Much ink has been spilled over the sordid Sandusky affair at Penn State University. The human tragedy and the errors that made it possible for former defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children to go unaddressed by university officials and beloved head coach Joe Paterno have been extensively discussed. But what of the events as they relate to the conflict of institutional and human values?
Institutions were invented to protect human beings and help them lead good lives. When they function properly, they can do a great deal to promote the welfare of the community. Businesses meet economic needs, colleges educate, government guards our safety and assures equal treatment. All of these activities are essential to help make life flourish.
When institutions grow large, however, they can develop their own values and begin to promote only their own good, as former FBI chief Louis Freeh’s internal investigation of Penn State reveals. Educating young people aims at helping them; becoming a famous university adds nothing to that process. Winning football games may delight students and alumni, but the goal of football victories is not to directly advance education or the good of students.
Over time, the aims of the institution can come to displace the good of the individuals within it. This is how it can become possible for the employees of the university to overlook outrageous conduct. The potential embarrassment of the school, or of the football program within it, acquires more weight than the terrible things that may happen in its shadow to innocent youngsters.
How could thoughtful adults have turned a blind eye to criminal behavior? Here is the likely answer: They were devoted to the good of the institution and mistakenly thought that this dedication should take precedence over the suffering of individuals. They were what used to be called “organization men” and protected their employer by complicit silence.
Soviet trainmen carried thousands to Siberia, never to return. Nazi concentration camp guards herded human beings into gas chambers. Many American ancestors treated persons as property in compliance with the institution of slavery. Many of these people placed themselves in untenable moral positions because they promoted the good of the institutions that employed or enveloped them rather than standing up for the powerless human beings who were suffering before their eyes.
Institutions can do a great deal for human flourishing. But when the goals of institutions take precedence over the good of individuals, horrendous acts can be committed. Elementary decency is the heart of the moral life. It demands that the good of individuals always remain the focus of our actions.
John Lachs is the Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.