2/5/15

The Marquette Situation

A word about Marquette's attempt to fire John McAdams.  One thing (among many) that bothers me is that Dean Holz's letter reveals a double standard.  In the second paragraph he charges McAdams with trying to "silence the less-powerful" but nowhere in the letter does he voice any concern at all about the undergraduate--who is the less powerful person in the instructor-student relationship.  Here are two excerpts from the transcript--



Being against gay marriage is having an opinion that's "not appropriate" and "harmful" Abbate says here.  The student can either keep his opinions to himself or drop the class. There are no two ways about it--she (the more powerful of the two) is silencing the student (the less powerful).  Despite the letter's concerns about McAdams allegedly silencing Abbate, the dean voices no concern at all about Abbate silencing the student.

Now you might say--some opinions are beyond the pale.  You do have to stop students from engaging in hate speech--which some will do, if given a chance (I know from experience).  But in the relevant context, can opposing gay marriage be put in that category? The student has enrolled at a Catholic University, and as we all know, the Catholic church opposes gay marriage. Furthermore, this is a time when gay marriage is being debated in the courts.  Several members of the Supreme Court are going to oppose it in hearings later this year.  It can't be right to lump opposition to gay marriage with forbidden, hateful speech.

So the student was quite right to be incensed.  But right to record the conversation? That's another matter.  And right to go to McAdams with his complaint? Again, another matter.  And was McAdams within his rights to blog about the affair?  Did he know he was going to bring an angry mob to her door? Did he continue stirring the pot even after she had come under attack?  All to be investigated carefully.  I haven't done enough homework to have a firm opinion.

But if you don't like the alleged silencing of a grad student by a more powerful faculty member, you shouldn't like to see a grad student silence an undergrad either.  I've read various defenses of Abbate's stance, and none of them really wash.  The next class period, she voiced her thoughts about gay marriage, explaining why the topic didn't fit into her lesson plan.  But what she says in that class (with the student now gone) doesn't change much.  She doesn't say that students against gay marriage would be welcome to speak out in the right context.

Holz says the student didn't actually drop the class because of the issue about his right to speak out.  But that doesn't alter the fact that Abbate did tell him to drop the class if he didn't like her policy on prohibiting homophobia--which (she implies) pertains to the student's desire to express opposition to gay marriage.

Another defense I've read is that there are provisions in Marquette's code of conduct designed to protect students from being exposed to hateful speech, and Abbate was merely abiding by those.  I can't believe anyone really thinks that was her actual motivation, and it would be scandalous if philosophers acquiesced in an interpretation of campus codes of conduct that would deligitimize considerable chunks of the standard content of ethics classes.

In all the discussion of this situation I've read, I've run into vast amounts of consternation about the silencing of powerless graduate students by tenured faculty, and no consternation about the silencing of powerless undergraduates.  I respect the fact that McAdams was concerned about the undergrad, though I realize his concern was mixed with right wing motives of various kinds.  McAdams doesn't stand up for feminists who feel silenced, or gay students who feel silenced, or animal rights advocates who feel silenced.  So he doesn't have a principled, universal concern about the speech rights of students.  But wait. Neither do the many supporters of Abbate.  I suspect they are on her side, against Adams and the undergrad, because she's the friend of gay rights in the trio.

We need consistent, content-neutral support for free speech, and not just for the speech we agree with.  It pleases me to see some liberals supporting McAdams, and pending my doing more homework on just how much he knew his blogging on behalf of the undergrad would incite an angry mob against Abbate, I'm inclined to be one of them.

12/1/14

Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses

Every week there's another appalling story about the way college campuses deal with sexual misconduct.  A Rolling Stone investigation of UVA shows that on some campuses there's not much of a response even if  a student complains of being gang raped by seven men at a frat party. Among many astonishing details in the story: there were 38 allegations of sexual assault in a recent one year period at UVA; and no student has ever been expelled for sexual misconduct there, while many have been expelled for violating UVA's revered honor code. 

On the other hand, there's this amazing story today about the other side of the sexual misconduct spectrum.  A male Swarthmore student was expelled for an allegedly non-consensual, non-penetrative sex act that occurred a day before the alleged victim initiated consensual intercourse with him (she complained about the earlier act nearly two years later).  Now Swarthmore is vacating that decision and giving the student a chance to have his case re-considered. (Understandably, he's moved on to another school.) Follow the link and read about the judicial process that led to the student's expulsion. Even if you're prepared to think an instance of sexual assault could conceivably precede consensual sex by just 24 hours, you have to agree that the accused student's case was horribly mishandled.

Anyone with college age sons and daughters (I have one of each) has to be completely appalled by both of these stories.  And everyone else with empathy and a sense of justice.

"I should but I'm not going to"

This phrase intrigues me, every time I think about the fact that I'm not a vegan. Here are some interesting and relevant reflections from someone who's neither a vegan nor a vegetarian.

11/12/14

Bedtime Stories


Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift ask an interesting question about conferring advantage on children in their new book Family ValuesWe do all sorts of things that confer advantage, from reading kids bedtime stories to sending them to private schools.  All these things get in the way of fair equality of opportunity, they say, giving children a leg up just because they happen to be born into better off, more educated families. But where should we draw the line?  Which of our advantage-conferring practices, as parents, can be justified?  Actually, they focus on a narrower question:  which of these things can be justified "by appeal to the value of the family and must be permitted if people are to realize that value in their lives"? (p. 246) 

Their answer is that advantage-conferring practices can be justified by appeal to the value of the family only if they are needed for intimate family life. Reading bedtime stories is fine, even if it does confer advantages over others, and so is attending church together.  Here's a passage that conveys the general idea--
Without substantial opportunity to share himself intimately with his child, in ways that reflect his own judgments about what is valuable, the parent is deprived of the ability to forge and maintain an intimate relationship, and the child is deprived of that relationship.  The loss is to the core of what is valuable about the relationship.  The loss is to the core of what is valuable about the relationship.  Imagine that parents are barred from engaging in these or relevantly similar activities, or, less drastically, that such activities are made very difficult: the opportunities for realizing the familiar relationship good that justify the family would be severely limited. (p. 125)
Their paradigm case of a practice not justified along these lines is sending kids to private school.  That confers an advantage that interferes with equal opportunity and isn't necessary so that parent and child can enjoy an intimate, mutually satisfying family life. 

This way of drawing the line is going to validate some of what affluent parents do, but also condemn a lot of what they do.  So let's see, what gets validated?  (Most of these examples aren't theirs.)
  • Bedtime stories, they say. I'm not so sure.  Possibly I could have as much quality, intimate time with my kids if we watched a little TV before bed.  But let's let that pass.  Bedtime stories are in.
  • Going to museums.  This confers an educational advantage, but maybe it passes muster, if my child and I love being together at museums in a way we don't love being together at, say, a bowling alley.
  • Traveling to national parks. There's definitely an educational advantage conferred, but it might be OK, since vacation time does generate family intimacy, and I just can't enjoy Disneyland in the way I can enjoy a national park.
A lot will not get validated.
  • Buying high school students laptop computers so they can easily manage schoolwork, access online assignments, etc.  The computers confer an advantage and aren't necessary for family intimacy. Yes kids appreciate the gift, but only briefly so, and laptops actually tend to make kids retreat from the family.
  • Flying around on college trips so kids can decide where to apply "early decision".  All of that confers an advantage, reducing fair equality of opportunity, and doesn't do much for family intimacy.  (Stress, arguing, etc.....)
  • Music lessons.  All advantage, not a lot of intimacy, considering the stress over the years about practicing, performing, etc.
I have felt bad over the years about conferring advantages, but haven't had the view that the authors put forward: that it's wrong for parents to confer advantages on children, except when required for intimate family life; and that the state would be entitled to prohibit parents from conferring advantages like those in the second group. There is a milder judgment one could make: that collectively we should make up for or avoid the inequalities.  Schools should give kids access to computers.  Colleges should get rid of "early decision."  There should be cheap music lessons in public schools.  I'm for all of those kinds of solutions, but should I go farther and admit to wrongdoing, to the extent that I've offered my kids advantages that aren't needed for intimate family life?

Though not a libertarian, I am drawn to what many libertarians say about the family.  My personal liberty to spend my own money includes liberty to spend on my kids, because "children themselves form part of one's substance."  They "form part of a wider identity you have" (Robert Nozick, The Examined Life, p. 28).  If I may buy myself a laptop and thereby have advantages over other workers (Brighouse and Swift don't say otherwise), I'm very tempted to think I can also buy my kids a laptop.  The worry that all kids ought to start life on an equal footing falsely presents kids as totally distinct from their parents.   But that's a huge thing to try to argue, especially in a quick blog post.

I have a more modest objection to what Brighouse and Swift are saying about when it's OK to confer advantages.  Suppose I have all sorts of money to spend on laptops, books, education, and whatnot, for myself.  I may secure those advantages for myself; presumably I'm entitled to them, on their view.  What kind of family life would I have if I bought myself a laptop and then told my kids they couldn't have one, because they needed to remain on a level playing field with other children?  Imagine this happening again, and again.  "X is fine for me, but not for you!"  Conferring advantages (without an intimacy payoff) may actually be necessary for a family life that's internally harmonious and egalitarian.  An alternative would be that I don't get to have a laptop either, but that would put an awfully heavy burden on parents. Do they really have to make themselves less competitive at work, once they have kids?

Surely there are some ways of conferring advantage on children that are illegitimate (I can think of several that amount to outright cheating). I'm just not entirely convinced that as many things are illegitimate as the authors claim.