Freedom presents the chief problem in moral education

I have been a teacher of ethics at several institutions of higher learning over the course of the past five decades. While I cannot assess the impact I have had on my students, I can easily assess the impact they have had on me. One problem, central and challenging, remains. It is, I would say, the number one obstacle in getting anything of substance across to today’s students. And it is this: how can one convince students of the wise and fundamental axiom that the formal principle of ethics is not freedom but reason?

What I mean, in referring to this axiom, is that we use reason to discover what is good and then utilize freedom to choose that good. Reason is light; freedom is action. The eye precedes the hand, just as the speculative precedes the practical. Essentially, this point is no more complicated than looking for the green light before we advance. So what is the problem? Why should something so transparent and so elementary constitute such a formidable obstacle?

The answer is that university students, at least a large portion of them, view reason and freedom not as operating in tandem and according to a certain order, but independently of each other. Having isolated them in this unnatural fashion, they then view freedom as more desirable because it promises to expand their lives while the latter threatens to contract them. In short, they believe that freedom gives them more and reason gives them less. I, therefore, often become the clown who is presumed to be urging students to stultify their lives, rather than opening them up to unlimited adventures.

At this point, moral philosophy is replaced by a variety of clichés that feature such key terms as “openness,” “broadmindedness,” “diversity,” “pluralism,” “inclusivity,” “tolerance,” and “multi-culturalism.” A single, isolated word, however, is not sufficient to sustain the life of philosophy. The “love of wisdom” requires a richer and more complex diet.

When we place freedom ahead of reason, it soon becomes apparent that absolutely nothing makes any sense, leaving everyone in a complete quandary about what they should do. We have opened up the meanings of marriage, the family, sexuality, art, and even education itself, to take just a few examples, to the point where they mean anything anyone wants them to mean or, in point of fact, nothing at all.

One example brings the point into unimprovable clarity. I was present, some time ago, when the director of a “Catholic” family life program was pressed into defining his notion of the family. “A family,” he told his attentive audience, “is a cluster of at least one.”

No one can imagine a broader and more inclusive definition of the term. It embraces the Charles Manson family, the halogen family, the family at the local automobile dealership, a candy bar, a tube of toothpaste, and anything that exists, either as part of a “cluster” or in absolute isolation. Our director-expert also exhibited a generous understanding of the word “cluster.” But, like the philosopher Hegel, who defined being so broadly that he came to identify it with nothing, our broadminded director gave us a definition of the family that was so spacious in its unbounded openness that it also identified itself with nothing.

When we assign primacy to freedom, we do not simply demote reason to second place. In fact, we banish it totally. To think that the family is a “cluster of at least one” destroys reason. How does one apply reason to minister to the needs of a family if a family could be a monkey wrench? In this rarefied atmosphere of freedom, what could “help,” “health,” “hope” or “happiness” possible mean? If anything is everything, how can anyone ever get started? Freedom without reason is, quite literally, madness.

Reason is essentially a narrowing process. But the concept of “narrowing” should not be an object of cultural prejudice. We should want reason to be narrowing because we want to separate truth from error, reality from illusion. Truth is the great vindicator of reason, and truth is the only real basis for the proper use of freedom. Reason discovers truth and provides the basis for freedom’s fruitful expression. And this is why reason, and not freedom, is the formal principle of ethics.

A sensible detective may begin with a broad field of suspects. His job is to search for clues, discover evidence, talk to witnesses, apply logic, and so on, until he narrows the field to one. There are many suspects, but only one killer. When the court trial has run its course, the judge, on the basis of a highly elaborate process of reason, delivers his verdict (verum + dicere = to say the truth). By reversing the procedure, and giving freedom a place of primacy, one might begin with the confessed killer, but in the end, indict everyone as a suspect, thereby rendering justice utterly impossible. If reason is deconstructed and freedom reigns, then everyone is equally guilty or equally innocent. No one would be excluded. In such a madcap scenario, the process of jurisprudence could never commence.

By placing reason first, we honour the importance of truth and direct freedom to a realistic and beneficial end, for whatever is really good must also be really true. By placing freedom first, we turn everything into a carnival of confusion, while losing reason altogether. The first approach offers us light and direction. The latter approach, while it has instant appeal to the precipitous, the willful, and the unwary, is entirely bankrupt. In other words, we become free through reason, not from it.

Moral education has been politicized for the purpose of pleasing the unthinking populace. People can be so eager to “choose” that they forget to take the time to understand exactly what they are choosing! Thus, choice is often followed by regret. And an excess of regret can lead to despair.

One lives from day to day with hope. Writing can be an antidote for the frustrations of the classroom. It aims at a wider audience and one, pray God, which may be more receptive.

Professor Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.