AP Photo/Lisa Rathke
Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during a lecture on March 2, 2017AP Photo/Lisa Rathke
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The Crisis of Moral Legitimacy

Universities are training students not to see validity in alternative worldviews

Ilana Redstone
January 10, 2022
AP Photo/Lisa Rathke
Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during a lecture on March 2, 2017AP Photo/Lisa Rathke

When I ask a room full of students why someone might support using race in determining college admissions, they usually have a few answers ready. They offer reasonable points like, “to offset historical and current disadvantage” or “because of the unique challenges that members of underrepresented groups face.” But the opposite question—why someone might oppose the use of race in college admissions—often yields one response: racism. When pressed, few students can come up with alternative suggestions; they struggle to think of any principled reason why someone might take that position. The asymmetry in the students’ ability to produce morally reasonable arguments for both positions is particularly notable given that, according to Pew, 73% of Americans agree with the statement that “colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions.”

A similar exercise can be repeated with other controversial topics like, for instance, white privilege. Asking students about the potential benefits of the concept of white privilege yields legitimate responses like, “it helps people think about unearned advantage” and “it helps us think about the way in which race is a barrier in people’s lives.” But when asked why someone might have concerns about, or even object to the concept, the ready response is that those people want to deny the reality of racism. Here again, my students struggle to find a principled reason for the position, despite the fact that 84% of Americans have an “unfavorable” view of the term.

Can this be explained by students’ fears of voicing unpopular positions, or is it because they actually can’t think of an answer? Probably both factors are at play. After all, the inability to articulate other perspectives is often true even for students who themselves hold nonprogressive positions. But both point to the same problem: The need to understand the moral legitimacy of opposing perspectives when it comes to many controversial issues.

When we fail to recognize the moral legitimacy of a range of positions on controversial topics, disagreements about these issues inevitably become judgments about other people’s character.

While my experience in the classroom is primarily with students at the University of Illinois, there’s no reason to believe that Illinois undergraduates are somehow unique in this respect. The pervasiveness of the problem is likely substantial, but understanding it can help move us toward a constructive solution. Improving our understanding can also shed light on the high rates of self-censorship and patterns of shout-downs and disinvitations that have been observed on campuses around the country. After all, when we fail to recognize the moral legitimacy of a range of positions on controversial topics, disagreements about these issues inevitably become judgments about other people’s character. Viewing such problems as the downstream effects of a crisis of moral legitimacy helps illustrate the rationale behind them.

Campus administrators and community members may not realize the nature or the extent of this problem. They may think that concerns about left-wing bias in the academy are a tempest in a teapot and that Americans have gotten exercised over a small number of infractions that don’t represent the broader context. But such a diagnosis would be incorrect, and if we don’t accurately diagnose the problem, solving it will be all but impossible.

The crisis of moral legitimacy shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, it’s the natural consequence of the dominance of a particularly narrow set of acceptable ideas. While the evolution of these ideas occurred over decades, a built-in feedback loop all but guaranteed that, once present, they would persist. Consider: Every college instructor was once an undergraduate, and the majority were graduate students, too. In this closed system, cohort after cohort of students have moved through postsecondary education with minimal exposure to ways of thinking that don’t align with a progressive stance. While many of these students go on to lead lives outside of academia, some become instructors, some become faculty, and some become administrators. And they bring their belief systems with them.

Those beliefs are complicated, but they involve a particular way of thinking about identity (where identity refers to one’s race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, etc.), inequality, and intent—all of which can be intertwined.

Beginning with the narrow understanding of identity, there are at least two problems. First, inherent in this worldview is the assumption that everyone agrees with the idea that identity markers (such as race, ethnicity, and gender) are the most defining aspects of all human beings. And while it is certainly the case that some people see themselves in precisely this manner, many others do not. Second, there is a normative judgment that viewing ourselves (and each other) through this narrow lens of identity is the right way for people to think about one another and themselves.

For many who share this perspective, the certainty they hold when it comes to the correctness of their worldview has led to a complete failure to allow for an honest discussion about its implications. Without that discussion, we miss the opportunity to think collectively about who we are, what we have in common, how we differ, and what it means to lean into or away from our differences. For instance, one might imagine the following discussion:

Instructor: Does identity shape people’s experiences in the world?

Student(s): Yes.

Instructor: Is it possible to lean too much into our identity groups?

Student(s): Also, yes.

Instructor: What happens when you do?

Student(s): We put up walls between groups that lead to division.

Instructor: So we know identity matters, but we know we can’t make it everything. So where should we land in between?

Discussion continues …

Colleges should be encouraging this kind of conversation and reflection in classrooms, in residence halls, in faculty development workshops, and elsewhere. Yet it happens in virtually none of those places. Instead, in an increasing number of campus communities, we see people pilloried for making such suggestions, as I’ve written about at length.

When it comes to the topic of inequality, the organizing belief on campus is that disparities in outcomes are due largely or entirely to discrimination and other forms of bigotry that play out at the individual and structural levels. While discrimination undoubtedly plays a role in people’s life opportunities and outcomes, we have no way to identify the proportion of a given disparity that can be ascribed to discrimination as opposed to any number of other factors, including, for instance, differences in individual behavior or preferences. In spite of the actual limitations of our knowledge, our beliefs about inequality go a long way toward shaping how we interact with one another on this topic.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m a university administrator. And let’s assume that I hold the conventional university belief about inequality, and that I’ve had it reinforced throughout my undergraduate and graduate education (whether I held this belief before my education is of little relevance). In my view, systemic and structural factors are entirely responsible for not only past but also current differences in outcomes between groups. Given this, it makes perfect sense that, when faced with students’ objections to an invited speaker who publicly opposes affirmative action, for instance—a policy seen by many as the best remedy for discrimination against minority groups—I would be sympathetic to students’ demands to rescind the invitation.

After all, the would-be speaker denies what I, together with the objecting students, see as the reality of discrimination against minorities. I might express empathy for those students, as the president of MIT did recently, by letting them know I understand that “The speech of those we strongly disagree with can anger us. It can disgust us. It can even make members of our own community feel unwelcome and illegitimate on our campus or in their field of study.”

While thinking narrowly about identity and inequality creates substantial problems, perhaps the single biggest impediment to recognizing the moral legitimacy of nonprogressive positions is the idea that intent doesn’t matter. When intent is treated as though it is irrelevant, it is easy to deem any behavior, action, or utterance we disagree with as simply unacceptable. But in a given instance, intent is sometimes the only thing that distinguishes a mistake or poor judgment from hatred, a crucial distinction to make. Intent is also sometimes the only thing that distinguishes a legitimate position on an issue from one driven by animus.

Let’s pretend once again that I’m in my imaginary administrator role, and I encounter a student from a minority group who says he feels offended or unsafe in the classroom. To take a real example, let’s say it’s because the instructor said something that sounded like the N-word, but was in fact an unrelated word from a different language. My sympathy for the student will be guided in part by my belief about the irrelevance of intent when it comes to psychological harm. If I think intent doesn’t matter, I might respond, as the dean did in this situation, by declaring, “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.”

The predominance of narrow mindsets on identity, equality, and intent, alone and in combination, undermine the moral legitimacy of nonprogressive perspectives on campus. We shouldn’t be surprised that, under these conditions, students often struggle to come up with justifications for legitimate, nonprogressive political positions.

The status quo on campus has far-reaching implications for the rest of society. Universities, of course, send the vast majority of their graduates out into the nonacademic world and, as we’ve seen, they do so without providing them the framework, language, or tools to engage with a range of ideological or political perspectives. But providing the kind of education that allows students to thoughtfully engage broadly with the world and their society is precisely what higher education should do. While this mission is especially necessary at public institutions like my own, which are funded by taxpayers, even private institutions should be moved to act by similar concerns.

The collective failure on campus affects all students: those who agree with the dominant ideology and those who don’t. For those who agree, many graduate and enter the workforce wholly unprepared to engage with people who see things differently. Meanwhile, those who don’t agree have been denied the opportunity to learn to communicate their own concerns in a manner that promotes constructive engagement.

The status quo on campuses also has implications for our system of self-governance. Democratic norms, and democracy itself, cannot survive in a society where a substantial subset of the population sees it as impossible—and maybe even immoral—to see things from a different perspective. In this climate, what should be debates over policy (such as the use of racial criteria to determine college admissions decisions) become impossible because of assumptions made about the opposing side’s moral character. Moreover, some of the people with nondominant views who feel silenced will end up adopting more extremist positions than they otherwise would, even if only to join a group that doesn’t view them with disdain. And increases in extremism, of course, further erode democratic norms.

To be clear, this type of narrow thinking can be destructive regardless of whether it comes from the right or the left. To counter it, we need less binary thinking, not more.

One might reasonably point out that the challenges I’ve described represent nothing new. After all, concerns about ideological homogeneity in higher education have been around for a long time. However, continuing to dismiss the problem with a wave of the hand is a mistake. While ideological politics within academia have long been a concern, the contours of the problem have changed in recent years. The extent to which we’ve allowed the aperture to narrow on many of today’s most important and controversial moral questions appears to be a dangerous product of the last decade. We ignore it at our collective peril.

The good news is that the concrete steps needed to solve this problem are easy and free. Instructors and administrators on campuses need to welcome, foster, and encourage a diversity of perspectives. Administrators can explicitly build viewpoint and ideological diversity into existing institutional models of diversity and belonging (as I’ve suggested for my own university). Both instructors and administrators can recognize and convey that, on many controversial and sensitive topics and social problems, there is more than one morally valid way to approach them. Instructors can model how to “steel-man” nonprogressive arguments, ask questions, and question assumptions. For anyone who isn’t sure how to do this, there are several tools to get started, including a universe of free YouTube videos featuring various intellectual heavyweights making a broad range of arguments—often from a wide range of political and cultural perspectives.

Few people will disagree with these prescriptive measures in principle. The real challenge comes when competing values come into conflict. Returning to the earlier example, such a conflict might arise when there’s a question about whether we should see a particular problem through the lens of race or racism. Some may believe we should not, and others may view the very suggestion that we shouldn’t as offensive or even itself racist. In such instances, administrators will have to ask themselves whether they believe there are different ways—both legitimate—to see the issue. If they decide they don’t, then we’re right back where we started. The only way to get to a broader understanding is by recognizing this multiplicity and building it into our discourse on campus and off. In other words, the path forward is clear—campus administrators and instructors just have to take the first step.

Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the Faculty Director of The Mill Institute. She is the co-author of Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education and the creator of the Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes video series.