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Ethical neutrality Essay

In what follows, when we use the term “evaluation” we will mean, where nothing else is implied or expressly stated, practical value-judgments as to the unsatisfactory or satisfactory character of phenomena subject to our influence.

The problem involved in the “freedom” of a given discipline from evaluations of this kind, i. e., the validity and the meaning of this logical principle, is by no means identical with the question which is to be discussed shortly, namely, whether in teaching one should or should not declare one’s acceptance of practical evaluations, regardless of whether they are based on ethical principles, cultural ideals or a philosophical outlook. This question cannot be settled scientifically. It is itself entirely a question of practical evaluation, and cannot therefore be definitively resolved.

With reference to this issue, a wide variety of views are held, of which we shall only mention the two extremes. At one pole we find (a) the standpoint that there is validity in the distinction between purely logically deducible and purely empirical statements of fact on the one hand, and practical, ethical or philosophical evaluations on the other, but that, nevertheless – or, perhaps, even on that account- both classes of problems properly belong in the university.

At the other pole we encounter (b) the proposition that even when the distinction cannot be made in a logically complete manner, it is nevertheless desirable that the assertion of practical evaluations should be avoided as much as possible in teaching. This second point of view seems to me to be untenable. Particularly untenable is the distinction which is rather often made in our field between evaluations linked with the positions of “political parties” and other sorts of evaluations.

This distinction cannot be reasonably made: it obscures the practical implications of the evaluations which are suggested to the audience. Once the assertion of evaluations in university lectures is admitted, the contention that the university teacher should be entirely devoid of “passion” and that he should avoid all subjects which threaten to bring emotion into controversies is a narrow-minded, bureaucratic opinion which every teacher of independent spirit must reject.

Of those scholars who believed that they should not renounce the assertion of practical evaluations in empirical discussions, the most passionate of them – such as Treitschke and, in his own way, Mommsen- were the most tolerable. As a result of their intensely emotional tone, their audiences were enabled to discount the influence of their evaluations in whatever distortion of the facts occurred. Thus, the audiences did for themselves what the lecturers could not do because of their temperaments.

The effect on the minds of the students was to produce the same depth of moral feeling which, in my opinion, the proponents of the assertion of practical evaluations in teaching want to assure – but without the audience being confused as to the logical distinctiveness of the different types of propositions. This confusion must of necessity occur whenever both the exposition of empirical facts and the exhortation to espouse a particular evaluative standpoint on important issues are done with the same cool dispassionateness.

The first point of view (a) is acceptable, and can indeed be acceptable from the standpoint of its own proponents, only when the teacher sees it as his unconditional duty – in every single case, even to the point where it involves the danger of making his lecture less stimulating – to make absolutely clear to his audience, and especially to himself, which of his statements are statements of logically deduced or empirically observed facts and which are statements of practical evaluation.

Once one has granted the disjunction between the two spheres, it seems to me that doing this is an imperative requirement of intellectual honesty. It is the absolutely minimal requirement in this case. On the other hand, the question whether one should in general assert practical evaluations in teaching – even with this reservation – is one of practical university policy. On that account, in the last analysis, it must be decided only with reference to those tasks which the individual, according to his own set of values, assigns to the universities.

Those who on the basis of their qualifications as university teachers assign to the universities, and thereby to themselves, the universal role of forming character, of inculcating political, ethical, aesthetic, cultural or other beliefs, will take a different position from those who believe it necessary to affirm the proposition and its implications – that university teaching achieves really valuable effects only through specialised training by specially qualified persons. Hence, “intellectual integrity” is the only specific virtue which universities should seek to inculcate. The first point of view can be defended from as

many different ultimate evaluative standpoints as the second. The second – which I personally accept – can be derived from a most enthusiastic as well as from a thoroughly modest estimate of the significance of “specialised training”. In order to defend this view, one need not be of the opinion that everyone should become as much a pure “specialist” as possible. One may, on the contrary, espouse it because one does not wish to see the ultimate and deepest personal decisions which a person must make regarding his life, treated exactly as if they were the same as specialised training.

One may take this position, however highly one assesses the significance of specialised training, not only for general intellectual training but indirectly also for the self-discipline and the ethical attitude of the young person. Another reason for taking this position is that one does not wish to see the student so influenced by the teacher’s suggestions that he is prevented from solving his problems in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.

Professor von Schmoller’s favourable disposition towards the teacher’s assertion of his own evaluations in the lecture room is thoroughly intelligible to me personally as the echo of a great epoch which he and his friends helped to create. Even he, however, cannot deny the fact that for the younger generation the objective situation has changed considerably in one important respect. Forty years ago there existed among the scholars working in our discipline, the widespread belief that of the various possible points of view in the domain of practical-political evaluations, ultimately only one was the ethically correct one.

(Schmoller himself took this position only to a limited extent. ) Today this is no longer the case among the proponents of the assertion of professorial evaluations – as may readily be observed. The legitimacy of the assertion of professorial evaluation is no longer defended in the name of an ethical imperative resting on a relatively simple postulate of justice, which both in its ultimate foundations as well as in its consequences, partly was, and partly seemed to be, relatively unambiguous, and above all relatively impersonal, in consequence of its specifically trans-personal character.

Rather, as the result of an inevitable development, it is now done in the name of a motley of “cultural evaluations”, i. e. , actually subjective cultural demands, or quite openly, in the name of the teachers’ alleged “rights of personality”. One may well wax indignant over this point of view, but one cannot- because it is a “practical evaluation” – refute it. Of all the types of prophecy, this “personally” tinted type of professorial prophecy is the most repugnant.

There is no precedent for a situation in which a large number of officially appointed prophets do their preaching or make their professions of faith, not, as other prophets do, on the streets, or in churches or other public places- or if they do it privately, then in personally chosen sectarian conventicles – but rather regard themselves as best qualified to enunciate their evaluations on ultimate questions “in the name of science” and in the carefully protected quiet of governmentally privileged lecture halls in which they cannot be controlled, or checked by discussion, or subjected to contradiction.

It is an axiom of long standing, which Schmoller on one occasion vigorously espoused, that what takes place in the lecture hall should be entirely confidential and not subject to public discussion. Although it is possible to contend that, even for purely academic purposes, this may occasionally have certain disadvantages, I take the view that a “lecture” should be different from a “speech”. The unconfined rigour, matter-of-factness and sobriety of the lecture declines, with definite pedagogical losses, once it becomes the object of publicity through, for example, the press.

It is only in the sphere of his specialised qualifications that the university teacher is entitled to this privilege of freedom from outside surveillance or publicity. There is, however, no specialised qualification for personal prophecy, and for this reason it should not be granted the privilege of freedom from contradiction and public scrutiny.

Furthermore, there should be no exploitation of the fact that the student, in order to make his way in life, must attend certain educational institutions and take courses with certain teachers with the result that in addition to what he needs, i.e. , the stimulation and cultivation of his capacity for understanding and reasoning, and a certain body of factual information – he also gets, slipped in among these, the teacher’s own attitude towards the world which even though sometimes interesting is often of no consequence, and which is in any case not open to contradiction and challenge.

Like everyone else, the professor has other opportunities for the propagation of his ideals. When these opportunities are lacking, he can easily create them in an appropriate form, as experience has shown in the case of every honorable attempt.

But the professor should not demand the right as a professor to carry the marshal’s baton of the statesman or the cultural reformer in his knapsack. This, however, is just what he does when he uses the unassailability of the academic lecture platform for the expression of political – or cultural-political- sentiments. In the press, in public meetings, in associations, in essays, in every avenue which is open to every other citizen, he can and should do what his God or daemon demands.

The student should obtain, from his teacher in the lecture hall, the capacity to content himself with the sober execution of a given task; to recognize facts, even those which may be personally uncomfortable, and to distinguish them from his own evaluations. He should also learn to subordinate himself to his task and to repress the impulse to exhibit his personal sensations or other emotional states unnecessarily. This is vastly more important today than it was 40 years ago when the problem did not even exist in its present form.

It is not true – as many have insisted – that the “personality” is and should be a “whole”, in the sense that it is distorted when it is not exhibited on every possible occasion. Every professional task has its own “responsibilities” and should be fulfilled accordingly. In the execution of his professional responsibility, a man should confine himself to it alone and should exclude whatever does not strictly belong to it – particularly his own loves and hates. The powerful personality does not manifest itself by trying to give everything a “personal touch” on every possible occasion.

The generation which is now coming of age should, above all, again become used to the thought that “being a personality” is a condition which cannot be intentionally brought about by wanting it and that there is only one way by which it can – perhaps- be achieved: namely, the unreserved devotion to a “task”, whatever it – and its derivative “demands of the hour”- may be in any individual instance. It is in poor taste to mix personal concerns with the specialised analysis of facts. We deprive the word “vocation” of the only significant meaning it still possesses if we fail to adhere to that specific kind of self-restraint which it requires.

But whether the fashionable “cult of the personality” seeks to dominate the throne, public office or the professorial chair – its effectiveness is only superficially impressive. Intrinsically, it is very petty and it always has injurious consequences. It should not be necessary for me to emphasise that the proponents of the views against which the present essay is directed can accomplish very little by this sort of cult of the “personality” for the very reason that it is “personal”. In part, they see the responsibilities of the university teacher in another light, in part they have other educational ideas which I respect but do not share.

For this reason we must seriously consider no only what they are striving to achieve, but also how the views which they legitimate by their authority influence a generation with an already extremely pronounced predisposition to overestimate its own importance. Finally, it scarcely needs to be pointed out that many ostensible opponents of the academic assertion of political evaluations are by no means justified when they invoke the postulate of “ethical neutrality”, which they often gravely misunderstand, to discredit cultural and social-political discussions which take place in public and away from the university lecture hall.

The indubitable existence of this spuriously “ethically neutral” tendentiousness, which in our discipline is manifested in the obstinate and deliberate partisanship of powerful interest groups, explains why a significant number of intellectually honorable scholars still continue to assert personal preferences in their teaching. They are too proud to identify themselves with this spurious abstention from evaluation.

I believe that, in spite of this, what in my opinion is right should be done, and that the influence of the practical evaluations of a scholar, who confines himself to championing them on appropriate occasions outside the classroom, will increase when it becomes known that, inside the classroom, he has the strength of character to do exactly what he was appointed to do.

But these statements are, in their turn, all matters of evaluation, and hence scientifically undemonstrable. In any case, the fundamental principle which justifies the practice of asserting practical evaluations in teaching can be consistently held only when its proponents demand that the proponents of the evaluations of all other parties be granted the opportunity to demonstrate the validity of their evaluations from the academic platform .

But in Germany, insistence on the right of professors to state their preferences has been associated with the very opposite of the demand for the equal representation of all tendencies- including the most “extreme”. Schmoller thought that he was being entirely consistent when he declared that “Marxists and the Manchester school” were disqualified from holding academic positions, although he was never so unjust as to ignore their intellectual accomplishments. It is exactly on these points that I could never agree with our honoured master.

One obviously ought not in one breath to justify the expression of evaluations in teaching – and when the conclusions are drawn therefrom, point out that the university is a state institution for the training of “loyal” civil servants. Such a procedure makes the university, not into a specialised technical school- which appears to be so degrading to many teachers- but rather into a theological seminary, although it does not have the religious dignity of the latter.

Attempts have been made to set certain purely “logical” limits to the range of evaluations which should be allowed in university teaching. One of our foremost professors of law once explained, in discussing his opposition to the exclusion of socialists from university posts, that he too would be unwilling to accept an “anarchist” as a teacher of law since anarchists, in principle, deny the validity of law – and he regarded this argument as conclusive. My own opinion is exactly the opposite. An anarchist can surely be a good legal scholar.

And if he is such, then indeed the Archimedean point of his convictions, which is outside the conventions and presuppositions which are so self-evident to us, could enable him to perceive problems in the fundamental postulates of legal theory which escape those who take them for granted. The most fundamental doubt is one source of knowledge. The jurist is no more responsible for “proving” the value of these cultural objects which are bound up with “law”, than the physician is responsible for demonstrating that the prolongation of life should be striven for under all conditions.

Neither of them can do this with the means at their disposal. If, however, one wishes to turn the university into a forum for discussion of practical evaluations, then it obviously is obligatory to permit the most unrestricted freedom of discussion of fundamental questions from all standpoints. Is this feasible? Today the most decisive and important political evaluations are denied expression in German universities by the very nature of the present political situation.

For all those to whom the interests of the national society transcend any of its individual concrete institutions, it is a question of central importance whether the conception which prevails today regarding the position of the monarch in Germany is reconcilable with the world interests of the country, and with the means- war and diplomacy- through which these are pursued. It is not always the worst patriots nor even anti-monarchists who give a negative answer to this question, and who doubt the possibility of lasting success in both these spheres unless some profound changes are made.

Everyone knows, however, that these vital questions of our national life cannot be discussed with full freedom in German universities . In view of the fact that certain evaluations which are of decisive political significance are permanently prohibited in university discussion, it seems to me to be only in accord with the dignity of a representative of science and scholarship to be silent about such evaluations as he is allowed to expound.

In no case, however, should the unresolvable question – unresolvable because it is ultimately a question of evaluations – as to whether one may, must, or should champion certain practical evaluations in teaching, be confused with the purely logical discussion of the relationship of evaluations to empirical disciplines such as sociology and economics. Any confusion on this point will hamper the thoroughness of the discussion of the logical problem.

However, even the solution of the logical problem will provide no aid in seeking to answer the other question, beyond the two purely logically required conditions of clarity and an explicit distinction by the teacher of the different classes of problems. Nor need I discuss further whether the distinction between empirical propositions or statements of fact and practical evaluations is “difficult” to make. It is.

All of us, those of us who take this position as well as others, come up against it time and again. But the exponents of the so-called “ethical economics”, particularly, should be aware, even though the moral law is unfulfillable, it is nonetheless “imposed” as a duty. Self-scrutiny would perhaps show that the fulfillment of this postulate is especially difficult, just because we reluctantly refuse to approach the very alluring subject of evaluation with a titillating “personal touch”.

Every teacher has observed that the faces of his students light up and they become more interested when he begins to make a profession of faith, and that the attendance at his lectures is greatly increased by the expectation that he will do so. Everyone knows furthermore that, in the competition for students, universities when making recommendations for promotion will often give a prophet, however minor, who can fill the lecture halls, the upper hand over a much weightier and more sober scholar who does not offer his own evaluations.

Of course, it is understood that the prohet will leave untouched the politically dominant or conventional evaluations which are generally accepted at the time. Only the spuriously “ethical-neutral” prophet who speaks for powerful groups has, of course, better opportunities for promotion as a result of the influence which these groups have on the prevailing political powers. I regard all this as very unsatisfactory, and I will therefore not go into the proposition that the demand for abstention from evaluation is “petty” and that it makes lectures “boring”.

I will not go into the question as to whether lecturers on specialised empirical problems must seek above all to be “interesting”. For my own part, in any case, I fear that a lecturer who makes his lectures stimulating by the intrusion of personal evaluations will, in the long run, weaken the students’ taste for sober empirical analysis. I will acknowledge without further discussion that it is possible, under the guise of eliminating all practical evaluations, to insinuate such evaluations with especial force by simple “letting the facts speak for themselves”.

The better kind of parliamentary and electoral speeches in Germany operate in this way – and quite legitimately, given their purposes. No words should be wasted in declaring that all such procedures in university lectures, particularly if one is concerned with the observance of this separation, are , of all abuses, the most abhorrent. The fact, however, that a dishonestly created illusion of the fulfillment of an ethical imperative can be passed off as the reality, constitutes no criticism of the imperative itself.

At any rate, even if the teacher does not believe that he should deny himself the right of rendering evaluations, he should make it absolutely explicit to the students and to himself that he is doing so. Finally, we must oppose to the utmost the widespread view that scientific “objectivity” is achieved by weighing the various evaluations against one another and making a “statesman-like” compromise among them. The “middle way” is not only just as undemonstrable scientifically – with the means of the empirical sciences – as the “most extreme” evaluations: in the sphere of evaluations, it is the least unequivocal.

It does not belong in the university – but rather in political programmes, government offices, and in parliament. IThe sciences, both normative and empirical, are capable of rendering an inestimable service to persons engaged in political activity by telling them that (1) these and these “ultimate” evaluative positions are conceivable with reference to this practical problem; and (2) that such and such are the facts which you must take into account in making your choice between these evaluative positions. And with this we come to the real problem.


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