Sunday, October 2, 2022 Oct 2, 2022
83° F Dallas, TX

An Interview With WILLIAM MAY

SMU’s eloquent professor of ethics talks about public and private morality, virtue and vice in our leaders, renewal at SMU, and the dominant ethical problem of our time.
By Chris Tucker |

DR. WILLIAM F. MAY TOOK A WINDING, roundabout path to his current position as Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at SMU, an academic plum that has allowed him to teach in several branches of the university, among them law, business, theology, and liberal arts. Graduating from a Houston high school at the age of sixteen, May was bound for Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. A champion debater, he had planned to move on to law school and a possible career in politics. Then, a week after his last debate and shortly before he was to leave for Princeton, his beloved debate coach died suddenly of a heart attack. The loss, coupled with the unfamiliar environment of Princeton, dealt the young man a lasting shock. “The apparent arbitrariness of the event raised for me, in a very intense way, questions about the universe of which we are a part,” May says. “One moment someone is here, the next moment he is gone. The philosophical and religious questions were posed for me with a vengeance.”

Confused, May began reading philosophy, seeking in Camus, Kierkegaard, and Niebuhr some bedrock of certainty about the world. At the age of twenty, he spent a summer as an interim pastor in a tiny town in Southwest Oklahoma. “It was Last Picture Show country,” May recalls. “Larry Mc-Murtry’s town was on the Texas side, and I had the church on the Oklahoma side. ” Still uncertain about a career, he entered Yale Divinity School, where he took his degree in 1952. May began teaching religion at Smith College, eventually becoming department chair. He was also pursuing a doctorate in contemporary theology at Yale, which he received in 1962. May’s dissertation was a lengthy study of the role of death in the works of Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus.

May did not begin formally teaching ethics until 1966, when Indiana University invited him to chair its new department of religion. After a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, May met Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, whose On Death and Dying helped focus attention on the care of the terminally ill. He was in vited to join the Hastings Center’s work group on death and dying, which led him to a broader interest in medical ethics and, later, in professional ethics as a whole. “It was not carefully plotted,” May says of his professional life, “but it began from an experience that compelled me to move in those directions. ” May, sixty, is the author of more than a hundred articles on ethics, theology, and other subjects. His books include A Catalogue of Sins and The Physician’s Covenant. He is married to the actress Beverly Wilson, who recently starred in the Broadway revival of The Front Page. They have four children.

D: What does an ethicist do? Is the work of an ethicist much different from the work of a psychologist or counselor or anyone concerned with helping to guide people’s behavior?

May: It sounds something like a hygienist, doesn’t it? First, I want to say that I worry about the inherent pomposity of setting yourself up as if you’re a specialist in the moral life. As Samuel Johnson said, we are all moralists perpetually, but we are geometers only by chance. When it comes to the moral life, we’re all on all fours. My role is different from that of the mathematician or the physicist, who is a specialist by virtue of talent and study. There is a body of literature on the subject of ethics, and I’ve tried to master that, but with regard to the moral life, we all must struggle every day.

D: With the rising concern over ethics in business and government, it seems that we regard ethicists as doctors who’ve been called to the scene of a car wreck to apply bandages.

May: That’s an interesting way to put it. Ethics today is trying to say that it should be central to education. In the 19th-century university, there was a senior level course, a president’s course, in ethics. It was required of everyone. It may have been badly taught, but it was a way of saying that ethics was a central part of the enterprise, that colleges were trying to turn out people who would use in responsible and moral ways the learning they had acquired. Today, because the professions are in trouble and being criticized, people say we have to have moral education. The problem is that ethics studies may tend to follow the case-study method. The tendency is to say to these professionals, well, some of your cases are moral cases, and we ethicists can help you with the moral aspects of your decision-making. Cheer up, here come the ethicists to deal with those hard cases. But if you deal exclusively with cases, you wind up with an ethics course that I would call quandary-oriented.

D: You mean the lifeboat questions? Who is more valuable to society, the priest or the car salesman?

May: Right. But the danger is that you are offering the equivalent of emergency-room medicine. We ought to be dealing with ethics as preventive medicine. Not how can I solve this hard case, but how can we structure this institution so that this kind of dilemma doesn’t arise in the first place.

D: So there are dimensions to ethics beyond the quandaries. What are some other types of ethical thinking?

May: Well, the quandary cases are like the Baby M case, or the life support cases-do you pull the plug or not? Or with a lawyer, what are the limits to confidentiality? If a client tells you he plans to murder someone, what do you do? This gets terrific amplification by the media, of course, because it’s much more arresting to focus on a Karen Ann Quinlan. You’ve got a focus, a lead. But we have to raise further questions. As a manager of a business, you don’t always want to be putting out fires. But professional schools are busy turning out people to succeed in the system as it is, and they don’t ask these basic questions.

D: Isn’t that because there are few incentives to ask them? Why challenge an institution’s behavior when the marketplace seems to accept just one measure of success-profit?

May: I think there are ways of raising these questions. Take the CEO who cuts back on research and development because the payoff for that is five or eight years away, not this year. He wants to look good this year because that will help him get a better position with a bigger company. This orientation to the immediate bottom line tends to produce a rootlessness in those who run the institutions, and very little loyalty. People are realizing that one reason the Japanese have done better than we have in the business world is their loyalty to the corporation. We don’t have that ethos. Or take another illustration. American companies have had problems in encouraging whistle-blowing in the corporation. These people are in the position of potential martyrs; they blow the whistle, they’re exposed. It’s not a good system when people have to be martyrs to be moral. But corporations need independent criticism and advice. So, we can ask, what kind of systematic changes can we make that would lessen that risk to people? One answer might be portable pensions. Under the current system, if it takes ten years or more to get vested, and someone gets fired for blowing the whistle, he loses his retirement. With a change in the law, a worker would be able to take his pension from one job to the other. That’s what you have in academic life, and it creates the capacity for independence.

D: You write and lecture often about virtue. Unfortunately, the word has taken on a kind of Victorian, drawing-room sound. Do you have in mind the so-called classical virtues?

May: There were four cardinal virtues-prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. I don’t see any particular reason to invent any new ones. You know, most moral problems are not new, they’re hardy perennials. T.S. Eliot once said that there were two kinds of problems in life. One is the technical, pragmatic problem. Of those we ask, what are we going to do about it? But there are deeper problems in life. These include the complexity of the relations between the sexes, or the conflicts between the generations. We tend to be pragmatic as a culture, and among our bestsellers there are always many how-to books. But the deeper problems in life are not how-tos. How do you behave in the midst of something that won’t go away? How do you behave toward a friend who has a terminal illness? How do you keep the lines open to a son or daughter who’s going through a turbulent passage in life? I mean, adolescence is not a problem you solve. So I don’t feel apologetic about not inventing new virtues. There are chronic human problems, and there are abiding human virtues that are important in facing those problems, and chronic vices that weaken our response.

D: With so much focus now on the character of our politicians, what kind of virtues should we be looking for in a political leader? Are there constants, or do different eras call for different qualities?

May: First, it seems to me, one looks for prudence. And by that I don’t mean tactical cunning. Prudence was once called “the eye of the soul,” that capacity to see into the heart of things. A great political leader goes to the heart of the problem, the central issue. Second, without question, is courage. Thomas Aquinas once defined courage as firmness of soul in the face of adversity. It takes courage to deal with the problems we have now. When we were a society with an ever-expanding gross national product, we took from our surplus to solve new problems. Today, solving a major problem means redistributing resources, taking from here to solve a problem there. And somebody’s going to yell.

D: In that light, it would seem that the famous Gramm-Rudman deficit solution keeps politicians from having to make courageous, unpopular decisions.

May: That’s a good example of seeking a mechanism to solve a problem. It makes politicians the passive victims of the mechanism. They’re not responsible. But why is it that Truman looks better and better as time passes? He had the good sense to see the heart of Europe’s problem, which was reconstruction after the war. The payoff for the Marshall Plan would not come for ten years, so we had to be patient. Politics so often requires that capacity to be firm during the interval before a payoff is apparent.

D: Are we in danger of focusing too much attention on the private lives of our leaders? Gary Hart seemed to argue for a separation between a politician’s behavior in office and his behavior in private life.

May: I do think that our primary concern should be with the morality of our leaders’ policies. Hitler was a teetotaler, but his policies were just demonic. First and foremost, we have to be concerned with a leader’s record in public performance.

American Protestantism, which came out of small towns, tended to concentrate on personal vice and virtue. But we are no longer a rural, small-town country. We’re an urban, industrial society, and our primary concern has to be the quality, fairness, and imagination of those who form our public policies. For better or worse, we don’t have the division of labor, in our government, between the king and the prime minister. The royal function, in the British system, is symbolic. It’s larger than political; it relates to the basic ideals and conditions of the society. The prime minister’s job is policy making. But our presidency has to contain both these dimensions. Reagan, an ex-actor, is very accomplished on all liturgical occasions. If you have 300 bodies come back from the Middle East, he’s superb at conducting the memorial service when they return. But one had better raise questions about the policies that led to the need for the event. I think that no matter how much the British government pays the royal family, it’s worth it, because there are dangers in confusing the two functions.

D: According to the headlines and the talk shows, America seems to be heading into a steep ethical decline. Are we less virtuous than we were in the past?

May: I would hesitate to make that generalization. The very fact that we’re sensitive to these things suggests that moral sensibility has not vanished among us. I think the perennial problems remain, but the face of the problem can change. In Western society, we’ve had the tradition of paternalism. It was there in family life, where the man was the head of the household, and in the professions, where the doctor always knows best. With paternalism, you limit the freedom and knowledge of others for their own good, as in the paternal structure of medieval society, with serfs and lords, and in the modern welfare state. I call these the sins of the overbearing, which crowd out the freedom of others in the name of concern or benevolence.

D: The leaders know what is best for the people, what they need to know. . .

May: Yes. But now the dominant problem in our society is what we might call the sins of the underbearing-not those who do too much, but those who do too little. We see it in the physician who doesn’t want to get too involved with his patients. He says, here’s what I can do. If you want me to do it, okay. So you move from being the father figure in the paternalistic world to being merely a technician dispensing services, and your money is made from processing as many patients as possible. Getting caught up in patients’ lives like a Dr. Kildare or a Marcus Welby is not the problem. For me, the contrast between the paternalistic society and our society now is best seen in the contrast between Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. The Shakespeare play is a tragedy of adult presence. The crushing presence of the two families means that Romeo and Juliet’s love is ill-fated. West Side Story is much the same, with the lovers coming from different worlds, but it’s a tragedy of adult absence. There are only two adults in the movie-the cop, who’s the symbol of harsh power, and the soda jerk who hands out candy. I can’t say the earlier society was better and ours is worse, or vice versa. Each age faces a different set of moral challenges that imperils its soul and tests its virtue. The decline of paternalism hasn’t led to moral improvement. It’s meant a reshaping of the challenge we face.

D: I want to ask about a local problem in medical ethics. A Mesquite pediatrician recently lost his practice when it was revealed that he had the AIDS virus. Did he have an ethical duty to inform his patients of this?

May: There is no known instance of a health care professional giving AIDS to a patient. The nature of that doctor’s practice is such that, even with the theoretical possibility of that happening, he would not be in a position to transmit the disease. A doctor does have the duty to inform patients of all risks, but normally, these risks are associated with procedures. In this case, is the person himself a risk? I gather that isn’t the case.

D: But what about the fact that many people are afraid of AIDS? Knowing that, should he have told them?

May: I don’t think there’s an obligation there. As Freud said, there is no obligation to shape things to cater to neurotic fears. We should confront them with reality. Really, an epidemic like this is a moral test of both our society and the medical profession. There are two moral solutions to fear. One, the stoic solution, says to cool the fears. The ideal stoic solution is apathy, in the root sense of the word; to be without passions, feelings, fears. Don’t get all wrought up about the problem. The second, from the Biblical tradition, is to hold steady in compassion. As scripture says, love casts out fear. We replace fear not with no passion, but with compassion.

D: You’re especially interested in the ethical problems of the various professions. You wrote that professionals are “the new rulers of the West.” Are we in good hands?

May: We don’t transmit power on the basis of family and blood. We transmit power through knowledge, which is acquired in the university setting. The leaders of our major corporations are so often engineers or MBAs. So many of our politicians are lawyers. What we have is a ruling class, but there’s never been a ruling class without some sense of the public responsibility of those who wield power.

D: This is a subtle point that shows up frequently in your work. It’s the notion that people educated in a university owe something to society.

May: Nobody who has gone to a university can claim to be a self-made man or woman. There’s an incredible social investment in the person who has received a university education. Even if he’s worked on the outside to pay for tuition, that’s just a sliver of the cost of an education. So you can’t think in Lone Ranger terms about your life. By the time you get through the university, you are a creature, in so many ways, of the civilization of which you are a part. You have to think of what you have acquired not as a private stockpile, but as in some measure a public trust.

D: It’s not common for college graduates to think in those terms. Why not?

May: Well, there is that powerful stream of individualism in American life, a fact the frontier helped to encourage. And the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith provide a philosophical justification for that idea: I make it alone, and the job of the state is to protect what I’ve acquired. These things obscure the social origins of my acquisitions in many ways.

D: Do you believe that the university has a role to play in helping students to develop an ethical sense?

May: Yes, a major role. You know, in the 19th century, only a third of Protestant clergy had a university education. Only 15 to 20 percent of lawyers and only 10 to 12 percent of physicians were university graduates. People were shaped for the professions outside the university. At the beginning of this century, with the Flexner reforms, the professions increasingly moved into the university. This came at a time when the university was rejecting moral formation as part of its responsibility. We are offering just the facts, ma’am, and values are just a matter of personal preference. We can tell you how to get from here to there, but we can’t tell you whether there is worth getting to.

D: So students learned that some Eskimo tribes put their old people out on the ice to die. We don’t, but that doesn’t mean our way is superior to theirs.

May: Yes. Cultural relativism. The university said that its job was the facts, which were real. Values were just what people read into the universe. Now, this tendency on the part of faculty members played right along with careerism on the part of students. They could get the facts, their private stockpile, and then, as lawyers or engineers or ministers or whatever, they could use them for whatever purposes they chose. And they were intellectually unassailable, because these were their preferences, and if anyone disagreed, that was just their preference.

D: One of the surprising best sellers of the past year has been Allan Bloom’s book, Ute Closing of the American Mind. He blames the university for spreading the idea that all values are relative, and his solution seems to be a return to the “Great Books” curriculum. Do you agree with the diagnosis and the cure?

May: I have very mixed feelings about the book. It’s as though our civilization didn’t have any religious scriptures, so he develops a sacred canon of The Great Books-in his case, particularly Plato’s Republic and Shakespeare. On the one hand, I don’t care for Bloom’s elitist attitude toward the vulgar culture that swirls around him as he surveys it from Hyde Park, Chicago. But I am interested in keeping alive the tradition of those books, because a civilization that listens only to its own voice is trapped, condemned to repeat itself. Being open to the major voices of the past means you can create a kind of parliament of the mind, living with these great statements. One difference between the humanities and the sciences is that old humanists don’t fade away. They aren’t replaced when someone new and different comes along. Nobody reads Newton in a lab science course anymore. But just because Aristotle comes along, that doesn’t mean that Plato fades away. I do think it’s important for people to read the greats at some time during their education, but on the other hand, it ain’t religion, and Bloom tends to elevate these books to the level of the heroic and divine.

D: You recently delivered a speech defending the liberal arts. Some say that literature and art need no justification, that beauty is its own defense. Assuming that’s not enough, how can the liberal arts be justified as useful to a technical society?

May: I don’t think that society will long support any enterprise that can’t provide a justification of what it’s up to. I think the humanities, and the arts in particular, have a contribution to make to social life, but the contribution is indirect. The humanities don’t bake bread, and that always puts them in a back seat to the sciences. The scientists can ask us to support their research, because out of it may come a cure for AIDS, or some other definite change in the world will occur. But the liberal arts do help us in the complex business of retrieving and sustaining tradition, and while I wouldn’t elevate this to the religious level as Bloom does, it is valuable. Second, the artist has the constant task of keeping language fresh, and the freshening of language is very crucial to the clarity of human consciousness, which is crucial to community and politics. And if policymaking is a matter of making complex judgments, it seems to me that’s what constantly goes on in a literature course, helping a kid to see why Hamlet is great and this other thing is trash.

D: In the wake of the SMU football scandal, do you sense an ethical renewal here? Are people determined that this will not happen again?

May: I’ve never seen a university go through as profound a soul-searching or so determined to write a new chapter in its history. There was much soul-searching on campuses in the Sixties, but there was powerful division between faculty members and between faculty and students. In this case the searching has been communal. The majority and minority reports on athletics were in unanimous agreement that whatever is done, it has to be an honest program.

D: Is Kenneth Pye, your new president, the man to help write this new chapter?

May: I was on the search committee that chose him as a candidate, so I’m not an innocent bystander in this. The people who made the ultimate decision were convinced that this man had the intelligence and experience and courage to run the kind of university that SMU aspires to be. What you want to avoid now is this drumbeat for excellence, a kind of indeterminate excellence that ends up in hollow rhetoric if you’re talking about an ideal that’s essentially beyond your reach.

D: Excellence is beyond the reach of SMU?

May: Excellence is plural in its forms. What form of excellence do you aspire to? If you say let’s all be excellent at once in everything, that will condemn the university to mediocrity. It would be a mistake, in my judgment, for SMU to go up against the University of Texas. We don’t have the resources, so we will always be second in the state, second by merely repeating, at a worse level, what UT does. To be truly competitive, a university has to offer something distinctive.

D: For example? What should SMU be offering?

May: In the first place, we don’t have the resources to have across-the-board graduate programs in everything. Faculty members start out thinking this is a prestige item, but you end up having second- and third-rate graduate students you’re trying to nursemaid through to their degrees. As one colleague said to me, faculty members wind up as coauthors of bad theses. And then you’ve got to worry about placing those students in jobs. I don’t think we should shrink the number of graduate programs, but we need not grieve that we don’t have more. What you want to do is create a hospitable environment for the teacher-scholar: first-rate teachers who can also write, and teach through their writing. A first-rate faculty, teaching a first-rate student body, is within the reach of this institution.

D: You’ve spent much of your life as a Christian, but as a teacher, you’ve often given voice to those writers and philosophers who profoundly disagree with Christianity.

May: Anyone in the field of religion has to do this because our official religions-not religion per se, but the official religions-are marginal in our society. Civilization is no longer shaped by the Christian church. The two great institutions of medieval society were the church and the state. Today it’s still the state, but also the business community. The marketplace and Washington.

D: You say religion is marginal, but polls repeatedly show that a majority of people believe in God and immortality., .

May: I’m not saying that just because the Christian church is not powerful in our time, religion is not powerful. But the forms of religion are unofficial, not the official denominations. Death is the sacral power in contemporary experience. The front page of a newspaper is dominated by what destructive power has done in the past twenty-four hours-explosions, shipwrecks, the stock market dropping. All this is very gripping, and we give religious attention to these events. But the powers that grip us are not creative, nurturing, and preservative. They are negative, abusive, and destructive.

D: Your essay, “Terrorism as Strategy and Ecstasy,” works with this idea. You say that terrorism generates an almost religious awe in people.

May: The terrorist allies himself with what is already there in our minds. We feel ourselves in the grip of random, irrational powers. We might be struck by heart attacks, come down with cancer, be killed in a highway accident. People are fascinated by terrorists’ actions because they already have a sense of the universe in which they are beset by powers that are arbitrary and destructive. And it’s not just the randomness of the act. Terrorism also shatters the ordinary person’s belief that there is shelter in anonymity.

D: You also connect our vulnerability to terrorism with our idea of die state and what it is supposed to do for us.

May: Most modern ideas of the state derive from social contract ideas, which assume a state of nature that preceded organized society and government. In that state of nature you are free, autonomous. But you’re also subject to predatory attack by robbers and foreign invaders. So we give up the state of nature and form governments out of fear. Well, fear is self-oriented. If the state’s power arises from our fear, and something emerges that the state cannot protect us against, then the state erodes. And that’s what the terrorist knows. As the man said when the saloon was bombed in London: “From now on, everyone is his own magistrate.”

D: Getting back to the matter of religion, are ethics and religion necessarily connected? You think of a Bertrand Russell, for instance, who was a staunch atheist but devoted to living a very ethical lite.

May: I think there is a powerful connection between religion and morality. Religion refers to those powers which are deemed ultimate and which bind us. In the Biblical tradition, God performs deeds, and these deeds become binding to the community. God brought the people out of Egypt, the house of bondage, and He says: “Thou shall have no other gods before me, thou shall not steal.” These are binding obligations, and some of them have powerful implications for how we treat the human community. Because God is the Lord, I don’t have the right to be lord over others, to kill them, lie to them and so forth. For those who deny this God, you loosen the powers that bind, so everything explodes. Fyodor Dostoyevsky dealt with this problem through Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov: if God is dead, all things become permissible. However, I don’t deny that there are many people who have rejected religion and who are very conscientious, caring, and the rest. Some call them “anonymous” Christians. There’s a religious heritage at work in them, that passion for justice you find in many secular Jews who will not go to synagogue. It’s part of the half-life, if you will, of that religious heritage.

D: As a teacher of ethics and as a person, do you feel divided from those who can’t or won’t believe in God?

May: No. We’re both human. And my Christianity is never my possession, which separates me from someone who doesn’t experience it or who rejects it, The Christian is simply aware of a good news that eventually will penetrate all things. The whole world, beyond its deserving, beyond its imagining, will be irradiated by the divine love, My behavior toward someone who doesn’t believe can never be shaped by the feeling that I’m in it and he’s out of it. The difficult thing to accept, as a Christian, is not that the divine love will eventually reach the nonbe-liever, but that it will also reach me. That’s why Dante was right. A Christian poem has to be a divine comedy, because the ultimate setting is hopeful.