The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: How It Happens and What It Means

May 2, 2010
Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum at UC Irvine

What is Dallas talking about when he refers to "the disappearance of moral knowledge"? It is the social reality that the knowledge institutions (primarily the universities, but also the churches) of our society do not presume to offer knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice to the public. Dallas calls the disappearance of moral knowledge a "hidden cultural calamity of growing proportions." 

Dallas was invited to speak on what moral knowledge is and what it means for our lives at UC Irvine's 2010 Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum.


1: Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Part 1

Dallas discusses the vanishing presence of moral knowledge in modern society, examining its absence from educational and religious institutions, and the significant implications for individual and collective ethical behavior. Delving into historical shifts and philosophical insights, Dallas reveals how a detachment from acknowledged moral truths has reshaped our world, posing critical challenges to the fabric of communal and personal decisions. 

2: Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Part 2

In this profound exploration of the implications of the disappearance of moral knowledge, Dallas Willard delves into the critical role of ethics in shaping individual character and societal norms. He articulates the dire consequences of losing a grounded moral compass, illustrating his points with historical insights and practical examples. This talk not only challenges listeners to reconsider the underpinnings of moral understanding but also provides a call to action to restore the integrity and practical application of moral wisdom in everyday life.

Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Part 1


  • What is the disappearance of moral knowledge? It is the social reality that the knowledge institutions (primarily the universities, but also the “churches”) of our society do not presume to offer knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice to the public. It is not a part of “testable” cognitive content of any recognized area of scholarship or practice. He describes this phenomenon as a hidden cultural calamity of growing proportions.
  • Educational Institutions and Moral Knowledge: Dallas points out that institutions traditionally responsible for imparting moral knowledge, such as universities and churches, have largely ceased to treat morality as an area of objective knowledge. This shift, he argues, reflects a broader cultural reluctance to address moral truths directly and substantively in educational settings.
  • Practical Implications of Moral Ignorance: Dallas discusses how the absence of moral knowledge leads to societal confusion and poor decision-making. He emphasizes the necessity of moral knowledge for effective personal and professional judgment, likening moral truths to a "sighting mechanism" necessary for hitting life’s targets.
  • Role of Knowledge in Moral Decision-Making: Dallas delves deeper into the concept of knowledge, stressing its critical role in guiding actions that are not only effective but also ethically sound. He argues that without a clear method to access moral truths, individuals and societies are at a significant disadvantage.
  • Impact of Dismissing Moral Knowledge: Expounding on the consequences of the erosion of moral knowledge, Dallas discusses how it undermines the authority and responsibility of individuals to act morally. This loss, he claims, affects everything from policy-making to personal behavior and diminishes the overall quality of communal life.
  • Shifts in Cultural and Ethical Perceptions: Dallas explores how cultural shifts have influenced perceptions of morality, pointing to the rise of relativism and the decline of absolute moral standards. He discusses the impact of these changes on public and private morality, challenging the audience to consider the long-term effects of such transformations.
  • Historical Context of Moral Knowledge:  Reflecting on historical developments, Dallas explains how the disappearance of moral knowledge is not a sudden occurrence but a gradual evolution influenced by changes in academic and cultural attitudes over centuries.
  • Theological and Philosophical Shifts: Dallas traces back the academic and ideological shifts that led to the marginalization of moral knowledge, particularly the separation of theology from academic discourse and its implications for ethical understanding.
  • Challenges in Reviving Moral Knowledge: Addressing the difficulty in reintroducing moral knowledge into public discourse, Dallas examines the reluctance of modern philosophers and academics to engage with moral truths openly and assertively.

Additional Assets

Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: Part 2


  • Loss of Moral Guidance: Dallas emphasizes the significant impact of losing moral knowledge, particularly how it leaves individuals and societies adrift, susceptible to being swayed by desire, force, and chance. This loss undermines both personal decision-making and collective societal functioning: a scenario where moral standards are not just absent but deeply missed.
  • Historical Perspectives on Morality:  Referencing thinkers like David Hume and Matthew Arnold, Dallas illustrates how moral knowledge historically aimed to shape human behavior towards virtue. These insights underscore morality's role in directing actions and instilling habits conducive to societal well-being and personal honor.
  • What is knowledge and what does it do? Knowledge is the capacity to represent something as it is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. It and it alone confers the right and perhaps the responsibility to act, direct action, formulate policy and supervise its implementation, and teach. This helps us see what disappears along with “moral knowledge.”
  • Moral Capital and Contemporary Challenges: Dallas points out that modern society is depleting the 'moral capital' accumulated over centuries. He warns that this depletion is unsustainable and leaves deep societal issues unaddressed, which can only be managed through a renewed commitment to moral knowledge.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: Discussing the relevance of traditional moral teachings, Dallas explains that concepts such as the Seven Deadly Sins remain crucial for understanding the destructive potential of unchecked human behaviors and emotions, impacting personal and communal health.
  • Moral Knowledge as a Foundation for Action: Highlighting the pivotal role of moral knowledge, Dallas argues that it is essential not just for avoiding wrongdoing but for fostering the types of individuals and communities that can sustain ethical living and societal progress.
    Education and Moral Knowledge: Dallas critiques the current state of education for its failure to impart genuine moral knowledge, arguing that moral education should not merely recite rules but foster deep understanding and personal growth.
  • Virtue Ethics in Public Institutions: In his discussion on virtue ethics, Dallas underscores the importance of these principles in public institutions, challenging educators and leaders to foster environments where virtues are actively practiced and valued.
  • Role of Religious Institutions in Moral Knowledge: Dallas challenges religious institutions to step up and actively participate in the dissemination of moral knowledge, emphasizing that this should go beyond preaching to analyzing and demonstrating virtues and vices.
  • Importance of Seeking and Applying Moral Knowledge: Dallas concludes with a powerful call to actively seek and apply moral knowledge, advocating for a continuous, dynamic engagement with ethical principles as a way to address personal and societal challenges effectively.

Additional Assets