The Slow Poison of Bad Ideas

Every semester I teach a course in ethics (moral philosophy) at my community college. I tell the students that they don’t have to agree with me; they are entitled to their own opinions, even if their opinions are deeply erroneous. But I attempt to persuade them that there are certain popular theories of morality that are wrong.

In particular, I argue against three popular but (in my opinion) pernicious theories:

  • The theory that the rules of right and wrong are purely social creations.
  • The theory that we are free to create our own individual moral codes.
  • The theory that everything is morally permissible provided it does no obvious and tangible harm to non-consenting others.

On the other hand, I argue that there is a true theory of morality, namely the theory that all normal human beings have an innate knowledge of certain fundamental rules of morality, e.g., don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t abandon your children, etc. This might be called a “natural law” theory of morality, but I don’t insist on that name.

Needless to say, I don’t persuade all, or even almost all, of my students to agree with me. I console myself by saying this is okay. Why? Because maybe I’m mistaken, and if so I hope they don’t agree with me. Or because maybe I’m right and they’ll agree with me thirty or forty years from now. Or maybe I’m right but they’ll never agree with me – but if Jesus himself persuaded only eleven of his twelve, why should I be discouraged that I can’t persuade all my students?

The other day, however, a young man in my class shocked me (actually he amused me) by clearly and frankly defending a theory of morality that I regard as absolutely horrible. He is a good student, sincere and amiable; and he’s not at all the kind of student teachers sometimes run into, I mean the kind who disagrees with the professor just to be a pain in the neck. Not at all; far from it; he’s a nice kid.

He contended (even though I had attempted to refute this obnoxious theory earlier in the semester) that individuals create their own morality, and therefore what’s right or wrong for you will not necessarily be right or wrong for me. As long as you do what you personally believe is right, then it’s right. Likewise, if I personally do what I believe is right, it’s right.

Now, whenever a student makes this point, I bring up Hitler: “If Hitler believed that the Holocaust was the right thing to do, then you say it was right for him to murder six million Jews, not to mention millions of others – is that what you’re saying?”

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When I bring Hitler into the discussion, the student usually backs away from his or her assertion. (I sometimes suspect that God may have allowed Hitler to commit his mass murders so that professors will be able to use him as a horrible example in classroom discussions.) But this young man didn’t back away the other day. He stuck with the logic of his position. He said that what Hitler did was right because he believed it was right; and that therefore he (my student) would not condemn Hitler for doing the wrong thing.

At the same time, he assured me that he himself has a quite different personal morality. He personally would never commit genocide; it would be wrong to do so because it doesn’t accord with his personal moral code. I’m sure this is true. As I said, he’s a nice kid. I have no fear of mass murder when I walk into the classroom.

But this reminds me that we can change our minds more easily than we can change our hearts; we can change our opinions more readily than we can change our feelings. Among the most deeply embedded of all our feelings are the moral attitudes we acquire in the days of our childhood and adolescence.

Our moral attitudes, though, whether good or bad, are different from our moral opinions. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk a person out of bad habits. The advice you give this person may be 100 percent sound, but, still, it’s almost impossible to budge him. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, with people who grow up with good moral attitudes.

Does this mean that bad moral theories are harmless or that good theories are useless? Not at all. If you’re a person with good moral attitudes, your bad theories will probably have little impact on your actual moral conduct. But it may well have an impact on your children.

As you bring them up, you will be giving them a good example by your conduct (let’s say, habits of honesty); but your bad theory will be telling them, “I personally believe in honesty, and I personally hope you do the same when you’re an adult; but always remember this, that honesty is nothing more than my personal preference. Remember to be tolerant of crooks and liars and thieves who happen not to believe in honesty.”

Bad moral theories, then, will have bad moral consequences, and good moral theories will have good consequences. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It will take a generation or two, or maybe a hundred years, or maybe two or three hundred. Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” in 1776. This implied that slavery must be abolished. But it took 87 years and a great civil war before this happened.

“Ideas govern the world,” a French philosopher once said. And that’s true; they do. But in most cases, only gradually. We have a lot of bad moral theories floating around the USA today, not just my student’s bad theory. If we don’t check them, they will destroy us – if not in the short run, then gradually.

 

*Image: Death and the Masks by James Ensor, 1897 [Museum of Modern Contemporary Art, Liege, Belgium]

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

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