“The Universal Conscience That Will Not Tolerate Such Things”

March 19, 2011

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m listening to French President Nicolas Sarkozy justifying the use of multi-lateral military force against Libyan President Qaddafi.  In looking for a basis to justify this extraordinary step, he speaks of (or at least this is the English translation offered; I can’t hear the precise French words on CNN) “the universal conscience that will not tolerate such things.”

It is an interesting phrase, and one I can imagine using myself.  It’s a knowledge claim: he’s saying that we know that something is wrong and something else is right in a substantial enough way that it justifies the killing of people.  And further it’s a universal knowledge claim: he’s saying that these are things we all can and should know.  This claim is not just the perspective of some people, not just one strong point of view that may call forth other strong points of view, but something we all can and should know.

(Doesn’t it put us in mind of this? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”)

If it is a universal knowledge claim, is it something we teach at colleges and universities?  Is it something we expect students to learn?  Now there’s an awkward question.  Not often, not regularly at most colleges and universities would be an honest answer.  The academy, today, is made uncomfortable by universal knowledge claims about what are right and wrong things to do.  We are more comfortable — or so it seems from the curriculum — teaching students why there are reasons to doubt that such universal knowledge claims about right and wrong ways of acting are possible.

Colleges and universities with a religious grounding have a different way of affirming “a universal conscience,” one that grounds knowledge of right action in religious belief rather than reason.  They can teach their students that there are two grounds of knowing, reason and faith, and that faith can help us understand important things when reason leads us to uncertainty or confusion.

Earlham’s Quaker grounding leads us to speak, in our mission statement, of a “teacher within.”  For many Quakers, Sarkozy’s reference to “the universal conscience” will put them in mind of this “teacher within.”  Quakers believe that there is “that of God” within each and every person.  (That would include Qaddafi, of course.)

Over the last two or three weeks, many of my blog posts have been on athletics.  I’d like to focus over the next few weeks on the place of religion in higher education.  If, as I’ve argued, we should look to athletics to be one of the ways we help students develop character, shouldn’t we also look to religion as another way — and for some colleges a much more important way — to develop character?  In the end, character is about more than knowing things, it is about the capacity to act rightly and responsibly.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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