Marquette University's Anti-philosophical Philosophy Instructor

As a former academic, headlines describing what appear to be questionable policies or practices in institutions of higher learning usually get my attention. When the fine print implicates a philosophy department, a subject I used to teach, I take a close look.

Now, suppose you are an undergraduate at a large, private Catholic university that is one of the 28 member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. You decide to enroll in a course given by the philosophy department that will explore the intersection between ethical theories and contemporary controversies -- a course of the sort I also taught years ago. The course is an elective.

On the first day of class, you see on the board a list of moral issues potentially up for discussion: gay rights, gun rights, and capital punishment. Let me stop here for a moment and comment that, in my view, the first of these three topics is philosophically “thinner” than the other two. The morality of sexual practices among consenting adults and of same-sex marriage, though hot-button issues, are less “serious” than the morality of capital punishment and of owning (or using) a firearm for the purpose of defending oneself or one’s family. Why? For one thing, the latter two are more serious because they are matters of life and death. The really tough problems besides the moral permissibility of executing murderers and of killing in self defense are abortion and euthanasia, also matters of life and death. I doubt that Kant and J.S. Mill, the two major moral theorists in philosophy, would have put gay rights at the top of the list of moral issues.

To continue: The instructor goes to the board and promptly erases “gay rights.” Does she do that because she thinks this issue is morally less serious than the other two? Well, not exactly. As reported here, the instructor erases “gay rights” from the blackboard because, and I quote, “we all agree on this.” Agree on what?

According to the cited report, the following conversation ensued –

again, I quote:

STUDENT: “Are you saying if I don’t agree with gays not being allowed to get married that I’m homophobic?”

INSTRUCTOR: “I’m saying it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class.”

STUDENT: “Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.”

INSTRUCTOR: “There are some opinions that are not appropriate -- that are harmful -- such as racist opinions, sexist opinions. And quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual? Do you not think that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?”

STUDENT: “[I have a right to challenge that] -- that’s my right as an American citizen.”

INSTRUCTOR: “Actually, you don’t have a right in this class especially [in an ethics class] to make homophobic comments.”

STUDENT: “[My comments were not homophobic.] This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals. Because they’re homosexual, I can’t have my opinions?”

INSTRUCTOR: “You can have whatever opinions you want but I will tell you right now -- in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like it, you are more than free to drop this class.”

At this point, the student drops the class.

I have been describing something that happened recently at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Established 1881 by the Society of Jesus, Marquette was founded by John Martin Henni, the first Bishop of Milwaukee. The university was named after 17th-century missionary and explorer Father Jacques Marquette, for the purpose of providing a Catholic education to the area's German immigrant population.

Through a spokesman, the university stated this on the controversy: “[We are] viewing both a concern raised by a student and a concern raised by a faculty member. We are taking appropriate steps to make sure that everyone involved is heard and treated fairly. In compliance with state and federal privacy laws, we will not publicly share the results of the reviews.” Stay tuned, or not.

I’m not interested here in debating free speech, in a classroom or elsewhere. Nor am I interested in arguing the obvious: that academics these days, especially in humanities departments, by and large are on the left (or hard left) and indoctrinate students according to “progressive” strictures rather than teaching with an open, critical mind as they should. What I do want to argue is that the instructor’s attitude is profoundly anti-philosophical. If I were chair of the Marquette philosophy department -- Dr. Nancy Snow is in that job -- I would dismiss her immediately. No, I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.

I can state my argument in simple terms by asking a question to which the answer is fairly obvious: “Would Socrates have approved of the way the Marquette instructor behaved?” You don’t have to know much about philosophy to know who Socrates was, what happened to him, and why. Not as widely known, however, are two principles on proper method that have withstood the test of time -- and are accepted by philosophers pretty much as tautologies:

(1) Argumentation is necessary for statements not self-evidently true.

(2) Conceptual elucidation is to be achieved by means of definitions.

These two principles are not original with Socrates or any other philosopher. They come from mathematical knowledge, which the old Greeks valued above everything else. Long before Euclid compiled his famous Elements (c. 300 BC), Greek mathematicians realized the importance of rigorous definition of key terms and the clear separation of statements that can be assumed without proof -- self-evident axioms -- from those whose truth was to be demonstrated by logical inference from the axioms. Mathematics has gone far beyond Euclid in terms of content, but not method. (The impact of modern logic on the axiomatic method is a story for another time. My take: It’s been exaggerated.)

With this background in mind, here is my “bill of indictment” against Marquette’s anti-philosophical philosophy instructor:

  • Anyone aspiring to become a professional philosopher ought to keep in mind that ambiguity and vagueness infect many ordinary concepts; therefore, they need to be cleaned up before debate can even begin. Thus, definitions of such evidently inflammatory (emotion-laden) terms as “racism,” “sexism” and “homophobia” are mandatory, though by no means easy to come by. For example, according to one definition of “racism,” Lincoln was a racist. But so what? How many definitions of this term are there? I can think of at least five others. I only have a vague idea, however, what “sexism” and “homophobia” amount to, which is not good enough for a philosophy class.
  • Even going by intuitive meanings of these terms, it is by no means self-evident -- hence requires argument -- that “racism,” “sexism” and “homophobia” are, in a sense that must be carefully defined, morally equivalent. Implying otherwise as the instructor is doing does a disservice to her students.
  • Whatever the definitions of these terms, they should not, repeat not, imply that actions to which they might potentially apply are by definition morally wrong. Moral permissibility is decidable (if at all) only by reference to a general theory such as (for example) those of Kant and J.S. Mill, not by definitional fiat.
  • It is clearly fallacious as well as anti-Socratic to argue that a view may not be expressed in a philosophy class because it might offend the sensibilities of some students. The proper way to go about it is to add a caveat emptor warning in the course syllabus to the effect that controversial views might be expressed and let students decide if they want to take the class. Telling a student already enrolled, as the instructor did, that “[i]f you don’t like it, you are more than free to drop this class” is unprofessional and dictatorial.   
  • Anyone teaching ethics ought to know that the concept of moral permissibility applies to actions and not beliefs. The concept may in certain circumstances apply to expression of a belief to the extent that it qualifies as an action. In a classroom setting, the expression of a belief that might be false or objectionable may well be useful as a foil or teaching tool. This approach is at work in all Platonic dialogues, where Socrates is the “instructor of record.” Someone who wants to make a living teaching philosophy needs to emulate the Socratic Method, not ban it, as the instructor is doing.
  • A philosophy professor, of all people, may not use arguments from authority to take sides in a debate. The professor is required to present fairly, accurately and dispassionately the evidence for or against a certain view and leave it to students to make up their own minds. This is especially critical in the case of unpopular or controversial views, surely another key lesson from Socrates.

Finally, because we are talking about a Catholic institution, it is certainly relevant to ask: “Would Jesus have approved of the way the Marquette instructor behaved?” It remains to be seen if university officials will take this question to heart as they weigh their decision. If they are uncertain how to answer it, perhaps Jerome Edward Listecki, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, can help.

Arnold Cusmariu holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brown University with a dissertation on Plato under Ernest Sosa. Abstracts of his published work are available at Dr. Cusmariu is also a sculptor with work in private collections. He explains his working aesthetic in “Baudelaire’s Critique of Sculpture,” read at meetings of the American Society for Aesthetics and forthcoming in Journal of Aesthetic Education.

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