Eighteen years ago when I was doing my PhD in England I knew a Christian theologian who was pursuing a doctorate with a focus on Christian ethics. (Let’s call him Don.) One day when I was hanging out with Don, he showed me an ethics book he had stolen from a library in continental Europe.
Don was ready with his justification. He smoothly explained that the book hadn’t been taken out from the library for years. (This was in the good old days when books would be stamped when they were borrowed, and this book hadn’t been stamped since the 1970s!) So chances are that the book wouldn’t be missed. Furthermore, the book had been out of print for years and Don needed that particular book in his doctoral research. And this was the first copy he had come across. Finally, he was returning to Britain shortly, so the only way to solve the problem was the five-finger-discount.
So yeah, he stole it.
Don wasn’t a utilitarian, but this was a fine piece of utilitarian reasoning. And if you are inclined to interpret that as a dig at utilitarianism, rest assured, it isn’t. Utilitarianism is a serious ethical position, and if followed consistently it imposes rigorous strictures on personal conduct.
But that’s the point. Don was no utilitarian, and yet he was educated enough to know he could appeal to that particular ethical framework when it served his purposes. This whole defense, so it seemed to me, was a lamentable exercise in motivated reasoning. To put it bluntly, the case illustrated that sometimes ethics provides a good way to be bad.
In his essay “Escape from Nihilism,” Christian philosopher J. Budziszewski recalls how, as a young atheistic philosopher, he had committed his formidable intellectual acumen to defending nihilism. He writes:
“When I fled from God … my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit.”
This is why education can be so very dangerous. Like a motorboat that acquires a powerful new engine whilst lacking a rudder, the individual that acquires education without character formation may gain nothing more than increased speed as they drive their boat onto the rocky shoals of stupidity.