Higher education has always been of interest to me, and after speaking with Dr. Timothy McGrew about being a Christian professor in a secular university, I wanted to delve into this topic a little bit more.
I completed my undergraduate coursework at the University of Vermont. I double majored in Accounting and Statistics, so I largely avoided the “hot button” fields that tend to create conflict for Christians. It wasn’t as if I was majoring in biology and being taught the supposedly infallible truth of neo-Darwinian evolution (even challenged by non-theists). Therefore, my experience might be slightly different than that of people who majored in these more controversial fields where conflict is arguably inevitable.
However, one thing that always struck me as interesting was the way that my business school emphasized the teaching of ethics. Ethics was an integral part of every class in the curriculum by design. That is a good thing. Especially as we have seen the consequences of unethical accounting practices rock the business world, there is no doubt that we need to make sure that those people who are keeping track of the money are honest, upright and trustworthy. I applaud the University of Vermont for actually trying to instill ethical behavior in its students. It is a good thing.
I always found it kind of interesting though. There was always a presupposition embedded in all of these classes that being ethical is a good thing. That was never up for debate. We didn’t step back one more layer and question why a person should do the right thing.
The basic response is to say that it is wrong to embezzle by appealing to the common sense, and I personally would agree. I however believe that because of my belief in the reality of God. I believe that God has outlined the foundations of human interaction, and respecting the property of other people is a vital part of loving them. If we truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves, then we’re not going to intentionally harm them in any way, including financially.
I ground my ethical foundation in the unchangeable character of God. Because of that, I have the ability to say that certain things are objectively good or bad. I appeal to an authority beyond myself and my subjective opinions. Truth is not relative.
(Of course, then you have another question as to whether or not good things are good because God says they are good or because they conform to an external standard of goodness that God also conforms to. Another question for another day.)
I don’t write this to fault the University of Vermont in particular, but based on my experience, this is a general trait of secular education. There are assumptions that are made about things that are good and bad. Ethical behavior is good. Embezzlement is bad. Diversity is good. Exclusivity is bad. Many times, these assumptions are accepted without a foundation because a secular worldview is not equipped to answer these questions.
Simultaneously, in our world of relativism, many people will say that there is no such thing as absolute truth. They will say that truth is however you define it. What is true for me might not be true for you.
You find yourself in an interesting position on campus then. On one hand, you have these commonsense assumptions that things like embezzlement are truly unethical. On the other hand, you have a culture that is telling you that absolute truth cannot exist. Therefore, these aforementioned assumptions cannot exist because they are making truth claims, or truth must exist in some form. The contradiction needs to be addressed.
Having a Christian worldview provides reconciliation. We reject the claims of relativism. We believe in the existence of truth. Therefore, when we talk about embezzlement being unethical, we can claim that that is true. We don’t have to accept the uncomfortable position that it is valid to believe that embezzlement is not unethical.
In summary, I am glad that my business school emphasized ethical behavior. The types of decision-making processes that we were taught to apply to difficult situations apply to Christians just as well as nonbelievers. I learned quite a bit from that curriculum, and it did complement my Christian worldview.
That is a key point though. My already existent Christian foundation provided me with the reason as to why I ought to be ethical. My classes helped me learn how to apply ethical practices.
The very teaching of ethics relies on an assumption that certain things are right and wrong, and without a coherent worldview behind the teaching of ethics, it seems that, to steal a book title from Francis Beckwith and Greg Kokul, our feet are “firmly planted in mid-air.”