The elective system in most North American universities and colleges means that undergraduates may, within limits, make up their own combinations of subjects during their three or four years of study. In the better institutions there may be much guidance, even direction. But the ethos expressed in the system relies upon the idea that by right the undergraduate chooses for himself the subjects that compose his course, just as the customer chooses dishes as he passes along the cafeteria line.
This is an image of how moral education and moral growth are often presented, and Alasdair MacIntyre is concerned in his important new book to combat what this image represents. Especially in schools of education and in institutions for the training of social therapists, we find it asserted that children must be free to choose their own values and that the exercise of choosing is a means of growing up morally. Such thoughts may have odd consequences for the curriculum. Boys and girls who couldn’t write on a sheet of paper, or put into speech, even the rudest outline of what Christians or Jews believe and who couldn’t recount accurately a single story from the Old or the New Testament, may be given instruction in Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics; this, lest the teachers commit the offense of proselytizing on behalf of the traditional European culture.
Sex education may consist in presenting in picture and word a variety of “lifestyles” from which the pupils may choose what they prefer or what they want to try out. Those who argue for the freedom to choose values and lifestyles are commonly in bad faith. It is tacitly understood that certain values are not to be chosen, those of racism or sexism, for example. This presents difficulties. If the values of racism and sexism are not matters for legitimate choice, why isn’t this true of other values too? If there are criteria, as seems to be supposed, for deciding that common decency excludes our judging people by their skin color or keeping women out of the professions of medicine and mechanical engineering, why may there not be criteria for deciding that chastity is a virtue or acquisitiveness a vice?
Where does the notion that values may be chosen come from? At first sight, it seems strange to say that whether or not veracity or courage is to count as a virtue is a matter of how one chooses. It isn’t clear that a person who maintained that mendacity is a virtue or a harmless quirk of character would be maintaining anything intelligible. All the same, many are thoroughly convinced that somehow it has been settled by educated people, and especially by philosophers, that moral principles are, and can only be, matters of choice; for in this field true and false have no legitimate application. It may be true that most people think that x is right/wrong/good/bad; but it is commonly held to be a mistake to suppose that “x is right/wrong/good/bad” can be…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.