Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ethics and the Death Penalty

The summer is almost gone, which means that my colleagues are returning to campus. I just had the misfortune of running into a colleague in department populated by people with no training or qualifications in philosophy who nonetheless take themselves to be philosophers. Upon hearing that this colleague is teaching a course on "the ethics of capital punishment," I asked for a rough sketch of the readings. The colleague then ran through some of the more obvious opponents of the death penalty. When I asked, "Who among the advocates will you be discussing?," the response was "None. People who are in favor of the death penalty have no ethics."

That's the sound of John Stuart Mill turning in his grave....

Sometimes it's damn hard to resist the thought that although David Horowitz is a loudmouth fraud and a fool with an idiotic proposal, there's some room for complaint about ideological biases of the contemporary academy.

22 comments:

Krinos said...

Exactly. Kant and Hegel have no ethics at all.

Jr TT said...

Evidently, neither do Augustine or Aquinas.

Anonymous said...

"people with no training or qualifications in philosophy who nonetheless take themselves to be philosophers"

At first I was thinking English or Comp Lit, but would they really teach an "ethics" course? But then who else would it be? I'm stumped.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's the same people who teach "Business Ethics" but know nothing of either.

Anonymous said...

I'm betting it's social science/public policy? What do I win?

729 said...

I've got my money on Political Science.

Anonymous said...

Is it the philosophy dept.?

Spiros said...

Anon at 10:39:

YOU WIN!!!

First Prize: One Zizek book of your choice.

(Second Price is two Zizek books of your choice.)

jr tt said...

Love that prizes. Thanks for the laugh this morning.

Spiros said...

Any suggestions for a third prize?

Krinos said...

3rd place: copy of said course's syllabus

Spiros said...

Third place: copy of syllabus, *three* Zizek books, and an autographed photograph of Derrida.

Anonymous said...

So what department was it?

Anonymous said...

Third Prize? The death penalty which is less painful than the first two prizes

English Jerk said...

Surely the problem here is not ideological bias, but incompetence. For example, a course in the philosophy of science focused on evolution is not obligated to include an extended discussion of intelligent design, since the latter does not meet the minimal conditions of scholarship. This exclusion of intelligent design, although it certainly isn’t neutral, does not constitute ideological bias, but rather follows from fundamental principles of academic discourse. Correspondingly here, the neglect of legitimate and relevant scholarship on the course’s topic is inconsistent with academic standards, especially given the extent to which philosophy’s capacity to provide consequential insights depends on the use of conflicting arguments as a means of inquiry. This is incompetence, and the sad truth is that all departments have their fair share of twits, regardless of whether they’re partisans of Big Business Party #1 or Big Business Party #2.

what the hell? said...

Is it fucked up for an educational institution, not to ask for a balanced curriculum when teaching about the ethics of whatever view point?

My mistake, modern colleges aren't educational institutions.

729 said...

Damn, it's *the philosophy department*! I suppose I'm glad I lost that bet.

English Jerk: I like your analysis of the incompetence involved with the pedagogical problem, especially since it addresses the Horowitz line of criticism pretty nicely. Yet, in certain cases it does seem to me that an instructor's ideological concerns drive or even cause this incompetence (not presenting differing and opposing points of views to students). I've heard it declared explicitly that the classroom is a "site of radicalization," for example. Pedagogical incompetence in such cases seems to be a result of holding particular ideological views that include perspectives on what teaching and learning ought to be. The resulting incompetence is of a piece with the ideology.

And the notion of "fair and balanced" pedagogy can also be put to ideological work. "Intelligent design" advocates seem to me to fall into this category, as they misapply the notion of "fair and balanced" pedagogical practice in order to incorporate non-scientific material into science classes. Scientists will explain in clear, certain terms that this non-scientific material does not belong in science classes, but argue against folks whose ideology doesn't acknowledge scientific explanation as having any special status. Their demand for "fair and balanced" pedagogy expresses that ideological commitment.

While I'd like to diminish the role of ideology in determining competent/incompetent pedagogy, it doesn't seem so easily diminished.

English Jerk said...

729: Your worry that it might be difficult to pry incompetence away from ideology is a reasonable one, but I still think that’s what we should be trying to do. I agree that the “site of radicalization” discourse is just plain stupid, and if it issues in incompetence (e.g., teaching only anti-capital punishment readings) then it’s culpable as well as stupid. But we could easily imagine someone only teaching one side of the issue out of ignorance (i.e., without an ideological motive), and it seems to me that that case would be exactly equally bad for exactly the same reason (it fails to meet an academic, not an ideological, standard). And it seems to me perfectly possible that someone who believed in that “site of radicalization” twaddle might (in spite of themselves) be a perfectly competent teacher. So if competence or incompetence has no necessary connection with ideology, then regulating the latter will in itself have no effect on the former. This, I think, is the line we should take against the Horowitz clan, since it has us saying “We apply academic standards, not political standards—it’s you fuckers who are trying to politicize our classrooms,” instead of saying something like “Yes we humanists tend to be on the Left, but that’s because we’re smarter and more informed than all of you squares.” As you say, the Horowitzers can always just deny the legitimacy of academic standards (e.g., the intelligent designer who doesn’t believe in the basic principles of naturalistic inquiry), but, having framed things in this way, we can simply say what they are: not people who want to reform rational inquiry, but people who are opposed to rational inquiry. The more we put them in the position of explicitly defending ignorance and superstition, the harder they’ll find it to hawk their wares to ordinary people, who are rational by nature.

Spiros said...

English Jerk:

Good point about ideological bias v. incompetence. I realize that I had been presuming that the colleague had a competent command of the opposing arguments, but, finding them uncompelling, chose to not include them. But perhaps you're right that this is a straight-forward case of incompetence: the colleague does not have a competent command of the opposing side.

The Brooks Blog said...

Huh?! This is incredible. I may also oppose the death penalty, but I'd never argue that those favouring a death sentence for Adolf Hitler (if he had been captured and put on trial) somehow lacked ethics....even if I am deeply against their position.

In any event, I am immediately struck by the thought that your colleague probably knows incredibly little about the subject (of punishment, perhaps in addition to philosophy). Ernest van den Haag and Tom Sorrell are nobody's fool. See also Cass Sunstein's recently co-authored piece that raises new questions on the old line that capital punishment is unjustified because it does not deter (with some interesting stats). Moreover, major figures in the field of punishment, not least Antony Duff, may oppose the death penalty, but all are very quick (including Duff) to note that their views often do not preclude the justifiability of capital punishment in particular circumstances.

Anyone who thinks that a course on capital punishment has no need to look at those who favour it (to follow Mill) may well overlook why they hold a conviction against it. What is more, this spin not only breeds ignorance about a position defended by many able people, but also a jaded view of what "ethics" consists in.

Santa said...

Spiros' third prize title

Santa said...

Drat! the link did not seem to work. I was joking that it should be the "Philosophy and 24" title from the blackwell series.