Last week, the presidents of three Ivy League universities—Harvard, MIT, and Penn—appeared before Congress to address the issue of anti-Semitism on their campuses, in the wake of the conflict between Hamas and the state of Israel.
In their formal statements as well as in the conversation with the congressional committee members, they acknowledged the tension between free speech and the legitimate regulation of certain types of provocative rhetoric. But as the dialogue unfolded, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, became increasingly impatient with what she took to be the presidents' diffidence regarding extreme forms of anti-Semitic speech at their universities. She finally pressed each one of them: "Would calling for the genocide of Jews constitute a violation of the code of conduct at your school, yes or no?" Astonishingly, each of them balked, insisting that it depended upon the context.
All three women have justifiably faced massive blowback and calls for their resignations, due to the baffling lack of moral clarity in their statements. I should like to explore, however briefly, what has made this kind of moral opaqueness and muddle-headedness possible. First, in the minds of far too many people today, the category of the intrinsically evil act has disappeared. In classical moral philosophy, an intrinsically evil act is one that is, by its very nature, so disordered that it could never be justified or permitted. Good examples of this include slavery, rape, the direct killing of the innocent, and acts of terrorism. Nothing in the circumstances surrounding such acts or in the intentionality of the one performing them could ever turn them into something morally praiseworthy. When we lose a sensitivity to the intrinsically evil, we fall, automatically, into a moral relativism, whereby even the most egregiously wicked act can be justified or explained away. To give just one obvious example, abortion, which involves the direct killing of the innocent, is justified by millions today on account of its purportedly positive effects.
When we lose a sensitivity to the intrinsically evil, we fall, automatically, into a moral relativism...
The great Catholic moral philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe was formed in the highly relativistic ethical thinking that was fashionable in the early twentieth century. Her professors blithely taught that moral statements had no real objective referent; they were rather simply expressive of the feelings of those who uttered them. But when she saw the newsreel films of the liberated Nazi death camps, which showed piles and piles of corpses, she knew that she was seeing something intrinsically evil, something objectively wicked. And consequently, she abandoned the philosophy in which she had been trained. Sadly, the very relativism and moral indifferentism that Anscombe rebelled against are back with a vengeance. Just how far our own culture has embraced this very bad philosophy was revealed last week in Congress. For in a way, Rep. Stefanik was asking the ultimate softball question: Do you think that inciting people to genocide, the wanton and indiscriminate killing of an entire race of people, is wrong? To be met with the answer, "Well, it depends upon the context" signaled to her, quite correctly, that her interlocutors had moved into complete and dangerous moral incoherence.
Another reason for the inanity on display at the Congressional hearing is the tendency, so typical in woke circles, to divide the world into the simplistic categories of oppressor and oppressed. The roots of this are in Marx and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century as well as in Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School theorists in the twentieth century, but it has spilled onto the streets largely through the ministrations of the contemporary professoriate in so many of our universities. On this reading, there are simply good guy oppressed people and bad guy oppressors, and once we have sorted everyone into one or the other category, our moral reflection is essentially done. So, whites, Westerners, men, straight people, and Christians are under suspicion, while people of color, those from the global East or global South, women, gays, and non-Christians are lionized. The motives of the first group are routinely questioned, while those of the second group are routinely praised; the first contingent is given the benefit of no doubt, and the second is given the benefit of every doubt. Nuance, careful distinctions, subtle moral reasoning—who needs them, once we've decided who is oppressor and who is oppressed? So why not accept a sweeping condemnation of the bad groups? And what's wrong, therefore, with chanting, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," which, by the way, is functionally equivalent to what the Ivy League presidents were implying in their reluctance to condemn the genocide of Jews?
Bishop Robert Barron. "Ivy League Presidents and the Collapse of Moral Reasoning." Word on Fire (December 9, 2023).
Reprinted with permission from Bishop Robert Barron.
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota. He is also the host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary about the Catholic Faith, which aired on PBS. Bishop Barron is a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has published numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and the spiritual life. He is a religion correspondent for NBC and has also appeared on FOX News, CNN, and EWTN. Bishop Barron's website, WordOnFire.org, reaches millions of people each year, and he is one of the most-followed Catholics on social media. His regular YouTube videos have been viewed over 150 million times. Bishop Barron's pioneering work in evangelizing through the new media led Francis Cardinal George to describe him as "one of the Church's best messengers." He has keynoted many conferences and events all over the world, including the 2016 World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, as well as the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which marked Pope Francis' historic visit to the United States. He is author of Exploring Catholic Theology, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, Eucharist (Catholic Spirituality for Adults), The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, and Word on Fire: Proclaiming the Power of Christ.Copyright © 2023 Word On Fire