By Steven Fesmire, Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies, Green Mountain College.
Protest turned violent on the Berkeley and Middlebury campuses; students shouted down speakers at MacMaster University and UCLA and blocked entry to a talk at Claremont McKenna: These are among the many recent incidents that have students, faculty and outside observers searching for ways to debate controversial issues on campus without dogmatism and groupthink.
In the aftermath of these incidents, campus protesters are caricatured as “criminals and thugs” by their opposition. Protesters, in turn, portray their critics as nothing but cogs in the machine of the status quo. Sadly, these caricatures feed into what journalist Juliet Eilperin has called our national “fight club politics”: a black-and-white, us-versus-them outlook that has risen since the mid-1990s.
As a researcher in ethics, I’ve been especially interested in how people can make wiser decisions and communicate more effectively. Thankfully, campus activists are targeting a lot of the unfortunate learned behaviors that inhibit mutual growth and underlie botched moral decision-making: racism, xenophobia, classism, sexism and gender discrimination.
But much of campus protest – as well as pushback against it – is characterized by a sort of “moral fundamentalism,” a my-way-or-the-highway approach to right and wrong. That’s a recipe for failed communication and bad decision-making.
A moral fundamentalist pledge of allegiance
The term “moral fundamentalism” was coined by philosopher and cognitive scientist Mark Johnson, and the rejection of moral fundamentalism has entered the political realm through research on democratic communication and decision-making. In that context, a moral fundamentalist can be defined as someone who holds that there’s a single right way to diagnose moral or political problems and a single practical solution to any particular problem.
To clarify this notion, I invite you to be a fly on the wall of one of my philosophy classes. There’s nothing exceptional about my classes, but a peek inside may reveal one of many ways in which colleges struggle to create a better context for constructive discourse and decision-making.
I sometimes ask my students – many of whom are activists – to share examples of people weighing in on a contemporary issue. They might describe people concerned about immigration, race, gender, education or health care. How many of those people, I ask, would knowingly raise their hand and pledge the following?
“There’s a single basis of moral and political life, and this supreme basis determines the right way to proceed. I have access to this supreme basis. When others don’t agree with me, it’s because they have the wrong faith commitments or they aren’t analyzing things properly. Agreement with me is a prerequisite to solving our problems. Consequently, I have nothing to learn about these matters from those who disagree with me. Their participation is at best an irrelevant distraction and at worst an evil to be defeated. My diagnosis of the issue has precisely captured all that is morally or politically relevant. It’s exhaustive, hence beyond revision and reformulation.”
After my students and I swap stories about folks who might take such a pledge, we invariably conclude that those people are outnumbered by their counterparts: conservatives, liberals and radicals alike who would reject this outright. Moreover, it quickly becomes clear that this pledge doesn’t speak to the sort of people my students wish to become.
And yet… How many of us habitually decide what’s relevant to an issue without pausing to listen to others? Do we offhandedly dismiss alternative views? However open-minded we may seem to ourselves, do we react to others as though we’re navigating with the one, true moral compass?
Morality as a one-way street
Most of us, it turns out, are creatures with some rather embarrassing intellectual habits. Instead of confronting problems with fine awareness, moral sensitivity and rich responsibility, many people end up with a stark “you’re either with us or against us” mentality.
This mentality approaches morality and politics as a one-way street: Those going the right way (us) feel constantly endangered by a majority (them) coming the wrong way. Yet, as in the aforementioned campus protests, each is convinced that the other has misread the signs!
Research has shown that such moral fundamentalism can cause people to oversimplify situations, neglect context, assume privileged access to the right way to proceed and shut off inquiry. It’s also been shown to drive the us-them wedge even deeper, while making it harder for us to achieve justice and other social goals.
Still, many Americans arrange their social networks and media communications into an infamous echo chamber that insulates “us” from having to learn anything new from “them.”
Democratic methods for democratic goals
I feel we, as a society, have a lot of growing up to do together, and we’re greatly in need of mature social action.
“Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself.”
Addams was rejecting the notion – still popular a century later – that there are only two approaches to social action: overcautious liberal reformers or “smash the system” revolutionaries.
But what about situations when neither approach is effective?
Our best shot – Addams said – at achieving democratic goals like justice and freedom is by establishing democratic conditions for problem-solving.
In a university setting, this means debates that are more open, collaborative and productive. If people with different perspectives actually talk to each other, they can also learn from each other. That suggests a goal for colleges: Create more conscientious campus communities in which moral fundamentalism withers.
How to do this is of course the most pressing question for faculty, students, staff and administrators. Nel Noddings, a prominent philosopher of education, explores how teachers can foster critical thinking when discussing controversial issues. This is an essential part of how colleges and universities can create a culture with less moral fundamentalism.
Importantly, such a culture does not diminish the bold resolve to confront oppression. Nor does it imply any suppression of protest. Rather, the withering of moral fundamentalism may refocus us on the complex and nuanced predicaments we face, and it may help students to make wiser decisions – individually and as change agents for a better society.
Steven Fesmire will be Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Middlebury College in 2017-18.