Academic Study and the Moral Worth of Humanity

By Kian Yoo-Sharifi //

Today, people seem to be split on the value of academic study. Some think it propagates cultural values anathema to their worldview (which is morally correct, of course), and condemn it on those grounds, while others dispute its ability to produce worthwhile information at all. Perhaps the most interesting question, however, is the question of whether academic study has intrinsic moral worth. Though it’s often passed over as vague, cliché, or irrelevant to the debates at hand, I believe that it’s an argument worth having, and I believe this because in my opinion, it speaks to a simple question: is self-development intrinsically good? I believe it is, and that we must think of it as such. And on that grounds, one necessarily must say that academic study–which in turn, necessarily promotes self-development–is a moral good as well. 

To establish this, we first have to understand what ‘academic study’ is understood to be. For the sake of this argument, I’m treating academic study as an attempt to absorb and reflect upon information in an explicitly scholarly context, whether in a classroom directly or through absorbing and processing information with an intention of intellectually engaging with the academy. This process, I believe, is inherently an act of self-improvement. This, at first glance, seems obvious—of course expanding your knowledge base and exercising your ability to absorb information constitutes self-improvement! If you succeed, you now have access to information that you once did not have, and thus a new capacity to use that information to inform your thoughts and actions. Moreover, in learning said information, it’s quite likely the practice has, even in some minuscule way, strengthened your general capacity to learn. In turn, the moral benefits of this seem obvious: who would dispute that the world, and our species, are certainly better off with better developed individuals, who have a greater understanding of the world around them? But this is not as simple as it appears—and as such, the strength of our argument depends on us examining a few counterarguments in turn.

Perhaps the most obvious one is that academic study does not necessarily always succeed in providing you with information, or in increasing one’s ability to develop your intellectual capacity to learn. I don’t know that failure is necessarily a good counterargument: as long as academic study is necessarily an attempt to do so, it is also necessarily an attempt at self-improvement, and our inability to execute it is irrelevant to the validity of the goal, or what goal we are trying to achieve. If academic study is structurally flawed beyond reform in a manner that prevents certain individuals from the goal of self-improvement, however, then our failure speaks to something greater: the mode of academic study is an inadequate means of self-improvement, and thus cannot derive any moral worth from its ability to help us in the latter concept. This notion, I find unconvincing as well. Academia is certainly in need of reform to expand its accessibility, but to say that it is impossible for certain individuals is to set bounds on the limits of human perfectibility. These may exist, of course, but we have no proof that they do, and to assume they do is indeed, to foreclose on the idea of reform altogether. We have no idea what the future holds, or what limits exist on the human condition, and to say that academic study is irrevocably structurally unable to help certain individuals in their quest for self-improvement is acting if we do.

The bigger question, however, is whether self-improvement as a whole (as opposed to simply ethical self-development) is inherently morally desirable at all. This, too, is a hard question to answer: history abounds with examples of humans seemingly using their potential for ill. It also abounds with examples of how the rhetoric of self-improvement can easily be be weaponized: our society provides material barriers to self-development that no one should be faulted for failing to overcome, including stress and anxiety. To shame anyone for not throwing themselves into near-constant work is counterproductive, misguided and cruel.

But in the oft-misused idea that we owe it to ourselves to develop our natural capacities, I think there is a kernel of truth. Through seizing our potential, we become the best we can be, both in terms of individual talent and human capabilities, and that is worthwhile in and of itself because—as articulated by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, a great champion of the moral necessity of self-improvement—as humans we are worthwhile ends in and of ourselves. We may endlessly debate as to why and to what implications that lends itself to, but if you believe in the inherent worth of human dignity, then you have no choice but to believe that improving the human condition is a morally worthy effort. Self-improvement is not necessarily the only way in which this can manifest, of course, but it is a crucial one. In short, then, self-improvement is a moral good because we are inherently worthy projects to invest time and effort into, regardless of any other end our actions serve. And accordingly, academic study—flawed though it may be—is a moral good as well.

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