April 2nd, 2015

What is a Moral University in the 21st Century?

Economics & Politics

Speech at Columbia University

March 30, 2015

I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak today on the question “What is a Moral University in the 21st Century?”  I want to thank Dr. Robert Klitzman, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at the Columbia University Medical Center, for taking the initiative to call the faculty together to examine this question.  And I want to thank our many colleagues who responded to that call.  I hope that today’s lecture will help us to move forward not only in debating the question but also in helping Columbia University to be a moral university.  As I will describe, I believe that we share the task of building a moral community, not so much in Kant’s sense that we have the duty to do so, but in Aristotle’s sense that by doing so we will flourish as a community and as individuals within it.

In one sense it should be obvious to all of us that questions of this University’s moral code are with us every day in a staggering number of ways.  Consider some of the issues faced by the members of the Columbia University community in recent years.  Should Columbia University divest from fossil fuels?  How should Columbia University handle allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault? How should the University discipline students in cases of cheating and plagiarism? What does Columbia owe to the community in Morningside Heights and Manhattanville?  How should Columbia manage the intellectual property developed on the campus?  Should it make drug patents that it holds available to the public?  Should University researchers use animal subjects in their research, and if so, under what conditions?  Who should gain admission to the University? Those with top test scores; children of alumni; children of wealthy donors; students of color; American or foreign students?  Should Columbia boycott Israel or other countries because of their human rights policies?  Which donor money should the university accept and which should it refuse, if any?  Should the University invite speakers notorious for their hate speech, in the service of free speech, or does this legitimize hate?  Should faculty be free to offer their services to Wall Street; the CIA; ExxonMobil; or anybody else of their personal choice?  And if so, are the limits of those choices completely personal, up to the 1-day-a-week consultancy reserved for faculty, and with suitable disclosure as might be required?

These questions, and countless more, are all questions of “should.” And that “should,” I will argue, is a moral consideration.  That is, these are moral questions and it is important, in my view, that we treat them as moral questions.  This claim is not self-evident; indeed, I would suggest that it is not even the normal approach today.  Many of these questions are handled en passant, according to administrative procedures, state and federal law, public relations, department policies made on the run, or through traditions, emulation, or improvisation, without addressing their moral content.

There are many who, quite understandably, would argue that we shouldn’t enter the moral thicket.  Let’s be pragmatic, they would say.  Columbia is a diverse community, in a diverse city, country, and world.  We are here at Columbia for practical reasons: to study, to teach, to do research, or to earn a living.  These tasks are hard enough, replete with struggles and challenges enough to achieve basic functionality, civility, and financial solvency.  Let’s get on with our work to the best we can, keeping the campus pleasant and quiet by leaving morality to the moralizers, and philosophical debates to the Philosophy Department.

Some might go further to say that moral debates are dead-ends, endless eddies of opinions masquerading as high principles; personality differences reflected in opposing philosophical stances.  One person’s claim to defend Palestinian rights is another person’s anti-Semitism.  One person’s attack on a corporate donor is another person’s meddling in the University’s business affairs that they can’t begin to fathom.  One faculty member’s Wall Street consulting fees are a conflict of interest for some, a purely personal choice for others, or a way to gain practical knowledge, for still others.  They are the university’s business, or they are nobody else’s business than the faculty member himself.  Moral debate can elevate the community, some would say; or it can hopelessly divide the community and divert it from our day jobs.

In considering these debates we sometimes feel like the observer to the heated Talmudic dispute.  The first student argues his case to the Rabbi.  “You’re right,” says the Rabbi.  The second argues the diametrically opposed case.  “You’re right says,” says the Rabbi.  The third student protests, “But Rabbi, they can’t both be right.”  “You’re right,” says the Rabbi.

Let me state what I would regard as the “default position” in our moral deliberations within the university, and I would suggest, also in American society at large.  As a practical matter, Columbia University is governed by its Board of Trustees, as empowered by an 1810 Charter under the laws of the State of New York, and with all property for the sole use and benefit of the University.  It is also subject to the harsh laws of market competition and academic competition.  As one of the world’s major research universities, we have two main jobs to do: to teach and to pursue new ideas. For that, a group of students, faculty, administrators, and staff are organized around a remarkably complex set of voluntary, contractual relations, ultimately governed by the Statutes of the University, and the contract law of New York State and the United States. Those contracts determine tuition payments, government grants, employment contracts and terms of service, and countless rights and responsibilities of the staff, researchers, teachers, and students.  Our moral obligations are largely defined as our obligations to those voluntary contracts, and by implication to the underlying laws that define and defend those contracts, acknowledging some special legal relationships of universities vis-à-vis students as “facilitators of student development” (Lee, 2011).

To push morality further than the web of contractual relations and contract law is to court trouble, lots of it, according to this view.  We have different opinions, backgrounds, and purposes; we are here not to like each other, necessarily, though there are friendships galore.  We are not here to agree; we are here to accomplish our tasks, whether to get a degree, uncover a new law of nature, invent a new device, produce a work of art, understand the past in a new way, or heal a patient in the University’s vast medical complex.  We are here to keep focus, and to keep moving.  Individual members of the community are encouraged to hold strong views, often trenchant and controversial ones.  But they should not implicate the rest of us in those choices.  According to this view, let Columbia as a web of voluntary contractual relations support its core purposes, pay its bills, and keep the safety and civility on campus.

Let me call this the libertarian position.  I would argue that it has become the benchmark of moral reasoning in our community, and indeed in the nation.  And in a country that was born in the defense of liberty, albeit originally liberty for those with white skins, it has long been the default position, viewed not only as the practical limit to morality reasoning but as the practical method of living in a state of high social, ethnic, class and religious diversity.

I want to suggest today why this position is not enough; why American society increasingly suffers from the encroachment of this libertarian position into all nooks and crannies of society, and why Columbia University and all other complex organizations within our society suffer as well.  But more than that, I want to speak about the special role that moral deliberation and standards should have at a great university like ours.  We are not just another institution in American society, another corporation or non-governmental organization or public agency.  We are a university, one of our nation’s oldest and grandest, with attributes that put us in a special position of morality and responsibility vis-à-vis the rest of society.  Our own wellbeing, and America’s wellbeing, and now even the world’s wellbeing, are affected by the quality of moral discourse and moral choices on our nation’s campuses.

To defend that position, I want to be clear about another.  Almost all of us are out of practice in moral reasoning.  Moral reasoning, like other kinds of specialized knowledge, is an undertaking that requires training, practice, and experience.  Indeed Aristotle argued that only the older members of the polis, the community, could have phronesis, often defined as practical wisdom, including moral wisdom.  This is a position that I increasingly subscribe to, now that I have celebrated my 60th birthday this year.  I am, not, therefore suggesting, that moral deliberations on campus could be quick or easy or painless.  We are mostly out of practice, and will be out of breath and literally out of words on many occasions as we once again limber up our moral muscles.  Yet limber up we must if we are to thrive.

Let me also define some terms.  By morality I will mean a framework of guiding principles, and a means of decision-making, that our community should develop and hone in order to answer questions of “should.”  That moral code, I will argue, is built upon and alongside, an ethical disposition.  By ethics, here, I will refer to principles of individual behavior, as members of the Columbia community, to pursue the right kind of life within our community.  Our own ethical behavior is key to a successful moral community.  Of course, our ethical standards as members of the Columbia community will be somewhat distinct from our other standards in other spheres, for example as citizens.

Let me begin by identifying four types of moral problems that we face.  In my short remarks, I can’t hope to do more than touch upon a small fraction of them; indeed I will limit my remarks to only two of the four types of moral problems, hoping that other colleagues in talks that will follow can take up some of the other pressing moral issues.

First, we face the moral challenges of daily life within the Columbia community.  We live, work, and interact here, for many of us spending a majority of our waking hours on the campus and in our university endeavors.  Here the moral questions involve our relations with each other.  What are the moral boundaries of free speech on campus?  Of sexual practices and responsibilities?  Of civility and collegiality?  Of the internal governance of our University affairs, including hiring and firing; admissions; disciplinary actions; access to health care; job security; physical security; due process; non-discrimination; and countless other dimensions of daily life, both private and professional, yet pursued as part of the Columbia community?

Second, we face the moral challenges of academic researchers, in a world-leading research center.  What are the moral standards for academic inquiry?  How shall research protocols be devised to protect subjects?  Who owns the fruits of research? The researcher; the university; or society at large? Do research subjects have any moral claims to the fruits of research, up to and including their own body cells and parts used in that research?  What are the standards for truth and objectivity in our work and how should those be deliberated?  Are these to be guided wholly by the marketplace of idea, or by internal standards?  What are the ethical requirements for the individual conscience of the Columbia researcher?

Third, we face the moral challenges of teachers.  As teachers, mentors, and advisors, we have special moral responsibilities in imparting knowledge, including moral knowledge, to our students.  In my field, economics, a growing student movement in the US and Europe holds that mainstream economics instruction is not only epistemologically deficient but even morally suspect.  By what standards, including moral standards, might such claims be evaluated and acted upon?

Fourth, we face the moral challenges of a research and teaching institution within the broader US society, and in the 21st century, a globalized society.  What special moral obligations should universities assume and defend as part of a broader and highly diverse society?  Universities have of course, and rightly so, long been among the staunchest defenders in society of the moral principle of free speech, knowing as we do that free speech is a core value of effective research and pedagogy.  Yet our moral challenges as part of society go far beyond the defense of our own terrain and ideas.  How should the University address the moral content of its countless contractual relations beyond our own community?  I am thinking about the relations with donors; with corporate funders; with outside employers of the faculty who engage in their one-day-a-week consultancy arrangements; and with the company shares in the University’s endowment.

I am also thinking about our relations with our own local community on Morningside Heights and Manhattanville, and with communities halfway around the world, in South America, Africa, and Asia.  Must we be actively engaged with such communities to be fulfilling our moral purposes?  Some have argued, even aggressively, for the University to protect its core functions by remaining within the Ivory Tower.  Others have asserted that the University finds is meaning, and core truths, by engaging actively in society at large.  We honor this passing this year of a great university leader, Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh, who a half-century ago put the issue this way:

Can the university, its faculty, students or administrators be indifferent to such problems as racial equality, demography, the world rule of law, the deteriorating relationship between science and the other humanities, the moral foundations of democracy, the true nature of communism, the understanding of non-Western cultures, the values and goals of our society…

These are real problems – of intellectual content, of urgent consequence, of frightening proportions.  Where are they going to be studied in all of their dimensions, and where are truly ultimate solutions to be elaborated, if not in that one institution that is committed to the mind at work, using all of the disciplines and intellectual skills available?[1]

In my remaining remarks, I will focus only on the fourth of these challenges, of the moral relations between the University and the broader community.  I want to argue that for the University to flourish, and for us to flourish within it, we should adopt a moral perspective in our dealings with the rest of the world, and an ethical perspective in our individual capacities as members of Columbia University engaged in the broader world.

I want to argue in particular here against several variants of the libertarian position, which I have earlier stated, and which I will now summarize again.  The libertarian position holds in essence that our moral practice should lie in the pursuit of contractual relations that advance the core interests of the individual members of the community in their work as students, teachers, and researchers.  Moral positions beyond that, including moral claims made by the University in its dealings with the outside world, should be highly circumspect and limited.  The University should not presume to speak for the members of the Columbia community on political issues such as Israel and Palestine, climate change, inequality of income, or other contentious issues that divide society, including the Columbia community, and that are ancillary to the core activities of the University.

Harvard President Drew Faust recently advanced such a position in rejecting the call by a student group for divestment of the Harvard portfolio from fossil fuels.  Let me quote from President Faust at some length:

Harvard is an academic institution. It exists to serve an academic mission — to carry out the best possible programs of education and research. We hold our endowment funds in trust to advance that mission, which is the University’s distinctive way of serving society. The funds in the endowment have been given to us by generous benefactors over many years to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy. As such, we maintain a strong presumption against divesting investment assets for reasons unrelated to the endowment’s financial strength and its ability to advance our academic goals.

We should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution. Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise. The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.

Faust does acknowledge in her letter to the Harvard Community the importance of climate change and the intention of Harvard University to be a responsible investor, albeit under the strictures just stated.

I believe Faust’s position to be morally wrong, and ultimately corrosive of Harvard University and the wider society.  Let me explain.

To do so, I must very briefly address some basic ideas about the economy and voluntary contracting, such as between the University and its donors, or between ExxonMobil and its customers.  The general idea that prevails in Faust’s discourse, as well as in bad economics textbooks, is that the endowment is strictly an economic instrument, not a political instrument.  It is a resource for pursuing the aims of its owner, in this case the education and research mission of Harvard, without so-called political constraints.  Faust warns against “instrumentalizing” the endowment for political reasons precisely so that it can be instrumentalized for narrower economic reasons alone.

But what is the difference morally between an economic reason and a political reason?  Using the endowment for an economic reason – to fund education and research – abides by the idea that each resource owner, in this case Harvard University, has the moral right to dispose of its assets to pursue its own special purposes, free of broader, indeed society-wide, claims other than those embedded in the governing legal framework.  Law, voluntary contract, and one’s own purposes largely guide the disposition of resources.  That, of course, is the prevailing textbook picture of the market economy.

There is a competing moral vision, to which I subscribe and believe that we should subscribe.  And that is that the economy and our material resources within it should operate within a broader moral framework, one that extends beyond individual contracts, private property, and prevailing law.  There are transcendent moral purposes in society.  Voluntary contracts may lead us badly astray, even to the threat of our own survival and the survival of other moral beings.

The Roman Catholics call this moral framework the Universal Destination of Goods.  The Jews call it Justice, to not do to others what you would not have them do to you, which Hillel famously described as the core of Torah.  Kant called it the Categorical Imperative, to behave according to only those maxims that can be universal laws.  And Bentham called it utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number.  The content of the moral claim may differ in each of these versions; as does the source of morality, secular or god given.  Yet the assumption of a moral framework is undoubted.

The moral framework exists, in all of these modes of moral inquiry, because the sum of individual behavior is not enough to meet human needs, unless guided, molded, and constrained by a larger moral purpose.  In modern social science and evolutionary biology we call it the problem of Social Dilemmas.  What is good for the individual is not necessarily good for society.  One may say that the core purpose of moral reasoning is to align the individual action and the social good.  Morality teaches us, encourages us, cajoles us, to adopt “pro-social behaviors,” or what Kant deemed to be maxims that can be applied universally.  Or what my mother told, to be a mensch.

Of all of the schools of moral thought, I am most partial to Aristotle, for he begins rightly and wisely with man as a social animal.  In modern British and American thought, morality starts, and too often ends, with the protection of the individual from the rest of society.  Libertarianism is the doctrine that puts individual choice ahead of all other moral values.  Aristotle starts the other way around: that before we are individuals we are members of the community.  Rather than the community only serving to protect the individual from abuses, as in Anglo-Saxon political philosophy and libertarian doctrine, Aristotle held that each individual has the purpose, the telos, to mold himself to be a good citizen, a good member of the polis.

For Aristotle, morality is built upon the ethics of the citizenry.  And ethics involved the pursuit of virtue (arête), each individual’s pursuit of excellence as a member of the political community.  Through that pursuit, promoted by moral education, mentoring, and practice, the individual learns to pursue a high moral standard, and through that achieves eudaimonia, the condition of happiness or flourishing.

So let me return to the endowment and fossil fuels.  We should understand that fossil-fuel use is a social dilemma: it makes sense for the individual but not for the society as a whole, at least not at the current and projected future scale.  Indeed, for the society as a whole, the prevailing way of using fossil fuels is ruinous, already claiming lives of the poor abroad through droughts, floods, and extreme tropical cyclones; and threatening our very survival in the future.  Since I have no time to elaborate, I refer you to the wondrous recent work led by our colleague, Prof. James Hansen, who summarizes the work of the scientific community, with many of the key scientific advances coming from our own University.

Yet how is the social good to be achieved?  In principle, at least since Bentham, we focus on legislation and treaties, in this case to phase out fossil-fuel use during the 21st century.  Yet how is the legislation to be brought about?  Each economic actor today says that the problem is not really their own.  The Harvard endowment should not get into the political thicket.  ExxonMobil says that it must maximize the value of its shareholders’ wealth.  Many libertarians, wary of government engagement at all, simply try to deny the climate science so as to preserve maximum space for individual liberty.

We thereby arrive at what Pope Francis recently called the “Globalization of Indifference,” in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  The moral problems are not my own.  Problems of hunger, poverty, climate change, inequality, suffering, belong somewhere else, not here.  Social dilemmas go unaddressed; pro-social behavior is hardly recognized, much less championed.  Choosing to divest from fossil fuels is part of overcoming the globalization of indifference.  Together with Lisa Sachs of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment I have recently proposed specific steps on divestment that might be termed “responsible investment and conditional divestment, with details here.

My view about our moral predicament is not in the abstract.  And my cry of O tempora o mores! is not as ageless and therefore clichéd as it might feel.  America is in a moral decline, and demonstrably so.  Trust in American society is in decline.  Trust in each other; trust in our government.  Every opinion survey shows it.  Only 35 percent of Americans believe that “most other people can be trusted,” down from 45 percent in the early 1980s.  In Scandinavia, the generalized trust is nearly twice as high, around 60-70 percent, and has increased, not decreased over the past three decades.  The low regard for the federal government, and the perception of corruption is equally telling.

As a general matter, I believe that this decline in trust reflects the extension of economic instrumentality into every form of social activity.  Government is for sale at each election.  Reputation is for purchase by the image-makers and lobbyists.  Marquis Wall Street firms have paid around $100 billion in fines and settlements against charges of financial fraud and other misdeeds in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

And the universities, as big and very expensive businesses within society, have hardly been immune.  Corporate money has infiltrated the core of our university life.  Big pharma funds a considerable amount of research activity, which is now turned into big profits through sky-high drug prices and fat returns to patents.  Wall Street funds many faculty and programs of the Economics Departments, the Business Schools, and the Law Schools of the major universities.  Big donors such as the Koch brothers push libertarian ideas through massive funding of ideologically driven university programs around the country.

Here is what a recent book, Deadly Monopolies, says about the economic culture at our medical schools:

Once a collaborative haven for independent inquiry and pure research, the university medical-research center is today just another arena of commercial corporate endeavor that takes competition seriously enough to deal harshly with disloyalty and raiding, to the point of seeking to send former colleagues to prison. 

There have been many recent scandals of leading academic faculty on the hidden pay of big pharma to tout various medicines, such as the three Harvard Medical School psychiatrists who were on the undisclosed generous pay of pharmaceutical companies to promote antipsychotic drugs for young children.  In response, Harvard banned the professors from one year of consultancy fees, a light tap on the wrist.

The feverish quest for patent returns in academia contrasts with very different behavior in the past.  The book quotes Benjamin Franklin noting that, “As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours and we should do so freely and generously.” It reminds us that Nobel Laureate Selman Waksman of Rutgers ensured that Rutgers would hold the patent to his discovery and would sell it cheaply and generically.  And it repeats the famous and wonderful line of Jonas Salk who replied to Edward R. Murrow’s question as to who owns the patent to Salk’s polio vaccine, “The American people, I guess.  Could you patent the sun?”

Does the rampant commercialization of all aspects of American society, and much of academic life, matter for the purposes of the University, the fulfillment of our telos?  I believe it does.  Remember the expose Inside Job, and our own University’s engagement in the misdeeds of the financial sector.  Consider that at Harvard University, Lawrence Summers engaged in large-scale financial consulting both before and after his stints as President Obama’s economic advisor.  Did this raise the public’s confidence in the University and in the sanctity of public policy?  I think not.  Or consider another esteemed Harvard economist, Jeremy Stein, who last year left his position at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington to return to the University, but already has lined up a plush consultancy contract with a major hedge fund.  This comes just months after Stein’s departure from the Fed.

I watched close up how Harvard handled a financial conflict of interest case of an Economics Department faculty member a decade ago.  There was never a moment of public reflection by the Harvard leadership on the behavior of a professor that left Harvard with a fine paid to the US Government of around $30 million.  In the time-tested style of a public-relations gambit, Harvard simply proceeded without any moral discourse or self- reflection.  As one professor put it, “It’s often said that the University won’t comment on the behavior of individual members of the faculty, and I, to some degree, respect that perspective, but this is taking that principle a little bit too far.” And as for the Economics Department, the faculty did not accept or comprehend the ethical issues.  One department colleague put it this way: “We think about him not as the guy who was involved in the AID lawsuit—we think about him as the exciting, intellectually active colleague that we’ve always known.”

What then shall we do, as a moral community in the face of moral crisis?

We should strive to revive moral discourse as a university community, drawing on the experts within our own community – in philosophy, psychology, evolutionary biology, religion, culture, the arts, politics, sociology, and yes, even economics – to give us the vocabulary, concepts, and debates to deepen our moral understanding and bearings.  Our unique Core Curriculum is an invaluable asset for students and faculty alike in this regard.

We should take up important moral challenges in the University’s relations with the broader world, including divestment policies; corporate-University relations; treatment of intellect property owned by the university; and our commitments to the poor within our midst and around the world.

We should encourage a re-moralization of U.S. society at large, to pull back from an America in which inequalities are at all-time highs, in which everything is for sale, in which Wall Street commits financial crimes and then pays fines as a normal cost of doing business, and in which the U.S. Supreme Court cannot tell the difference between anonymous corporate campaign giving and free speech.  If ever there were a demonstration of the collapse of US public morality, it is the Supreme Court’s disastrous moral failure in Citizen United and related case law.

My message, colleagues, is that morality counts.  It counts for our intellectual purposes; it counts for our souls.  As Aristotle thought of his beloved polis, we should think of our beloved university.  This is our community; and a vital source of our meaning as individuals and professionals.  What we do here matters, for our selves, each other, and society.  Morality matters, because otherwise we succumb to social dilemmas that foment distrust, corruption, and ultimately violence.  And as the great sages from Buddha to Aristotle to Jesus, taught us, morality is ultimately the path to a life worth living.

[1] Theodore Hesburgh, “Looking Back at Newman,” 1962



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