'A Moral Center,' but Which One?

September 11, 2020

Dear Editor,

As a long-time reader of the daily blast from IHE (and a huge fan of Matt Reed’s contributions in particular), I was struck by something in his recent piece, “A Moral Center,” that I feel calls for some comment.  Or, in the parlance of radio talk shows:

“Hi there; long time, first time.”   

The argument that Reed makes – i.e., that we tend to prioritize the wrong attributes in scouting for leaders – is, prima facie, a sound one. And as a dean who also toiled (joyfully) as a professor in the humanities for over a decade prior to making the leap to Administration, I am not at all opposed to his proposal of shifting this focus to something more humanistic and humane. 

But here’s the problem. (Full disclosure: the arena in the humanities in which I toiled was, and to a certain extent still is, philosophy.) 

Which moral center? 

Reed’s use of the indefinite article in the title of his piece is both appropriate (the good news) and telling (the bad news).  

Without delving too deeply into the weeds of academic minutiae, does the particular flavor of morality, “at the center,” matter?  Having a “moral center,” I would argue, is easy. Etymologically construed, everyone has at least a default moral center – i.e., the mores that they have (largely unconsciously) inherited or adopted from their family, peers, society, etc. But if the study of morality shows us anything, it shows us that, in moving from a default morality to a more deliberate morality, we are presented with an astonishing array of mutually incompatible options – some of which, nota bene, would privilege the very considerations that Reed proposes de-prioritizing. 

And that’s the problem. As an administrator, I, too, believe that we should seek out morally good people for positions of leadership (and I hope that, and question whether, I am such a one, every day). But as an academic trained in the history of philosophy (and one who has spent his fair share of time teaching historically-structured “Introduction to Ethics” courses), I cannot but realize that what it means for someone to be morally good remains an unsettled and hotly contested question. 

Does it matter, for instance, whether your leader’s moral center is derived from Aristotle, or Epicurus, or Hobbes, or Kant, or Mill, or Nietzsche or Noddings? Confucius, or Lao-Tzu? The Torah, the New Testament, or the Qur’an? Or … or … or …? 

Having an infrangible moral center may, in itself, be a good thing (vis-à-vis the “internal gyroscope” metaphor Reed happily steals from Riesman; David Foster Wallace proposed something similar in his “This Is Water” 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College). But, even when “the waves are tough and the ship is being buffeted,” Reed’s proposal that “it [a moral center] is [easy] to spot, if you know where to look,” begs the question. 

If you already know where (and how, and for what) to look, then you’ve already defaulted to a particular flavor of morality. And I would argue that this is an attitude that we should question, before encouraging, lest we all fall prey to what Emerson lampooned as the “the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

That being said, I think Reed nails it with this: “Whatever else happens, you want someone who can see the big picture and realize their own place in it” – with the caveat that “the big picture” is always more question than answer.   


-- Christopher Nelson

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