Monday, January 24, 2011

Sandel at VMI

I just got back from a talk to our entire student body by Michael Sandel. He gave an interactive lecture very much like the ones you can watch online here, going over the trolley problem (plus fat man on the bridge), the question whether soldiers should risk being killed or instead kill civilians who discover their position, and whether one should help the police find and arrest one's mobster brother. It was all very well done and got the students thinking (as far as I can tell). One said it was the best talk by an outside speaker he had ever heard. But it wasn't quite the way Sandel's lectures appear to go at Harvard.

One thing I noticed was how few of our students were willing to raise their hands to speak in defense of their views. Sandel has the audience vote for one of two options, and plenty of people voted, but he then invites people to explain why they voted as they did. In the lectures online many more hands go up than did today at VMI. Are our students more shy? Less interested in argument, debate, and questions of principle? Or does it take the Harvard students time to warm up too?

Those who did speak often seemed more interested in entertaining the audience than in giving a serious answer. So this seems like an aspect of the first issue really: few of our students wanted to give a serious answer to a serious question (even though there are human beings who enjoy this kind of thing, not all of them particularly intelligent). I don't think intelligence is the issue, but perhaps the kind of intelligence involved is rarer here. I don't know.

And then the answers themselves were not what I might have hoped for. I think the majority voted that soldiers should murder civilians rather than risk being killed. This is understandable, but not the noblest view one could take. Nor is it what the Army teaches at West Point, as far as I know.

[pause while I go and teach]

The students in the class I just taught expressed frustration with Sandel's wanting to make every situation a black and white one. You either kill five or you kill one with the trolley, for instance. There is no shouting warnings or anything like that. I'm glad they want realistic examples and more options. But I also understand why Sandel wants to resist this kind of objection. It's a refusal to play his game, and the point of the game is to generate thought and discussion about principles. If principles matter at all then this is a good point for a game to have.

But it is a game. And it takes a certain kind of person to be willing to play such a game while also taking it seriously. Perhaps Harvard has more people like that than we do. If that is what the difference comes down to, then I don't think either VMI or Harvard necessarily has any reason to be ashamed of the difference.


  1. When I started out as a philosophy major, I was annoyed with these kinds of thought experiments, mostly because I was suspicious of what would follow if I couldn't answer them "correctly". But now that I'm on the cusp of finishing a B.A. in philosophy, I cherish these kinds of thought experiments. I think the change has come in understanding what they're for (as the post stated "... to generate thought and discussion about principles").

    In starting out as an undergraduate, I thought that there were (meta-ethically) skeptical conclusions hiding around the corner if I answered one way or another, and since I couldn't avoid a bad outcome no matter what answer I gave, that was supposed to show something disheartening about the nature of morality, or so I thought. The professor (I convinced myself) was just going to apply pressure to my answer no matter how I answered, even though these thought experiments often force you to choose from the best of a bad lot of options. So it can sometimes feel, to the un-initiated, that such thought experiments are "heads I win, tails you lose" exercises where the professor can tell the student how wrong their commitments are, no what commitment the student makes.

    As for the Harvard students: as a group, they're bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and eager to participate. God bless 'em for it. But, that's not how all of us are. Some of the students made contributions that were on topic, and some said things that advanced the conversation, but some were just offering interesting observations or attempting to wiggle out of the hypothetical. I don't know about VMI students, but it seems that, as a group, the students in Sandel's videos sometimes contribute for the sake of it, while some of us feel pressure to say something that advances the conversation. Ironically, this can result in less, not more, participation. Another irony is that having faith (like I did, though I probably made too much of it) that the professor can come up with a scenario that places tension on your stated reasons for justifying an action in another scenario, can result is less, rather than more, participation. This is so because if you have faith that such thought experiments can be fashioned, then trying to wiggle out of the ramifications of one particular thought experiment seems like an obvious stall tactic, and why do that?

  2. Continued...

    The paradigmatic example I would use of the Harvard students that didn't mind participating even if they weren't advancing the discussion was the young man that answered a particular way when presented with a choice by Sandel, but when called upon to defend that choice, lobbied for a change in the hypothetical. That's something I could have never brought myself to do. Not that this tendency among the Harvard students is such a bad thing; they're adorable, really. And it sounds like the VMI students feel at least some similar things that the Harvard students do when presented with these thought experiments, but undertake different actions because of it.

    Being a non-traditional student (I'm at a relatively advanced age for an undergraduate) at a "city-college" type atmosphere, I found that when students from a relatively more prestigious liberal arts college 30 minutes away would come to our events, they would contribute in ways that revealed themselves to be very clean, articulate, and happy. But the content of their contributions often struck me as idle chit-chat. Giving an answer (or asking a question) that didn't (as I saw it) advance the conversation was something that would have made me feel silly. On the other hand, it seemed to me that it would never occur to these young liberal arts students (from the school up the road) that it was incumbent on them to be anything other than clean, articulate, and happy.

    Some of this, I realize, is merely autobiography, but it could be that some of it overlaps with what other undergraduates from all kinds of institutions feel. It could be that there are certain temperamental dispositions (whether these dispositions are because of being a non-traditional student or not) about these kind of thought experiments, and that for whatever reason, these dispositions cluster at certain kinds of institutions. Certain clusters of students see the ramifications of philosophical thought experiments as frustrating *obstacles to discussion*, while other clusters of students see the ramifications of philosophical thought experiments as a chance to negotiate the boundaries of the hypothetical *during the discussion*. Both clusters react similarly to the thought experiment insofar as they feel boxed in; the difference is in the way the clusters are motivated by this feeling, and how this feeling effects class discussion.

    Whether that applies to VMI and Harvard in the relevant way, I'm not sure; it's worth throwing out there.

  3. Thanks. Yes, the prospect of more dilemmas waiting in store for those who answer one way or the other (or of something that will trap you no matter what you say) does sound off-putting. It reminds me also of those online philosophy games and quizzes that are meant to test your consistency but that very often seem to me to present false dichotomies, or to interpret things in ways that I would not. Some students love these games. I usually find myself a bit annoyed by them. I wonder, though, whether it's possible to get far in philosophy without enjoying these things at some stage in your development. You can always discuss the presentation of the issue, but if this framing of the question seems obviously wrong then your patience isn't likely to last very long.

    This is getting long for a comment, but let me just add two thoughts to this.

    1. Sandel is sympathetic to an Aristotelian approach to ethics, which is touchy-feely relative to some hardcore consequentialists, so if even he oversimplifies for the sake of getting at principles then this might say something (I realize it's only one data point) about philosophy, or at least moral philosophy, as a whole.

    2. Anscombe clearly dislikes unrealistic thought experiments in ethics, but I'm reminded also of Cora Diamond's rejection of William Frankena's reading of the Crito in "Missing the Adventure." Frankena (in a widely-used textbook) presents ethics as being about facts plus principles, whereas the Crito seems to be a clear example of someone's re-framing the facts in a creative, and perhaps wise, way. So ethics seems also to involve, or have room for, imagination and creativity in a way that is usually overlooked.

    OK, here's a third thing. I wonder what the cost to philosophy is if certain clusters of students, as you put it, are pushed away by this kind of thing. Are we losing people who think in "a different voice"? Is this part of why philosophy seems so irrelevant to many people outside the discipline?

    Well, since I don't have the answers maybe that's enough from me for now.

  4. if you think of philosophy as a discipline, then you might be attracted to thinking that something about it, or something about what it's concerned with, tends to constrain the nature of our contributions to it or efforts in it.

    but if you emphasize that philosophy aims at a certain wisdom or knowledge of how to live (well), it seems like the scope is broad enough to naturally include any contribution or effort that helps. (and even, include them without necessarily transforming or translating them into disciplinary or proprietary terms.)

  5. Thanks, j. Yes, I think the scope of philosophy ought to be broad enough to include any effort that helps. People wonder from time to time (at least) why it tends to be such a white, male preserve. As long as it is, we're likely to miss out on some useful contributions. And it's not as if all white males think the same way. What is the cost to philosophy of the analytic-continental divide, for instance?

    Of course I don't think this is Sandel's fault. His approach might even help. After all, he does use real-life examples, he does take Aristotle seriously as well as Bentham and Kant, and his class seems pretty diverse. But there are still features of it (and of my own teaching) that give me pause.

    Maybe I just don't like the trolley problem. Or the kind of pleasure some people take in problems like that.

  6. are there people with time for consequentialism who can AVOID trolley problems or their equivalents?

  7. Possibly not. I haven't managed to avoid them. I don't know whether I count as having time for consequentialism, but I don't know how to avoid discussing when doing or teaching moral philosophy. I think my complaint is with certain ways of dealing with these problems. Are weird situations taken to prove something that can then be straightforwardly used to draw conclusions in other areas? Is ethical thought reduced to a kind of game? How far do we insist on treating issues algorithmically (you must apply some decision procedure and are not allowed to explore alternatives to the two presented, etc.)? It's going too far in these directions that bothers me.