Sommerville, C. John. The Decline of the Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chapter 9. “Moralizing as a Bad Habit” pp. 111-119.
With the emphasis on tolerance in academia we might expect the university to be an amoral atmosphere. Sommerville, however, finds it to be a place full of moralizting, which he distinguishes from actual applied ethics. “Moralizing is blaming others, while ethics is examining ourselves” (Sommerville 2006, 111). Even though the academy will oppose “imposing morality,” it assumes some sort of existing values, then builds on those to enforce a moralistic standard (Sommerville 2006, 112). Here, religion could be a strong force for unity of standards, but it is rejected because it is not shared by all. This leaves the community in the position of creating standards with less than concrete reasons attached. Sommerville notes that in history, his discipline, tracing moral right and wrong is a very important motivation for continued study. Since the rise of social science in the 1960s, he has found a reaction against the purely quantitative approaches advocated by that movement (Sommerville 2006, 113). The result has been a greater emphasis on narrative elements, which normally elevate the role of moral values in people and movements. These values cannot be explained through naturalistic processes, but must deal with volition, motivation, and agency, which are deeply laden with values (Sommerville 2006, 114). This is a problem simply because, in an academic climate which rejects “oppression and the belittling of others” (Sommerville 2006, 115), there is a parallel hesitancy regarding ethics and moral formation in traditional terms. True humanizing of history, as well as other disciplines, requires a willingness to explore both ethical and religious questions (Sommerville 2006, 116).
Sommerville goes on to speak of two different forms of tolerance, which may be easily confused with one another. There is a moral value of tolerance for persons. However, tolerance of ideas is not a moral value. Sommerville rather identifies it as “intellectual relativism” (Sommerville 2006, 116). The confusion may come about due to an assumption that people’s ideas are intrinsic parts of them, and therefore cannot change. If this is the working assumption, an attack on an idea constitutes an attack against the person (Sommerville 2006, 117). Sommerville suggests that a way of breaking the confusion is a study of history which confronts students with a reasoned account of why proponents of different value systems considered themselves to be right. Developing a thorough understanding of multiple points of view is essential in learning to choose among them. Sommerville finds that the moralism coming from the secular university is too one-sided to allow for development of understanding of different viewpoints (Sommerville 2006, 119).