There is an interesting article in Education Forum a publication of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, The author Dr. Stephen Anderson reports the reaction of students in his class when he shared with them the details of the case of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman was mutilated by her in-laws for fleeing her abusive husband. Time magazine had done a cover story on her, featuring her horrifically scarred face absent a nose on the cover.
When Dr. Anderson presented this to his students in his senior philosophy class during a discussion on making moral judgments he made a startling discovery – the students couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Bibi’s mutilators:
But I was not prepared for their reaction. I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a diﬀerent culture. They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no conscious-ness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”
As a teacher, I had to do something. Like most teachers, I felt uncomfortable with becoming too directive in moral matters; but in this case, I could not see how I could avoid it. I wondered, “How can kids who have been so thoroughly basted in the language of minority rights be so numb to a clear moral offense?” Where are all those “character traits” we inculcate to address their moral formation? You know them — empathy, caring, respect, courage—the wording may vary among boards, but we all know the script.
My class was “character developed” and had all the “traits” in place. They were honest – very frank in their views. They had empathy — extending it in equal measure to Aisha and to the demented subculture that sliced her up. They were accepting — even of child mutilation. And they persevered — no matter how I prodded they did not leave their nonjudgmental position. I left that class shaking my head. It seemed clear to me that for some students—clearly not all — the lesson of character education initiatives is acceptance of all things at all costs. While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”
Any many ways this incident shows the vacuity of what passes for secular morality. I am often told by atheists that ‘morals’, such as they are, are a product of our natural inclination to feel empathy and our evolutionary tendency toward cooperation – but as Dr. Anderson notes, neither of those traits is particularly ‘moral’ in and of itself. Absent a truly objective moral framework such traits could just as easily result in the moral weakness we see pictured above. True moral courage requires a clear ability to ascribe inherent value to individuals and a sense of confidence in the right based on transcendent eternal values. Those values can be derived from the teachings of Christ, but they cannot be derived from either nature or mere reason – and it is increasingly clear the ongong secularization of our culture is eviscerating the moral sensibilities of our children.