Ask yourself: Is amoral teaching immoral?

Universities and the Teaching of Morality

J. J. Mearsheimer: Not only is there a powerful imperative at [the University of] Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, but the University also makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution. I would say the same thing, by the way, about all other major colleges and universities in this country.

To illustrate this point, I want to tell you a story about this chapel and the founding of the University of Chicago. As most of you know, John D. Rockefeller was the principal benefactor of this school when it was established at the end of the nineteenth century. He was the Bill Gates of his day, and he gave generously to this university. The building on campus he cared most about was this chapel, which bears his name. He cared so much about this chapel because he was deeply interested in promoting Christian values at Chicago. Regarding the construction of this chapel, Rockefeller explicitly stated, "As the spirit of religion should penetrate and control the university so that building which represents religion ought to be the central and dominant feature of the university group. Thus it will be proclaimed that the University in its ideal is dominated by the spirit of religion, all its departments are inspired by religious feeling, and all its work is directed to the highest ends."

Those very words of John D. Rockefeller, in fact, are chiseled in the stone wall at the back of this chapel. On the same wall, there is another chiseled message. This one is from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fund, which provided the money to cover the ministrations of this chapel over time. The inscription reads: "The purpose of this fund is to promote the religious idealism of the students of the university and of all those who come within its gates through the broadest and most liberal development of the spiritual forces centering in and radiating from this chapel."

Rockefeller was not some lone voice in the wilderness at the time. Indeed, William Rainey Harper, who was the first president of this University, and by almost all accounts did a splendid job, was a deeply religious man who believed that religion had an important role to play on campus. He saw no conflict between morality and knowledge. Indeed, he instituted mandatory chapel at Chicago in 1897; all undergraduates were required to attend chapel services once a week. Moreover, Chicago was not an anomaly among top-flight colleges in the late nineteenth century. Religion also played a central role in campus life at schools like Yale and Stanford, just to name two.


1. We pity a man who has no religion in his heart, no high and irresistible yearnings after a better, holier existence; who is contented with the sensuality and grossness of earth; whose spirit never revolts at the darkness of his prison-house, or exults at the thought of its final emancipation. We pity him, for he affords no evidence of his high origin, no manifestation of that intellectual prerogative which renders him a delegated lord of the visible creation.

2. He can rank no higher than animal nature; the spiritual could never stoop so lowly. To seek for beastly excitements; to minister with a bountiful hand to strange and depraved appetites, are the attributes of the animal alone. To limit our hopes and aspirations to this life and world, is like remaining for ever in the place of our birth, without ever lifting the veil of the horizon which bent over our infancy.

3. There is religion in everything around us, a calm and holy religion in the unbreathing things of nature, which man would do well to imitate. It is a meek and blessed influence, stealing, as it were, unawares upon the heart. It comes, it has no terror; no gloom in its approaches. It has to rouse up the passions; it is untrammelled by the creeds, and unshadowed by the superstitions of man.

4. It is fresh from the hands of the Author; and growing from the immediate presence of the Great Spirit which pervades and quickens it. It looks out from every star. It is among the hills and valleys of earth; where the shrubless mountain-top pierces the thin atmosphere of eternal winter; or where the mighty forest fluctuates before the strong wind, with its dark waves of green foliage.

5. It is spread out like a legible language upon the broad face of the unsleeping ocean. It is the poetry of nature. It is that uplifts the spirit within, until it is tall enough to overlook the shadows of our place of probation, which breaks, link after link, the chains that bind us to mortality; and which opens to imagination a world of spiritual beauty and holiness.

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829). Renowned chemist.

The importance of religion at elite educational institutions like Chicago diminished greatly in the first decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, educational leaders were convinced that you could still study and teach morality without religion. They believed that the scientific method could be used to discover the correct moral precepts. Social scientists, in other words, could employ their tools to study ethics, and in the end you would have a scientific morality. Social scientists would take the place of the clergy. In essence, proponents of this perspective believed that there was no conflict between critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge on one hand, and the study of morality on the other hand.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the effort to develop a scientific morality failed almost completely. Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter.[Emphasis: ABCOG] There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance. Moreover, I would bet that you will take few classes here at Chicago where you discuss ethics or morality in any detail, mainly because those kind of courses do not exist.

There is, however, one important exception to what I have just said about ethics. The University does explicitly condemn cheating, academic fraud, and plagiarism. Not only do virtually all the facility believe that it is morally wrong to cheat or steal another person's ideas, but such behavior is also antithetical to the pursuit of truth, which we care so much about. After all, creating false data thwarts knowledge-building, while stealing ideas from another person is a direct violation of critical thinking, where the emphasis is on using your own faculties to analyze a problem. However, this qualification aside, I believe that [the University of] Chicago is a fundamentally amoral institution.

I want to re-emphasize that [the University of] Chicago is no different than other elite colleges on this score. The trends I described above cut across the board. I also want to emphasize that I am not saying that [the University of] Chicago, or any of its peer competitors, are immoral institutions, but instead I am saying that they are essentially amoral. These schools are largely mum on ethical issues. Furthermore, I am not saying that individual faculty members don't have strong views on the subject. My point is that collectively we are silent on the issue of morality, and instead we concentrate on teaching you to think critically. Finally, I am not saying that moral questions are unimportant and that you should pay them little attention in the years ahead. On the contrary, individuals and the societies they live in constantly run up against troubling ethical questions, and they have no choice but to wrestle with them and attempt to find the right answers. However, for better or for worse, we do not provide much guidance in sorting out those issues. That burden falls squarely on your shoulders.

Excerpted from The Aims of Education Address by Prof. John J. Mearsheimer. The University of Chicago Record. Oct. 23 1997, p. 7.

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