Morality is a muscle. Get to the gym.

Take the furor over “trigger warnings” in college classes and textbooks. One side believes that in order to protect the sensitivities of some students, professors or writers should warn readers or students about some at the beginning of an article or course about controversial topics. Another side says that if someone can’t handle rough material, then he can stop reading or step out of the room, and that trigger warnings are an unconscionable affront to freedom of thought. Interestingly, both schools clearly believe that there is one moral stance which takes the form of a rule that should be obeyed always and everywhere. Always and everywhere we should have trigger warnings to protect people’s sensibilities, or always and everywhere we should not.

Both sides need a lecture in virtue ethics.

If I try to stretch my virtue of empathy, it doesn’t seem at all absurd to me to imagine that, say, a young woman who has been raped might be made quite uncomfortable by a class discussion of rape in literature, and that this is something to which we should be sensitive. But the trigger warning people maybe should think more about the moral imperative to develop the virtue of courage, including intellectual courage. Then it seems to me that if you just put aside grand moral questions about freedom of inquiry, simple basic human courtesy would mean a professor would try to take account a trauma victim’s sensibilities while teaching sensitive material, and students would understand that part of the goal of a college class is to challenge them. We don’t need to debate universal moral values, we just need to be reminded to exercise virtue more.