Updated: Aug 27, 2020
I wrote this a few years ago when I was still teaching at Clemson University. That was before anyone could have imagined Donald Trump as president. Even then I would not have believed the Evangelical Christian leadership would embrace a man who explicitly rejects every single teaching of Jesus and replace it with the gospel of "me first." I chose not to update this at all because the passing of time simply makes the words more relevant rather than less.
There are rights and wrongs. Morality is not subject to circumstance.
Last semester I was presenting a chapter on ethics in corporate/governmental policy and procedures. To illustrate the fallacy of the “ends justifies the means” view of ethics I laid out the rationalization used by the NAZI’s in the holocaust; however I used their formal name The National Socialist Party rather than the acronym NAZI and I just called the Jews “a disproportionately wealthy outside group”. I spelled out how the government confiscated the homes and property of the outside group and rounded them up so as to limit their negative impact on the nation as a whole, there by the government was able to use their wealth to bring the nation out of a debilitating depression. I told my classes that the policies of the National Socialist did indeed bring the country out of depression, and thereby benefited the great majority of the population (which in the 1930’s it did). I was not only shocked that only three of my seventy graduate students knew the National Socialist were the NAZI’s but only a handful were willing to say the policy that led to the holocaust was categorically wrong. Then I followed up with a number of current examples to give my students opportunity to say that certain practices, even directly citing countries that systemically deny women basic rights or allow the use of child labor or even forced labor. The vast majority of my classes responded that they could not say those things were universally wrong, citing cultural differences.
How have we come to the point that four classes of graduate students will not even categorically state the UN’s statement of Universal Human Rights is valid? How have we in the US embraced the idea that circumstances and semantics can make almost any action morally acceptable? Do we believe that ethics and morality are, like art, defined by the beholder?
After the 300 years of religious wars in Europe, Emanuel Kant considered how people with different beliefs could live together in peace and harmony. He postulated that reason dictates there must be a common and universal standard for right and wrong. His categorical imperative was that we must act in such a way that our actions could be universally adopted. Thus, should we rationalize that an action is OK just because I predict the end would be good we inherently give others justification for doing the same. The problem is I can hope for just about any good outcome and therefor justify any action. Kant made it clear that it is never moral to make people simply means to a good end, but rather our actions involving other people must consider the impact on the people involved, and the hoped for end only second.
I am thinking of this because of the ongoing discussion of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military. Of course both places are filled with young adults freed from the constraints of their parents for the first time. In both places young people are, for the first time forced to find and apply their own moral code and in both places we find young people unable to do so. And in both places we find sexual assault epidemic.
The issue of sexual assault on campus and on the military base can be used as a proxy for a whole host of moral failures. In looking at this issue we see not only a problem with individuals justifying actions solely by what they get out of it in the primary case, but looking at the larger picture we see leadership responding in ways that are governed by the same “what do I get out of it” mentality. Thus not only does rape happen at an alarming rate, college and military leadership have been shown to be more interested in optics and the good of the organization than the welfare of the victims whom they were obligated to protect.
Just this past week there was a disheartening story in the media about one of the schools I have attended. I have a master’s degree from Bob Jones University; it is a conservative Christian school that very loudly proclaims its commitment to universal moral behavior. After a new university president was appointed a few years ago there was an effort started to look into how the school has dealt with issues of sexual abuse and assault over the past 50 years. Many colleges and universities are doing this after the Penn State case. To show the school was serious about the integrity of the study, an outside group was hired to conduct a thorough investigation. For the past 18 months they have conducted over 250 interviews with mostly former students and were preparing a final round of interviews and reports when the new president had to resign due to a serious health issue. Within a week of his departure, the senior administration (absent a new president) stopped the study cold thus sealing all results that could have damaged the reputation of those leaders and the institution. So, despite their claim to a categorical morality, they acted in a way that was entirely utilitarian, i.e. justifying their actions by how it impacts the whole organization regardless of the impact on individual victims of abuse and assault.
We as a society have fallen into the trap of building a morality code that disregards the impact of our actions on individuals by focusing on our own desires. Those desires might be power, or prestige, or financial gain, or efficacy or even our deluded dreams of “the greater good”. We have allowed narrow rules to circumvent the principle of valuing each person’s welfare as being as important as our own. What is worse, is that we the leadership generation have glorified self-serving rationalizations to the young people of the world. I am not sure which is worse, those who promote the deluded notion that harmful means that treat people as expendable pawns can be used to achieve a society of justice; or those who promote a political/religious rule book that disregards the direct harm their rules cause. Both groups forget the measure and point of morality is the welfare of our fellow humans here and now. To rationalize harmful actions based on some “eternal spiritual reward” or some distant social utopia you think you can create is a supreme act of conceit. Because no one can see the future and the long term implications of any actions no matter how much we believe we can. All we can do is try our best to see today and what we do today is good for our fellow human beings.
If one does this, one cannot be a rapist. If one does this one cannot silence or ignore the victim of sexual assault. If we all did this the world would be a much better place.