Thursday, July 29, 2010

What's wrong with moral neutrality?

This will be a bit unusual because I am writing from an isolated place. I have no books and, most of the time, no Internet access. I am in a nice place on the Fundy Coast. In the fog.

I can get Internet access by climbing up the hill with my laptop and logging onto a very slow WiFi. I don’t like to do that often.

Anyway, here is a bit more about why I think it’s important to present moral beliefs with authority. That is to talk about morality by taking sides. And that means by taking sides you really believe in.

This time, I want to take a different tack and ask why anybody would not do this. What are the supposed virtues of not taking a neutral stance.

Except, whoops, we can’t talk about virtues here. To say teaching morality from a neutral stance has virtues would be to make a claim that it is morally better.

But, of course, that is exactly what people defending the view do. You can see this in the very language people use to defend the idea. They attack teaching with authority as “indoctrination” or “net letting people think for themselves”. Those are moral claims and they are being made with authority.

And that is the biggest problem with the claim that we should teach without authority. It’s self-contradictory.

More later but do yourself a favour and go read this argument. Do you have an answer to that? I don’t because he is right.


  1. I'm familiar with his website, I've read some good things on it. The argument he presents here, however, falls short in my opinion, because it is the same argument that conservatives use against the liberal professors at the elite colleges, they claim that students are being indoctrinated in what is PC. I don't disagree with that, I know for a fact that students cannot pass some professor's courses--much less comprehensive exams or defend a dissertation--unless they agree--at least on paper--with the professor's views. But I would point out that those professors speak with as much authority as Hauerwas does, and say that anyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong.

  2. This is what bothers me about today's policy wonks (and the Supreme Court), they're all coming out of the same mold, i.e., Ive-league schools.

  3. When I was in Spain I kept on hearing people use the word "adoctrinamiento" much more than I was used to and suddenly I thought, indoctrination just means teaching people doctrine!

  4. I tend to think people who disagree with me are wrong and I'll generally tell them so, although I try to be polite about it.

    The thing about moral teaching is that at the end of the class, you pack up your books and walk out the door and you can try the stuff you've learned against other theories and against your experience.

    There is a huge difference between teaching doctrine and what goes in, for example, Cuba or Saudi Arabia.

  5. "Indoctrinate" to teach doctrine to. I like that. Thank you Anonymous.

  6. I looked it up, indoctrinate means to teach doctrine, esp. uncritically or from the perspective of the teacher's point of view or bias. Educate means to teach or "lead forth."

    I agree with you that at the end of the day, the student weighs what the professor has said against other theories and his own experience and either accepts it, rejects it, or arrives at a synthesis of all of it, which is what I tend to do.

  7. What interested me was that the cognates had different connotations. A similar example is the word decadence. In English it sounds like something a fascist would say, but in Spanish, decadencia is a fairly neutral word that just means decline. I kind of like this etymological stuff anyway, but here I think it can help you see things in a different way.

  8. That's right, the same word can have different connotations in different languages. I also think the context in which the word is used can affect the connotation it has, and I guess the connotation a word has would affect the context in which one might use it. So, you say either and I say either....?

  9. ANonymous, you are right about the different senses.

    One thing that happens in many languages is that history changes the meaning of a word. To be called condescending was once highest praise because it meant that you were generous towards those of a lower station than you. I don't have the ability to look up the history of indoctrinate here but I wonder if it once had a different sense.

    Of course, there is no reason to assume that the original meaning is better than what a word has evolved to mean.

  10. You make a very good point, over time the original meaning of words does change just because it is so often misused in common parlance. I think of the philosophical syllogism "begs the question." The way it is used today is not what it originally meant. Also the phrase "I could care less." Originally the phrase was "I couldn't care less" about whatever happened to be the topic of discussion. The way it is used today is supposed to mean the same thing but, in fact, says just the opposite.

  11. I found this article about Hauerwas from '07. Its an interesting point of view, I hope you can open the link.