The October 7th terrorist attacks by Hamas have made abundantly clear that many of our own nation’s “best and brightest” exist in persistent and profound moral confusion. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, including revolting stories of university professors celebrating terror and murder, false moral equivalence, and a ubiquitous cowardice. What makes this so morally reprehensible is the evident inability to even grasp the idea, to see the reality, of evil. Many have made false and abhorrent judgments, yes, but far too many others appear to simply lack moral categories altogether. It’s as if their training and formation immunized them to an entire domain of human experience and thought. They reached for words to express what they saw on their screens and came up empty, as if deprived of a set of categories essential for human maturity and sober judgment. As if their management textbooks and technocratic training had removed the possibility of being a serious person and filled the void with consultant-speak.
David Magerman’s open letter to Elizabeth Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, hinted at this emptiness. Magerman indicates that he is not calling for Magill’s firing, as it would be “wholly inadequate.” As he writes, if Penn “can fail to recognize evil when it is staring us all in the face, I don’t think replacing you will accomplish anything. Frankly, I don’t think there is anything anyone can do to redeem the school, short of rebuilding its moral foundations from the ground up.” Note that Magerman is not contesting the content of President Magill’s statements, as if she had explicitly sided with Hamas (as too many university professors have done) or condemned Israel. She hadn’t. Instead, Magill and her institution observed the terror attacks and could draw on no moral resources at all. They hadn’t necessarily concluded wrongly; it was as if they lacked any “moral foundations” that would allow them “to recognize evil when it is staring” them in the face. They looked at evil, and saw nothing.
These sorts of people, among the most well-educated and credentialed in our society, are like T. S. Eliot’s hollow men, “filled with straw,” empty of being, “shape without form, shade without colour. Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that many people suffer from the fragmentation of morality, having access to words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” or “just,” but having no access to the framework of meaning within which these words mean anything. They might parrot the words, but without knowing the reality indicated by them. They’re at ease with words such as “best practices” and “efficiencies” and “value added,” but the word “evil” is simply jabberwocky to them, signifying nothing. As for the reality of evil, they are entirely incapable of recognition.
In an essay that deserves careful study, “Recovering Law’s Intelligence,” Pierre Manent suggests that “what troubles and demoralizes us” is that we no longer understand law—reason, morality—as “the rule and measure of action.” We no longer understand because we did not want to understand, and so we banished any sense of the measure of law. We have no capacity to see a rule for our actions, a posture resulting in “a profound transformation of our humanity.” In the end, many moderns are no longer agents capable of action, but merely repositories of self-interest. Such self-interested animals are “disarmed,” managed by technocrats rather than capable of self-governing agency measuring their actions (or the actions of others) according to moral law.
Such technocratic management, incapable of moral action, is, I suggest, what Magerman notes at Penn. But, alas, it is true of far too many of our institutions and those who manage them. Not so at Public Discourse, however, and not so for those educated in older, richer, wiser traditions of moral reflection and judgment—and thus of action. Our essays this past month are full of such riches.
See, for instance, how Cole S. Aronson grapples with the ethics and challenges of exchanging militant prisoners for hostages held by Hamas, and the moral nuances of the Israeli Defense Forces bombing targets in which Israeli citizens might be held captive. You might agree or disagree with him, but he’s drawing on an actual tradition of moral reflection allowing him to contend, fully and openly, with good and evil.
Or, consider PD’s new advice column by Chris Tollefsen. Professor Tollefsen’s access to a venerable tradition of moral reflection and debate brings a heightened intelligence and argument competence to this discussion of ethics. His work encourages us to meaningfully engage in ethical inquiries, to do the work, and to see reality for what it is.
This month, we celebrated our fifteenth anniversary as a publication. My own essay celebrating that date explores our strong moral foundations and why we respect the human person, human freedom, and sobriety of judgment and deliberation.
And finally, Charles J. Chaput, archbishop emeritus of the archdiocese of Philadelphia, explores the notions of authority and how traditions develop and sustain themselves without losing their coherence.
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From the Archives
These are only a handful of our essays from October, and the archives—now spanning fifteen years—are replete with morally serious argument and reflection. There is much to read and reread. Given the situation in Israel, I might suggest, as I did in my email statement about the terror attacks (later published on the website), studying essays on just war. Gregory Brown explains why modern warfare has not rendered just war theory obsolete. Nathaniel Peters works through an excellent introduction to just war theory by David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles. And Allen C. Guelzo reminds us of the complexity of war and the challenges of rational determination, without concluding the issue is one free of moral considerations.
What We’re Reading Around the Web
Our contributing editors suggest the following as worth a click.
- Carmel Richardson, “Katy Faust for Big Marriage,” The American Conservative
- Brad Littlejohn, Retrieving Our Common Wealth: A Manifesto,” Ad Fontes
- Jenna Silber Storey and Benjamin Storey, “Insight at First Sight,” First Things
Thanks for reading PD.
R. J. Snell
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