Sunday, April 02, 2006

Years of tolerance and relativism have left U.Va. students confused - unable to recognize right vs wrong...

Linda J. WhiteI think that Linda White, mother of a second-year student at U.Va., is on to something...

I really like the notion of a university honor system being an extension of the natural or moral law...the common sense that all of us have about right and wrong. The fact that today's students don't appear to know what to make of that sense would seem easily explained by an overdose of moral relativism. Nothing is ever that simple, but it is no doubt a meaningful piece of the puzzle...problem really.

Standing for what's right - commonly right and decent and human - is not only acceptable, but necessary. U. Va. students know when something is wrong, but they need to know that it's not wrong to uphold a moral honor system.

Click here for the complete article.

Virginia Honor System ...The U.Va. honor system, today one of the most respected in the nation, built community and trust among the students, and lasting bonds among alumni.

Fast-forward, though, to 2006. According to the spring edition of The University of Virginia Magazine, the honor system is in trouble. "While polls find that students endorse an honor system in concept," writes Dan Heuchert, "they appear less willing to hold each other accountable, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to an increasingly skeptical faculty." As Ph.D. candidate Arantxa Ascunce puts it, "Whenever I have been confronted with a violation, I ask myself, 'Who am I to meddle with anybody else's destiny?'"

'Who am I to meddle
with anybody else's destiny?'

Ascunce isn't alone. According to the Daily Progress, a poll taken last fall indicates only 39 percent of U.Va. students say they would report a clear violation of the honor code. Forty-seven percent of those say they just wouldn't want to get involved. "Students don't want to grapple with ethically messy issues," student Meghan Sullivan--honor committee chairman for 2004-05 - told a university newsletter.

What's going on here? Years of teaching tolerance and relative morality ("What's right for you may not be right for me and what seems right to me may not be to you") have left students confused. Further, they're unable to see how immoral behavior tears at the fabric of society.

Years of teaching:
"what seems right to me
may not be to you
have left students confused.

In fact, even some high-level professors are muddled. I recently attended a conference on law and morality at one of Virginia's premier universities. I was the only lay person present--everyone else was a law student, law professor, lawyer, or a judge. One presenter began his talk with this caveat: "I should tell you," he said, "I'm not even sure there is such a thing as morality."

What? my simple mind squawked in silence. Of course there is!

Deep inside, all people understand some things are right, and some are wrong. We're just afraid to say it. Like characters in a "Saturday Night Live" skit on "overthinkers," we've thought ourselves into a self-constructed maze which denies the reality of morality--and leaves us hobbled by our own foolishness.

all people understand
some things are right,
and some are wrong.
We're just afraid to say it.

A U.Va. professor sheds light on the subject of how we make decisions about right and wrong. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who says we get our moral sense from four foundational "intuitions":

  • aversion to suffering
  • reciprocity, fairness, and equality
  • hierarchy, respect, and duty
  • purity and pollution.

    (Interestingly, he says people who are politically liberal tend to use just Intuitions 1 and 2, while conservatives use all four. But that's a subject for another column.)

    Haidt poses moral dilemmas to his subjects and then studies their responses. He's found that while we think our ideas of right and wrong are based on reason, they're not. Instead, humans have an innate sense of right and wrong - they just know something is wrong, and use reasons to justify their response.

    humans have an innate sense
    of right and wrong

    Indeed, when these reasons are countered logically, people become what he calls "morally dumbfounded." They expect to find a rational basis for their beliefs and are surprised when they don't. Nevertheless, that moral sense is real. Haidt equates it to aesthetic sense: Like beauty, morality cannot be proved or quantified but you know it when you see it.

    Haidt believes that this innate moral code is the result of evolution - people who could trust one another survived to reproduce. I have a different idea. It's what C. S. Lewis called Natural Law, imprinted by God in each man's heart.

    In any event, we have come full circle. Moral behavior builds trust and trust builds community. As old TJ said, the ability to act morally can be encouraged through exercise.

    U.Va. is not the only institution struggling with honor codes. Many schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, have simply given up on them. But research by Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe says that significantly less cheating takes place at schools which have and enforce an honor system.

    As universities are the training ground for the next generation of CEOs, politicians, professors, etc., it's worth the struggle to make honor codes work.

    Should the college experience teach morality? Just think "Enron."
  • Related articles from Charlottesville:

    A cruel and unfair honor system
    Survey: Honor code lacks support at UVa
    Honor reporting
    Appraising honor
    Reviving the community of trust

    Jonathan Haidt has a book out recently called The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Listen to a radio interview here.


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