August 2008 Ethics Dunces
100 College Presidents
It is one of the great ethics dodges, and can still seduce people who should know better.
A good term for it would be “values
surrender.” It works like this:
There is harmful conduct that a
society has determined, through debate, experience and logic, needs to
be prohibited because of its far-reaching, undesirable effects on the
quality of life and the public welfare. But people still persist in doing
it, despite education, cultural disapproval and laws. Resisting the spread
of this conduct becomes expensive, time-consuming and frustrating. Nobody
seriously believes that the conduct is good, but authority figures become
weary of defending the prohibition and being held responsible for its
failures, as more and more people do it anyway. So they give up.
They decide that the best way to “solve” the problem is to declare that
wrong is right, that the disapproved conduct is now acceptable, and to
end the prohibitions, be they legal or cultural. This is the point where
the ethical rationalization or fallacy “everybody does it” becomes true:
enough people do “it,” whatever it is, that the culture literally surrenders.
Okay! Get divorced as soon as your marriage hits some bumps. All right!
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with having kids before you get married.
Fine! Let everyone drug themselves into uselessness. Polygamy? Yeah, it’s
exploitive and abusive to women, but how do you enforce it? Fine: go ahead.
Gambling? We can’t stop it, so let’s legalize it and have the state promote
it…it beats having to raise taxes. At any moment there are lots of values
surrenders, small and large, being considered or happening right under
our noses. Civil conduct in public. Being quiet and respectful of others
in libraries. Dressing appropriately in public. Vulgar and obscene speech.
Maybe we should legalize steroids: it’s too hard to test for them anyway.
Prostitution: people have been practicing it and seeking it for centuries;
let’s just make it legal and be done with it.
And next? Next is whatever values
society loses the will and the courage to maintain. Don’t presume that
you know where the line will be drawn. History shows us that there is
almost no downward limit to what conduct societies will permit out of
fatigue, folly and intellectual laziness.
Now about a hundred college presidents
have signed a statement urging reconsideration of the drinking age, and
asking whether it should be lowered from 21 to 18. The well-established
fact that the higher legal limit saves lives---figures indicate that about
900 18-20 year-olds are saved every year because of the current
restriction---isn’t sufficient to justify it, apparently, according to
our ivory tower leaders. Why? Because they don’t like enforcing anti-drinking
policies, which are violated regularly, sometimes with tragic results.
And when the tragic results occur in their institutions’ dorm rooms, the
college presidents are hit with criticism, and sometimes lawsuits. They
certainly don’t like that. If the drinking age is 18, however, they are
off the hook. Thus this craven call for “debate” is just one more values
surrender. The college presidents who signed this statement are willing
to sacrifice nearly a thousand young lives a year because they are tired,
frustrated and afraid. But instead of admitting that, they couch their
surrender as an invitation to dialogue.
For the record, here are the values these leaders of higher education are trying to surrender:
I would not entrust my child to any institution led by an individual who would take part in such a sweeping values surrender. Calling these college presidents Ethics Dunces is an understatement.