Miles Stephenson: A diversity of morals

Wednesday, October 31, 2018 - 6:59pm

When students arrive at The University of Michigan there’s an inherent uncertainty on what behaviors and activities will be accepted. After all, we take students from all over the world, inculcated with different cultural idiosyncrasies and moral values. For the majority of my life (from kindergarten through eighth grade) I went to a traditional, all-boys school. We were taught the values of hard work, competition and working through adversity to achieve excellence. Conformity to a commonly held ideal of success was imperative. There were many times, specifically in athletics, when the goal was to break us down as individuals so that we could build ourselves up again as a unit. Every afternoon in the gym, my pain and needs as an individual were subordinate to the wellness of the collective, and in this way, we would all persevere and take pride in our achievements, not because they were handed to us, but because we had to sweat and scrape to get them. The winner received a trophy, and everyone else was told to work harder next time. Living a life of relative comfort as a boy from New York City, this was an important lesson for my youth.

Then for high school I attended one of the most progressive schools in the country, where the ultimate values were acceptance and inclusivity. For over a century, the school had emphasized the importance of making students feel safe and accepted regardless of personal identifiers like race, sexuality and gender, and challenged those within the loosely defined class of power to self-reflect on the privileges life had given them. The institution focused on uplifting those dispossessed by the hierarchies of society. Trophies, even in athletics, were rarely distributed to insulate people from exclusion. Every individual, especially one who had been dispossessed, was celebrated, and creativity and individualism were rewarded.

When I arrived on campus at Michigan, I tried to reconcile these two philosophies in my mind. Should institutions here compel individuals to compete and create exclusive groups of some ideal of what is best or should they accept everyone and do away with hierarchical value? Should they treat individuals as acceptable and special the way they are or should they obligate them to conform to the morals of a different creed?

I began reading about these systems that many scholars delineated as moral relativism versus moral absolutism or moral injunction. From my understanding, moral relativism applied at its extremes dictates that everything is exactly the same and because no single thing is superior to anything else, nothing has value. By contrast, when moral absolutism is applied at its extremes, there’s only one way to have value and anything that deviates from that has zero value. There’s obviously something lacking in both of these systems. But could they work together? Could students at the University of Michigan have an experience marked by both fierce competition and adversity and also inclusivity and acceptance? I set off across campus to discover how my university could answer these questions.

During Welcome Week, I interacted with Greek life, a collection of organizations leaning towards moral absolutism. By their very definition, these fraternities and sororities are exclusive groups comprised of individuals who had in some way or another demonstrated value to those who judged them and therefore had been selected to join. Implicit in this process was the reality that many people who attempted to join their ranks would be excluded. These weren’t organizations for everyone. After rushing to demonstrate your worth and then pledging to prove that worth, you would be accepted into a brotherhood or sisterhood, but until that day, you were tasked with meeting their definition of value. To some degree, you must conform to their ideals of what makes a proper person, and you must sacrifice time and comfort for the betterment of the group. That is Greek life.

The outsiders of these groups had their own opinions of this philosophy. I was reminded of the stereotype of the archetypal “frat bro.” But the people I met couldn't be further from this. I met girls and guys from Greek life who were passionate, determined, social, intelligent, diverse and aspirational. We discussed their futures in the worlds of everything from art to medical biology, and their hopes to bring awareness to charities that dealt with issues like domestic violence and breast cancer. Where were the knuckle-dragging hedonists bent on casual racism and sexism? Where were the beer chugging degenerates blowing dad’s trust fund? These caricatures were not my experience of Greek life at the University of Michigan. What I realized is that no matter how devoutly I conformed, I could still serve my personal values from within the collective. Once inducted, you have the opportunity to carve out your own identity and integrate your individualistic features into the group. It’ll take courage and the convincing of others, but that might be exactly what the collective needs. So although many perceive fraternities as oriented only towards moral absolutism, there’s a lot more moral relativism that one might expect.  

But what about the University’s institutions leaning entirely towards moral relativism? These have become a part of my daily life at Michigan as well. In my learning community and extracurricular clubs, I am reminded of the core values of my high school: acceptance and inclusivity. I hear the perspectives of people who would have been historically dispossessed by the hierarchies of society, and I have the opportunity to see their worth as individuals and the tremendous value they bring to the University and to the community. Again, stereotypes here strayed from reality. I haven’t found any irrational social justice warriors or dogmatic activists lecturing people on not being “woke” enough. Instead, I met thinkers who have sculpted harmonious futures through their ideas and strived for compromise, not authoritarianism. These institutions celebrate the individual and favor creativity to conformity. They help me play on my strengths as a writer and personalize the experience of a large, potentially generic university into an intimate community. These institutions approaching moral relativism present the axiom that every person should be able to voice their ideas, a truth University of Michigan students are entitled to as humans as much as they are as Americans. Furthemore, I find myself realizing aspects of life and my experiences that I might have droned out had I conformed entirely to the one value system. I had a conversation with a friend from my floor about his experiences as an immigrant to the United States, and the challenges that this new life presented. With my friend’s roommate, I sat by a window and discussed the pros and cons of societal concepts like participation trophies and safe spaces. It’s a good thing that we’re becoming more accepting as a country and as a society, but what are the costs? In the future, with the advent of experiential technology, will people insulate themselves from adversity altogether and reject concepts of moral absolutism: this is right and this is wrong?

I soon realized, however, that these institutions aren’t without their moral absolutist practices. Many living-learning communities at Michigan are accessed only through an application process in which many are judged against the value hierarchies of artistic talent or academic achievement, and are turned away. How could an institution of acceptance and inclusivity exclude someone? These communities know that just as in nature, in order for there to be value, there has to be selection. An unpleasant reality of life is that sometimes individuals must be excluded so that the collective can define value. So while many assess university-sponsored institutions like learning communities as moral relevatist, there’s still a great degree of moral absolutism required to create something of value.

Once I had a footing in each of these institutions and understood the moral philosophies they represented, I realized these groups shared more in common than I had initially believed. I could challenge myself with struggle and sacrifice, fit into a greater idea, and shed my personal comforts in favor of the collective, but I could also question these institutions, reject conformities that I found unbefitting of good character, and interact with those who many institutions would dispossess because of rather arbitrary criteria. It drew me back to the contrasting philosophies of my middle school and my high school, the values of discipline and structure but also creativity and individuality. I realized the University presents us with both of these experiences, and in engaging with both, an individual can prepare themselves for a life of success. I’m beyond happy that I have had the opportunity to integrate both of these philosophies into my life. I was challenged but also accepted. I sacrificed but also enjoyed. I was reminded of my individuality as an American, and of the brilliance and privilege of a University of Michigan education that offers us this dichotomy of thought. This, beyond any idea previously discovered, excited me about the future of my freshman year here at the University.