Tuesday, July 13, 2010

About This Kenneth Howell Thing

There's been some buzz on the intertubes about Kenneth Howell, an adjunct associate professor in the Religion Department at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana (or is it Urbana-Champagne?). Professor Howell's services were not retained after an email he sent to the students of his Introduction to Catholicism class drew controversy over his explanation of why the natural law theory of ethics implies that homosexuality is wrong.

See the email, a newspaper article about it, and commentary, at Pharyngula, Leiter, and What's Wrong With the World.

The relevant paragraphs of the email seem to be these:

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.


I don't see how the claim that this is hate speech could be supported. It's ignorant, offensive, and poorly thought-out, for sure. But not really hate speech, as far as I understand what the legal definition of hate speech is supposed to be.

But on the other hand, I would be very uncomfortable teaching the material Howell claims is the official position of the Catholic Church in the manner Howell presents it, out of a fear of being unfair to the Catholic Church. This line of "argument" is barely coherent, really stupid, factually incorrect about how homosexual relationships are often conducted, and relies crucially on basic logical mistakes.* The fact that there are "philosophers" who think this is a reasonable and fair statement of a cogent argument for a true ethical conclusion is disturbing.

If this email is representative of Howell's classroom behavior, it would be much easier to sustain a charge of incompetence than a charge of hate-speech. The second paragraph quoted above does not represent a single, unified line of thought. It's a mishmash of points about how homosexual relationships work, what "fits" with what, and some stuff about consent that goes unexplained. If I had written that paragraph and then showed it to someone, I'd be pretty embarrassed.

As another example, Howell's email raises this as the key problem for utilitarianism:

One [problem] is that to judge the best outcome can be very subjective [sic]. What may be judged good for the pregnant woman may not be good for the baby. What may be judged good for the about-to-cheat-husband may not good for his wife or his children.


Now, there is a clear sense in which the possibility of the inherent subjectivity of value is a problem for utilitarians. But all contemporary utilitarians know about this (though Bentham and Mill seem to be somewhat oblivious to it), and all contemporary utilitarians have adopted a set of value-theoretic assumptions that rule out such a simple-minded objection. The utilitarian acknowledges that (playing along with Howell's example) the mother may have an interest in obtaining an abortion, and that this may not be good for the baby. The idea that the utilitarian is now simply stuck is stunningly ignorant. It is a defining characteristic of utilitarianism is that there is a way to compare the interests of the various parties, and that the right thing is what would be best, with everyone's interests taken into account and where everyone counts as one and nobody counts as more than one. The mere fact that an action might be good for one person and not good for somebody else is not an objection to utilitarianism, and anyone who thinks it is should not be allowed in front of an ethics class.

And the News-Gazette article also contains this passage (slightly snipped), focusing on what he says about academic freedom:

"My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches," Howell said. "I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I'm teaching and they'll never be judged on that." ...

"I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I'm teaching," he said. "It's not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it's pertinent to the subject."


There's some tension here. For one thing, it's a little hard to square his contention that he doesn't require his students to believe what he's teaching with the way he characterizes himself as an "advocate" for religious and ethical positions that he lets his students know he holds. When I teach controversial ethical or religious material, I specifically do not tell my students which side of the controversy I stand on. For one thing, my classes are not about me; my classes are about the views and the arguments. For another thing, if they don't know which side you're on, it's harder for them to accuse you of being unfair to the other side. Howell says he is merely trying to hold them responsible for knowing what Natural Moral Law says about the moral status of homosexual sex acts and why, and is specifically not trying to get them to see things his way—it won't affect their grades, anyway. But he simultaneously lets them know that he accepts NML, believes what it says about homosexual sex acts, endorses those arguments, and is serving as an advocate for that position. If you do that, you are guaranteed to have some confused students on your hands. Maybe he wasn't proselytizing, but he was skating a fine line that would be invisible to someone without a lot of intellectual sophistication.

Secondly, it is not obvious to me that academic freedom gives us the freedom to literally advocate controversial religious and/or ethical views in the classroom. Formulating the views is fine. Stating and explaining the arguments that proponents of those views give is unquestionably our job. Showing how someone would offer a counterargument is obviously part of the job, too. But I don't think of my job as involving the advocation of my own ethical or religious views.

--Mr. Zero

* For example, Howell writes, "NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same." In my own writing, I restrict the expression 'in other words' for situations in which the words that come after it are literally a restatement of the content that precedes it. In other words, I use that expression to indicate that I am clarifying, and that I am not adding on to, extrapolating, or inferring. That's not what Howell is doing here. Howell is drawing an inference, and this inference is valid only on the assumption that a bunch of controversial auxiliary premises are true.

Howell also writes that "Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act." This is a non sequitur. It is not a sequitur at all.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Secondly, it is not obvious to me that academic freedom gives us the freedom to literally advocate controversial religious and/or ethical views in the classroom."

Suppose Professor X teaches an applied ethics course and includes readings that she has written, which is fairly typical if the prof has edited an anthology on the subject. Imagine that the prof requires that the students read her defense of the moral permissibility of infanticide of healthy infants. That's a controversial position. Should the administration intervene and ask her to replace her essay with one authored by another philosopher, since, according to your position, professor should not use the classroom to advocate controversial positions?

I don't know about you. But I've sent students emails in which I offer short pithy explanations of different views. I would be horrified to think that someone would take that email and conclude that it was the entirety of my understanding of the view and the best arguments for it.

So, I don't put much stock in evaluating the class content from just the professor's email in this case. None of us--except the professor and the students who took the class--know what he actually said in class and what readings he required. If they were as lame as the email, you would have a point. But we don't know the background readings that the professor presupposed the students should have read when he answered the queries.

You should also remember that was not a philosophy course. It was a course in religious studies in Catholic thought, taught by a Catholic. I would no more expect a Catholic to not tell his students that he agrees with Catholicism as I would expect a Gay Studies professor to not tell his students that he agrees with Gay Rights.

At some point we have to treat our students as grown-ups who have to learn how to deal with ideas with which they are uncomfortable. To cow-tow to every whiny gay, Catholic, Muslim, female, black, or white student who gets "offended" helps no one. It will force professors to self-censor and empower students in perverse ways. They will think that being offended is the ticket to leverage. It's a disgrace that we are moving in that direction.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I teach a lot of Ethics -- and I've done so at a pretty well-respected Catholic college.

What's really sad is that his version of the Natural Law's analysis of homosexuality is very close to the central argument in an extended discussion I witnessed on a faculty e-mail list. I also was unfortunate enough to have lunch with a bunch of male philosophers (I'm female) who had an in-depth discussion centering on medical problems associated with homosexual sex.

Shortly after that lunch I was offered a job at a local community college and I said yes so fast if surprised even me.

Mostly Anonymous said...

I do not want to defend Howell, but I disagree with your suggestion that controversial commitments held by instructors should be kept out of view. I think, in fact, the opposite approach is advisable. The worry is that holding a commitment to one side or the other in a controversial debate -- being a partisan -- is a conflict of interest with respect to your teaching of the material. I think that as with other conflicts of interest, intellectual conflicts or potential conflicts should be candidly announced as a warning. Like saying, "Everyone, we are now going to talk about consequentialism, but before we begin, you should know that I really [love/hate] consequentialism. I think the arguments for consequentialism are [great/crap], and I don't see how anyone who is reasonable could [not be/be] a consequentialist." The real problem, of course, is that if you really do have a strong aversion for some position, in grading for the course, you may not be able to see the merits of a dissenting argument. But, if you have such an aversion, you don't help your students by keeping it out of sight.

Anonymous said...

3:22 - The problem is that the email starts out purporting to clear up a discussion in class that was deemed insufficiently informative. He has an exam question on utilitarianism, and wants to make sure that they "get" it. In that context, his hackneyed "explanation" that ends after a paragraph or two (in favour of a rant) really does seem appropriately reflective of classroom competence, or lack thereof. If that's how he's teaching utilitarian "moral thought," then he should not be teaching it. If that's how he understands homosexuality, he should not be "teaching" about it. In fact, he should take his own advice to students and just shut up about it.

Mr. Zero - I wholeheartedly agree with your astute analysis. In Canada, I don't think this would fit hate speech laws, since it's not promoting violence or anything of the sort. It's still bigoted, wrong, and grossly incompetent, however, and those grounds alone should suffice, as you rightly point out.

Mr. Zero said...

Anon 3:22,

Suppose Professor X teaches an applied ethics course and includes readings that she has written, which is fairly typical if the prof has edited an anthology on the subject...

I don't see anything wrong with assigning the influential or otherwise interesting work of a philosopher who happens to be yourself. Even if your views are controversial. But you should probably be prepared to make your class aware of the counterarguments and objections that have been raised against your view, out of fairness. If your arguments are strong enough to carry the day, good for you. But using your class as an opportunity to advocate for the moral permissibility of e.g. infanticide of healthy babies to a captive audience, and justifying it because your paper appeared in an anthology edited by you, seems questionable to me.

But I've sent students emails in which I offer short pithy explanations of different views.

Pithy is fine. I hope you're also shooting for accuracy. Possibly also depth. Don't be stupid and completely wrong, as is Howell's analyses of homosexual behavior and utilitarianism. And Howell's email is anything but pithy.

You should also remember that was not a philosophy course.

Who gives a shit? Suppose I teach NML in my intro ethics, and I totally butcher it. Hey, it's not a religion class. Right? Wrong.

At some point we have to treat our students as grown-ups who have to learn how to deal with ideas with which they are uncomfortable...

This is another non sequitur. What in the fuck are you talking about? I explicitly deny that the email is hate speech.

Bobcat said...

There's lots we don't know.

He might have had a bad day when he wrote that email. A brain fart, whatever.

Also, we don't know how advanced his students' thinking is. When I teach philosophy, I sometimes present arguments that I know are oversimplified versions of what their advocates think. Consequently, they're caricatured, could have holes poked in them, etc., but when I try to get more sophisticated with it, my students get lost. Moreover, if you read popular treatments of subjects, even when they're written by philosophers (e.g., Paul Thagard's book about brain science and the meaning of life, Dennett's Breaking the Spell), they gloss over lots of important stuff, and even have non-sequiturs.

Also, the kind of stuff you choose to teach can also unduly affect student views. I know of a faculty member who chooses a Christian response to Hume's "Of Miracles" because he wants to show what bad reasoning is. I know of a prominent philosophy professor who, when he teaches the ethics component of his intro to philosophy, teaches only act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism, which no doubt gives the students the impression that these are the only serious views in ethics.

The point is, we can't really deride this professor for what happens in this email because (1) we don't know how representative it is of him; (2) sometimes we have to oversimplify views to make them understandable; and (3) professors often advocate for views in one way or the other that is at least on the same level is Howell.

Mr. Zero said...

Mostly Anonymous,

I see what you're saying. And I think letting the students know you have a dog in the fight might make it seem more interesting to them, because it will let them know you are interested in it yourself. I think this is more likely to be effective the further along the students are--better in the upper division than the lower, and all the best graduate seminars I took were like that. But if you if you come on too strong--"I don't see how any reasonable person could possibly believe that P"--you might end up stifling the students who believe that P. And if you can't be objective enough to accurately assess the merits of papers or assignments whose conclusions you disagree with, you don’t belong in the classroom.

Mostly Anonymous said...

Yeah, that speech was meant to be a bit hyperbolic (although, when a topic is really sensitive or polarizing, people -- including academics -- aren't always disposed to think disagreeing interlocutors are reasonable).

I agree that what I'm describing is probably more effective in advanced classes. I'm not convinced that that means it's not also good to do with introductory classes.

I'm also not sure I agree with your assertion that "if you can't be objective enough to accurately assess the merits of papers or assignments whose conclusions you disagree with, you don’t belong in the classroom." It might just mean that you should ask for help evaluating arguments that you aren't sympathetic towards. (Incidentally, were you ever taught how to grade more or less objectively? I know I never was.)

Part of the problem here is that if you are really a devoted partisan, you might be convinced that your position really is objectively the only reasonable position to occupy. For example, I know people who fall into four different groups with respect to atheism/theism: (i) atheist and thinks theists are crazy people; (ii) atheist and thinks theists are wrong but not unreasonable; (iii) theist and thinks atheists are wrong but not unreasonable; and (iv) theist and thinks atheists are crazy people (and I'm sure there are more options besides these). My point is that if you are in group (i) or group (iv), you might have a very hard time being objective about the arguments and not even realize it.

I may very well be wrong on this, but I think that laying your cards on the table early and often helps to reduce the influence of these biases.

Mr. Zero said...

Bobcat,

I don't agree that what Howell has done here with respect to either the sociology of homosexual relationships or utilitarian ethics are "oversimplifications." They are misconstruals. He didn't make the material understandable; he got it wrong.

I know of a faculty member who chooses a Christian response to Hume's "Of Miracles" because he wants to show what bad reasoning is.

I would avoid this strategy. For one thing, you'd risk alienating your religious students. For another thing, I think you owe it to your students to present the views you discuss in the best light. I'm not aware of a response to "Of Miracles" that I think successfully rebuts Hume's argument, but when I teach that material, I present what I think are the strongest responses and I do not specifically hold them up as examples of bad reasoning. I might say that Hume's opponents have an uphill battle or some such thing, but I wouldn't come out and say, "Hume's right," or "no reasonable person could regard Hume as wrong."

I also think that people who introduce students to ethics owe it to those students to let them know that there is more to ethics than act- and rule-utilitarianism.

we can't really deride this professor for what happens in this email because (1) we don't know how representative it is of him; (2) sometimes we have to oversimplify views to make them understandable; and (3) professors often advocate for views in one way or the other that is at least on the same level is Howell.

(1) why does the email have to be representative for us to deride him over it? Why can't we deride the email for the train wreck it is while remaining agnostic about how he is in the classroom?

(2) He's not wrong in that he's too simple; he's wrong in that he is wrong.

(3) There's advocating and then there is advocating. I'm trying to be open-minded, nuanced, and willing to consider a variety of possible approaches here, but I don't think that Howell's email makes it clear that he is on the right side of the line. At the very least, he's counting on his students' sensitivity to a very fine distinction in the context of a discussion of an extremely sensitive issue.

Anonymous said...

Hume's argument against rational or justified belief in miracles (let's restrict that to beliefs in the occurrence of miracles that one holds on the basis of testimony alone) is an epic fail. If you don't think Hume's argument (as it stands) can be rebutted, then you have some philosophical problems you need to work through. You need to do much more than Hume did to reject rational or justified belief in miracles (and again, let's restrict this to beliefs that one holds merely on the basis of testimony). - Signed, An Atheist

Anonymous said...

I had professors on both sides of the divide--those that made it very clear where they stood and what they thought, and those that gave no opinions whatsoever. Although both can be effective teaching methods, I prefer the former, since I don't think anyone can be totally objective and I'd rather at least know in what direction my professor's biases may lay.

Anonymous said...

For one, I would be horrified to learn that my teaching was evaluated on the basis of some email I wrote to students.

A professor who has controversial views not only may advocate them, but in many instances ought to advocate them.

I have some weird metaphysical views, and usually in intro I keep them to myself. But in some instances I think its good to allow students to see contrary, wild seeming viewpoints, and if such a viewpoint happens to me mine, why should I not be free to advocate it.

Should an atheist be prohibited from advocating atheism in philosophy of religion?

Should a marxis be prohibited from advocating marxism in a political philosophy class?

What is required is that whatever the prof's views, alternative views are accorded respect and treated fairly.

I might think mind/body identity theory is stupid, but I don't tell my students that, and go out of my way to give Armstrong et al a fair hearing.

In any case and with any area related to free expression, we should always err on the side of freedom.

Anonymous said...

although i have no way to judge how representative this message is of the content of the course, i have to say that i was most surprised that catholic natural moral law must be a law that responds to reality (? what does that even mean?), and that, as such, it is OBSESSED with gay sex. i mean, i haven't been to mass in awhile, but in my experience, reality was measured more in terms of transubstantiation than gay sex. but i guess ymmv. and how!

Mr. Zero said...

Anon 11:20,

I would be horrified to learn that my teaching was evaluated on the basis of some email I wrote to students.

Me too. Especially if the relevant email was as stupid as the one we're discussing. Just kidding, kind of. I know what you mean.

Should an atheist be prohibited from advocating atheism in philosophy of religion?

That depends. It seems to me, and I've tried to indicate this upthread, that there's nothing inherently wrong with allowing your students to know that you're an atheist, although I don't do that and I think there are good pedagogical reasons not to do that at the intro level.

But if by 'advocate' you literally mean "advocate," as in openly attempting to get her students to adopt atheism, then no, I don't think the atheist ought to advocate atheism in the classroom. That's not our job.

What is required is that whatever the prof's views, alternative views are accorded respect and treated fairly.

I wonder if you think Howell has accorded the utilitarian viewpoint concerning homosexuality, abortion, pedophilia, and bestiality a fair and respectful treatment.

Because it seems to me that what we've got here is a professor who has given his students a misleading impression of what gay and (especially) lesbian relationships are like, exaggerated the health risks associated with those relationships, ignored the fact that there are health risks associated with heterosexual relationships, ignored the fact that anal sex is not the exclusive property of gays, and then given them false information about what utilitarianism is, told them that it is vulnerable to simple-minded objections to which it is impervious, and misled them about how the theory would apply to a variety of controversial cases. There's also some doozies about how a 10 year old could give consent to sexual activity with a 40 year old, or how a dog could give informed consent to sexual activity with a human.

So I don't see how Howell has satisfied this requirement of yours.

Anonymous said...

"I don't see how the claim that this is hate speech could be supported. It's ignorant, offensive, and poorly thought-out, for sure. But not really hate speech."

This is an important issue that deserves more comment (the comment above by 3:22 about cow-towing to students is relevant here). Let me address this issue and put aside the other relevant points discussed in this post.

My concern with the student's complaint about the professor is that it takes a position vis-v-vis the professor's email, and criticizes it by *labeling* it hateful. If a student in one of my classes responded to an issue with the same approach, I would mark them down. This is what is troubling to me about this situation. The professor has raised a controversial subject in his class, and a student, not liking the analysis or answer given, dismissed the view as not worthy of genuine discussion. This is exactly an attitude in my students I try to discourage. In my classes I try to encourage students to get past their first impressions or emotional reactions to a view, and try to consider what can be said for or against it. Whether the view stands up to scrutiny or not, etc. There are a lot of views we discuss as philosophers that initially may seem counterintuitive (e.g., phenomenalism), but become more plausible as one considers the various evidence for and against them. So any student who merely dismisses a view under consideration by labeling it "stupid," "hateful," "invalid" has failed to appreciate an important point about rational evaluation. This is an important point because in college we are helping students to get past their emotional reactions and become reasonable and thoughtful people.

I'm not saying that the professor's remarks weren't mistaken (they likely were, although I agree with those who've noted that one can't entirely tell from the content of one email what is going on here, and that it depends on the other class material, etc.). But this is a separate point. If students are learning in school merely that whatever views conflict with their (or society's) preferred ones should be dismissed without careful explanation of what's wrong with them, then this is a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

First, I have to say, this guy doesn't seem to know what the Catholic Church actually teaches. He's looking to elevate his own conservative (and none too intelligent) take on natural law theory to a diatribe about gays. I doubt he's ever cracked a book by Finnis or Grisez (let alone one by J.S. Mill).

Second, he seems to be what I would like to call a 69er Christian --that is, he's only concerned to teach (supposedly) what the Catholic Church teaches vis a vis the 6th and 9th commandments, having to do with personal morals as they pertain to sex. (And in a rather macabre fashion - his main argument seems to be that, literally, two men don't 'fit', so they shouldn't have sex. WTF??) Where is the Catholic teaching on social justice? Just war theory and the light it would cast on our misadventure in Iraq? A broader theological anthropology a la Karl Barth? No, I would be willing to bet that these don't get much of a hearing in his class.

But this is all to focus on the content. What doesn't seem to have been mentioned yet is the hints in the press re: the antagonism between the adjunct and his chair.

It seems to me here is the key (or could be) to explain much of what happened after the student sent the E-mail. I suspect that, rather than being a case (as conservative media outlets would like to make it) of "Catholic fired for teaching what he believes and what he was assigned to teach," this is much more probably a case of "Annoyed and Pissed-off chairperson finally finds excuse not to renew contract of annoying adjunct."

Although it's fun to consider the content of the emails and how off-base this guy is in many respects, the real question in the end is whether the chair overstepped in not renewing his contract.

Questions to be asked at any AAUP wrongful dismissal hearing would be basic ones, like: What is his actual contract? Was he a senior lecturer (where special assumptions regarding renewal apply)? Or was he a mere adjunct lecturer? But as BL has already pointed out on his webpage, adjuncts in general don't have much of a leg to stand on. Strictly speaking, a college doesn't have to give a reason for non-renewal of an adjunct contract.

But it seems to me the root of the dismissal was most likely the antagonistic relationship between the chair and the adjunct.

Anonymous said...

FIRE has intervened in this case; see http://thefire.org/article/12066.html - and accompanying letter.

Anonymous said...

There are good reasons for a student not in the class to complain on behalf of a friend -- the friend still has to get a grade in the class.

In fact, while and undergraduate, I complained on behalf of a friend in a similar manner. Since we don't know all the facts in this particular case, there is no reason to think that this kind of complaint wasn't warranted.

I agree, however, that the complaint shouldn't have been about hate speech, but instead about accuracy of content and overall competence. A syllabus and review of materials would be a good place to start.

I recently had to chair a grade complaint committee where the faculty person (a lecturer) had a grading policy that made no sense. He couldn't even explain how the grade was actually calculated. It was a mess. The point, is that not all PhDs are fully competent. And that looks to be the case here.

Ian Smith said...

Philosophy professors would do much more good as bricklayers, especially Anglo-American philosophy professors, whose intellectual peers are sociology professors and high school teachers.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I agree Howell isn't guilty of hate speech in the legal sense of the term; but in the common language, "hate speech" denotes any disparaging remarks about a group. Calling homosexuality a crime against nature seems to qualify under that definition.

In any case, I don't think the problem is that Howell expressed his views, or even that he argued for them. It's the way in which he argued for them--he did it without providing an appropriate context in which those ideas can be evaluated. (Not to mention the fact that the level of his analysis is incompetent to the point of not being worthy of the name "philosophy.")

And it's not just one email, or even one course or one professor. The problem is the system which has allowed arms of the Catholic church to teach at a public institution of higher learning without having to go through the normal hiring channels. Howell just isn't qualified to teach there, and shouldn't have been hired in the first place.

I've posted about this a couple times on my own blog, most recently here. Any feedback would be appreciated.

-Jason

zombie said...

Apropos of tenure/faculty rights, there's a discussion of the disappearance of tenure over at the NYTimes today:
http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/7/19/what-if-college-tenure-dies