This comic about an apocryphal philosophy story made me think about another one: the one about the philosophy professor whose final exam consisted of a single question, "What is courage?" and the only student who ever got an A+ in all the years the professor gave that final exam wrote the word 'this' and that's all. (Or, maybe the student stood up, said, "this is" and walked out of the room without taking the exam at all. Oooooh.)
Several people have told me that story since I first got interested in philosophy. I think the first time I heard it an exasperated fellow philosopher told it, but I've heard it at least five times from non-philosophers who thought it represented a profound truth I had never considered and would be captivated by.
I always thought it was a dumb story, but now that I actually am a philosophy professor who routinely gives exams (and how), I have a whole appreciation for how incredibly stupid it is. Let me count the ways.
1. If I ask a question like that, I am not asking for an example. I am asking for what it is about the example that makes it an instance of courage. I am asking for an account of the nature of courage--a non-trivial set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.
2. If I do ask for an example, there are hundreds of better examples. ("Give me an example of courage." "This." "...")
3. If "courage" is anything, it's a character trait. Actions might be courageous or exhibit courage, but they are not themselves literally courage. The student therefore makes a basic category mistake that would rule out the A+.
4.I'd wouldn't use a final exam to do a "formulate and defend your own view"-type question; I'd use a paper for something like that. The way I see it, exams are best suited for "did you do the reading and were you paying attention during class"-type questions. Asking students to formulate and defend their own views on an in-class exam is a guaranteed way to get a huge stack of hastily-written, poorly-though-out garbage in illegible handwriting. At least with papers you can demand that they type it.
5. If I did use a final exam in this way, I'd want to see an argument, or at least a consideration of some objections. i.e. "This. I think so because.... However, some would say it's not, because.... But that's wrong, and here's why...."
6. If the student actually walked out without writing anything down, there's some possibility that I wouldn't know his name and that I'd be unable to award credit for whatever courage he displayed. It's always a wise policy to attach your name to your work. Maybe if he wore a baseball jersey with his name across the back.
7. Philosophically, the answer is deeply problematic in itself. Perhaps reflection on Aristotle's doctrine of the mean would reveal that, rather than exhibiting it, the student commits the vice of excess relative to courage. If that were the case, the student deserves an F since "this" is foolhardy, not courageous. The student in the story did not demonstrate that he had considered this possibility, and so at best deserves a C.
8. Furthermore, it is a genuine instance of courage only if it is not. For suppose the act is courageous and the student knows it (if he didn't know, why did he do it?) If the behavior is courageous, then he knows he'll get the A+; if he knows he'll get the A+, then it didn't take courage to submit the answer. So submitting the exam was not genuinely courageous. But if it didn't take courage to submit the answer, then he couldn't have known that he'd get the A+. And if he didn't know he'd get the A+, then it did take courage to submit the answer. But if it did, then it didn't. And so on.
This seems to me to be a vicious regress that not even awarding an F would stop (because if he deserved the F, submitting the exam as written would be courageous). The only conclusion to draw is that the story is impossible.