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Intellectuals Rediscover Absolutes

Mises Daily: Friday, September 20, 2002 by

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In this age of moral relativism, we periodically encounter great displays of moral outrage, ones that presume a fixed standard of right and wrong. We are told daily that some CEOs of large companies have engaged in outrageously immoral conduct and should be justly punished for doing so. If you doubt that the business of business ethics is just as easy as this, you are suspected of improper pro-business bias.

This is very interesting. For the nearly 40 years I have been studying and working in the academy, I have encountered a great many ideas opposed to ethics. Most notable and forthright among them was the late B. F. Skinner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, whose best-selling book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), denied both that we are free to choose our conduct and that there is any standard of right and wrong by which such conduct could be evaluated.

But Skinner is only the most up-front of the moral skeptics. There are thousands of them at our universities, in psychology, sociology, economics, and philosophy departments. And a great many of those also think that we act because we have to, not because we choose to.

Skepticism and determinism are the dominant views. Some advocate a hybrid called compatibilism, according to which we are both determined to behave as we do and are also responsible for it, all at once.

And there are those who deny there is any bona fide ethics but who think moral exhortation functions as a kind of training, like it would when we praise or blame domestic animals.

Just how these work beats me, but the idea they advance is out there, admittedly.

Now, people in academe are rarely shy. Most publish books, articles, papers, and essays galore and have no compunction about championing their views anywhere there's a welcoming host for them. Yet, and here is my puzzle, when scandals like the ones at Enron Corporation and WorldCom come around, I do not hear a peep from these skeptics.

I do not find them penning op-ed pieces for The New York Times in which they proclaim that blaming Enron executives is nonsense because there are no standards of right and wrong, no one can know how they ought to have behaved, and, in any case, they weren't free agents but merely did what they had to do.

Evolutionary biologists, who often say that we are hard-wired by our genes to do what we do, are also nowhere to be seen or heard--on op-ed pages of newspapers or the more or less erudite talk shows across the electromagnetic spectrum--telling us not to blame these folks who cheated thousands out of their pension funds and carried out innumerable forms of malpractice because, well, no one can help doing what he or she does; it's all que sera, sera.

I don't get it. I am a defender of business as a perfectly honorable profession, have written to that effect in numerous forums, and am sad when business executives behave badly. Anyone who has violated other people's rights should get what justly is coming to him.

I enthusiastically defend the profession of business, as well as business ethics professors, against the likes of Katherine Mangan of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who asks in a recent piece, "Or does the bottom-line-first ethos that many of them [business ethics professors] promote in the classroom help create a system that breeds corruption?"

No, heeding the bottom line first is no different from heeding accuracy in reporting or health in medicine: it does not cancel out ethics; it's just the service one happens to offer in a certain profession!

But those who think ethics is bogus--and there are literally thousands of them in universities and colleges across the globe--seem to think mum's the word when it comes to addressing issues from their own point of view. Why don't they champion skepticism and moral ambiguity when it would be relevant, pertinent to do so?

So, perhaps the bulk of academics are just a bunch of cowards. They refuse to enter the controversial public arenas when things are a bit hot to handle. But that constitutes no less a betrayal of their own oaths of office, namely, to serve truth above all.


Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. You may send him MAIL and view his Mises.org Articles Archive.