“Liberal moral puritanism” on campus
A recent study into the moral education provided by universities may give us a glimpse of our future
You may or may not be surprised to know that going to university tends to push students to the political left. But what it means to be on the left, and what those students are receiving as wisdom, appears to be changing. A new study in the American Sociological Review traces this development on US campuses, with the authors noting a rise in what they call “liberal moral puritanism.” There's an imperfect relationship between the American culture wars and New Zealand's own social conflicts and university culture, but there's a sufficient connection between the two to find this study thought-provoking.
In recent years, especially under the sway of postmodernism, the political left has often been characterized by a kind of moral relativism. This involves a skepticism or outright disbelief that there is any such thing as objective reality or that truth is anything other than a social construct. But the authors of this study find not only “that higher education often shifts moral concerns in a liberal direction, but that for most students these changes are accompanied by a rise in moral certainty rather than relativism”. They explain:
our data indicate this moral absolutism looks different than the moral absolutism of religious and political conservatives. Rather than supporting traditional norms, these students emerge from university with a moral profile characterized by high concern for others and weak commitment to traditional social order. One interpretation of these results is that some university students—particularly those majoring in [the humanities and social sciences] or who continue on to graduate education—come to believe that the morals of society must change to remedy historical (and current) injustices (i.e., moral progressivism), but that the moral principles they have learned through their studies represent the real moral truth (moral absolutism).
The researchers speculate that increasing uniformity among university educators and administrators is to blame. The dominance of political liberals among the staff:
could create a sense of moral consensus that leaves shared liberal beliefs unchallenged or might even make them seem naturally true. Lack of interpersonal engagement with members of an outgroup can in turn make individuals less politically tolerant, less likely to regard opposing views as legitimate, and more likely to hold extreme attitudes.
This was especially true in the humanities and social sciences and in graduate studies, but the researchers observed effects across all fields of study affecting “about 63% of students.”
As the authors conclude, the liberalizing and absolutising effect of a university's moral education “could have important consequences for social conflict.” For example, they point out that the degree of “moral absolutism” they observed “rivals the effect of religiosity”, and that there is a clear divide by university education on issues like Brexit and the likelihood that someone would have voted for Donald Trump. I'm not aware of any comparable research on New Zealand universities and their students, and we should be cautious before drawing a straight line from the hyper-polarised US political discourse, where universities often seem to be on the front lines, and our own context and experience. Nevertheless, my impression is that the study is consistent with New Zealand trends, albeit at a slower pace and lower temperature than in America. If so, it may give us a glimpse of our future.