A Philosopher's Blog

Campus Concealed Carry & Free Speech

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 29, 2016

While a concealed weapon permit allows a person to carry a gun many places, the campuses of public universities have generally been gun-free areas. My adopted state of Florida has been wrangling with a bill to allow concealed carry on campus and Texas recently passed such a bill into law.

The faculty of the University of Houston met to discuss this issue and express concern about its impact. A slide from a faculty meeting about the law suggests that faculty “be careful in discussing sensitive topics”, “drop certain topics from your curriculum”, “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger”, “limit student access off hours, go to appointment-only office hours , and only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances.”

What is rather striking about this slide is that the first three suggestions are identical to limits imposed by what detractors call “political correctness” and there are also similarities to recommendations about trigger warnings. This provides the grounds for the discussion to follow in which I consider limits of free speech and academic freedom.

One way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is to argued that students are entitled to a non-hostile learning environment in which diversity and difference are not only tolerated but respected. That is, students have a right to expect limits on the academic freedom and free speech of professors. This is often supported by a moral argument that appeals to the harms that would be suffered by the students if the freedoms of the professors were not suitable limited for their protection. For the good of the sensitive students, professors are supposed to accept such restrictions.

This sort of reasoning assumes that students would be harmed without such restrictions and that their right not to be harmed exceeds the imposition on the rights of the professors (and other students who might gain value from such subjects and discussions).

A similar sort of argument can be made in the case of concealed weapons. The reasoning is, presumably, that an armed student might be provoked to violence by what happens in class and thus hurt other students. As such, for the safety of students, professors should accept restrictions on their freedoms.

This reasoning assumes that armed students pose a threat and are easily provoked to violence—a factual matter that will be discussed later. It also assumes that the risk of harm to the students by a fellow student outweighs the rights of free expression and academic freedom (on the part of both professors and students).

Somewhat ironically, the attitude expressed in the slides suggests that there will be a hostile environment for gun owners—something I have experienced. Being from rural Maine, I learned to shoot as soon as I could hold a gun and spent much of my youth hunting and fishing. While many colleagues do not take issue with this, I have run into some general hostility towards guns and hunting. I have had fellow professors say “you are not stupid, so how can you like guns?” and “you seem like such a decent person, how could you have ever gone hunting” (often said between bites of a burger). While being a gun owner is a matter of owning a gun, there is also a culture that includes guns—one I grew up in and remain a part of. Hostility towards people because they belong to such a culture seems comparable to hostility towards other aspects of culture—like being hostile towards Muslims or towards men who elect to wear traditional female clothing.

It might be replied that gun culture is not worthy of the same tolerance as other cultures—which is, of course, what people who hate those other cultures say about them. It might also be argued that the intent is not to be intolerant towards people who have guns as part of their culture, but to protect students from the dangers presented by such irrational and violence prone people.

Another way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is on practical or pragmatic grounds. In the case of political sensitivity, professors might decide that it is not worth the hassle, the risk of law suits, the risk of trouble with administrators and the risk of becoming a news item. As such, the judgment to voluntarily restrict one’s freedom would be an assessment of the practical gains and harms, with the evaluation being that the pragmatic choice is to run a safe class. This, of course, assumes that the practical harms outweigh the practical benefits—an assessment that will certainly vary greatly depending on the circumstances.

The same justification can be used in the case of armed students. The idea is that professors might decide on purely pragmatic grounds that risking provoking an armed student is not worth it—this would not be a moral assessment, simply a pragmatic decision aimed at having a bullet free day in the classroom.

This, of course, assumes that a pragmatic assessment of the risk shows that the best practical choice is to focus on safety.

A final way to justify restricting academic freedom and freedom of expression is a moral argument that is based on the potential harm to the professor. In the case of political sensitivity, there is considerable concern about the damage that a professor can suffer if she is not careful to restrict her freedom. While privacy concerns preclude going into details, I have had colleagues in the professor express considerable terror at the prospect that a blog they write for might post a controversial piece. The worry was that their careers would be damaged in terms of keeping or finding employment. While such fear might be unfounded, it is quite real and certainly provides a moral foundation for self-censoring: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself. As with any such assessment, the risk of harm and the extent of the harm needs to be considered. As noted above, this does seem to be a very real fear today.

In the case of guns, the worry is that a professor could cause herself harm by provoking gun violence on the part of a student. The moral foundation for self-censorship is the same as above: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself.

As was the case with career damage, a professor would need to consider the risk of provoking a student to gun violence and perhaps the moral choice would be to choose safety over the risk. This leads to the factual matter of the extent of the risk.

The fear expressed by some about concealed carry on campus seems to be based on an assumption that it presents a significant risk to professors. However, it is not clear that this is the case. First, the law only allows those with permits to bring their guns on campus. Threatening people and shooting people remain illegal. If someone is willing to break the law regarding threatening or murder, presumably they would also be willing to break a law forbidding guns on campus. As such, there does not seem to be a significant increase in risk because of allowing concealed carry on campus.

Second, campuses do not (in general) have security checks for guns. It would be one thing if the law disbanded existing security screening to enter campus—this would increase the risk of guns on campus. This law just allows law-abiding citizens to legally bring a gun on campus and has no effect on how easy or hard it is for someone to bring a gun on campus with the intent to commit violence. As such, campuses would be about as safe as ever.

It might be objected that a person will legally bring a gun to class or the professor’s office, be provoked to violence and act on this provocation only because she has a gun (and would not use her hands, a knife or a chair). Thus, the danger is great enough to warrant professors to self-censor.

One reply to this is to note that violence by students against professors is rather rare and allowing guns on campus would not seem to increase the violent tendencies of students. It could, of course, happen—but a student could also decide to run over a professor with a car and this possibility does not justify banning cars from campus. The fear that a student carrying a weapon legally will murder a professor after being provoked in class or in the office seems analogous to the fear that Muslim refugees will commit terrorists in the United States. While it could happen, the fear is overblown and does not seem to justify imposing restrictions. As such, while free expression combined with legal campus carry does entail a non-zero risk, the risk is so low that self-censorship seems unwarranted.

 

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Dr. Ben Carson & Stomping on Academic Freedom

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2015

As a professor and a citizen, I have a stake in higher education. As such, the positions candidates take on education matter a great deal to me. As this is being written, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson has taken the lead among the Republican candidates. While pundits have been predicting that he (and Trump) will flame out and be surpassed by the “serious candidates”, the two men seem to be trading places at the lead. As such, Carson’s views are certainly important to consider.

Carson, who is known for speaking out against the “speech police” has proposed that speech on college campuses should be monitored by the federal government for “extreme political bias.” Carson presented some of the details of his plan on Meet the Press and presented it as aimed at preventing tax-payer money being used to fund propaganda at universities.

While Carson asserts that he has “thought about this” plan, it is still a bit short on details. However, Carson has sketched the basics and says that, “the way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate.”

To show that there is a problem that is worth solving through the imposition of the power of the federal government, Carson presents a single example: “for instance, there was a university – I’m sure you’ve heard of the situation – where, you know, the professor told everybody, ‘Take out a piece of paper and write the name ‘Jesus’ on it. Put in on the floor and stomp on it.’ And one student refused to do that and was disciplined severely. You know, he subsequently was able to be reinstated…”

When Chuck Todd raised the point that such a policy would violate the First Amendment, Carson assured him that “it’s not a violation of the First Amendment, because all I’m saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn’t be.” In response to the concern that what Carson regards as propaganda might be regarded by others as free speech, Carson replied that “Well, that’s why I said we’re going to have the students send in. And we will investigate.”

Such investigation will apparently be limited to liberal “propaganda.” In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Dana Loesch, the concern was raised that the same policy could be used to monitor conservative political speech. Carson assured Loesch that very strict guidelines would be put in place and these would protect conservative political speech.  Carson makes it clear “…that’s why I used the word ‘extreme.’ I didn’t just say ‘political bias,’ I said ‘extreme political biases.’”

While I might be accused of “extreme political bias”, I believe all citizens who value the First Amendment, regardless of their political leaning, should oppose Carson’s policy. I will endeavor to support this claim with arguments and will begin with the infamous “stomp on Jesus” incident.

The story, as told by Carson, is indeed an awful one. No student should be compelled to stomp on the word “Jesus” and a student who refuses to do so certainly should not be punished. If professors were going rogue like that at state schools, then intervention by the authorities would be warranted. The problem with Carson’s story, which he repeats regularly, is that it is not true. The actual facts are that the point of the exercise, which is from a standard textbook and has been used for thirty years without issues, is that the students will be reluctant to stand (not stomp) on the paper and this will start a discussion on the power of words and how this power is grounded by cultural values. It is true that the student was subject to official action, but this was for the way he treated the instructor and not for refusing to step on the paper. Unfortunately, the story became part of the mythology regarding the liberal horrors of the public university and is still haunting the minds of some like a terrible ghost.

While the fact that the evidence Carson advances to justify his policy is untrue does not show his policy is itself flawed, it does serve to undermine the claim that there is even a problem that needs to be solved. As such, the policy would seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Carson could, of course, try to find other examples of extreme political bias at public universities—but in order to be legitimate examples they would need to actually be true. However, even if extreme political bias was being expressed at public universities, there is still the question of whether or not such a policy would be defensible.

One concern, raised by Chuck Todd, is that such a policy would seem to clearly violate the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, having the state investigate speech at universities and then impose funding cuts in response to speech found to violate Carson’s policy would seem to be unconstitutional. Since this is a matter of law, I must leave this to those who are constitutional lawyers—and I am confident that if President Carson has such a policy implemented it would soon be before the Supreme Court.

A second concern is the matter of academic freedom. While academic freedom does come with responsibilities it clearly protects the expression of views that might be regarded by some as extreme political speech. This applies to speech that would be regarded as left, right or center. So, for example, the discussion of socialism, anarchism and fascism is protected by academic freedom. It is also important to note that academic freedom does not entitle a professor to mistreat, abuse, threaten or bully students. In many ways, academic freedom is an academic version of the First Amendment and arguments in favor of free speech in general can be used to defend academic freedom. There are also numerous excellent reasons that have been advanced in defense of academic freedom. While the short scope of this essay forbids making a full case for academic freedom, one rather compelling reason is that academic freedom is essential for advancing knowledge and developing intellectual abilities.

While some might be tempted to say that academic freedom is a tool of liberals, there is the excellent point raised by the conservative radio show host Loesch.  Carson’s policy is a weapon that could just as easily turned from targeting liberals to targeting conservatives with a change in political fortunes. While Carson was quick to claim that conservatives would be protected from his policy, it should be obvious that if a policy can be set by a right leaning president to ban “extremely biased” liberal speech on campuses, then a policy could be set by a left leaning president aimed at banning “extremely biased” conservative speech on campuses. As such, while some conservatives might be tempted to support policing liberal speech on campus, they should consider the Golden Rule. If that is not appealing, they should remember that when a legal sword is forged, it is usually happy to cut anyone—even the hand that once wielded it. So, before making that sword, it is well worth thinking about how much it would hurt to be hit in the face with it by the next person in office. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

A third concern is that Carson’s plan casts students as spies (or snitches). This is problematic for a few reasons. One is the moral concern about having students serve as agents of what would seem to be the thought police. While this is not an argument, the thought police and their spies are never heroes in American films. And this is for a good reason: they are not heroes. A second is the practical concern that students would misuse this power. While most students would not use a threat of a report to the Carson thought police to improve their grade, the history of thought policing does show that there are always people who are willing to use it to their advantage. Since the complaints would be a matter of ideology rather than matters of fact this sort of policy seems to be fraught with peril for professors and education.

Given all these problems, Carson’s proposed plan should be opposed by everyone who believes in academic freedom and the First Amendment.

 

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Campus Sexual Assault & Reasonable Likelihood

Posted in Ethics, Law, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2015

While the goal of reducing the number of sexual assaults on campuses is laudable, this is not true of all the proposed methods of achieving this goal. In addition to the practical concerns regarding the effectiveness of methods and their legality, there is also the concern about the morality of these methods.

During a House hearing, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis expressed his support for a “reasonable likelihood” standard in regards to sexual assault. Polis said that “If I was running [a private university], I might say, ‘Well, you know even if there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance that it happened, I would want to remove this individual.”

Most public universities currently follow the preponderance of evidence standard. Under this standard, a student is to be regarded as guilty of sexual assault if the evidence is interpreted as showing there is a greater than 50 percent chance the student committed assault. It is important to note that this standard applies to the proceedings of the university. If the student is involved in a criminal trial, this is handled by the state and the usual legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies.

While the preponderance of evidence standard seems rather weak, Polis seems to regard the bar as being too high. He said that “It seems like we ought to provide more of a legal framework then that allows a reasonable likelihood standard or a preponderance of evidence standard.” Obviously enough, the standard would need to specify the degree of confidence in the evidence.

Polis seems to regard a 10-20 (or perhaps as high as 30) percent confidence level as adequate for finding a student guilty of sexual assault: “I mean, if there’s 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people.” This standard seems problematic in many ways.

Laying aside the ethics of the standard for a moment, Polis seems to be advocating what could be regarded as justice by fallacy. In philosophy, a fallacy is an argument whose premises fail to provide an adequate degree of support for the conclusion. In the case of inductive reasoning, an argument is assessed in terms of how likely it is that the conclusion is true on the assumption that the premises are true. A good inductive argument is known as a strong argument while a poor one is known as a weak argument. As I tell my students, it is unreasonable and irrational to accept the conclusion of a weak inductive argument on the basis of that argument—to do so would be to accept a fallacy as good reasoning. While there is not an exact number for what counts as strong (strength admits of degrees), the minimum would obviously be a 51% chance that the conclusion is true, assuming the evidence is true—this is, in fact, the current standard.

If the standard for a strong argument for the guilt of a student is set at 10-20%, that would mean that students who are almost certainly innocent (the evidence shows that there is a 90% chance of innocence) are as likely to be found guilty as students who are almost certainly guilty (the evidence shows there is a 90% chance of guilt). Even if the matter had no serious consequences, this standard would be absurd from the standpoint of logic. However, there are serious consequences.

A student found guilty of sexual assault by a university is typically punished with expulsion, which will typically have a serious impact on the student’s life. The student can try to transfer to another school, but will be marked with being expelled for sexual assault. Even if the student is able to attend another school, the expulsion will be a considerable setback not only in the student’s academic career, but also in life.

Polis does have a response to this, noting that “We’re not talking depriving them of life and liberty, we’re talking about their transfer to another university, for crying out loud.” This view does create something of a dilemma. If the punishment for sexual assault is, as Polis seems to believe, merely transfer to another university, then there are at least two problems. The first is that such an allegedly mild punishment would seem to have very little deterrent value. The second is that the 10-20% who actually committed sexual assault would simply be transferred to a new campus were they could continue to engage in sexual assault.

But, if the punishment is actually serious (and serious enough to serve as a deterrent), then there is the moral concern about inflicting a serious punishment with such a low threshold of guilt. At the very least justice would require that the accused be shown to be more likely to be guilty than not. As such, both ethics and logic shows that the preponderance of evidence standard is the weakest acceptable standard (and there are arguments against accepting even this standard).

 

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Should Two Year Colleges be Free?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2015
Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).

 

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Rolling Stone’s Failure

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 10, 2014

In November, 2014 the Rolling Stone magazine received worldwide attention for a story on the brutal gang rape of a student at the University of Virginia. The story had a significant impact not only on the University of Virginia but also on the broader community.

Some accepted the story as true—after all, it was a horrifying example of the rape culture that had become part of a general media narrative. Others had doubts about the story—some for ideological reasons and some for what turned out to be legitimate reasons. It turns out that the story is largely (or even entirely) untrue and Rolling Stone issued an apology to its readers.

In preparing and printing this story about the rape of a woman nicknamed Jackie, the relevant people at the Rolling Stone failed both professionally and morally. In investigating the story, the Rolling Stone did not contact the men alleged to be involved in the attack. This seems rather contrary to what should be a principle of good journalism, namely that of seeking information regarding all the relevant parties rather than simply using the account of one side. Also, given the information found by other news sources, such as the Washington Post, it appears that the magazine should have been more thorough in its investigation. After all, there is a professional and moral duty to engage in a proper investigation before publishing a story with rather serious potential consequences. When people believed the story was true, there were rather serious consequences. Now that the credibility of the story seems to have been damaged or even destroyed, there are also serious consequences and these will be discussed below.

To be fair, I am obligated to offer some defense for the Rolling Stone. First, as the managing editor Will Dana noted, the magazine was honoring Jackie’s request that they not contact the men she had accused of raping her. According to Dana, they wished to be sensitive to the shame and humiliation women often feel after being victims of sexual assault and Jackie said she feared retaliation from the men.

While the professed motivations seem laudable on part of the magazine, it is not clear how a more thorough investigation would have shamed and humiliated Jackie. It might be claimed that to even investigate the accused would be to engage in wrongful doubting of the victim. The obvious reply is that a thorough investigation is not an expression of doubt, but good journalistic practice. While an alleged victim should be given due respect, this respect does not entail that a journalist should abandon due diligence. But, to be fair to the journalists, there is no doubt considerable political and social pressure to avoid even the appearance of skepticism in such cases.

Second, the managing editor claims that Jackie’s story held up to considerable scrutiny and it is only recently that the problems in the story were found. This allows for a reasonable defense: even a thorough and proper investigation can turn out to have gotten things wrong, as revealed by later investigation.

The main problem with this defense is that the reason why the story seems to have held up is that the Rolling Stone operated within limits set by Jackie: she requested that they not contact the accused and told them that her friend would not speak with the magazine. It turned out that her friend was quite willing to speak with the Washington Post and that his story differs from her account in many key ways. As such, it would seem that the magazine cannot claim this defense. Rather, it can only claim that it decided to seemingly put its trust in Jackie and to allow her to decide the scope of their investigation. This is, obviously enough, not a good approach to investigative journalism.

Third, a defense can be made regarding the discrepancies. As has been well-established, eye-witness reports are unreliable and a person’s memories of an event tend to be rather inaccurate. As such, it would hardly be surprising for Jackie’s account to differ from the accounts of other and have some inconsistencies. This is, of course, a lesson from basic critical thinking.

However, there are limits to how far these facts excuse inconsistencies and factual errors. While there is not an exact line (such as six minor errors and one major error), there are reasonable boundaries to the extent to which these things can be fairly chalked up to these human failings. Looking at the details laid out in the apology and other accounts, the discrepancies between Jackie’s story and the accounts of witnesses and other information (such as the dates for parties at the fraternity) seem to have crossed that boundary. As such, it is rather difficult to chalk up the problems to this sort of cause.

The evidence does suggest that something did happen to Jackie, but the evidence does not seem to support the story told by the Rolling Stone. In defense of Jackie, it could be claimed that she was encouraged to embellish her story or that she felt obligated to tell the sort of story that she believed they were looking for. There are, of course, psychological pressures to do such things.

While the folks at Rolling Stone have contributed one more example of how not to conduct a proper journalistic investigation (and given me an example to use in my classes), there are some serious consequences to this incident.

One consequence is the harm done to the University of Virginia and those accused in the story. While it might be claimed that if the fraternity was not guilty of this specific crime, some fraternity is guilty of something similar, that is hardly just reporting.

A second consequence is that the revelations regarding the story will be taken as evidence that women, in general, lie about sexual assault. It can also be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is also a lie. When people point out that most reports of such assaults are not false, doubters can point to this article and inquire why that claim should be believed. By allowing this story to be published without proper investigation, the magazine has thus fueled such doubts.

A third consequence is that these revelations will also be taken as evidence that the media is eager to serve the “feminist agenda” and push the narrative of the rape culture. After all, one might claim, the magazine saw the story as too good to check and put forth a story in accord with the feminist narrative—a story that turned out to not be true.

This can be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is a fabrication, the result of feminists pushing a narrative on a media that is either a co-conspirator or spineless and eager to cash in on whatever grabs the public’s attention.

Obviously, the failure of the Rolling Stone does not prove that women generally lie about sexual assault or that it is not a problem. But, revelations of what seems to be, at best, sloppy journalism do certainly contribute to doubts.

 

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Should Fraternities Be Banned?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by mclfamu on December 3, 2014
Members of a fraternity displaying their new h...

Members of a fraternity displaying their new heart brands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having been in academics quite some time, I am familiar with an unfortunate pattern involving the Greek system on American campuses. Something awful will happen involving a fraternity or sorority, such as a gang rape or hazing death. Then there will be a backlash and a surge in calls for banning fraternities (and sometimes sororities). This will be followed by some administrative action, such as hiring well-paid consultants to address the image problem and creating some new bureaucratic post on campus. Academics will write a few highly theoretical articles about the Greek system. The media will cover the event, squeezing it for the blood and pain that the news cycle feeds upon.  At the end of a specific event is the return to “normalcy” which terminates with the next terrible incident that grabs the attention of the media.

The latest cycle has been started by a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at UVA. As with other awful incidents, events are playing out following the usual script: media coverage, calls for action, theoretical academic papers being crafted in the hopes of advancing careers, and so on. It must be noted that many people are acting in good faith: they want things to change for the better. As in past incidents, there is a call to ban fraternities from campuses.

The main moral argument for banning fraternities is utilitarian: the existence of fraternities is claimed to create more harm than good, thus making their removal morally correct. In terms of the harms, the catalog is hardly surprising and certainly matches the usual intuitions about campus life in general and fraternities in particular.

First, while college students are generally heavy drinkers, members of fraternities are significantly more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking (75%) than the general college population of men (49%). This heavier drinking also entails that fraternity members suffer more from the negative effects of heavy drinking (such as injuries and academic problems). In addition to alcohol, fraternity members also abuse drugs (prescription and otherwise) at higher rates than non-fraternity members. Sorority members are also more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking than their non-Greek counterparts.

Second, fraternity members are much more likely than non-fraternity members to commit sexual assault. It must, however, be noted that most fraternity men never commit sexual assault. While there is some disagreement about the causes, this is typically linked to the greater abuse of alcohol, group psychology and fraternity culture. Sorority members are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-Greek counterparts. This is also linked to alcohol abuse and cultural factors.

Third, there is hazing. On average, about one person is killed per year due to a hazing incident. Others are injured or otherwise harmed. Most fraternities officially ban hazing, but it obviously does occur. Obviously, hazing is not confined to fraternities—my own Florida A&M University lost a student, Robert Champion, to band hazing in 2011. While sororities apparently engage in hazing, fraternities are the ones that make the news the most often.

These harms power the argument for banning fraternities (and sororities) on the basis of the claim that getting rid of them will reduce the harms in question. To be specific, if fraternities cause their members to abuse alcohol, commit sexual assault and haze more than they would otherwise, then getting rid of them would reduce (but obviously not eliminate) these problems.

One response to this argument is to argue that banning fraternities would not have the desired effect. The reasoning behind this response is that fraternities merely collect together people who would behave badly on their own anyway and hence a ban would not have a significant impact. This does have some appeal in that non-fraternity members do binge drink, do commit sexual assault and do engage in hazing.

This response can be countered by arguing that a fraternity does not just collect together people who would behave badly on their own, the social dynamics and culture of the fraternity plays a causal role in this bad behavior. That is, the group dynamics changes individual behavior and a man who is in a fraternity is more likely to behave badly because of that membership. Given the studies of group dynamics, this does have considerable appeal: people do generally behave differently in groups and most are easily swayed by cultural factors and peer pressure.

Another response to the argument for banning fraternities is to admit that fraternities do cause some problems, but to counter by arguing that the good they create outweighs the harms. In defense of fraternities, people typically point to some of the following benefits.

First, fraternities often engage in charity work and community service—they do good things for the campus and general community. While I was not in a fraternity in college, many of my friends were and they certainly did many good things. As a faculty member and a member of the community, I also see the good works done by fraternity members.

Second, fraternities provide opportunities for leadership, brotherhood and the forging of social connections that often prove incredibly useful later in life. Fraternities have a well-established history of producing leaders in various fields, such as business and politics.

These benefits do have their appeal and it must be noted that some fraternities are include upstanding and outstanding men who do good on campus and go on to do good after they graduate. These positive factors should not be simply ignored or dismissed.

That said, as with any utilitarian calculation, the positive factors must be weighed against the negative factors. In this case, the question is whether the positive aspects of having fraternities on campus outweighs the negative aspects. There is also the closely related question of whether banning them would create more good than harm.

This is partially a matter of facts—the statistics about drinking, sexual assault and so on are factually matters and should thus be addressed by the usual rational means of assessment. However, it is obviously also a matter of value in regards to how much weight is placed on each positive and each negative factor. To use a somewhat dramatic example, this would involve questions about how many sexual assaults are offset by fraternity contributions to networking, leadership development and campus service. While some would be inclined to take the view that the number would be zero, it must be noted that we routinely tolerate horrible consequences in return for positive consequences. For example, tens of thousands of people die each year due to automobile accidents, yet we still tolerate driving. So, weighing the horrible against the positive is, sadly, a matter of how things are done. And, for utilitarian calculations, how they should be done. The obvious practical problem is that people disagree in these evaluations and such disagreements need to be settled in order to make a decision. Obviously enough, defenders of the fraternity system would contend the positives outweigh the negative. Detractors would claim the reverse.

Naturally, there are alternative moral approaches to utilitarianism. For example, one might take the view that to weigh the benefits of fraternities against the fact that fraternity men are significantly more likely to engage in sexual assault is a moral travesty. The fraternities should be shut down, it might be argued, because sexual assault is to be prevented. While this does have some appeal, the same reasoning could be pushed to the entire university system: since sexual assault occurs on campus and eliminating campuses would eliminate sexual assault on campus, campuses should be eliminated. This can, obviously enough, also be countered.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Given the harms associated with fraternities, there is clearly a moral case for eliminating them. That said, there are some positive aspects to the fraternity system that can support a moral case for preserving them, presumably with some extensive reforms.

In any case, this cycle spins on. If it follows past patterns, people will soon forget about the UVA case and matters will go back to “normal.” Then some new horror will emerge involving a fraternity and it will start again.

 

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Defining Rape I: Definitions

Posted in Law, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2014
A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens o...

A picture of a dictionary viewed with a lens on top of it, at the word “Internet” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the basic lessons of philosophy dating back to at least Socrates is that terms need to be properly defined. Oversimplifying things a bit, a good definition needs to avoid being too narrow and also avoid being too broad. A definition that is too narrow leaves out things that the term should include. One that is too broad allows in too much. A handy analogy for this is the firewall that your computer should have: if it doing its job properly, it lets in what should be allowed into your computer while keeping attacks out. An example of a definition that is too narrow would be to define “art” as “any product of the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.” This is too narrow because it leaves out what is manifestly art, such as movies and literature. As an example of a definition that is too broad, defining “art” as “that which creates an emotional effect” would be defective since it would consider such things as being punch in the face or winning the lottery as art. A perfect definition would thus be like perfect security: all that belongs is allowed in and all that does not is excluded.

While people have a general understanding of the meaning of “rape”, the usual view covers what my colleague Jean Kazez calls “classic” rape—an attack that involves the clear use of force, threat or coercion. As she notes, another sort of rape is what is called “date” rape—a form of assault that, on college campuses, often involves intoxication rather than overt violence.

In many cases the victims of sexual assault do not classify the assault as rape. According to Cathy Young, “three quarters of the female students who were classified as victims of sexual assault by incapacitation did not believe they had been raped; even when only incidents involving penetration were counted, nearly two-thirds did not call it rape. Two-thirds did not report the incident to the authorities because they didn’t think it was serious enough.”

In some cases, a victim does change her mind (sometimes after quite some time) and re-classify the incident as rape. For example, a woman who eventually reported being raped twice by a friend explained her delay on the grounds that it took her a while to “to identify what happened as an assault.”

The fact that a victim changed her mind does not, obviously, invalidate her claim that she was raped. However, there is the legitimate concern about what is and is not rape—that is, what is a good definition of an extremely vile thing. After all, when people claim there is an epidemic of campus rapes, they point to statistics claiming that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college. This statistic is horrifying, but it is still reasonable to consider what it actually means. Jean Kazez has looked at the numbers in some detail here.

One obvious problem with inquiring into the statistics and examining the definition of “rape” is that the definition has become an ideological matter for some. For some on the left, “rape” is very broadly construed and to raise even rational concerns about the broadness of the definition is to invite accusations of ignorant insensitivity (at best) and charges of misogyny. For some on the right, “rape” is very narrowly defined (including the infamous notion of “legitimate” rape) and to consider expanding the definition is to invite accusations of being politically correct or, in the case of women, being a radical feminist or feminazi.

As the ideological territory is staked out and fortified, the potential for rational discussion is proportionally decreased. In fact, to even suggest that there is a matter to be rationally discussed (with the potential for dispute and disagreement) might be greeted with hostility by some. After all, when a view becomes part of a person’s ideological identity, the person tends to believe that there is nothing left to discuss and any attempt at criticism is both automatically in error and a personal attack.

However, the very fact that there are such distinct ideological fortresses indicates a clear need for rational discussion of this matter and I will endeavor to do so in the following essays.

 

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Tobacco Free

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2014
Florida State University

Florida State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I teach at Florida A&M University, I regularly run through the Florida State University campus. In December, I noticed that the campus had been plastered with signs announcing that on January 1, 2014 the entire campus would be tobacco free (presumably enforced by killer drones). I was impressed by the extent of the plastering—there were plastic signs adhered to the sidewalks and many surfaces to ensure that all knew of the new decree.

While running does sometimes cause flashbacks, seeing those signs flashed me back to my freshman English class at Marietta College. For one writing assignment I argued in favor of various anti-smoking proposals, including some very draconian ones. I did include area bans on smoking. My motivation was, to be honest, somewhat selfish: I hate the smell of tobacco smoke (except certain pipe tobacco and certain cigars) and react rather badly to it (my eyelids swell and I have trouble breathing). As such, like a properly political person of any leaning, I thought it good and just to recast the rest of the world according to my desires and beliefs.

I thought the paper was well argued and rational. However, the professor (an avowed liberal) assigned it a grade of .62 (I am still not sure if that was out of 1, 4 or 100…). She also put a frowning face on it. And she called me a fascist. Interestingly, almost all that I proposed in the paper has come to pass (the campus wide ban being the latest). On the one hand, I do feel vindicated—if only in regards to my prophetic powers. On the other hand, I wobbled between anarchism and fascism in those days and that paper was clearly written during a fascist swing. Now that I am older and marginally wiser, I think it is worth reconsidering the ethics of the area ban.

While there are various grounds used to warrant area bans on certain behavior, three common justifications include claiming that the behavior is unpleasant, offensive or harmful. Or some combination of the three. In terms of how the justification works, the typical model is to ban behavior based on its impact on the rights others. That is, the behavior is unpleasant, offensive or harmful to others and thus violates their rights to not be exposed to unpleasant, offensive or harmful behavior.

While I have no desire to observe behavior that is unpleasant I do question the idea that I have a right to not be exposed to the merely unpleasant. After all, what is unpleasant is highly subjective and area bans on the merely unpleasant could easily result in absurdity. For example, I would find someone wearing a puke green sweater with neon pink goats unpleasant to view, but it would be rather unreasonable to have an area ban on unpleasant fashion. Roughly put, the merely unpleasant does not impose enough on others to warrant banning it (providing that the unpleasant acts do not cross over into harassment, etc.). As such, the mere fact that many people find smoking unpleasant would not warrant an area ban on smoking,

Obviously, I have no desire to be exposed to behavior that I find offensive. However, I also question the idea that I have a right to not be exposed to what is merely offensive. Even it is very offensive. While the offensive might be a bit less subjective than the unpleasant, it still is very much a subjective matter. As such, as with the merely unpleasant, an area ban on merely offensive behavior would seem to lead to absurdity. For example, if the neon goats on the sweater mentioned above spelled out the words “philosophers are goat f@ckers”, I would find the sweater both unpleasant and offensive. However, the merely offensive does not seem to impose enough on my rights to warrant imposing on the right of the offender. Naturally, offensive behavior can cross over into an actual violation of my rights and that would warrant imposing on the offender. For example, if the sweater wearer insisted on following me and screaming “goat f@cker” into my face all day, then that would go from being merely offensive to harassment. Thus, there mere fact that many people find smoking offensive would not warrant an area ban on smoking. Interestingly, it would also not warrant bans on public nudity.

Obviously, I have no desire to be harmed by the behavior of others. Equally obviously, I do believe that I have a right to not be harmed (although there are cases in which I can be justly harmed). For those who prefer to not talk of rights, I am also fine with the idea that it would be wrong to harm me (at least in most cases). As such, it should be no surprise that I would find area bans on behavior that harms others to be acceptable. The grounds would be Mill’s argument about liberty: what concerns only me and does not harm others is my own business and not their business. But, actions that harm others become the business of those that are harmed.

While the basic idea that it is acceptable to limit behavior that harms others is appealing, one clear challenge is sorting out the sort of harm that warrants imposing on others. Going back to offensive behavior, it could be claimed that offensive behavior does cause harm. For example, someone might believe that his children would be terribly harmed if they saw an unmarried couple kissing in public and thus claim that this should be banned from all public areas. As another example, a person might contend that seeing people catching fish would damage him emotionally because of the suffering of the fish and thus fishing should be banned from public areas. While these two examples are a bit silly, there are clearly some legitimate grey areas between the offensive and the clearly harmful.

Fortunately, the situation with smoking is clear cut. Tobacco smoke is known to be physically harmful to those who breathe it in (whether they are smoking or not). As such, when someone is smoking in a public area, she is imposing an unchosen health risk on everyone else in the area of effect. Since the area is public, she clearly has no right to do this. To use analogy, while a person has a right to wear the “goat f@cker” sweater mentioned above, she does not have a right to wear one that sprays out poison or has been powdered with uranium. To use a less silly analogy, a person in a public area does not have the right to spit on people who get close to her. While they could avoid this by staying away from her, she has no right to “control” the space around her with something that can harm others (spit can, obviously, transmit disease). As such, it is morally acceptable to impose an area ban on smoking.

I would, however, contend that behavior that does not harm others should not be subject to such bans. For example, drinking alcohol in public. Provided that the person is not engaging in otherwise harmful behavior, there seems to be no compelling moral reason to impose such a ban. After all, drinking a beer near people in public causes them no harm. Likewise, campus dress codes would also seem to lack a moral justification—provided that the attire does not actually inflict harm. Merely being offensive or even distracting does not seem enough to warrant an area ban on moral grounds.

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Compassion or Coddling?

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 7, 2009

One challenge I face during finals week is dealing with students who come to me with tales of woe regarding their poor grades in my classes.  Fortunately, most of my students do what they need to do and cause no problems. However, as the Peters’ principle states “90% of your problems are caused by 10% of your students.”

When I am confronted by such tales of woe, I naturally feel compassion for the students. After all, failing a class (or doing so poorly as to threaten a scholarship or athletic eligibility) can be a rather serious matter. At the very least, the student will suffer a hit to the GPA as well as a delay in graduation. As such, when a student comes to be with a tale of woe, I always listen and consider carefully whether the student’s situation warrants legitimate compassion or it is merely a ploy for coddling.

The distinction is easy to describe. A situation warrants legitimate compassion when the student’s woe is due to circumstances beyond his/her reasonable control. For example, students who are in the National Guard and get deployed during the semester are worthy of compassion for their situation. As another example, a student who had to spend a month in chemotherapy is also quite worthy of compassion. I am willing to work with such students and have found that good students who face serious challenges have what it takes to get things done.

A student is seeking coddling when the woe is a woe of his/her own making. For example, a student who just didn’t show up for class and now needs a good grade to keep from failing out is looking for coddling. As another example, a student who claims that he had a “tough time” in the semester, but can provide no details or supporting evidence is looking for coddling. Of course, some people do come in with very detailed tales of woe backed up with what appears to be evidence (such as photocopies of doctor‘s notes). Unlike good students with real tales of woe, folks with fake tales generally do not have what it takes to get things done-even when given more chances. After all, they need the fake tales because they can’t get things done.

To distinguish legitimate situations from attempts at deception, I ask for documentation and I critically evaluate the tale of woe. Naturally, I used to feel a bit bad about asking people for documentation and being critical of their tales of woe. But,  I have learned to be fairly strict. I have found that serious situations generate legitimate documentation (and not badly photocopied and smudged documents)and other relevant evidence. I have also found that people will lie about the most awful things (such as death and cancer) to make a play on my compassion).

One thing that helped solidify my commitment to documentation is that when I tore my quadriceps tendon I was required to provide the university with documentation proving that I had been injured severely enough to miss work. Simply being in a full leg brace and having a large surgical scar was not enough, despite the fact that I had never had a sick day before and I have been employed there since 1993.  At first, I was a bit insulted. After all, wasn’t my word, my reputation, and my scar enough proof? But, then I thought about my own experience with trickery and I realized that the folks who wanted my documentation were doing so to prevent deceit After all, if I really had been crippled by an injury (and I had) there should be suitable proof. I provided it and that was that-as it should be.

My injury also had another effect on my perspective. The Tuesday after my injury was the date for the third exam in my classes. I went in to give the exams with a torn tendon, my leg held in place with an immobilizer. I struggled about on crutches, but was able to get through nine hours on campus. After I had the surgery to repair the injury, I was out for two weeks (doctor’s orders). But, I recorded my lectures, got them online, set up online quizzes and kept up with my students via email. As soon as the doctor allowed me to return, I was back to teaching on crutches and in a brace. While I am probably more stoic than most, if I can fulfill my duties despite such a severe injury, it does not seem unreasonable for me to expect students to complete the work expected of them except in dire circumstances.

Of course, my injury also improved my compassion in some ways. Although I have been hurt before, that was my most serious injury and it gave me a better understanding of what it is like to be broken. As such, I think I feel even more compassion for people than I did in the past. Pain is often an excellent teacher.

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