Clemson’s Todd May Examines Moral Vulnerability, Political Crisis in Humanities Center Annual Lecture

PROVO, Utah (November 8, 2019)—Addressing BYU faculty, students, and others in the Humanities Center’s Annual Lecture, Clemson University’s Todd May discussed moral responsibility, truth, and nonviolent resistance in the context of our contentious political climate.

His lecture, titled “Moral Vulnerability in a Time of Political Crisis,” centered on our responsibility as citizens to find our identity and our role in society.

“The question of what we must do is inseparable from the question of who we are,” said May. “It is only through what we do and how we conduct ourselves, to the extent to which we rise to the demands of our current crisis, that the answer to the question of who we are will be revealed to us.”

May defined “moral vulnerability” as having moral responsibility over something we have no control. Presenting climate change as an example, he explained that we find ourselves in many dilemmas that we didn’t cause but have an obligation to curb or change.

In a situation of “political and moral crisis,” as he described it, we are continually becoming more polarized.  Many of his comments were focused on ways that we can address our splintered society, sullied by hate and political divide, without causing more fragmentation and contention.

“Here’s the dilemma of crisis: it would seem that confrontation will only lead to more polarization,” explained May. “So we ask ourselves, ‘How can we confront this situation without contributing to the very polarization that would make it worse?’”

May suggested that acting nonviolently is a critical first step. This requires humility and a recognition that the other side, the adversary, may be right, too—or as May put it, “that none of us, as epistemically limited beings, has cornered the market on truth.”

Acting in such a way requires constraint and requests mutual respect. A nonviolent act is more active than reactive, he argued, as it obliges the subsequent response, the “resistance in opposition,” to yield some degree of esteem for all.

May furthered his instruction by arguing that our moral identity is determined largely by outside factors, including our circumstances. He illustrated his premise by suggesting that human values, like kindness or courage, cannot exist unless a situation calls for such conduct.

“In a situation of pure justice and peace, the situation of heroism could not be expressed. Nobody would be a hero, for nobody would be a coward,” he rationalized. “I cannot be a hero, in any sense, in a world in which heroism is not an option. It makes no sense to speak of such a thing.”

In conclusion, May admitted that none can embody all the moral attributes that could arise in any given situation. Nonetheless, in the wake of a political climate that is becoming progressively polarized, our responsibility lies in defining—and embracing—our moral decency.

“Through no creation of our own, or perhaps through only a minor contribution, we find ourselves faced with a world in which the question of the moral character of each of us is at stake,” said May. “This is the situation of our moral vulnerability.”

—Samuel Benson (Sociology, ’23)