College presidents and 'context-dependent' ethics
University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill’s decision to resign, after her less-than-inspiring appearance before a Congressional committee December 5 to discuss antisemitism on college campuses, may have some people cheering.
After listening to Magill and two other top-tier university presidents -- Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of MIT -- equivocate about whether students should be disciplined for antisemitic rhetoric (“it is … context-dependent”) Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY23) concluded her questioning with the blunt assessment: “This is why you should resign. These are unacceptable answers across the board.” Magill appears to have taken that advice (or was forced by deep-pocketed alums to do so).
Pardon me if my cheer is not full-throated. I am happy she resigned. I am not sure we’re clear about where the problem lies.
Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth insisted in best lawyerly language that disciplining students for antisemitic rhetoric is “context-dependent,” tied to whether that rhetoric degenerated further into action. Most Americans were rightly revolted by the “context-dependent” sloganeering to which the presidents repeatedly retreated.
But why are we surprised? Context dependence is the logic of a deeper rot that Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) warned us against in 2005: “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Relativism, in all its forms, is “context-dependent.” For the relativist, there is not and cannot be anything that is intrinsically evil, anything that is always and everywhere wrong. There always has to be some escape hatch, some trap door through which one can carve out an exception for the wrongdoing rehabilitated by the morality of the moment or by political correctness.
That’s why I’m not proclaiming a full-out “huzzah” for Magill’s resignation. The inconvenient person of the moment will change, but the intellectual mold will likely stay.
Conservatives, after all, are likely to find themselves in a bit of a paradox. How do you criticize students who chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free!” yet also criticize others who shut down speech they find objectionable?
Pure proceduralism gets you into some difficult binds. Some would argue that a proceduralist approach to that same First Amendment guarantees a “robust exchange of views” that protects those antisemitic students.
That’s the problem with pure proceduralism, i.e., approaching this as an ethical issue that can be solved not by getting into the substance of what is being argued but by trying to stay at the level of what procedures should regulate argument.
There’ll even be a core of conservatives – I am thinking of the likely David Frenches of the world – who will cloak themselves in Voltairean sentiments about disapproving what you say but defending to the death your right to say it. On those terms, shouldn’t we be touting Jihad-supporting students as true patriots?
Magill’s testimony gives us a glimpse from another angle of a criticism I made in these pages almost right after the infamous October 7 attacks on Israel. In their aftermath a Penn professor, writing in the New York Times, admitted Americans should legitimately wonder how privileged ivy league students could be standing with genocide. His recommendation was to demand more ethics courses in the curriculum and infusing more ethical questions across the curriculum.
My response was that this was a losing solution because the question remains: “whose ethics?"
The vast mainstream of American ethical thought -- proceduralism, emotivism (right and wrong express feelings), utilitarianism (right and wrong are what benefit the most at least cost to the fewest) -- is all relativistic.
In other words, they’re all “context-dependent.” The proceduralists are “context-dependent” on the First Amendment versus “chilling and deterring” versus “hostile environments” versus “behavior.” The emotivists are “context-dependent” on how a particular group feels about a statement: “from the river to the sea” may not pass muster with many Americans but is perfectly fine on many Arab streets. The utilitarians are “context-dependent” based on what costs are being factored into the calculations. Free speech? Morally revulsive statements? The strength of the doors at the campus Hillel? Utilitarianism generally has only stopped those sufficiently uncreative not to know how best to stack the narrative deck.
As I said in that earlier piece, what we need is a thicker, more substantive ethic that speaks to right and wrong not just in how we adjudicate things but in things-in-themselves. That calling for killing of innocents is never justified in any “context.” That antisemitism is always wrong, without depending on “context.”
The problem – which liberals recognize but which may also bite some of the mushy middle – is that once you start talking about ethics in this thicker, more substantive way, you can’t turn it on when convenient and off when not. That would be “context-dependent.” It requires you, instead, to be consequential and continue thinking through and applying your principles across the board. If killing innocents is always wrong, it is going also to force a grappling with neonatal neglect because a newborn is handicapped. And it may just jump that borderline of birth and ask about the moral questions it poses prenatally.
The visceral disgust Americans feel when they watch those deemed the “best and brightest” standing with terrorists, making excuses for them, or engaging in the moral equivalencies of “what aboutism” have opened people’s eyes to something being deeply awry. The problem is they’re not sure where the problem lies? On campus? With college administrations? Presidents?
Or perhaps with the kinds of thinking that have been celebrated and mainstreamed as “ethics” in our culture, approaches about which adherents of traditional Judaeo-Christian ethics have been long sounding warnings to deaf ears. Perhaps it was hitherto easy to ignore those warnings because to have heard them might have stopped us from doing things we wanted otherwise to do.
But, as Richard Weaver observed, “ideas have consequences.” Ignoring an ethic just because it got in the way of our preferences makes it harder to reinstate it when that ethic aligns with them. No matter how uncomfortable, our minds do afford a certain legitimacy to logic. And when our ethics lead us to cheering antisemitic genocide, we might be intellectually honest enough to ask how our thinking got us here.
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