restoring moral knowledge on our campuses. 

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Who is a Good Person According to the University Now?

Highlights:

  • Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Dallas discusses the concept that moral knowledge, like certain forms of academic knowledge, has become inaccessible, leading to societal confusion over moral direction.
  • University's Responsibility: He argues that universities have a responsibility to provide moral guidance, which they are currently failing to fulfill, leading to an intellectually irresponsible approach to morality.
  • Implicit Moral Teaching: Despite claims to the contrary, universities do impart moral guidance, albeit in an indirect and often chaotic manner, without a coherent and defendable framework. “…we teach by who we are.”
  • Shift in Academic Perspective: Historical context is provided to illustrate how the academic approach to morality has shifted away from a consensus that viewed moral understanding as a comprehensive knowledge of human will and character.
  • Sociological Changes: The talk outlines sociological shifts, including the professionalization of academia and changes in psychology, that have contributed to the marginalization of traditional moral discourse.
  • Impact of Conceptual Shifts in Philosophy: Dallas points out that the focus of philosophy on “concepts” rather than life application has led to a detachment from practical moral guidance.
  • The Role of Faculty: Faculty members, while acting as moral guides through their behavior and implicit teaching, often do not recognize this role due to the lack of a recognized body of moral knowledge.
  • Legalism and Secular Morality: Current moral teaching in universities is shallow, fragmented, and legalistic, often reduced to a secular morality that lacks depth and fails to address life as a whole.
  • Importance of Love Ethic: Dallas emphasizes the significance of an ethic of love, rooted in Christian teachings, as the foundation for moral guidance, contrasting it with the distorted version of love prevalent in society.
  • Christian Understanding as Knowledge: The talk concludes with a call for educators to present Christian moral principles not as personal quirks but as grounded knowledge of reality, urging a reintegration of comprehensive moral guidance into the academic setting.

Nihilism and Moral Theory in the 20th Century

Highlights:

  • Moral Guidance from Universities: Dallas describes how higher education provides moral guidance, focusing on freedom and pleasure as fundamental goods, with their corresponding evils being restriction and discomfort. 
  • Shift in Ethical Theory: The talk outlines a historical shift in ethical theory, starting with G.E. Moore's focus on concepts rather than moral values related to will and character, leading to a detachment of ethics from observable reality and towards language and social constructs.
  • Emotivism and Nihilism: Dallas discusses the rise of emotivism and nihilism, where moral values are seen as subjective or non-existent. This shift represents a move away from objective moral values and distinctions.
  • Social Construction of Values: The transition towards understanding values as socially constructed rather than based on objective reality. This perspective undermines traditional notions of moral knowledge.
  • Impact on Meaning and Texts: The talk addresses how these shifts affect the meaning of texts, including legal and religious documents. The authority to determine meaning becomes fluid, subject to social sentiment rather than objective interpretation.
  • Empiricism's Role: Dallas critiques empiricism for its role in this transformation, arguing that it limits understanding to the physical, observable world and neglects non-physical realities essential to moral understanding.
  • Challenges in Modern Academia: The discussion points out the difficulties modern academia faces in promoting truth and knowledge when empirical verification is considered the only valid form of evidence.
  • Authority and Science: Dallas uncovers the misuse of scientific authority to make broad metaphysical claims, such as the physical universe being all that exists, which are not empirically verifiable.
  • Need for a Moral and Rational Basis: The talk underscores the necessity of finding a moral and rational basis for life and policy that transcends cultural relativism and acknowledges objective moral values.

Recovery of Self-Knowledge and Moral Insight Today

Highlights:

  • The Importance of Knowledge: Dallas discusses the critical role of knowledge in navigating reality and making morally informed decisions. Knowledge helps us live in harmony with reality. “Without knowledge, my people perish.”  Hosea 4:6.
  • The Problem of Authority and Knowledge: The talk navigates the complexities of authority in the context of knowledge, critiquing the modern reliance on scientific authority as a measure of truth. Dallas points out that something can be considered 'scientific' and yet be false, challenging the conflation of scientific authority with truth.
  • To Have Knowledge: “You have knowledge of something… when you're capable of representing it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.” He emphasizes that the appropriate basis needs to shift to suit the subject matter, rather than unnecessarily limiting oneself to empirical or material considerations.
  • The Role of Jesus's Teachings: Central to the talk is the importance of Jesus's teachings in establishing a moral framework. Jesus's teachings, such as those found in the Sermon on the Mount, offer deep moral insights and should be regarded as a source of moral knowledge.
  • Human Nature and Morality: The prevailing assumption is “there's no such thing as human nature. Well, if there's no such thing as human nature, you have nowhere to go in getting beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.” 
  • The Bible as a Source of Information: The talk positions the Bible not as proof, but as a crucial source of information on God, humanity, and moral orientation. The Bible should be engaged with humbly and repentantly to access its teachings on love and morality.
  • Obedience as a Method of Knowledge: Dallas asserts that in the spiritual life, obedience to God's commands is a way to gain knowledge. By living out Jesus's teachings, individuals can embody moral truths and provide a testament to their validity.
  • The Universality of Spiritual Being: An underlying theme of the talk is the recognition of every person as an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny. This view fosters a posture of love and non-discrimination, aligning with Jesus's command to love one's neighbor.
  • The Universality of Spiritual Being: An underlying theme is the recognition of every person as an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's great universe. This view fosters a posture of love and non-discrimination, aligning with Jesus's command to love one's neighbor.
  • Discipleship to Jesus: Dallas calls for the making of disciples of Jesus, rather than adherents to a particular denomination or religion. He stresses the importance of living out Jesus's teachings as a community of disciples, thereby demonstrating the reality of moral knowledge and the transformative power of the gospel.