Ethical Intelligence

Swarthmore’s president, Alfred Bloom, talks a great deal about “ethical intelligence” as perhaps the central outcome he’d like to see produced by a Swarthmore education. I like the phrase and I like the concept and I agree with his view that this is a chief goal. The reason it’s a nice phrase is that it implies (at least to me) that what we’re looking for the underpinnings of a capacity for ethical judgement, one that students can freely exercise at their own discretion and in their own ways, like any other form of knowledge or intelligence.

Some institutions of higher learning look at ethics as something to impose with a velvet fist instead, not as a capacity which individuals develop but as the force that a community exerts on the people within it. Much as I’d like to dismiss the University of Pennsylvania’s misguided attempt to punish a student for taking photographs of a public spectacle as an individual case of institutional foolishness, I have to admit that it is indicative of a pattern in academia. The recurrent problem is the inclination of universities and colleges to try to compel or coerce their students and employees to cohere to a fixed, rigid and often flawed ethical code.

It’s not a pattern that comes from partisan political commitments, not a simple left-right thing. It’s a consequence of the convergence of many historical developments. Universities learned after the early 1970s to co-opt rather than confront protesting fractions of their own communities, and the easiest way to do that is to adopt some aspect of their agenda. Identity politics coupled with certain kinds of warm-and-fuzzy conceptions of community lent themselves easily to the idea of quasi-statutory regulation of conduct and speech, particularly because they tended to see individual conduct and speech as the cause rather than the effect of discriminatory practices. The expansion of administrative ranks at most colleges and universities has had the same effects that growing bureaucracy generally does: many people who are looking for domains of responsibility and creating them if necessary as a way to justify their existence, often with the best of intentions. Fear of liability has played a role as well, a fear that has grown as university endowments have grown.

Many observers are citing Harvey Silverglate and Alan Charles Kors’ The Shadow University in commenting on this case, and appropriately so, given that Penn’s last blunder in the area of free speech was the impetus for that book and Alan Charles Kors has already characterized Penn as dangerously close to humiliating itself again in this matter.

If you read widely about the latest incident, both the legal and ethical questions it raises are slightly more ambivalent than the most eye-rolling responses might indicate. There are actually fairly complicated questions involved about what is public and private. There are certainly complicated questions about what is right and wrong. I personally don’t have any problem with students having exhibitionist sex at the window of their dorm rooms, though like many observers I think that doing so pretty much cancels any expectation you might have to privacy. I wouldn’t take a photograph of them myself, nor distribute such a photograph on the Internet, but I don’t think it is a grevious ethical error for the student in question to have done so.

The point is, these are all debatable assertions. That is the nature of ethics: judged privately, debated publically. It is not for the University of Pennsylvania to impose from above an imperial dictate about what is or is not ethical to do. No law was clearly violated (and if it was, leave that to the legal system). No principle which is central to the institution’s operations was trespassed. Therefore there is no legitimate institutional interest in the matter. The students, faculty and administration are free to say whatever they like about the matter, and to say it forcefully if need be. That’s part of the practice of ethics, and it’s part of how you teach ethics as well. But that’s the limit.

To illustrate the distinction further, we’ve been having a lot of issues this semester with alcohol and drinking. Many students here insist that the college’s policy, which is substantially based around the idea of letting students make their own judgements about whether and how to drink, rather than proactively policing their drinking, is sound. I agree, in that particular respect. It would be the purest folly for this or any other college to start trying to monitor student drinking or to punish students for it, whatever our feelings about drinking (binge or otherwise) might be. Beyond a bare minimum of reminding incoming students that yes, if you drink too much, you can die or injure yourself severely, something that some of them seem surprisingly innocent of when they’re 18, it’s none of my business what the students do.

What is the institution’s business is when a student’s drinking actually leads to a student hurting another student (or a non-student) and we’ve had a few cases of that. There might be criminal consequences for such actions. In fact, there should be in many cases. Colleges have a right to decide whether they want someone who has committed such actions to continue being a student. So far, mostly well and good. Where things get a bit stickier from the standpoint of some students is that we’re finally going to take serious steps to prevent student groups from submitting false receipts for party expenses to cover the use of college funds in the student activities budget to purchase alcohol.

That’s an ethical issue too. It’s one where I’m perfectly comfortable enforcing it as a dictate, and here’s why. I’d certainly be a lot happier if certain students applied their “ethical intelligence” clearly enough to understand that forging receipts is a much stupider and more dangerous habit to develop at the age of 20 than drinking heavily. If they’re able to weasel around that in some fashion, to justify forgery on the grounds that everyone does it or that it’s for a good purpose or that it’s just making use of a loophole (I kid you not, I have had undergraduates say all those things to me with a straight face), that depresses me, but it’s not my job to send them to Sunday school until they get it right. What is my job, and the job of the rest of the faculty and staff, is to insist that the institution get it right. So when it’s institutional money, you bet we’re going to impose our standards, which aren’t just ethical but prudential as well.

If the photography case at Penn had involved something that looked like genuine institutional liability, or that truly involved misuse of university resources (the assertion in this case about the use of online resources is in my reading bogus and chilling to the necessary speech rights of that community), then perhaps an ethical diktat would potentially make more sense. In this context, though, it’s nanny-state behavior all the way, an attempt to compel students to behave according to some particular construction of ethical obligation. This is a bad idea whether or not we agree with the construction in question, and a worse idea when most people commonsensically question the institution’s formulation of ethics (as they do in the case of the photograph at Penn).

Update: Penn has dropped charges against the student who took the photographs. It took a while, but common sense finally seems to have taken hold among the administration there.

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9 Responses to Ethical Intelligence

  1. Endie says:

    How do you think that “ethical intelligence” varies from “wisdom”?

  2. isorkin1 says:

    It’s not so much forging receipts as acquiring valid receipts (standing in the parking lot and asking people for their receipts). Not that this changes much ethically, but it does require far fewer technical skills.

  3. abstractart says:

    It’s “Alfred”, IIRC.

    Also, thanks again for coming onto my show the other day. I’ve had multiple people tell me it was the best show of the semester.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Whoops. Wow, I am tired. Fixed.

  5. Swarthmore’s position on student drinking seems reasonable, but aren’t there some kind of federal mandates with regard to enforcement? I haven’t had to deal with that here, but my last appointments did seem to take the drinking thing very seriously for reasons which had to be funding related.

  6. “[W]hat we’re looking for the underpinnings of a capacity for ethical judgement, one that students can freely exercise at their own discretion and in their own ways, like any other form of knowledge or intelligence.”

    and on the other hand…

    “Some institutions of higher learning look at ethics as something to impose with a velvet fist instead, not as a capacity which individuals develop but as the force that a community exerts on the people within it.”

    I’m sure my response here, Tim, is utterly predictable, but still I have to make it: don’t you think that the way you’ve described these two positions is a little simplistic? I’m all for encouraging my (as you rightly observe, often “surprisingly innocent”) students to take ethical responsibility for their own lives. But can such responsibility–which involves issues of consequence and power–really arise entirely through debate? Take that “force which a community exerts,” for example. What might that force be? Well, I suppose it could be brute majoritarianism. But given that majoritarianism is by no means a feature of social life to be entirely dismissed in one’s consideration of political and ethical issues (it’s been a factor in social thought for as long as the modern world has existed, if not longer), simply waving the flag “down with the tyranny of the majority!” certainly doesn’t qualify as “ethical intelligence”–such intelligence would of course have to involve explaining why it is one is concerned about the moral costs of the majoritarian crushing (if it is a crushing) of individuality. Which means someone is going to have to fall back on an ontology of the human person, an argument about various moral goods, etc. Will all of this really be able to be accomplished without any sort of appeal to tradition, or authority (“velvet” or otherwise), or some other (perhaps also majority embraced!) community standards? Somehow, I doubt it.

  7. Katie Davenport says:

    I was surprised that Myrt Westphal said (in the Phoenix article) that the administration had recently attained “clarity” on the receipts-forging issue. It had always been my impression that everyone (administation included) knew receipts were being forged; that this was the way things were done, and that’s why, in the minds of students, it was “okay”. I never planned a party myself, and I was certainly never a dean of residential life, but I’ve known about this for five years. How could the administration not know?

  8. David Salmanson says:

    If I can provide context on the receipts issue and at the same time add complexity to the debate. As late as 1989, the college paid for alcohol at parties as part of the Student Activities Fund in the same way it paid for other supplies. Because the college paid for the alcohol, it also dictated the rules under which alcohol could be served and these were strictly enforced. These rules were: 1) There had to be an equal number and equally desirable number of alcoholic and non-alcoholic options (if beer and two mixed drinks then water, soda, and juice) all served by “bartenders” 2) There had to be substantial food available. 3) If the food or non-alcoholic beverages ran out, alcohol could not continue to be served. 4) State law reagarding the drinking age had to be posted and it was up to the bartenders to enforce that law. These rules were strictly enforced although “bartenders” never checked IDs. The college stopped paying for alcohol because the school’s lawyers went ballistic regarding liability. Therefore the forged receipt systems went into place. The college basically said, we will stop paying for alcohol (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) as long as we have legal cover. But they also forfeited the right to impose the above rules. Eventually, people in both student government and the administration realizied that the forged receipts policy was a bad idea but by that point the pattern was set.

  9. David Chudzicki says:

    How did they “forfeit[] the right to impose the above rules” by adopting a policy against buying alcohol? In fact, they enforce all of those rules today, except for the one about underage drinking (which you say they didn’t enforce then, either). But I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have the right (and responsibility, some would say) to enforce all of them.

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