Forty-two years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre published his now iconic book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. In it, he diagnosed a problem in modern society: the disappearance of shared moral values and, in particular, the disappearance of commitment to virtue. This understandably was a topic of concern for him. How can a society function properly if unmoored from a commitment to virtue? Not well. The lack of shared moral values would only lead to fragmentation and anxiety in every area of life. In a society without shared moral virtues, the ship of state is adrift. Indeed, perhaps a better metaphor here is: the ship of state is largely abandoned, as too many individuals have opted to jump off the ship, choosing instead to steer their own tiny vessels any which way they will—or where the wind will blow them. Collisions are frequent and sometimes deadly.
We now have sufficient evidence about the “After Virtue” university, in particular, to be able to see MacIntyre’s indictments play out in the realm of secular higher education. Here are a few examples to consider.
A few years ago, a candidate for a faculty position at a secular state university, asked the hiring committee: what are the chief values you hope to teach your students? Bewildered, the committee members looked at each other, and an awkward silence ensued. At last, the chair responded, “this really isn’t our job.”
At another university, more recently, a philosophy professor found out one day in class that none of her students were willing to say that the Nazis were bad. Well, I thought, when I first read that essay, my former colleague at a secular state university in the South, a historian who regularly taught the Holocaust, likewise refused to make such a declaration. His explanation was that it was not the job of a historian to make moral judgments—that, he said, was the purview of philosophers.
Then this fall, following the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, waves of antisemitism erupted on a number of university campuses in the U.S. Maybe some of these students too would be loath to say that the Nazis were bad. They had no problem declaring all Israelis bad, however, and the university presidents of MIT, Harvard, and Penn faced intense scrutiny for refusing to declare that student calls for Jewish genocide were a problem. Shouldn’t such language, no matter how hateful, be protected as free speech, they wondered? Yet they miscalculated public opinion in some circles, at least, and the University of Pennsylvania president has just resigned over this controversy.
All of the above anecdotal evidence may seem like disconnected snippets when considered separately. Put together, however, these tales coalesce into a coherent picture—the portrait of the “After Virtue” university™. It’s a place where everyone—student, faculty member, administrator—is welcome to convey their own individual truth, as Harvard’s President called it. No moral values bind the whole together, no shared creed, no absolutes of any sort. There’s only one rule, as medical doctor and ethicist Kristin Collier so devastatingly put it a few days ago:
“Years ago I was talking with a general counsel of an academic institution about how they were going to make a decision. They said they didn’t consider the morality or goods at stake but which decision would end up costing them less in lawsuits. I think about that all the time.”
My concern here is not just antisemitism per se—although I do care deeply about the issue, and it is personal to me. I am also not here to criticize either the students who spoke hatefully about Jews in horrifically totalizing claims—although I do find it frightening. Nor am I here to single out the administrators who couldn’t figure out how to deal with all this—although I do find their actions no less despicable than those of the students. But my greatest concern here, rather, is what the most recent events reveal about the nature of a society without virtue—that MacIntyre was correct to express concerns about the fractured and anxious world without shared morality.
A lack of shared moral values, a freedom for each individual to define truth as they see fit, only results in more anxiety for all, not less. This moment is a reminder that as a society, we must talk about the virtues, and we must talk about Truth—with a capital “T.” But most of all, as MacIntyre reminds, we must remember something very pre-modern: that we are not just individuals, and we do not belong to ourselves. Our actions, our words, our decisions all have repercussions not just for ourselves but for the flourishing of others. But more than that, this awareness of being part of a community should call us into two virtues that we as a society have largely forgotten and disdained, as the above events reveal. The first is humility, which forces us to remember that we are fallible, often wrong, creatures of dust and fog. And the second is love—for it is only love (for God and for other people made in God’s image) that can make us look at our own self-interest sometimes and say: not my will be done.