College campuses across the nation are increasingly focused on dismantling unfair and unethical structures—on Harvard’s campus, this has played out in the dining workers’ strike, the push to divest from fossil fuels, and local participation in the Black Lives Matter movement. If students aren’t protesting, they’re at the very least talking about the issues, as they very well should, as a way of discerning the most ethical way to improve institutions. Administrations have also newly focused their energies on ensuring the health of their students. Harvard offers a plethora of programs on fitness, sexual health, and especially mental health. These offerings are important in cultivating a healthy student body able to thrive in academic settings.
Yet in all of this talk about improving unfair structures and individual health, discussions of personal morality are absent at Harvard. Such discussion is not mutually exclusive with these other focuses. Rather, it is part of a wider approach to reaching a community’s full potential. You can work to assure equal standing and good health for members, but without morality, a community is weakened. The self-censorship of moral dialogue robs students of the opportunity to sharpen their individual moral codes and set community moral norms.
Colleges often celebrate the diversity of their student bodies. In their brochures, they boast about the number of states and countries from which they attract learners. They offer Hillels and black students’ associations and cultural fairs. College Democrat and Republican and Libertarian groups serve as a testament to the diversity of political perspectives. All of these institutions are deserving of celebration, but students generally neglect discussion of the diversity of moral codes. The multitude of backgrounds at Harvard contains a rich body of moral influences, ones that can inject energy and nuance into values instead of reinforcing previous opinions or letting values stagnate and weaken.
Yet many universities suffer under the current status quo. Under the guise of “no judgment,” students are given a blank check by their peers, leaving little focus on the moral consequences of their actions. Friends let friends partake in all manner of activities that could be considered as vices, whether they be binge drinking, unsafe sex, or smoking. Those who partake don’t want to feel like what they’re doing is wrong, and those who say nothing self-censor to preserve the relationship. The question then arises: is allowing immoral behavior to preserve comfort the correct choice? Many have said that college is the time when one can afford to make mistakes. But should we stand idly by when our compatriots leap headfirst into those mistakes?
Immorality hurts more than just those who are making immoral decisions. Vicious activities normalize vice for the community—those who would not normally succumb to immoral impulses are instead pressured to do so. They can condone behaviors that start without physical consequence but swiftly endanger individuals’ health, such as alcohol poisoning or the increased risk of sexual assault. In such an environment, we stop seeking to be the best versions of ourselves.
This is not to advocate for a single individual’s morality forced upon other members of the community. It is not a call for college administrators to enforce a moral code on their students through sanctions and regulations. Moral relativism exists, and its existence offers all the more reason to discuss moral codes on campus. There are bound to be overlapping values in an environment of individual relativity; it is in this overlap that moral norms can be forged by the students, a process vastly more powerful than administrative action.
Through this process, we can reexamine campus habits and align them with this new set of shared norms. Do we want to have a community that condones binge drinking and drunkenness, and accepts the behaviors that stem from it? Are we okay with the recreational consumption of illegal substances? Should we accept greed under the principle of personal freedom when consulting and finance companies come calling? The answer to these questions may very well be yes, and community norms should then reflect that. But without moral discussion, we are left to only guess.
Values-based dialogue should join the already rich campus discussion. By examining and advocating for our values, we can sharpen our individual moral codes and set a baseline for moral behavior in our communities. Will people be made uncomfortable? Absolutely. They can still seek to adjust the norms; if they fail to do so, they are still free to pursue that which is acceptable to their conscience. Campuses stand to gain much more than they lose with a stronger dialogue of values. With it, campus communities can bring morals in line with their mission of developing minds.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Daderot