Spring 2003


Morality and Academe

by Prof. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev


Are faculty members of universities more moral than other people?

        On the surface, the answer to this question needs to be in the affirmative.  Academic research is characterized by the need to examine things from different perspectives; hence, the rejection of simplistic and one-sided positions.  Scientific depth cannot be plumbed with simple catchwords—sound bites, in today’s jargon.  An examination of the different alternatives, consideration of the given context, and an investigation from different points of view lie at the heart of academic discourse.  Moral behavior is similar in complexity to scientific research.  It cannot be simplistic and one-sided. It, too, must examine things from different perspectives and cannot be measured with superficial slogans.  Morality needs to consider intentions, the unique circumstances, practical results, different values relating to the deed, and other factors.

        Whereas the complexity of academic considerations brings those in academe closer to moral reflection, another academic principle—that of consistency—may when improperly employed keep moral reflection at a distance.  The principle of consistency states that the same considerations and behavior must be used in similar circumstances.  The problem in implementing this principle lies in determining the similarity of different circumstances and the relevancy of the difference. 

        The moral failures of some academic people stem in the main from an incorrect application  of the consistency principle.  There are many moral values, and the adoption of but one of them does not ensure moral behavior, because it avoids moral complexity.  Take, for example, the value of equality.  A certain academician once said that the consistent implementation of this value causes him to love every child in the world to an equal degree.  Psychologically this is an incorrect statement, because it is impossible to love everyone to the same extent.  Emotions are partial and discriminatory in nature.  Love has a discriminatory character; otherwise, it would lose its force.  Extreme equality, however, is also morally wrong.  My moral commitment toward my son is immeasurably greater than my moral commitment toward other children.  This is not to say that I don’t have an moral commitment toward other children in the world.  However, a distinction must be made among different degrees and types of moral commitment.

        Unfortunately some of the people who carry the flag of morality in the academic world have lost the basic ability constituting the foundation of moral behavior: to understand the great complexity in daily life circumstances; hence, their inability to correctly implement the principle of consistency.  A proper implementation involves the avoidance of extremist positions that are in conflict with the essence of the morality that takes other people into consideration and must, therefore, make compromises.  As Stephen Toulmin, wrote: “A morality based entirely on general rules and principles is tyrannical and distorted.”

        A striking example of one-sided academic behavior in conflict with moral complexity is the call to boycott Israel in general and its universities in particular.  Academic figures who call for this boycott perhaps wish to adopt the moral ideal of thinking about the suffering of the other.   It is immoral, however, to apply a simplistic translation of this ideal that states that all academicians in Israel are responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians; that only Israel is responsible for the situation—the Palestinians have no hand in the matter—and that Israel is the single place in the world where people suffer.  Moral behavior, furthermore, involves not only preaching but also doing.  Therefore, these same Israeli academicians who call for the boycott of Israeli universities should resign from these institutions.  You cannot call for others to boycott any institution while you yourself not only do not boycott it but in fact enjoy its pleasures. The struggle against the clearly immoral behavior of those calling for the boycott of Israel is a struggle for preserving the values of democracy in general and the freedom of academic expression in particular. 

        In the context of the question that opens this article, whether members of academe are more moral than other people, I can aver that academicians have the cognitive tools to behave more morally.  They are armed with two important moral principles: the principle of complexity and the principle of consistency.  Too frequently, however, members of academe go with the flow of consistency at the expense of seeing the complexity.  This leads to extremism, which conflicts with the foundations of moral behavior.  Therefore, the answer to whether these tools are sufficient to actualize more moral behavior cannot be inclusive: it depends on the circumstances.  I wish I could answer unequivocally.


Professor Ben-Ze’ev is Rector of the University.  The article is a translated and edited version of a talk delivered at a symposium on “Morality and Politics in the University.”           

Back to Table of Contents