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.