November 19, 2023

After Gaza, leading US bioethicist laments moral vacuum amongst students

A leading bioethicist, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, of the University of Pennsylvania, says that the war in Gaza has exposed a moral vacuum in American university students. He was shocked by the fact that student organisations at elite colleges believe that Israel is to blame for the October 7 massacre by Hamas forces from Gaza.

In a passionate and indignant op-ed in the New York Times, Emanuel writes:

The Hamas massacre is the easiest of moral cases. The attackers intentionally targeted and killed over 1,000 civilians. They killed babies and children, people attending a concert, and people from Thailand, Nepal and more than a dozen countries who could hardly be responsible for the decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as if that could be any justification. And then these same gunmen took civilian hostages, with the explicitly articulated intention to use them as deterrence and, if that failed, to execute them.

And yet students at Harvard wrote in an open letter that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”.

Emanuel acknowledges that universities have failed to educate student in basic morality:

Those of us who are university leaders and faculty are at fault. We may graduate our students, confer degrees that certify their qualifications as the best and brightest. But we have clearly failed to educate them. We have failed to give them the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.

How did this happen?

… colleges and universities need to be more self-critical and rethink what it means for students to be educated. For the last 50 years, with a few exceptions, higher education has been reducing requirements. At the same time, academia has become more hesitant: We often avoid challenging our students, avoid putting hard questions to them, avoid forcing them to articulate and justify their opinions. All opinions are equally valid, we argue. We are fearful of offending them.

As for the future, Emanuel offers a prescription, but not much hope:

College presidents and professors should stop focusing on endowments and fund-raising, tuitions and the earnings of our graduates. We must focus on the core mission: figuring out what it means to graduate educated people. In turn, this requires us to articulate and justify what we think education is so that we never again have our students make patently uneducated and alarmingly immoral declarations.

How this will happen when the faculty themselves do not believe in Harvard’s motto of “Veritas” is difficult to imagine.