Recently I received an email from, as they say, a ‘member of the public’ who was not aware that I had stepped down as President of Dublin City University. The email was written in what was clearly an angry frame of mind, and my correspondent wanted to let me know in no uncertain terms that I employed academics who were likely to corrupt Ireland’s youth. Did I not see it as our role, he asked, to teach high moral standards?
The reason for his writing to me along these lines was that his daughter had told him about a comment made by a lecturer in a class, which he regarded as immoral. Let us not pursue what the topic or the particular comment had been, and let us just consider the general proposition. Is it the university’s role to ‘teach morality’? I find it impossible to provide a simple answer. One might suggest that it is our duty not to support any acts of disobedience to the law. But then again, civil disobedience to immoral laws has a long pedigree, and it is not to difficult to think of examples of where law and morality were clearly in conflict: was it a German academic’s moral duty in 1938 to teach racism?
So if the law does not provide us necessarily with a moral code, what does? We might possibly agree on certain propositions: academics should not encourage cruelty or abuse, or corruption, or exploitation. But then again, an academic attempting to persuade their audience to be cruel or corrupt is unlikely to be influential, or to have a long career for that matter. Generally speaking those concerned about the need to teach morality are likely to be swimming in rather muddy waters of moral ambivalence or contention; issues like stem cell research or sexual morality might be the subject matter.
In the end, academic studies often have to probe the limits of social norms, and doing so can easily appear to some to flirt with immorality. On one occasion during my presidency of DCU I was told that a colleague was expressing racist views. I absolutely abhor racism, so I looked into the matter with some urgency. It turned out that the academic in question was raising issues about housing policy, and while his position was an arguable one it wasn’t in any direct sense racist.
Often moral issues are raised by people who take the view that morality is not about trying to grapple with complex issues and seeking to make appropriate judgements, but about following rules. It is not about asking what is right, but declaring what has been determined as right. Indeed, there are debates about how we identify morality in neuro-scientific terms, and whether it is all just driven by specific brain activity without any objective basis. Those of us following a religious frame of reference, or indeed a humanist one, may believe we have criteria to determine ethical standards, but at least some of these will be based on our beliefs and may not make sense to those who do not share those beliefs.
I found it hard to answer my correspondent’s question. I would hate to state that universities do not recognise any kind of objective morality. But I would equally not want them to be the guardians of any particular outlook or tradition. In the end I fudged the issue by stating that his particular concern was related to private morality in which the university could not interfere, and I also wrote that universities need to be places where different viewpoints are assessed and analysed. But if his complaint had been, say, racism, I probably would have answered differently.
In the end DCU has shown its recognition of the role of morality by establishing its Institute of Ethics. But it, like other universities, cannot be a general enforcer of anyone’s morality, and it must respect freedom of opinion and expression. We cannot ‘teach morality’, but we can and should hope that those who take our programmes or follow our research will leave us better equipped to assess and work out today’s big ethical dilemmas.