Should Academics Brainwash their Students? and Other Professional-Ethical Dilemmas

Related to my discussion a couple of weeks ago of the problems and responsibilities of philosophers engaging with non-academics, you might be interested to look at Simon Caney’s latest article (or, for that matter, the rest of the latest issue of Ethics and International Affairs). Caney’s paper addresses the question of what academics can contribute to the struggles against global poverty and climate change. I think he makes a persuasive case that academics have a lot to offer, and there’s little of substance that I disagree with. However, I think it’s interesting to focus on a question that he doesn’t dwell on.

Caney seems to accept that academics should be bound by a norm of ‘neutrality’ or non-partisanship in their teaching responsibilities, and that this means that their anti-poverty activities should be kept away from students it seems reasonable to think that academics should not use the classroom to convert people to the goal of eradicating poverty”. It is certainly a reasonable view, but is it right? I certainly don’t think it’s obvious that teaching is ‘off limits’ in this way. First, it is important to see what academics give up if they refuse to use their influence as teachers as part of their armoury. Like all teachers, they have the capacity to strongly direct the thoughts and opinions of their students, many of whom will go on to be powerful and influential, especially at elite universities. For example, Caney teaches at Magdalen College, Oxford, which has produced five members of the current British cabinet. If he were to persuade just a handful of his students of the significance and desirability of action on poverty and climate change, many of them are likely to take up positions (like senior government roles) where they can make significant contributions to these causes.I can see why Caney wants to rule out such influence. There are obvious concerns about violating dignity and autonomy that arise with the prospect of brainwashing vulnerable youths. Some people might think these are sufficient to ensure that deviations from academic neutrality in the classroom are always immoral.

I think this position has a couple of weaknesses. First, not all deviations from neutrality are the same. The idea of ‘brainwashing’ suggests that students are passive receptacles, powerless to resist the propaganda they are fed. But influence doesn’t just mean telling people what to think. It can take the form of setting agendas. For example, tutors might develop optional courses on climate change or global poverty. They might go a step further, and make these courses compulsory. But notice that the influence is procedural, not substantive: students are not told what to think, only what to think about. They can still conclude that climate change and global poverty are not morally problematic. Thus I don’t think that these forms of influence are all that controversial.

I guess what worries people more is the prospect that lecturers might push certain substantive views. Again, this needn’t mean dictating a worldview. It could just be a matter of framing questions in a non-neutral way, or pressing objections to certain positions a little harder. As I have suggested before, the ideal of neutrality here, merely helping others to better understand their own positions and exerting no external influence, is rather unrealistic. I don’t think it is psychologically possible to slough off your biases in favour of the things you believe.

But just because some non-neutrality is inevitable doesn’t mean we should actively seek it. The most important argument for abandoning neutrality is the potential benefits. I think most people would accept that sometimes it is acceptable to thwart or violate autonomy if the stakes are high enough. For example, if I believe it will prevent you from committing a murder, most would agree it is morally justified, indeed obligatory, to lie to you, trick you, physically restrain you. Thomas Pogge and Luis Cabrera argue that we should see the problem of global poverty as a calamity demanding exceptional measures – like the ones academics were willing to take during the Second World War. If things are that serious, if the stakes are that high, and non-neutrality can have a positive effect, then that is surely a strong argument in its favour.

This argument is particularly interesting because I think it might be a particular instance of a general phenomenon – a clash between professional ethics and general moral demands. Or, to put it another way, a contradiction between the duties attending to a certain role and duties arising from humanity. Another interesting example might be a person who hires new employees for their firm. While their professional obligation is to find the best qualified applicant for the position, they might think that morally they ought to discriminate in favour of disadvantaged applicants. Just like the non-neutral academic, doing the right thing seems to involve behaving unprofessionally. Of course, there may be prudential or pragmatic reasons to follow your professional code – in both cases, there is nothing to be gained from losing your job. However, assume that this is not an issue – in either case, we can imagine that detection might be impossible

Notice that in neither case are the job or the professional injunction themselves immoral. Indeed, we would think that neutrality in the classroom and picking the best candidate for the job are generally morally good things to do. This suggests that there might be epistemic reasons to follow a generally morally good professional code rather than your own ethics. The circumstances where departure from the professional code is morally right are likely to be extremely rare, and most people are likely to have difficulty judging them, so we should never depart from professional ethics, even if we think it is the right thing to do. (This is reminiscent of an argument split-level consequentialism)

I’ve only scratched the surface of the issues around conflicts between professional and global ethics, but when the stakes are as high as they are with global poverty and climate change, it certainly seems a question worth pursuing

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