“Most social situations are not moral, because there is no conflict between the role-taking expectations of one person and another.”—Lawrence Kohlberg1
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, early in the history of higher education in America, one finds that American moral philosophers and educators gave up relying upon a functional view of a person’s full humanity connected to Jewish-Christian metaphysics (i.e., we are all made in God’s image).2
Despite this choice, educational leaders did not give up a teleological understanding of ethics. Without a thick understanding of human flourishing and the human telos, American colleges and universities simply appealed to narrower slices of human identity that resulted in narrower forms of focus and moral reasoning (e.g., be a gentleman, be a person of honor, be a good professional). In addition, they often turned to various forms of identity socialization without a larger ethical context (e.g., honor and professional codes).
Yet, turning to mere fragments of identity to guide moral education promoted diminished forms of confused socialization and narrow forms of moral reasoning. Moral education gradually became less about acquiring a positive vision of human moral expertise and more about two things: 1) avoiding negative behaviors (e.g., cheating, professional misconduct, various forms of assault, etc.) and 2) resolving moral conflict.
The first approach, avoiding negative behaviors or what I call “fall control,” dominates the university today. My institution enforces a variety of mechanisms by which to address fallen behavior in various spheres of the university. In the academic sphere, it uses an honor code. In gender relationships, it uses Title IX, in the co-curricular sphere it enforces a student conduct code. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office requires training for basic relationships and extra training for hiring. Of course, any institution needs fall control but fall control is rarely guided by a robust vision for excellence (see my earlier post on student conduct codes).
The second approach shapes higher education because moral dilemmas have a way of capturing our intellectual imaginations. “What would I do in that situation?” we ask ourselves. The popularity of seemingly impossible decisions constructed by moral philosophers or psychologists bear this out. For example, in 2016, the famous Trolley Problem originally set forth by Philippa Foot in 1967 received attention on the television show The Good Place.3 In the Trolley Problem, a person must choose how to steer a runaway trolley. The person can choose to let the trolley run its course and kill four people or one can consciously steer it so that it kills only one person.
In the show, a demon named Michael helps a Nigerian-born moral philosophy professor named Chidi recreate the Trolley Problem as a real experience. The characters are forced to go through the Trolley Problem repeatedly, Groundhog Day-style, and they are forced to make a decision (which Chidi, the moral philosophy professor, has a hard time doing). As they keep going through the scenario, Michael asks Chidi, “Why don’t you just tell me the right answer?” Chidi responds, “That’s what’s so great about the Trolley Problem, that there is no right answer.” To which Michael responds, “This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.”4
Indeed, ethicists deserve reproach if they primarily spend time asking students to discuss difficult moral dilemmas. Likewise, Approaches to moral philosophy and moral psychology focused on dilemmas are the result of a view, similar to Kohlberg’s, depicted in the epigraph above. In this view, moral and ethical issues primarily relate to moral conflicts and not moral excellence.
Yet, anyone pursuing the good life should realize that Kohlberg is wrong. Although conflicts between our identities and various ethical components of what it means to be excellent in those identities play a key role, the moral life is not simply about moral conflict.
Similarly, any institution concerned with a vision for goodness should realize that it requires more than fall control and enforcing rules. Both moral dilemmas and rule breaking are occasional, whereas the pursuit of excellence should be an all-consuming part of life. Thus, any approach to the good life needs to start by talking about moral excellence and the expertise one needs to achieve excellence and not simply avoiding bad behavior or resolving moral conflict.
My new book, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education, introduces this different way of thinking about moral education in both the curricular and co-curricular spheres. A more expansive view of moral expertise understands that it is acquired in ways similar to intellectual, athletic, artistic, or musical expertise: within communities where focused mentors and participants engage in practice to acquire virtues to reach moral purposes.
To state the obvious, Serena Williams and Louis Armstrong did not achieve excellence in tennis and trumpet playing (respectively) simply through natural development, obeying rules, or reasoning about professional conflicts. Certainly, their natural development played a role in their achievement of excellence (and with Serena Williams has played a role in her retirement decision), but achieving excellence involves a range of other factors. These include encountering a compelling drama that produces personal motivation, joining a community of practice, engaging in deliberate practice under mentors and coaches to acquire habitual virtues, and more. These factors are common to all who achieve excellence including what I call identity excellence.5
To pursue moral excellence and gain moral expertise, the most important initial question a person needs to answer does not pertain to what one does in a moral dilemma, what code should I follow, or even how successful is my deliberate practice and virtue acquisition. Instead, it is: who am I? The philosopher Charles Taylor observed, “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what is not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.”6 Taylor later asserts, “Our identity is what allows us to define what is important to us and what is not.”7
Higher education institutions are always bestowing, shaping and setting forth ideals regarding some of our various identities. This book provides a theory that can help guide this process and is meant for any kind of higher education institution. That being said, what makes Christian universities different is that they have a meta-identity to guide this process instead of the haphazard identity prioritizing approach of secular universities.
For the Christian, the grand quest to discover oneself—to understand what it means to be a whole person—begins and ends with God. After all, the first thing we know about ourselves in Scripture is that we are made in God’s image. Ultimately, knowing oneself requires knowing God, and knowing God’s love is paramount to knowing what true love is. Christians believe, as Colossians states, “Christ is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Consequently, to know a visible image of the invisible God requires knowing Christ. John Amos Comenius wrote in his famous theology of education, The Great Didactic, “Christ, the son of the living God, has been sent from heaven to regenerate in us the image of God…now he has been called…the archetype of all who are to be formed in the image of God.”8 Or as C.K. Chesterton once wrote, Christ is “more human than humanity.”9 Identity excellence starts with this recognition.
This blog post was adopted from my new book, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education.
- Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, Essays on Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 1:143.
- For a historical examination of this problem see Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).
- Philippa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” Oxford Review, 5 (1967): 5-15.
- The Good Place (2016) S02E05 The Trolley Problem.
- Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
- Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self, The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 28.
- Taylor, The Sources of the Self, 30.
- Jon Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic, 30.
- C.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Redford, VA Wilder, 2008), 116.