The Strange Case of Don-the-Monster, Or, Coercive Moralism in Professional Philosophy.
An edgy essay by Y and Z
Originally published 10 September 2015.
Part 1. Y’s Take on The Strange Case of Don-the-Monster.
One of my colleagues (let’s call him Don) considers himself a religious man and has a strong background in ethics.
He specializes in health care ethics, and also plays an integral role in emphasizing the importance of “teaching values across the curriculum” at our institution.
He has served on numerous ethical review boards, both at hospitals and universities.
When my university formed an internal review board to monitor research involving human subjects, he was a natural choice.
It is not surprising, then, that he considers himself an expert when it comes to ethical matters.
After hearing him give many clear, well-structured, articulate presentations, I am confident that Don is well-versed in Philosophy in general and ethical theory in particular.
However, Don’s view of himself as a “moral expert” has made him self-righteous and arrogant.
Even worse, it seems also to have made him unaware that some of his own behavior is seriously morally suspect.
I have two examples that I hope will illustrate my point:
Last year during the Fall semester, Don was supposed to do a senior directed study in Philosophy of Religion with one of our graduating students.
However, because the student had very limited availability, Don would have had to make a special trip into campus each week to meet with him.
(Incidentally, this would have meant that Don would come into campus three days a week rather than only two days a week. His contract says he should be on campus four days a week.)
Due to this scheduling difficult, Don informed me in July that he would be unable to do the directed study.
I explained to Don that one of our colleagues already was doing a directed study that Fall, that another had an overload, and that I didn’t have much of a background in Philosophy of Religion.
Don said he understood all this, and suggested that we ask the adjunct professor who was teaching the introductory Philosophy of Religion course that Fall to do a directed study with the graduating senior.
I reminded Don that we had not yet hired an adjunct professor to teach that course.
Don suggested that when I hire the new adjunct, I should stipulate that doing the directed study was part of the job.
Keep in mind, though, that this would have meant no additional pay, and also that the student would be doing his senior directed study with a brand new, part-time faculty member.
Don seemed to have no problem with this scenario.
Anything would work, apparently, so long as he did not have to inconvenience himself with an extra trip into campus each week.
(The solution, as it turned out, was that I did the senior directed study.)
This one concerns a colleague of mine in the Psychology department.
Let’s call her Rachel.
Rachel’s work examines various aspects of drug and alcohol use among college students.
Now, the university already collects survey data from students about their alcohol use.
What Rachel wished to do was give students an opportunity to “opt-in” to her research study: by checking a box, they could choose to share their answers with Rachel for use in her study.
All of this would be anonymous, and the data collected would be used for the purposes of developing an alcohol education program.
The problem was that some members of the institutional review board just wouldn’t go for it.
Don, in particular, seemed to have a real problem with Rachel’s research.
Maybe his concern was that students’ anonymity could not be fully assured.
Maybe Don did not like the idea of making it publicly known that our students drink alcohol <gasp!>.
Or maybe Don just had it out for Rachel.
What I do know, for sure, is that Don’s questions at one IRB meeting were so nasty and harsh that Rachel left the room with tears in her eyes.
On another occasion, Rachel was trying to get approval for a study investigating students’ perceptions of the effects of Molly.
Apparently there was some confusion about what she wanted to ask the students: some members of the IRB thought she intended to ask the students about the actual effects of Molly.
Once again, Don presumed that he knew more about her research project than she did.
Fast forward a few years and Rachel goes up for tenure.
However, she is denied tenure due to her failure to comply with research protocol.
This is puzzling given that Rachel has gotten approval for all her research projects through an IRB (whether at our home institution or elsewhere) and has submitted the requisite paperwork.
What is more, her research track record clearly surpasses that of many other faculty members who have been awarded promotion and tenure in recent years.
The promotion and tenure committee, composed entirely of faculty members, recommended that she be granted tenure.
So did two external reviewers (one of whom was so impressed with her research that he even contacted her afterward to come to his institution to give a lecture)!
The problem is that the administrative review board, composed of the Dean + Don, recommended that she be denied tenure.
In short, despite the fact that all her research had been approved by ethical review boards, Rachel will lose her job at the end of the academic year as a direct result of Don’s negative recommendation.
So what the hell is going on here?
I strongly suspect that even though Rachel had gone through all the proper channels to get her research studies approved, Don remained convinced that some of this research was unethical.
Still, it seems unclear why he was so sure that Rachel’s research was morally problematic.
It is true that she was asking students about the effects of drugs and alcohol.
Perhaps Don is reluctant to admit that many college-age students have a great deal of experience with drugs and alcohol and therefore feels uncomfortable having such topics mentioned in a research study.
Perhaps he believes that merely asking students questions about their perceptions of the effects of Molly will drive them immediately to a dance club where they start popping pills.
It’s also entirely possible that Don’s behavior is driven in part by prejudice.
Rachel is a woman, after all.
But I haven’t mentioned yet that Rachel also is Latina.
I would like to think that this fact has nothing to do with the situation I am describing, but you never know.
(Some of Don’s top moral concerns, as mentioned in his newsletter on “ethics and values across the curriculum,” include abortion and homosexuality. It seems clear that he is not particularly progressive.)
But enough specific details about Don. Is there some lesson that can be learned from these stories?
What I want to suggest is that Don’s bad behavior occurred not in spite of his strong moral compass, but rather because of it, i.e., because of his false belief in his own moral superiority.
While Don certainly pays quite a bit of lip service to ethics and strong values, he takes a very narrow view of what this actually requires in his own life.
For example, while stressing the importance of the dignity of the human person in his health care ethics classes, in “real life” he is fully prepared to contribute to the exploitation of adjuncts.
And while he often gives lectures on autonomy and moral personhood, in “real life” he is fully prepared to punish a colleague for exercising her academic freedom.
In other words, Don is a moralistic monster.
I imagine many readers are able to think of someone at their current or past institution who is much like Don: arrogant, self-righteous, and morally sanctimonious.
It is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that even those who have such a strong background in moral theory find it difficult to behave morally in their everyday dealings with others.
Perhaps we should not hold ethics specialists to a higher standard than we do other people.
After all, there obviously is a gap between abstract theory and application, on the one hand, and being guided by ethical principles in one’s personal and professional life, on the other hand.
Nevertheless, those who claim to be experts in ethics are particularly dangerous given their self-assured moral declarations and their inability/unwillingness to recognize their own wrongful behavior.
Because Don is regarded as an ethics expert at my institution, he has gained undue authority.
This permits him to treat others without proper respect, and in Rachel’s case, to put an end to a colleague’s career without adequate cause. I begin to wonder what good it is to have an ethicist in my department.
Part 2. Z’s Take on Y’s Take on the The Strange Case of Don-the-Monster.
Now I would like to extend The Strange Case of Don-the-Monster to contemporary professional academic philosophy in general.
By moralism I mean the deeply fallacious normative slide from dispassionate, nonpartisan moral critical analysis and moral evaluation, to blame and retribution.
And by coercion I mean the use of violence or threats of violence (primary coercion), or non-violent harm or threats of non-violent harm (secondary coercion), in order to manipulate other people into doing one’s bidding.
I’ve noticed many times over the years, and with increasing wonder and shock in recent years, when things seem to have gotten rapidly and out-of-control worse, that even professional academic philosophers who are fairly nice when they don’t have any coercive administrative power, as soon as they get it, or as soon as they set themselves up as collaborators with those who possess coercive administrative power, as it were channeling that power, or as soon as they start mobbing together, in a department or over the internet, like The Furies, turn into coercive moralistic monsters.
It’s even worse when the people are, well, assholes, to begin with.
But sadly, it’s worst of all, and really and truly evil, when the professional philosophers possessing or channeling coercive administrative power, or mobbing together like The Furies, are moralistic and sanctimonious assholes,
whether conservative/”moral majority”/right wing moralistic and sanctimonious assholes,
or politically correct/”maoist”/left-wing moralistic and sanctimonious assholes.
So the general problem here, of which Don-the-Monster is just one good instance, is coercive moralism in contemporary professional academic philosophy.
And sadly, most of the coercive moralistic assholes are in fact ethicists of one stripe or another, including people working in social and political philosophy.
This in turn leads me to a final hypothesis.
Of course, there are lots of assholes everywhere in professional academics, including moralistic ones, including those who possess or channel coercive administrative power, or mob together like The Furies.
But what makes this phenomenon of coercive moralism a particularly aggravated and huge one in contemporary professional academic philosophy is the bizarre and rebarbative general tendency of professional philosophers to set themselves up as Masters of the Universe — let’s call this the cult of expertise and mastery.
In classical terms, it’s precisely the sophistry that Plato so sharply criticized.
This cultist, sophistical, tendency in turn, has a direct and extreme exemplification in those specializing in ethics, social philosophy, and political philosophy, whereby they set themselves up as Masters of the Moral Universe.
Then, when they come to possess, or channel, coercive administrative power, or mob together Furiously, they turn into moralistic monsters, especially if they are assholes to begin with.
But this is only an extreme special manifestation of a general, widespread problem in contemporary professional academic philosophy.
Hence (i) the cult of expertise and mastery, aka sophistry, in professional academic philosophy, together with (ii) the inherently coercive system of the Professional Academic State, together with (iii) the normal, “human, all too human” vices (even in ethicists, social philosophers, and political philosophers, gasp!), collectively produce the huge contemporary problem of coercive moralism in professional philosophy.
One specific, vivid exemplification of it is the discriminatory branding criticized in a recent post —
But, sadly, it has many different manifestations.
Can you think of some?
Needless to say, we cannot change the fact of our “twisted” humanity.
But we can give up the professional philosophical cult of expertise and mastery, the slide into sophistry, and we can resist and subvert the Professional Academic State.
Hence we can fix, or at least we can partially fix, the huge problem of coercive moralism in contemporary professional academic philosophy.
everyone working in ethics, social philosophy, or political philosophy could refuse to become coercive administrators,* ever, and also refuse to collaborate with coercive administrators on their coercive moralistic projects, and also refuse to join Furious mobs, ever.
(* Of course, the label “administrator” covers a great many different sorts of jobs within the Professional Academic State.
So am I talking about people whose job it is to help disadvantaged students, or to provide advice and guidance to faculty trying to slither their way up the greasy T&P pole, and so-on?
I’m talking about those administrators–department chairs, deans, provosts, vice-provosts, chancellors, vice-chancellors, presidents, etc., etc., whose [usually excessively well-paid] job it is to issue commands and policies, or implement higher-level policies and commands, no matter what the moral content of those commands might be; whose job it is to force academics to comply with these commands by making explicit or implicit threats of various kinds; and whose power ultimately depends on being able to call in the Law and the Police; I mean coercive administration; I mean The Dark Side…)
And this generalizes:
everyone in professional philosophy could refuse to become coercive administrators, ever, and also refuse to collaborate with coercive administrators on their coercive moralistic projects, and also refuse to join Furious mobs, ever.
So here’s my overall argument again, in a nutshell:
1. The strange case of Don-the-Monster is only a special instance of a huge problem in contemporary professional philosophy, and Don’s right-wing moral/political orientation is a side-issue: the huge problem is coercive moralism, whatever the moral/political orientation.
2. Professional philosophers are not Masters of the Moral Universe.
3. The possession or channeling of coercive administrative power, together with the all-too-easy availability of vehicles for Furious mobbing, like the internet, together with the sophistical cult of moral expertise and moral mastery, inevitably corrupts professional philosophers by turning our merely normal “twisted” humanity into moralistic monstrosity.
4. We can fix or at least partially fix this huge problem by refusing ever to become coercive administrators or collaborate with coercive administrators on their coercive moralistic projects, or join Furious mobs, especially if we specialize in ethics, social philosophy, or political philosophy.
Postscript, July 2017: Sadly, Two Years Later, the Coercive Moralist Bullshit Continues —
The American Philosophical Association is pleased to announce that a draft Good Practices Guide is now available and a public comment period is underway. Inspired by the Good Practices Scheme of the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy in the United Kingdom, the APA’s Good Practices Guide is intended to serve as a set of recommendations to help philosophers create and maintain an academic community based on mutual respect, fairness, inclusivity, and a commitment to scholarship and learning.
During the public comment period, which will last through spring 2018, we encourage you to read the draft Good Practices Guide and share your thoughts, questions, and concerns about its contents. To facilitate broader discussion about the Good Practices Guide, beginning today, the APA Blog is running a series of posts covering each section of the guide in detail, and listening sessions will be held at each of the three divisional meetings in 2018. You can also send feedback and suggestions directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
After the public comment period, we will use the feedback we receive to revise and update the Good Practices Guide before distributing it widely. Our hope is that the guide will continue to evolve over time to keep up with the changing needs of the profession.
I look forward to receiving your feedback!
All the best,
Amy E. Ferrer
The American Philosophical Association
University of Delaware
31 Amstel Avenue, Newark, DE 19716
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Wednesday 26 July 2017.