The Marginalisation of Morality

Originally published in Express Tribune, 15th June 2015.

Harvard professor Julie Reuben has documented an important historical transition in the life of US universities over the period 1880-1930 in her book entitled, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Rueben describes a variety of intellectual and historical developments that led universities to abandon their longstanding tradition of building character as well as imparting education, and makes the argument that universities’ abandonment of morality caused great social damage to Western society.

Most colleges in the US started out as religious seminaries. The concept of the unity of knowledge led them to embrace scientific and technological teaching within their curricula. Since all knowledge illuminates the Divine, in teaching physics, astronomy etc., teachers were expected to attend to the beautiful truths to be read in the works of God. Many difficulties arose in the execution of this educational programme. One source of difficulty was the conflicts among different denominations of Protestant Christianity.

To resolve such conflicts, scholars with an implicit faith in unity of knowledge proposed a purely scientific approach to morals in the hope that this would lead to scientific support for traditional Christian morality. Courses were developed to “arouse in (the student) a consciousness of his relationships and a realisation of his responsibilities,” in many universities. The promotion of social sciences became, on this view, a moral mission. In the early 20th century, social scientists portrayed themselves as agents of moral progress. World War Ireinforced these views as many thought that these awful calamities were a result of ignorance about the social and political sciences. The phenomenal growth of social sciences provides evidence of the university reformers’ strong desire to continue the traditional association between higher education and moral leadership.

The development of the philosophy of logical positivism dealt a deadly blow to the desire to integrate moral, spiritual, intellectual and scientific traditions within the university curriculum. According to this philosophy, which became widely accepted, facts and values are sharply separated. Science is based only on facts, while there is no empirical basis for values. The moral, spiritual and humanitarian traditions fall outside the boundaries of science. As an additional blow, the philosophy of emotivist ethics relegated all such human concerns to being mere emotional responses, not subject to intellectual discussion. Under the influence of these ideas, social scientists hid normative concerns within apparently objective frameworks. Increasingly, specialisation and fragmentation of knowledge became the norm for a university education.

Reuben describes the multidimensional efforts made by the universities to retain an element of character building, moral and spiritual training within their curricula. All such efforts failed, and gradually and reluctantly, universities chose to focus solely upon providing technical knowledge, abandoning moral goals.

Hilary Putnam, and other contemporary philosophers, have shown that facts and values are inextricably entangled — they cannot be separated. Logical positivism has collapsed. Since the effort to find a scientific basis for morality has failed, it is necessary to re-think the university curriculum and to re-introduce spiritual and moral training alongside the scientific and technical. Failure to do so has led to university graduates who have committed great crimes against humanity without recognition or remorse. David Halberstam’s classic, The Best and Brightest, shows how graduates of elite universities bombed Vietnam and Cambodia, killing more than two million civilians without compunction. Loss of a moral compass is also illustrated by the secret Congressional testimony of the physicist Oppenheimer who described the brilliant fireworks that would result from atom bomb first, and the carnage in terms of human lives later. Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century documents genocide, mass killings and levels of barbarism unparalleled in human history. The necessity of re-introducing moral training is evident from the fact that elites educated in the finest universities have participated in, and crafted, strategies for killing millions of innocents. The key to the lost knowledge for character development lies in recognising that the ties of shared humanity which bind us all are much stronger than the crafted identities (ethnic, national, linguistic, religious, and others) which separate and create hatred.  These lessons are available in a rich literature which has been dropped from university curricula in favour of technical training.


Original article ends as above. For the Pedagogy Blog, it is important to point out that the exclusion of normative concerns from social science had serious consequences. In effect, normative concepts were hidden into apparently objective frameworks, and excluded from examination and discussion. For an example of this process, see my article: “The Normative Foundations of Scarcity,” Real-World Economics Review, issue no. 61, 26 September 2012, pp. 22-39

  1. I think it important to realise that the equivalent of Logical Positivism has been around in Britain a lot longer than in 1880’s America, originating with David Hume’s Treatise of 1739-40. Both cases are not unconnected with the adoption of fraudulent Reserve Banking to finance wars, colonisation, trade empires and industrialisation. (C.f. the creation of the private Bank of England in 1694 following the Dutch successfully financing the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. In the USA the private First (1791-1811), Second (1816-1836) and Federal Reserve Banks (post-1913) followed the 1775-83 War of Independence from the British model, rejection of private banking being famously followed by Lincoln’s government-issued “greenbacks” during the 1861-5 civil war). Re-introduction of private reserve banking by legislative trickery in 1913 enabled private financing of both sides in World War I and II, then ongoing mayhem around the world, including not just Vietnam and Iraq but a competitive EU rather than the European EEC model of diplomacy, cooperation and mutual education based on Catholic social teaching. Europe is again at a cross-roads. For mankind as a whole, what you are saying about morality is of crucial importance. Here I am reminding you that the love of money is the root of all evil.

    Where I am going to disagree with you is when you say “the effort to find a scientific basis for morality has failed”. Hume argued, in 1740, “you cannot derive an ought from an is”, but science has moved on since then, and C E Shannon, “the Father of Information Science”, made two discoveries which, between them, do just that. First he discovered that electric switching circuits perform logic, meaning that logic is not just a set of rules but that ‘true’ may be represented equally by the switch being closed, current passing, or in the original case of a telephone circuit, conversation being possible. Then he grappled with the fact that long-distance communication was being disturbed by random noise, using the fact that normal conversation contains repetitive (and other) information which is strictly unnecessary, to show – mathematically – that errors could be detected by cross-checking the detail and even located and corrected by including suitable cross-checks in more efficient encoding. This is essentially how historians verify their stories and scientists their conjectures. Combined with the dynamics of Heaviside’s electric circuit theories it manifests in the form of a PID error control system, where in navigation your “moral compass” provides the P. The double representation of information as both circuit and signal refutes Hume’s primary assertion that one can only know what is inside one’s head. We can now show the nervous system is programmed (like a digital camera) to automatically focus our senses, recording detail encoded (unlike in digital cameras) as settings of the detail of the focus mechanism. Redundant language then enables us to both cross-check the information and trigger resetting of the senses to regenerate memory images internally. For Hume, seeing only acceptance of Newton’s method and not his scientific motivation (Bacon’s “For the glory of God and the relief of Man’s estate”) the only source of morality was the feelings or “Passions” inside heads.

    Before the physician can heal himself, then, he must first learn how he works. That – and how the universe evolved – is what I have learned over 62 years since I moved from a Catholic seminarian college to be confronted by Humean scientists proclaiming “I’m all right, Jack” in ignorant defiance of Catholic teaching of “the Brotherhood of Man”, the facts of sin, and each generation needing to learn self-control by learning to admit its errors and mend its ways.

    But conversely, religious teachers have, like society at large, remained ignorant of information and circuit science, despite the One God, Allah, being a living God (the circulation of whose life-force – metaphorically blood – mathematically requires three points to define it), Christianity being about the Word of God, Christ’s stories about harvesting the broadcasting of good and bad seed (i.e. genetic information as against specific knowledge) and his ethos of family love making moral codes almost unnecessary. Hume’s head-bound individualism destroyed the ethos and put the emphasis on a comfortable morality agreeable to self-serving legislators, but not knowing our enemy we religious have allowed him to set our agenda.

    Pedagogically, it is unlikely that all I have learned from 62 years’ science can be conveyed by asides to conventional economics in three. Summarily, my conclusion is that humanity, society and economies are all about communication, with “the invisible hand” of modern economics, replacing the power of slaver-drivers, being PID error control. Control systems have to have an aim, which in the individual perspective amount to an unmanageable combination of billions of micro aims and in the Humean legislative perspective the lowest agreeable aim of money-making, not the painstaking aim of providing for each other and our home in our human family household. Hence the conflicting theories we are living with: economics has no aim (or only one, moneymaking), or it is not a control system (so you need to get it right). In fact, we are controlling money-making by gradually eliminating other aims.

    As I was taught the elements of circuit analysis, radio communication systems and heat, light and sound in two years part time, and picked up information systems analysis and control theory in a few weeks, that seems to me a realistic way of teaching economics given demonstrable analogies between electronic and monetary circulation, and of PID control with traditional Christian moral practice: building self-control by regularly confessing, making good and avoiding temptations to our inevitable sins. It is not possible to be perfect, but we can recognise and correct our errors.

  2. PS. I missed WEA Newsletter 5-2 and thus because of a computer problem. Clearly we agree: my “micro aims” pursue your many dimensions of human welfare. My technical point about pursuing aims is that the same logic applies no matter how far one travels or down which path; thus for teachers, parents feeding the kids provides as valid a model of economic logic as financiers pursuing surplus wealth. The former aim is fundamental, the latter redundant.

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