Challenging one’s beliefs and values is an integral part of modern higher education

From my point of view, the idea that professors should present diverging views on a subject simply because diverging views exist is rather puzzling.

Recently, Minnesota Daily reporters and commentators have discussed the merits of making a so-called Academic Bill of Rights state law, as Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, and Rep. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, have proposed.

As a professor charged with engaging my students in the study of moral philosophy, I am quite puzzled by what appears to be a guiding presumption of such a bill’s supporters: Professors should present or themselves represent diverging views on a topic simply because diverging views exist on it.

Call me old fashioned, but I was under the impression that my students and I were engaged in the pursuit of truth – so far as there is truth to be had – relevant to the moral issues on which we reflect. To be sure, the moral issues on which my students and I reflect are often controversial and intellectually difficult to make progress on. In a recent class on moral problems of contemporary society, for example, we considered moral problems raised by freedom of expression, the demands and limits of toleration, affirmative action, abortion, the treatment of animals, the environment, distant others in the context of consumerist culture and the just conduct of war.

Many of my own views on these matters align with what some opinions published in the Daily regard as a liberal agenda. The liberal tag is in my case misleading, for reasons irrelevant here, but were I forced to identify myself on the political spectrum, I believe I would be to the left of most of my students.

My beliefs about the first-order moral issues that are the subject of moral philosophy are intimately and irrevocably connected to my left-of-center political views. How could they be otherwise? Those political views are based on the outcome of years of thinking about what makes for a just society and about the obligation of the individual and her government in bringing about such a society. In short, I am of the political persuasion I follow because I believe those of my persuasion are correct about a lot of things that political conservatives are wrong about.

Given all this, are my students who are politically conservative likely to find my courses unsettling? I hope so. I hope that my courses on moral problems unsettle all my students insofar as I hope that all of them will put certain core beliefs to the test of scrutiny.

Recognizing that we live in times when people seem to be sensitive about such challenges to their beliefs, I include the following disclaimer of sorts on my syllabus: “You might be happy to know that I cannot grade you on how you live your life. I may, however, require that you put the way you live your life to the test of critical reflection. The course requires, that is, that you be willing to put your beliefs about some difficult moral issues to the test of critical reflection, to defend your considered views in discussion with your classmates by providing public reasons … and to help your classmates do the same.”

The bit about “public reasons” is meant to put students on notice that the arguments that they might offer in support of their views must not employ premises that it is unreasonable to address to other citizens in the context of a liberal democracy – the latter referring to our current form of government, one that departs from majority rule in granting constitutional protection to certain core liberties, among them religious liberties.

The disclaimer reflects the fact that not only are my students likely to find my course unsettling with respect to their political views, it also might prove unsettling with respect to their religious views, by requiring them to justify their moral beliefs without relying on theistic premises that they cannot reasonably expect their fellow citizens to share.

What would the defenders of an Academic Bill of Rights have me do differently? In discussing the moral status of killing in the context of discussion of just war theory, for example, should I present the view that killing Iraqis is always morally permissible because Arabs are morally inferior to those of Northern European descent?

Racists hold such views. Are we to seek to include them in the diversity of views the proposed bill aims to protect? If so, I think we’ve got a reductio ad absurdum of the view of David Horowitz et al. If not, why not? Let’s take the politically charged issue of abortion as a more serious example.

Am I to present a politically conservative position on abortion, for example, that it ought to be illegal because the fetus has a right to life to my students as a candidate for their considered political view? I can’t see how to do so short of arguing that the fetus in every case has something on par with an overriding right to be born.

But how can I provide a sound argument to that conclusion when all the thinking I have done on the question thus far leads me to conclude that no such argument exists. Unfortunately, the political position to which my position on the morality of abortion leads risks obscuring just what my moral position is.

As a matter of morality, there are cases where the decision to have an abortion is morally objectionable. A fetus is not just a lump of any old cells. Wanting to fit into the bathing suit one has purchased for the trip to Bermuda in six months’ time is not a consideration sufficient to morally justify aborting a fetus, though it perhaps is a good reason for depriving oneself of sweets and thereby ridding oneself of some other lumps of cells.

But the fetus is not the only morally relevant party in the case of abortion. At least there is the woman, too, to consider and the would-be father, as well. The law must respect the moral standing of these other parties and, short of some solution I have thus far failed to grasp, it fails to do so if it takes the form of a blanket prohibition on abortion.

Now, on anything I have said above, I am open to being proved wrong. And that, I think is essential. I would submit to the would-be defenders of an Academic Bill of Rights that the true threat to the intellectual life of the academy today is not from overzealous professors concerned to politically indoctrinate their students. (Quite frankly, we’ve got enough demands on our time already to take such a Svengalian interest in our students.)

Rather, it is from politicians, other public figures and, yes, students, who refuse to embrace the intellectual virtues that characterize reasonable debate.

Michelle Mason is a University professor. Please send comments to [email protected]