The Moral Value of Academic Thought: A Counterpoint

By John Delaloye //

When justifying the value of their work, certain academics have argued that their studies possess a moral value. These arguments take on several distinct forms. One may claim that academic study is an inherently moral act, and to study academically is to act in a moral manner. Alternatively, one may argue that a robust education creates moral individuals, inspiring the exercise of virtues in students. Finally, many see the fruits of academic study as possessing a moral benefit to society at large, shaping society such that it inspires morality and acts in moral manners. While such arguments are enticing to academics who wish to justify themselves in a culture often hostile to the value of study, any attempt to attribute inherent moral worth to academics is ultimately shallow and fallacious. This is not to say that academics do not possess worth; however, instead of attempting to justify the value of academic study as a means to a supposed moral end, the worth of academics should result from considering study as a worthwhile end in itself.

First, let us consider the argument which links academics to a societal good. This argument tends to appear in discussions of Political Science and the Natural Sciences. With respect to the former, one may argue that if a student of Political Science possesses a sound education in Political Science, they will be more intelligent in the political sphere, and will thus be able to make moral decisions for the sake of their constituency. Nonetheless, this argument conflates political competence with goodwill. Knowledge of the political system is neither good nor evil, and one may use it to accomplish great moral acts as a magnanimous civil servant as easily as one may use their position of power to commit great atrocities. In this regard, the morality of a student of Political Science therefore lies in the individual, not in the material which they are taught, which may be used to any end, however moral. A similar conclusion may be reached with respect to the Natural Sciences. Many scientists argue that science, if it is performed most accurately, possesses a moral result in society at large; any science which results in immorality is simply incorrect and will eventually be replaced with more accurate scientific discoveries, which will result in the development of a more moral society. Nonetheless, scientific facts, like political knowledge, possess no inherent bent toward morality or immorality, although the individual scientist may use it for good or evil. As more and more scientific knowledge is accumulated, while the knowledge may prove useful, no moral guidelines will be uncovered by the discovery of a more accurate science. However, while knowledge toward some social purpose may not be inherently moral or immoral, knowledge itself may hold some moral value. 

After all, one may argue that the process of self-improvement through the accumulation of knowledge may be seen as inherently moral. However, such arguments misunderstand the standards by which morality is judged.

Even if certain knowledge may not possess special moral value on a social level, it remains possible that knowledge, regardless of its form, possesses moral weight due to its contribution to the improvement of the individual learner. However, just as areas of applied knowledge such as Political and Natural Science may be used for a variety of purposes, knowledge in itself may or may not contribute to moral action. While improving oneself through learning may lead to a benefit in one’s ability to learn and acquire further knowledge, knowledge itself does not possess morality unless it may lead to the encouragement of moral action. After all, one may only judge morality through the analysis of moral or immoral acts and behaviors. However, knowledge, even that of ethics itself, is no guarantee that an individual may take moral actions, just as applied knowledge cannot prompt its possessor to act in a conscious manner. While ethics may prompt individuals to consider the morality of their actions in their own lives, there is no guarantee that the knowledge of ethics will necessarily lead to these moral acts. Therefore, when an individual who performs an act informed by their knowledge of morality, the morality of the act results entirely from the act itself, not from the knowledge which informed it, as the individual could have just as easily acted amorally in spite of their knowledge. Moral behavior, while it may be inspired by knowledge, relies on the individual’s own action, which cannot be ensured by study.

In conclusion, individuals who claim that academics possess inherent morality ultimately ignore the additional factors which influence moral behavior. Knowledge, including formal academic study, may be used for good, for evil, or not at all, situating the act of acquiring it as firmly amoral. Nonetheless, while academic study may not have moral worth, I firmly disagree with the notions that academic studies are of little value or without worth altogether. In fact, the act of ascribing moral worth to the obtaining of knowledge serves to undermine the value of academic study as an end in itself. Knowledge is its own reward. If knowledge and study are to possess worth, we must not consider them means to the end of morality but rather worthwhile pursuits in their own right.

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