I’m featuring a video by Dr. Steve Turley, because I think this is an important point. He discusses what I would call moral education, which I have also concluded is missing from education. The video is from Apr. 11, 2017. He uses the uproar at the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”) as the lead-in to this topic.
We need education in how to reason, and to understand what knowledge is. We need education in how to categorize modes of thought, and to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each. We also need education in what is good and what isn’t, by which I mean, broadly, to understand that there is such a thing as better and worse, not only for oneself, but for the society in which we exist, and that it is moral and ethical to prefer the better, even though there will always be negative consequences for some as a result of doing so (in modern terms, we’d roughly call this a “cost/benefit analysis”). It should also be pointed out that we in the West have been learning about that which is better. It’s not a static thing. We’ve learned that in order to learn what is better, we need to venture beyond that which we think is good, to try new things, and see whether they add to our betterment, or not.
What’s come into challenge in the last 15 years is the very ideal of betterment itself; the pursuit of truth. I think Turley’s point regarding “the ordering of our loves” is profound here.
Where I would say we especially need education, in this regard, is where the perception of what benefits us comes in conflict with what someone else believes benefits them, or what we believe benefits society. How do we choose who has the better claim? Who will get the prerogative to act on it, and who must demur? Society has a claim on moral virtue, if it is going to survive, but who speaks for it other than a collective, common understanding of some virtues? The common virtues I speak of for our society are things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, equal protection under the law, equal rights, etc. At times, I’ve called these virtues a meta-morality. They are not part of how we conduct our daily lives, person to person, but we appeal to them when making societal decisions. Even these common virtues have come into challenge in what is taught in our schools. Thereby, their perceived value to our society has been diminished, precisely because they have a moral foundation.
These virtues are not givens. People knowledgeable in history know this.
What’s becoming increasingly clear to me is that what we regard as empirical and philosophical knowledge has a moral basis for its practice, which is the pursuit of truth. The pursuit of truth is in itself a moral claim to virtuous action, precisely because even it has negative consequences for those who do not pursue truth, and see little value in it. It is a deliberate choice that accepts this reality, and prefers it over the historical alternatives, which have resulted in a lower quality of life, a lack of dignity for the vast majority of people, for most of our tragic human history.
I’ll note that with truth also comes beauty, something we also value. I don’t speak just of physical beauty. It also manifests in how we express ourselves, how we act with others, and what we contribute. It’s important, as it nourishes what we would otherwise call “the soul of humanity.”
I’m reminded that the mathematician Jerry King pointed out that many of the most beautiful mathematical truths have also turned out to be useful in science and engineering. So, beauty is not entirely frivolous, as we are tempted to think.
Truth and beauty can be taken to excess. As Aristotle said, any virtue taken to excess becomes a vice. In a healthy moral system, its virtues check each other, hemming in excess.
The benefits of the pursuit of truth are things that our society has taken for granted, but which are now being highlighted by the increasing power of postmodern thought in our education system, and increasingly in our politics, and the policies under which we live.
Turley has brought up repeatedly how in the late 19th century, American universities stopped teaching moral virtues as part of the curriculum, and just focused on empiricism as the basis of knowledge. One might wonder if this started then, why didn’t what we see now in our social state emerge much earlier. My guess is that what made up for it, and may have allowed schools to take this turn without a more obvious impact, is that Americans were still mostly engaged with organized religions, in whatever belief system they chose, and so their religious leadership gave them a moral education that schools no longer provided. Perhaps people became convinced moral education would be safe there. I think we see now this is not the case, as organized religious practice, particularly the Christian variety, has been on the decline in the United States in the last 15, or so, years, and has been in decline in Western Europe for even longer.
The fact is science cannot answer the question of how we should relate to each other. It cannot tell us what is better. It can inform us in making that determination, but it can’t tell us who is more worthy to live or die; who should live free, and who should be punished for violating our society’s standard of peaceful coexistence. It cannot answer what that standard should be. Yet, all of this is of critical importance. Without moral and ethical standards of good quality, we are prey to standards that are slipshod, short-sighted, and which end up degrading our quality of life, and the life of our society. The reason being it’s impossible for humans to act on the basic things that sustain our lives without having a belief system. It’s a fool’s bargain to neglect teaching quality moralities and ethics to the next generation, believing that science can substitute for them. One reason we have tried to substitute one for the other is the basis for these quality belief systems–the theological stories that give rise to them–have problems when looked at under the lens of our society’s analytical tools, or these belief systems cause some negative consequences in society. We’ve seen disappointing, and what are to us horrifying consequences when people have followed religious practices that are of poor quality, or if they’ve followed perverted versions of our society’s religious traditions. What’s beginning to be apparent, though, is when we neglect teaching quality moralities in our society, we undermine the very basis for preferring our analytical tools for determining what’s better. Without a quality moral/ethical foundation, why even pursue truth, when we can imagine that we can create our own world out of whole cloth with our desires (which ends up degrading quality of life)?
Science doesn’t allow for that way of thinking, but if people see science as a limiting method, rather than a liberating one–when “moral truth is relative,” and our potential is seen as stifled; tricked away from us by our traditions–why use science to inform us about anything? Or, why shouldn’t science only be used as a voice of authority for a moralizing movement of our choosing–a ruse?
For a pursuit of truth to exist, it must first have a moral/ethical foundation that values it, the sense that truth is right, good, and elevates and liberates humanity, by virtue of the fact that it works relatively well for the societies that base themselves on it, and gives people a dignity for which they can strive, and which they can deserve.
The phrase “pursuit of truth” implies a kind of relativism, because it states that the truth is not perfectly known. What we should have in a pluralistic society is multiple moralities contending against each other in discussion and debate, because, since the truth is not known–though it is assumed as an absolute, with reason, to exist–different moralities are going to have some better ideas for addressing it than others, and people can reformulate what moralities they want to follow, based on their judgment of which ideas are better for them. However, what we used to do was make modifications to long-standing traditions, as some among us explored their own moralities. That practice had value. What’s been done recently is to throw out moral traditions entirely, sometimes keeping their names, but throwing out their substance. This came partly from our exercise of rational thought, and partly because we saw the traditions as power plays upon us, which limited our potential.
Throwing out religious traditions doesn’t mean our proclivity to believe in myths ends. What’s happened instead is new, irrational moral paralogies, as James Lindsay has called them, have arisen, seemingly formulated out of whole cloth, but which have roots in political traditions. They do not offer the kind of personal or societal life that traditional religions and philosophies teach. People may believe that these pseudo-religions offer a better life, but from what I’m seeing, they do not. However, that is up to each individual to judge.
Circling back to what I said about the need for a moral education, I don’t mean to suggest it must return to schools. My real intent with this is to appeal to our desire for a better life, and a better future for the next generation. We need to have a discussion in our society about how this should be carried out.
A point that I think needs to be made in our present circumstance is that since we need a moral basis for the pursuit of truth, I think we need to talk to those who would discourage the practice of various traditional religions–because of their failure when subjected to some rational analysis–to point out that what they’re doing is destructive to their own goals. They are undermining the basis for pursuing truth, and as I think we’re seeing, that leads to a growing chaos.
A thought that’s I’m sure disquieting to proponents of rationalism is that our betterment through rational means rests on an irrational foundation. We’ve mistakenly believed that we can toss aside our traditional irrational foundation, and substitute a rationally-derived orthodoxy in its place, because of our desire to be consistent. Along with that, we’ve brought in a worship of what rational thought, we think, has given us entirely on its own. Given human nature, though, this is really asking to have our cake, and eat it, too. While it has seemed to us that giving space to the irrational destroys the benefits of what rational modes of thought give us, actually, shunning, and discrediting certain traditions that have irrational bases creates the environment for lower irrational beliefs to take their place. By doing this, we are in fact embracing a contradiction to our nature. We pride ourselves on our consistency of thought for doing this, but neglect that we are acting in denial to what’s really going on, and what is required to maintain, and advance our society. Indeed, as we have been watching play out in our society for years, rationality can undermine its own foundation.
If anyone brings up the importance of a belief in a deity, our intelligentsia mocks them for having “imaginary friends.” Well, let me address that. I will not assert here that deities do or do not exist, but looking at it from a standpoint I find very useful for regarding such matters, there are such things as important notional inventions that we are neglecting here. Take our notion of time, for example. Yes, we notice that there is a progression of change. Nothing stays the same. To help us deal with this, and measure this change, humans invented a notion of time, but this is our formal idea of change. That notion is not objectively real, but could our society survive if we completely eliminated this idea, because of this? No, it could not. I contend that people’s religious traditions are in a similar category. We take those away, and disrespect them, at our peril. People need moral guidance from traditions that have been instrumental in furthering our civilization. We are not born with that guidance, and a secular “going through the motions” of passing on the religiously-derived notions of right and wrong (by the way!) falls to pieces on critical analysis, because, “Why do any of it?… Why should I care how other people feel, or think about what I do, or whether what I do makes them suffer? What if my desires are the most important to me, or if it’s my identity, and everything I think that’s owed? What if that’s all there is to it? What if I don’t care who judges me?”
If you listen to Scott Adams, and what he describes regarding human cognition and psychology, this will become clearer. If you look around you at the irrational moral claims that dominate our popular discussion now, you can see that nothing about our human nature has changed by quashing our religious traditions, and the moral lessons they convey.
Qualitative differences in morality matter. They make a difference in our quality of life. Making sense requires the pursuit of truth. This requires moral imperatives that value that pursuit, and motivate people toward it. This requires acknowledging and accepting that our irrational nature exists, and must be accommodated, but also kept under some control. That’s where the pursuit of truth becomes essential. It is a tool for keeping our irrational nature from going “off road” to such an extent that it ruins us.
What’s grown up in place of our displaced foundation is an irrational discourse that does not value the pursuit of truth. It behooves us to realize this, to understand what we are losing, and that our future does not have to follow linearly from our present.
Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.
–John Adams, letter to Zabdiel Adams (21 June 1776)
Edit 11/27/2021: Jordan Peterson (in 2017) gave a good summation of one part of my argument here. It’s fair to say his presentation was an inspiration for me to write this post.