Just be careful who’s on that trolley track!

If you like to use vivid examples when discussing moral issues about, e.g., killing versus letting die, do be warned.  You could be removed from campus.

The facts in the following case are not clear; mostly one hears of student complaints in the linked-to news article.  One’s sympathy is also not immediately on the side of a white guy who vividly portrays killing his black female dean, but the AAUP has a statement that could strike a chill in all of us who think moral reasoning concerning real figures could interest the students.

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

A tenured professor at the Widener University School of Law has been placed on administrative leave and is fighting to keep his job after students complained about his frequent hypothetical references in class to the school’s dean being shot, according to the News Journal of Wilmington, Del. The newspaper reported today that the students had complained about the professor, Lawrence Connell, partly because they regarded his hypothetical discussions of the shooting of Dean Linda L. Ammons, a black woman, as violent, racist, and sexist. Administrators there have responded by accusing the professor of a pattern of inappropriate speech and behavior.

One huge worry is that the students just didn’t much like him and decided to try to get rid of him.  I don’t see any explicit evidence for the worry, but enough of us have reported feeling the scorn of students to make it a real possibility.  And then there’s this statement from here:

If accurate, the allegations against Connell could raise a debate about the distinction between misconduct and academic freedom, said Gregory F. Scholtz, associate secretary and director of the American Association of University Professors.

“Education is all about pushing the boundaries, and it’s all about controversial ideas, but the question always is when does it cross the line,” Scholtz said. “Given our modern culture and the violence that exists, you’re really asking for trouble when you talk about killing people.”


13 thoughts on “Just be careful who’s on that trolley track!

  1. I initially want to say that there’s got to be more to this story, surely! From the basic description, it really does sound like a worry that could be solved by a single ten minute adult conversation about the sorts of examples that are used in the classroom and how those examples are perceived.

  2. Hi Matt, I think there are a couple of stories about “what’s really going on.” The students think he’s an uncouth guy, and he thinks that he’s being persecuted for his conservative views.

    What may also be a factor here is what happens when a complaint is registered. That, and the AAUP response, is what got me concerned. He was asked to do something like apologize and undergo psychiatric evaluation, but he refused to do so. I can almost hear the gears of procedure grinding on.

    The AAUP statement seems to me off the wall, and I assume it didn’t mean that we have to stop talking about issues about killing in moral philosophy.

    I also have to confess that I’ve enjoyed making up dramatic examples for my students, and I think I’ll be more careful for here on. No more, “But suppose, unbeknowst to me, someone has placed a bomb…”. ( It is such a shame that we should probably avoid the example of exploding underpants!)

  3. A former student apparently says in comments on the linked article that Connell used names of well-known people to make his examples more vivid, and that he used former deans’ names in examples. If so, he starts to look more like a victim of student misunderstanding.

    It also looks as though this situation is going to be used to condemn “PC” in colleges.

  4. Yeah, I see the issues with the AAUP statement and the other factors. I think I was just lamenting the fact that so much process was necessary in a case like this one. It really comes off as a case of misunderstanding that could have been cleared up by a quick pep talk by a department chair or administrator. Or, in a wonderful and ideal world we may never achieve, a frank discussion between students and professor about choice of examples.

  5. I tried to use fictional characters in my examples with students to avoid this sort of situation as often as possible. Bruce Wayne was always having to make utilitarian decisions about innocent lives in my class.

  6. I try to avoid this by just not using hypotheticals. I cover issues such as the death penalty every year and we discuss actual individuals convicted of murdering other individuals. Sometimes the examples are difficult to hear about — all my students were a bit horrified to hear anyone had ever dragged someone to death after tying him to the bumper of a truck — but they avoid accusations of undue bias.

    Of course, I say this knowing that on Friday, many of them will read JJT’s famous article for the first time, and say, “What’s with these wacky examples?” And I’ll do my annual defense of the functions of thought-experiments!

  7. There’s got to be a book somewhere that has real-world parallels, or at least movie tie-ins, for all the major thought experiments in normative and applied ethics (insofar as this is possible). If there isn’t, I call dibs!

    I’ll do my annual defense of the functions of thought-experiments!”

    Sure would be nice if this song and dance didn’t need to be performed every month over at Crooked Timber, to the boos and jeers of scholars who should know better.

  8. qb, I think my idea was in part that if we’re talking about justifying the use of hypotheticals, that problem seems to remain with the use of movies. They are no more authenic or real life, surely. You can have a hypothetical situation of pushing a man off a bridge to stop a trolley, or a movie about the same, and the second doesn’t seem to me to make a big difference.

    I think I had another reason, but I honestly can’t remember what it was.

  9. Ah, I see. And that’s a good point. I’ve heard a lot of different complaints about using hypothetical examples, and all of them could have been framed, at a certain level of generality, as being complaints about their being inauthentic or unrealistic, and it’s certainly true that movies are often both, in various ways. But to avoid begging the question against the proponent of hypotheticals, the objection needs to go deeper, and here I think opponents have a few different lines of argument, some of which might apply to movies, and some of which might not.

    For example, some people worry that the situations posed in common hypotheticals are unrealistic in that they are under-described, too abstract, stripped of the particularities encountered in “real-world” ethical decision making. Setting aside the point that this is often exactly why hypotheticals are employed in the first place, movies can add a lot of detail, context, and texture to an otherwise objectionably two-dimensional example, perhaps without failing to generate the intuitions or dilemmas those examples are intended to produce.

    Likewise, a more common but less sophisticated objection holds that many traditional hypotheticals are unrealistic in the sense that they “would never happen.” Ignoring again the fact that this is often the point of using hypotheticals, I and I suspect many other teachers have found themselves concocting elaborate back-stories to make far-fetched examples seem, if not likely, then at least like possible events in the real world. Through good story-telling, movies can often make hypotheticals much more plausible, and do so much more immediately than I can in the classroom–perhaps even to the very scholars who roll their eyes at the trolley problem because a man’s body could never stop a moving train!

    But I take your point. To silence the hard-core haters of hypotheticals, the proposed volume would have to consist entirely of well-documented historical cases. It is not enough for these critics that a scenario be entirely plausible–it must ACTUALLY HAVE HAPPENED, though it’s not clear what motivates such pedantry. I once used the Kitty Genovese case to illustrate the bystander effect, and found myself at the receiving end of some eye-rolling because apparently the evidence for the popular account is uncertain (as if the effect I was trying to illustrate hadn’t been demonstrated time and time again in subsequent experiments).

    Anyway, I think I was probably thinking more in terms of pedagogical usefulness than of avoiding the complaints of naysayers by that point in the sentence in my original comment. Thanks for explaining what you meant, and sorry to ramble on for so long.

  10. qb, I think it would be great to have a book on thought experiments and films for moral philosophy. The students would enjoy the class and by the end might well have an idea of how embedded in ordinary life moral issues can be.

    There is one kind of example I am fond of discussing and I’m not sure quite what one would do about it. It’s the sort of example that Hume discussed, where one’s desires and one’s body are, as it were, supporting the evil deed, but one isn’t responsible because it is out of one’s control and/or something which one doesn’t know about. Here, I’m afraid, is where I’ve used examples such as “Suppose you’d quite like to get rid of X and …you slam on the breaks, but the car’s electrical system has failed and you cannot do anything except watch it speed toward him….”. It’s really the example that depend on there being a specific truth about one’s beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. Double effect cases seem to be like this also.

    I suppose a discussion of real life doubt effect cases might also lead to complaints about one’s attaching certain religions.

Comments are closed.