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« How should we think about the moral risks of philosophy? | Main | Reader query on obtaining recommendation letters »

08/30/2017

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Trevor Hedberg

The worry that the comment captures isn't a total myth. I heard it described in the following way by one of my letter writers from last year's job cycle.

When we do philosophy, our inquiry is ideally guided by a desire to discover the truth -- or at least to achieve some greater understanding of the subject matter in question. If you're only using philosophy as a means of trying to convince others to support causes that you deem morally good, then there's a concern that your philosophical work is not appropriately objective or impartial. Your personal interest in a given cause might be contaminating your arguments. You might be less charitable to opposition, for example.

My letter writer thought there was a balance to strike here. We all have our own views and causes that we think are morally important, and this obviously influences how we conduct our personal and professional lives. Yet in the context of academic philosophy this has to also be tempered with a fair acknowledgement of the views of peers who disagree with us and a duty not to descend into mere sophistry (i.e., using philosophical rhetoric to support and promote our own views at the expense of even-handed discussion of the subject matter).

Striking this balance can be difficult in practice, of course, but it's doable. I think the cases that are most interesting to consider is how the balance is struck in the classroom and the extent to which we promote causes to our students. That particular issue is one I was actually planning to address in a future post, once my dissertation series is concluded.

Amanda

It is not completely clear to me what the op is thinking. However the job of a professor is not to promote your own personal moral causes. A philosophy professor is supposed to teach students to think, to understand two sides of an argument, to understand moral reasons behind beliefs, etc. It is NOT to get students to believe what you believe. Hopefully by getting our students to recognize arguments and to care about morality, they will become virtuous people who do good in the world. But this is not a guarantee.

If a professor believes in a moral cause, by all means, go out and fight for it. But this is not your job as a professor. A professor need not hide their moral views. If a student asks, I think it is up to the professor if they want to tell them or not. Some do and some do not. Either way is fine. But to be an advocate while in the classroom is neither helpful, appropriate, nor ethical.

As for being punished for holding certain views, I would hope most departments do not do this. Professors have more freedom than lots of other jobs but still not enough. No one should be punished for supporting what they believe in. I think we should all fight to make sure this does not happen.Yet sometimes it does. This is a risk. And taking the risk is what is called a sacrifice.

OP

Hi Amanda, thank you for the very helpful comment :) Full disclosure: When I was an educator in academia I held a view I believe very similar to the one you propose, and I was very careful not to make it obvious to my students what my own views were about pretty much anything we discussed. And I certainly was not an advocate while in the classroom. Now that I am no longer in academia I'm starting to think about this issue a little bit differently, but I certainly welcome any disagreement- I'm not sure that I'm right about this and it helps me think this through more clearly :) [Plus, I might not be the best person to "advocate" for the advocate position, seeing as how I'm not practicing what I'm preaching]

First, I'm not saying that the JOB of a professor is to promote particular moral causes. I'm saying that I can see how it could be WISE for educators to see part of their public role as, say, publicly condemning white supremacists and using this as a valuable teaching moment in their classrooms. (I certainly am not trying to SHAME anybody into doing this, and I hope this doesn't come across as some form of "moral grandstanding")

I do respectfully disagree when you say that "to be an advocate while in the classroom is neither helpful, appropriate, nor ethical"- at least, on certain understandings of the term "advocate". So, if educators use their public role to publicly condemn white supremacists, it is important that they do so in a way that still encourages and respects different views. They shouldn't present themselves as "My view is right, and any student who disagrees should feel bad". But I no longer think that maintaining a neutral stance is necessary for the valuable goals that you mention- namely, teaching students to think, to understand two sides of an argument, to understand moral reasons behind beliefs, etc. Indeed, I am tempted to say that those goals are BETTER served if one drops the veneer of neutrality, for then educators can serve as good role models for respectfully advocating a particular view and respectfully engaging with other peoples views.

I hope this is helpful in further clarifying my position, and I look forward to your response :)

Amanda

Hi OP

I don't think a professor has to be neutral. So stating their position I think is fine, if they want to.

I guess my stance on it being unethical to be an advocate depends on how we define advocate. If a professor is against white supremacists, (as most are I would certainly hope!) and they want to say something like, "And the white supremacist argue X, which by the way, I personally find a morally disgraceful...."I think that is fine. Each professor needs to decide whether they are the type that will admit they are biases and welcome students to challenge them, or the type that tries to stay neutral. I think both are acceptable moral choices.

Now something like wearing a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt I see a bit differently. I guess to me that just comes across as clear moral grandstanding , and I am not sure what that would do. I guess the idea is to show a sign of support? I suppose that is okay, but something about it just seems to be trying too hard without any meaningful result. It is sort a "look at me" type of thing. For instance, wouldn't it be better if this professor volunteered their time to be a faculty supervisor for a racial equality group on campus or something? That seems something the professor could do on their own time that has a meaningful impact and not just a "look at what virtuous beliefs I hold" thing.

I have a friend who purposely tries to manipulate his students into holding left wing views. He selects only readings that support those views, and tells himself it is fair because what he is doing is moral, and students "get enough conservative views elsewhere." That sort of thing, which really is what he does, is what I clearly think is an unethical choice for a professor.

OP

Hi Amanda,

I agree that what your friend does is an unwise choice for a professor, so yeah that's not what I have in mind by "advocate". Indeed, I wonder if what he does contributes to the problem originally mentioned- job committees justifiably don't want to hire THAT kind of advocate, and thus are wary of ANY kind of advocate?

Before I respond to your Black Lives Matter shirt concern, I want to make sure I'm understanding you correctly. Are you saying that if an EDUCATOR wears such a shirt to class, this comes across as clear moral grandstanding? Or are you also saying that this is the case for ANYONE who wears such a shirt in public? I'm pretty sure you're saying the former, not the latter, but just want to be sure :)

Also, I'm curious what you think about my suggestion that the valuable pedagogical goals that you listed are BETTER served if one drops the pretense of neutrality? Like, I wonder if students ever find it a little bit weird that their professors are teaching them to be respectful and wise in their moral beliefs- i.e. understand both sides, be respectful of the other side, understand their OWN side better, etc- yet the professors themselves never actually fully exemplify this, for they are "forced" to feign neutrality?

Amanda

So re the t-shirt thing, I was referring to a professor, although it might apply in general as well. The thing with a professor is you are standing in front of a group of people, and hence wearing a t-shirt with a message has a sort of "publicity" that the average person does not have. Hence the grandstanding thing comes across stronger, i.e. one is actually standing in front of a crowd. Moreover, by doing this one is taking some attention away from the lesson and placing the attention instead on the message shown via clothing.

Next Issue. So whether goals are better served by dropping the "pretense" of neutrality, I think that depends entirely on the professor. Whether it is a pretense or not depends on the professor. For instance, being neutral comes naturally to me. As an educator my strength is descriptive not normative. I feel confident in describing the views of others. I do not feel confident in preaching my own views. In fact, I feel very uncomfortable discussing my own views because to me that just seems irrelevant to my lesson. My thinking is, "what on earth do my views have to do with anything?". For someone like me, I do not think that hiding my views is any sort of pretense nor that my neutrality is forced. If a student was really interested in my views and wanted to discuss this during office hours, I would be open. But discussing my views during class does not jive with my teaching style.

Now all teachers have their own style and I know that for some not stating their own opinion does come across as "forced neutrality". For these types of educators, not mentioning their views feels like "hiding" them. What comes natural to them is discussing an issue while simultaneously making their own opinion known. I think this is a fine way to teach and if this is what seems genuine professors should do it.

So as for what better serves the students, I think genuine and sincere teaching best serves students. Professors should not feel uncomfortable or like they are teaching in a way that really is not their style. When professors teach in this stifled way, the students lose out on getting the best instruction from this particular instructor.

OP

Re dropping the "pretense" and what best serves students- yes, I think you are exactly right, and you put it very eloquently, thank you :)

Re the t-shirts: yeah I need to wait a bit to respond to that, super busy right now, but am planning on continuing the interesting discussion soon :)

Amanda

Cool look forward to hearing it OP!

Pat

Here's a slogan that I like: Our job is to teach our students HOW to think about difficult issues, not WHAT to think about them.

Amanda

Simple but I love it Pat!

OP

Okay sorry for the delay in responding- life got super busy and then I wrote up a bunch of stuff and was having difficulty making it less rambling, but here goes:

As to the question of "What's the point? Is it just a 'look at me' type of thing?" Well, here's my personal experience: After President Trump's response to Charlottesville, I personally as a white American felt very ashamed. And wearing BLM shirts makes me feel a little bit less ashamed. Now, I don't consider myself a particularly brave person, and honestly at times I feel a little uncomfortable wearing the shirts in public. I am aware that people are looking at me as I'm walking down the street and I'm not really an extrovert so sometimes it's not a very pleasant experience for me. But I just feel that it's important for me, as a white American, to publicly voice my support in my daily life for the Black Lives Matter movement. And the more White Americans that do this, the merrier. I don't have the delusional thought that wearing a t-shirt can magically solve big important problems. Nonetheless, it's a little thing that I can do, every day, that makes feel a little bit less ashamed right now to refer to myself as an American.

So that's a partial reply to your "what's the point" query. Wearing the shirt also motivates me to become better educated about the issues that are represented on the t-shirt, because when strangers criticize me for wearing the shirt, I want to be able to articulate as best as I can why I think it's important for me as a white American to express support for the BLM movement. Will this have any "meaningful result"? I don't know, but I think it's worth a shot.

Now, let's do a thought experiment: Imagine that I have the opportunity to voice my support, not just as a white American, but as a white American qua philosophy instructor. Imagine, say, that I am teaching one of the courses that graduate students are often solely responsible for teaching at large state universities, such as intro to philosophy, intro to ethics, intro to critical thinking, contemporary social and moral problems in the U.S., etc. Imagine that I walk into class one day wearing a BLM shirt- heck, it doesn't even have to be a BLM shirt. It can be any kind of shirt that expresses disapproval of President Trump's response to Charlottesville and/or expresses support for the groups reviled by white supremacists. Would this necessarily constitute moral grandstanding?

Imagine further that I take 5 minutes at the beginning of class to explain why I am wearing the shirt, how I don't expect/demand my students to share my views/values, and how this issue relates to a topic being discussed in the course. Would THIS necessarily constitute moral grandstanding?

My "intuition" is to say no, but I suppose we best be clear about what we mean by "moral grandstanding". In "Moral Grandstanding" by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, the worry articulated by the authors is that "Grandstanders want others to regard them as being morally respectable, or even morally remarkable, and the contributions they make to public moral discourse are intended to satisfy that desire."

Now, I think I see how if a professor just gets up in front of her class, wearing the Advocate shirt, without any discussion- that could at least reasonably be interpreted as moral grandstanding.

But if the professor chooses both to wear the shirt AND to use it as a teaching moment, and can do so in an eloquent fashion, I'm not sure I see why that would necessarily result in "moral grandstanding."

You write: "The thing with a professor is you are standing in front of a group of people, and hence wearing a t-shirt with a message has a sort of 'publicity' that the average person does not have. Hence the grandstanding thing comes across stronger, i.e. one is actually standing in front of a crowd."

I agree that it has a sort of "publicity"- but why must this necessarily translate into moral grandstanding? Why can't a professor simply choose to publicly express disapproval of President Trump's response to Charlottesville, in her capacity as a public educator?

You write: "Moreover, by doing this one is taking some attention away from the lesson and placing the attention instead on the message shown via clothing."

I think this only applies to the case of the Silent Message Professor- the professor who just gets up in front of her class, wearing the Advocate shirt without any discussion. I don't think it need apply to the case of the Teaching Moment Professor, who uses this as an opportunity to demonstrate the real-world applicability of, say, the ethics lesson.

Finally, would it "be better if this professor volunteered their time to be a faculty supervisor for a racial equality group on campus or something?" I agree that volunteering to be a faculty supervisor would be virtuous- but surely it isn't the ONLY way to be virtuous in this respect? Different professors can be virtuous in different ways- some can choose to "voice" their support by serving as faculty supervisors, other can choose to voice their support through the clothing that they wear in public. Indeed, for all we know the Teaching Moment Professor is ALSO serving as a faculty supervisor- surely wearing a shirt doesn't preclude one from performing OTHER virtuous actions as well, right?

Amanda

Hi Op. Thanks you made a good case. So if you (or any professor) wishes to wear a t-shirt and use it as part of an ethics lesson that seems okay, or even morally and educationally praiseworthy. I would say that if professors are to do something like this, they should definitely talk about it and incorporate it into the lesson. (Of course, it does not seem like it would be relevant to say, a metaphysics class. So a lecture like this should be restricted to ethics and political philosophy classes)

As long as one recognizes the moral worth of such an activity (morally worthy, but not as morally worthy as other things) than it seems like a good idea. The only other caveat I would add is that something like this seems a small part of one's overall teaching career, and so I wouldn't say there is a huge connection between being a professor and fighting for social justice as opposed to other careers. (Of course, if a particular professor is very involved in university social justice activities, it would be a big part of this particular professor's career. But I don't see it as essentially tied to the profession as such.)

Amanda

One last thing. While doing something like this on occasion can be justified, I would note that there is a limit to how much a professor should incorporate their own personal moral lives into the class. The class should not be about the professor. I do not think you were suggesting this in your recent post, but when you first brought up the issue I sort of got that impression which is perhaps why I initially disagreed.

Jasper

"wouldn't it be awesome if liberal academics united to wear black lives matter apparel while teaching and publicly denounce white supremacism?"

Do you guys really think that "liberal academics" would be in some kind of danger if they were to "publicly denounce white supremacism"? Really? My impression is that academics have been very loudly and publicly and repetitiously denouncing it for many decades now, with zero negative consequences whatsoever.

I mean, whatever exactly "white supremacism" is supposed to be, it's clearly understood to be a Very Very Very Very Very Bad Thing in our society. I think that's pretty obvious to everyone. No? Is there even one example of any respected person in any western society anytime in the past decades publicly saying anything like "I believe in white supremacism" or even something like "I'm not so sure whether everything called 'white supremacism' is so bad" without there being a massive society-wide orgy of righteous outrage and hatred and shock and horror?

The reality is that the "good causes" you're worried about publicly supporting are _already_ publicly supported by everyone who might be in a position to threaten you. Your governments, your media, your banks, your universities _all_ already explicitly agree with you that "white supremacy" is a terrible evil, that we can't tolerate the faintest hint of "white supremacy" anywhere in society, that anyone who just might be implicitly or secretly kind-of sympathetic to "white supremacy" must be doxxed and shamed and (if possible) rendered unemployable. (Or worse. "Punch a Nazi", right?)

It's all well and good to be against "white supremacy", I guess, at least on some conceivable meanings of this propaganda term. But let's not pretend that such an attitude makes you some kind of edgy dissident or rebel or free-thinker or risk-taker. You're simply affirming the most central values of the system. In fact the only person taking any real risk would be an academic who was publicly not "liberal" on any of these issues--e.g., someone who publicly argued that BLM is a terrorist organization or that BLM's arguments about systemic racism in policing are wrong given that blacks are so crime-prone, or someone who argued that whites have the right to be "supreme" in the societies that their ancestors created. Or whatever. Again, such a person might be wrong but only such a person would really be taking any risks. And there's nothing particularly great about taking risks either. But it's a bit much when "liberal academics" want to be utter political conformists on every important issue, doing just exactly what their employers and the public expect them to do, while at the same time posing as brave dissidents. Let's be real guys!

Amanda

I think you are mainly right Jasper. I was just discussing the ethics of this sort of thing, not whether it was a professional risk. I am glad that most of the profession, most academics, most news organisations, think white supremacy is evil. Seems an obvious moral truth to me. There are, however, a number of serious disagreements arising between "academic liberals" in respect to free speech vs. diversity values, and standing up for some issues related to such disagreements might pose serious professional risks.

Jasper

Amanda what do you think "white supremacism" means? I see the term being thrown around a lot with no attempt to define it. I can think of various possible meanings based on who or what gets called "white supremacist". E.g., (1) believing whites are better in all ways than everyone else, (2) believing whites should rule over everyone else, (3) believing whites should be politically 'supreme' in historically or predominantly white countries (i.e., ethnonationalism for white ethnic groups), (4) believing whites should organize politically to stand up for their racial interests, (5) believing that whites are naturally smarter and more law abiding on the whole than some other groups... American Rennaissance was recently called "white supremacist" by the NYT apparently just for endorsing 4 or maybe 4 and 5; but if 4 or 4 and 5 is enough to make someone a "white supremacist" then it's not an obvious moral truth that "white supremacism" is evil.

I would agree it's obviously wrong to seek to oppress or dominate non-whites just because they are non-white, but this attitude is surely so incredibly rare and already so completely taboo that it's absurd to bother criticizing it... (I'm pretty sure that such attitudes are a tiny fringe phenomenon even on the farthest right wing or racialist circles!)

Amanda

Jasper I think white supremacism can mean any, or is a mixture of, all of the things you listed. And since they are all bad, I don't think it matters much how to define it more specifically. I am not going to get into an argument with you about that.

Anyway I agree it is a fringe who has these beliefs, but is a growing fringe, and one that has gotten more attention recently. One argument to be made is that it is morally best to ignore white supremacism because this pushes them back to the fringes. I guess I'm not sure how I feel about this, but I am not going to criticize people for condemning morally bad things.

Jasper

Elizabeth Wright was a black woman who believed 4. She was a "white supremacist"? Linda Gottfredson is a scientist who believes 3 on the basis of her research. She too is a "white supremacist"? (Is she also an "Ashkenazic supremacist" if she believes that Jews have higher IQs than gentile whites for evolutionary reasons?)

But never mind. You're expressing a common view among "liberal academics". I'm not surprised you refuse to argue for it. It would be impossible to make any reasonable argument. I mean, you could argue that believing 4 makes you somewhat irrational, or that if lots of people believe it then there might be some bad social consequences. It's just absurd, though, to claim that merely believing 4--and regardless of the believer's motivations or reasons or the circumstances--is "morally bad", let alone "evil". And hyper-absurd to call this absurd claim "an obvious moral truth".

I promise you, in any case, that this is _not_ obvious to millions of ordinary reasonable people who aren't "liberal academics". These people are not evil or stupid or insane. In countries where whites will soon be racial minorities, and where whites alone are officially targeted for collective blame and shame, and where all other races do organize politically with no stigma, it seems to lots of ordinary white people that they should do the same. They think it's just a matter of fairness, or just a matter of trying to ensure that their children and grand-children don't end up victims of racial discrimination and violence.

In philosophy we pretend to be open-minded, willing to "follow the argument where it leads", etc. But when it comes to these topics--really, any topic where the powers that be have made it clear what we're supposed to think--there is no discussion. The "liberal academics" almost always say things like "X is just obvious, and I'm not going to argue with you about X". But thanks Amanda for not adding that I myself must be an evil white supremacist; that's also something they almost always say, so I appreciate your civil tone.

Maybe it's worth remembering that it's also really just a "fringe" of the western world that shares these beliefs of yours. Most people, even most non-whites, would think these beliefs are very much in need of some justification beyond just saying "It's obvious to me". To the extent that you care about educating your students, I hope you don't just assert that these things are obvious. Presumably you don't want them to just mindlessly repeat claims that they can't defend, claims that their neighbors and parents can probably criticize quite effectively. So I hope you tell them your reasons for these beliefs of yours, even if you don't want to explain them to me.

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