Students Cheating and American Subjectivism

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Ethics class

Ethics class (Photo credit: aditza121)

Students cheating in school is not a new thing, but it has become an epidemic in recent years. The Internet has made cheating easier, with thousands of term papers students buy and pass off as their own work. Cell phones are now used by students to get answers from their classmates or to look them up on a website. What is most surprising is how many students see no moral problem with cheating. Sometimes irate parents will visit a high school principle or college dean and complain that their child did not cheat, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the student. Is it any surprise that there are so many scandals in business and in government? Children are emulating the values of their parents, who reflect the terrible trend in American culture to want something for nothing.

The rampant relativism to which students are exposed on television, by celebrities, by the media, in the K-12 school system, and in colleges and universities makes it easy for students to become subjectivists on ethics. “Whatever floats your boat” or “Whatever I think is right is right for me and whatever you think is right for you” becomes the mantra of many students today. The most dogmatic relativists are as closed-minded as any religious fundamentalist. The fact that they become angry and try to cut a professor off when he argues against subjectivism reveals that they only want their views to be heard. Apparently the position held by the professor and by other students that everyone, including the professor, has the right to speak his mind has not sunk into these students.

I am at a loss to determine how to get beyond the impasse of relativistic propaganda in society. When the United States accepted a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, as it did from the Second Great Awakening in the late eighteenth century through around 1963, one could argue from a common morality held by the vast majority of Americans. With the decline of Christianity and the proliferation of different religions and cultures, one could try to find common values between them–and between deeply devout people of all major religions much commonality in moral beliefs is present. Radical secularism, agnosticism, and atheism can try to develop a non-relativistic deontological or utilitarian system, but other secularists who desire to do what they want without restraint could say, “Okay, there’s a common morality needed for the good of society, but I don’t care about the good of society. There’s no God to stop me from being a self-centered ass. So that’s what I’ll be.” Without transcendent meaning, how strong is the force of the “ought” in ethics (I am borrowing this point from George Mavrodes). Students may intellectually believe in some kind of deity, but the secular relativism they have been taught from kindergarten onward has already sunk into their psyche. This fact, along with the inherent immaturity and selfishness of youth, make for a combination that will inevitably result in rampant cheating. I have had students of all grades brag to me about how they successfully cheated in school. It is a matter of pride to them. It is a matter of shame to American society that its cultural rot since 1964 has destroyed any notion of transcendent meaning (beyond trying to find it through pleasure), has promoted self-centeredness, has promoted “success” by any means necessary, and has lied to people by telling them they should be proud of their accomplishments even if they did not earn them. With churches catering to the relativist, postmodern young person without trying to correct their relativism, all that results is high recidivism and young people who leave church with the same twisted values they previously had accepted. Without a large-scale religious revival, which I do not see coming in the United States, growing irreligiosity will cause societal destruction in the U.S.–Europe had enough residual tradition to withstand falling into chaos when Europeans gave up on Christianity, but how long will that last? I expect more cheating in the future by students. Some will get caught, most will not care unless they are caught (and even then for selfish reasons), and the shred of integrity left in the American educational system will be threatened.

Traditional Moral Positions and the Public Square

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Freedom of Speech (painting)

Freedom of Speech (painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Canada, it is a crime to publicly assert that practicing homosexuality is a sin. In my ethics class, students regularly write on their essays that being a virgin until marriage is “prudish,” and they do not take seriously the traditional view that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage. In many academic settings, those who believe abortion to be morally wrong are silenced, to the point that the University Faculty for Life presents an option to its members to hide their membership in the organization so that their colleagues do not find out. The notion that there is objective right and wrong is excluded from most public schools, and moral relativism is taught as the gospel truth (and teaching it as such is, of course a contradiction).

It is true that freedom of speech does not, as the old saw goes, give anyone the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Surely being morally opposed to abortion or to practicing homosexuality or to premarital sex is not the equivalent to shouting “Fire!” Yet such opinions are being increasingly excluded from the public square, in academic institutions first, and then in the wider society.

I believe in academic freedom. If a student or faculty member wishes to defend the moral rightness of premarital sex, of practicing homosexuality, or of abortion, that student or faculty member should be allowed to have a say in the university square. But academic freedom also implies that those with the opposite views on these issues should be allowed to make their case. I am a conservative, but if a liberal student makes a strong case for his position, he will get a good grade on his test and will not be punished for his views. The situation should be the same for a conservative student who makes a good defense of his position in a class with a liberal professor. To give them credit, some liberal professors do give their students such academic freedom and believe in such for their colleagues. There is a subset of professors, however, who want to silence conservative voices, especially on controversial moral issues. Such violation of freedom of speech has taken place in some institutions of higher education, to the point that a professor in one school who presented a natural law argument against homosexual practice (and did not even claim to agree with the argument) was fired–until a court awarded him his job back. The problem is that he should not have lost his job in the first place. What is going on is that hostile rhetoric against moral conservatives is repeated so much that people begin to believe it (“they are haters,” “these people are filled with anger,” etc.). I have never understood why holding moral action A to be wrong implies hating the person who performs moral action A. I wish I could say that such an ignorant position prevails only in academia, but it is present in broader society. More and more the elites in academia, the media, and in Hollywood, are attempting to exclude traditional moral discourse from legitimate discussion and to push their views onto society as a whole. It may be just a matter of time before the United States goes the direction that Canada has gone (depending on election results, court appointees, etc.) and makes illegal conservative moral discourse on abortion and on sexual ethics. I wonder who the real narrow minded people are, the real bigots, the real haters. I would venture a guess that most of them are not moral conservatives.

Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics

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English: Medicine

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A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.

In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.

The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.

What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.

Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.

I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.

Americans’ Failure to Grow Up

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Greuze, Jean-Baptiste - The Spoiled Child - lo...

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A seventy-year-old man spouts off moral relativism like a college sophomore. A forty-year-old woman throws a temper tantrum at a store. Young people demand pay and benefits but are unwilling to do the job for which they were hired. Marriages break up under the strains of self-centeredness of one or both partners, a self-centeredness that is so extreme that it rivals that of a six-year-old. Teenagers demand, and permissive parents allow, them near total freedom to engage in destructive behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse as well as sexual promiscuity.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has produced multiple generations of spoiled, lazy children who grow up to become spoiled, lazy adults. One reason that it is unlikely that federal spending will not be controlled is adults’ lust for government handouts and benefits. The baby boomers and their successors are so self-centered that they do not care what happens to their children or grandchildren. All that matters is “me, me, me, now, now, now.” Is it any surprise when these selfish people reach old age that their children, reared in the image of their parents, cart their parents off to a nursing home and have little to do with them? Is it a surprise when schools cannot discipline unruly children because their parents threaten to sue the school if such discipline takes place? Even though there remain millions of people in the United States who have not bowed down their knees to the Ba’al of self-centeredness, enough people are self-centered that the country has been severely damaged, perhaps irreparably, by their irresponsiblity. The steel and auto industries, caring only about profits in the present, did not spend money to upgrade their facilities, and either went under or outsourced much of their work forces to other countries.

Probably the worst product of self-centeredness is moral relativism, a denial of any objective moral values above the individual self, or in the case of a less radical relativism, above the level of the culture. Moral relativism poisons a society, making it unable to make basic moral distinctions once taken for granted. A woman gets pregnant and murders her child through abortion–she wants the joy of sex (as does the man) without the responsibility. A man desires to have sex with a man; instead of making the effort to refocus his sexual desires on women, he fulfills his immediate desire and claims that it is normal and morally right. A couple want to spice up their sex lives and get involved in swinging, “threesomes,” and orgies. A Wall Street banker justifies misusing others money by his view that morality should suit him, not others. Egoism is the brother of relativism, especially subjectivism, for people who locate moral standards only in the individual self will only be concerned for their supposed self interest. I have seen how the poison of subjective moral relativism has reduced some students to blithering idiots in any discussion of morality–“well, this is just my opinion;” “there’s no real right or wrong answer here,” “morality depends on what you think it is, but somebody else might think something different, and that’s okay, too.” Such ignorance should be called out for what it is: spoiled children wanting to be promiscuous or get drunk or do other unethical activities without anyone “judging” them for their behavior. The problem with the United States is not only economic; it is moral and spiritual. Unless the main problems can be solved the economy will, in the long run, fail. Community will fail if people only follow their individual standards and seek only their own self-interest. The end state of the current course of American’s spoiled adults will be anarchy, Hobbes‘ state of nature, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A dictator may restore order, but without any transcendent vision above the will to power this will only be a short-term “solution” to the problem of people who believe themselves to be atomistic individuals. Once John Locke’s vision of government was secularized, the inevitable logic of his atomistic view of people led to mass relativism, mass egoism, and extended childhood. There is always hope that people will see the emptiness of a life based only on a child-like self-assertion and that people will return to a mature view in which they are responsible for themselves and for other people dependent on them,  and in which they base their values on something that transcends their own selfish desires. If that does not happen, then God help the United States of America.

Academics and Closed-Mindedness

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Acadèmia (iii)

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There is a thin line between open-mindedness and giving up reason, but closed-mindedness is always a threat to reason. College and university education should be the ideal place where open-minded but rational professors help students to think. This implies that professors love truth above professional success, fame, and other temptations. There are many professors who do place truth above finite goods–thank God for their presence in the academy. From my experience, other professors are locked into their world views and refuse to think outside the box, placing acceptance by their colleagues above seeking the truth.

One area in which such narrowness is found is politics. The vast majority of humanities professors are liberal Democrats; some are Marxists. Although some of these professors are “true liberals,” allowing students to express contrary opinions, others are intolerant of difference. Those who oppose liberals position on entitlement programs, for example, are labeled as “racist” by these professors, who obviously have no idea what the term “racist” really means. The situation is worse concerning moral issues: opposition to abortion can get a student labeled as a “pro-life nutcase.” Opposing practicing homosexuality automatically gets a student labeled as a bigot, and the student may be punished. Some faculty members have been fired for even bringing up arguments opposing homosexuality, although one such case was overturned by a court and the professor was rehired. Professors who count themselves as “trendy” are really the most conformist people of all. They are more predictable than religious Fundamentalists, and emotionally they have the same mindset.

Speaking of religion, there is a bias among many academics against traditional religious beliefs. Academics may have no problem with a watered-down liberal Protestantism or liberal Roman Catholicism, but may detest traditional Christian beliefs and morality. And even though Muslims hold traditional moral values, the academic left is not as critical of them because they are non-Christians. Religion is considered to be a crutch, an opiate (to use Karl Marx’s term), an excuse for persecuting the poor,  a denial of reality, and an enemy to society in general. What religious expression there is is relegated to the private realm–woe be to the faculty member who mentions his Christianity in class, and the same often applies to students, especially to traditional Evangelicals and to traditional Roman Catholics.

Some professors are guilty of other kinds of prejudice. Psi phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis are well-documented to the point that parapsychologists mainly do process studies to show how psi works rather than proving that psi exists. Yet many professors dismiss a student or colleague who accepts the reality of psi as a “new-aged nut.” “I don’t know what happened to him, but somewhere along the line he went nuts.” Such conclusions are reached without an open and honest examination of the evidence for and against psi phenomena. The sciences have been the most closed-minded disciplines concerning psi. And although there was a period in the 1970s in which the humanities were more open to psi, today the situation has reverted to the same kinds of prejudice found in the sciences. Papers that accept the existence of psi  are usually only accepted by psi journals and at psi conferences, although recently there have been a few exceptions among psychology journals. Opinions contrary to the establishment are silenced by lack of publication, a death-knell to any instructor seeking tenure.

A third area in which there is closed-mindedness in academia is medical ethics. It is more and more difficult to find an article in a mainstream bioethics journal from a traditional moral perspective. One major exception is the UK-based Journal of Medical Ethics which has published articles from many different points of view, including morally conservative ones. Looking over issues of the Hastings Center Report, the premier bioethics journal in the United States, the articles in the 1070s reflected far more balance between traditionalists and nontraditionalists in ethics than the articles today. There was a greater role for theological ethicists, such as the late Paul Ramsey, to have their say. On the issue of health care allocation, The New England Journal of Medicine has served more as an apologetics journal for Mr. Obama’s health care program rather than a journal that presents a balanced point of view. From the point of view of the university professor, it is easier to get articles published in mainstream journals if one is in favor of abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research, physician assisted suicide, and even, as Jonathan Hardwig, in favor of a “duty to die,” including a duty to commit suicide if one’s illness is financially and emotionally harming one’s family. Would a pro-life professor have any chance to become department head at a major state university? I doubt it. Traditionalists are forced to take jobs at the few Roman Catholic institutions that affirm traditional morality or at an Evangelical Protestant school, and even the latter are moving to the left on moral issues. I am not opposed to a moral liberal, a religious liberal, and/or a political liberal being in academia. But there are other positions out there that need to be heard so that students have a more balanced perspective. Maybe one day the legacy of the 1960s closed-minded radicals who ruined much of academia may change–the sooner the better.

The REAL Reason Most College Students are Moral Relativists

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C. S. Lewis

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The real reason most college and university students are moral relativists is because they want to get laid–not just once, but promiscuously. They also want to get drunk–not slightly, but thoroughly and often. I could add drug use, rudeness to professors and to each other, and the other problems students have in a decaying culture.

Other than sociopaths and psychopaths, people have consciences. They do not like to feel guilt. If they convince themselves that what they feel is right is “right for them,” then that can do bad things without the guilt. In the past, this tendency of the young to rebel was controlled by strong parenting and strong community standards. Even in the government schools, students were taught that there are some actions that are right, not just for them, but for everyone else–and that some actions are wrong–not just for them, but for all people. In the 1970s, “values clarification” was used to try to teach relativism to students in K-12. Students who are that age between childhood and adulthood who wanted to “go wild” then had an excuse–there are, they were taught, no cross-culturally valid moral standards. The government schools still teach such relativist garbage (the trend began in England before it began in the U.S.; read C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

Part of adulthood is understanding one’s responsibilities in life and following basic standards of moral decency–avoiding excessive anger, avoiding jealously, envy, murder, theft, sexual wrongs, and other actions that are harmful to human flourishing. Moral relativism is one of many forces that have pushed the effective age of adulthood for Americans to around twenty-six.

People without a firm moral compass will literally try to do everything they desire to do. It is no surprise that even white collar people have been involved in scandal after scandal–there are other causes for their behavior than relativism–bad character, for instance, but the relativism rampant in the school system does not help matters.

Man is a social animal, and for mankind to survive, certain moral rules are essential–do not murder (take innocent human life), steal (for the notion of property rights collapses otherwise), do keep promises (this is necessary for contracts to have any meaning, as is general truthfulness), do not commit adultery (for the sake of a stable family). As far back as Aristotle these were considered to be values required to be a good human being who contributes to the community. Ancient thinkers from Aristotle to Confucius believed in a common moral code that, despite cultural differences in application, had the same general list of virtues and vices. C. S. Lewis calls this code the “Tao.” A society that rejects the Tao will end up like the children in Lord of the Flies, committing murder and hunting with a stick sharpened at both ends (I am grateful to the late Louis Pojman for this point).

Some students will grow out of their relativism, especially after having children of their own. Others do not, however, and this contributes to the decay of the fundamental institution of society, the family, and of social institutions both public and private. Hopefully parents will counteract the influences facing their children these days, as difficult as that is. I am frankly tired of hearing students saying that the evil deeds done by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were “right for them.” They were not right, period, and young people ought to have enough sense to recognize that.

Is Modern “Total War” Ethical?

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Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

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I just viewed an excellent PBS “American Experience” program, “The Bombing of Germany.” It detailed how in World War II the United States moved from a position of “precision bombing” of military targets to accept the British strategy of “terror bombing” of German (and later Japanese) cities. For a number of years I have struggled with the ethics of modern “total” warfare–the idea defended long ago by General Sherman that “war is hell” and thus targeting noncombatants is morally legitimate. Thus, the 45,000 civilians killed in World War II in Hamburg, the 40,000 (minimum) killed in Dresden, the 100,000 killed by the U.S. raid on Tokyo in March 1945, the 80,000 killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and the 40,000 killed by the Nagasaki atomic bomb were, according to the “total war” theory, necessary casualties to win the war more quickly.

I am not interested in utilitarian arguments since I reject utilitarianism as a viable moral theory. But traditional just war theory (which I accept; at the theoretical level I am not a pacifist) has always made a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Of course some noncombantants will be killed in any war, but it is the intentionally targeting of noncombatants that is morally repugnant. Just war theory has always considered noncombatants to be “innocent” in the sense that they are not directly killing their fellow human beings. Arguments that extend “guilt” to the entire population of a country waging war can only justify mass destruction of human life. Total war inevitably harms the characters of those who actively participate in such activities as terror bombing and intrinsically corrupt any society that engages in them. Granted, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and after Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, the U.S. had no choice but to fight. The United States kept the moral high ground until 1945; would that it had kept it until the end of the war. It now seems to me that modern fullscale war has crossed the threshold into immorality, even for the “innocent” state in what otherwise would be a just war. Thus, I now believe that full scale “total war” is intrinsically unethical.