Are campus conservatives attentive students?

by Harry on January 31, 2010

This story about the Mary Landrieu 4 contains an unfortunate slur against the Rutgers Philosophy department:

As a philosophy major at Rutgers University, Mr. O’Keefe came to believe that conservative-leaning students were being force-fed a diet of academic liberalism. As he put it at the time, they were “drowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and redistribution of wealth.”

Now, I do believe that he may have encountered the concepts of distributive justice and the redistribution of wealth in that department (that he finds this problematic is odd, since he seems to have committed himself to a career aimed at redistributing wealth in accordance with a partiuclar conception of distributive justice, but what can you do?). But I took a look at the faculty list, and cannot imagine who was drowning him in relativism (especially of the moral variety which is the kind that is hinted at). Not one of the normative philosophers in that department is a relativist and I imagine that most of them, like me and most of their colleagues, explain fairly clearly why most of what happens in their courses makes no sense unless relativism is false. I anticipate that some them read CT occasionally and can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d be surprised. Less honorable victims would consider suing. I’m surprised that someone with a libertarian economic tilt is willing to accept massive public subsidies to fund his education but feels no obligation to learn anything.

I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh. The only time I have been accused of political bias in my own teaching was on the day after the 2004 Presidential election. I received a vile, hate-filled, email message from a student (with a fake email address) which made reference to several comments I had made (none of them about contemporary politics) in the previous day’s class, and which blamed me and people like me for the re-election of the President. (Not the first piece of hate mail I’ve received, but the first since I became a professor). If the comments the student referred to, which any attentive student would have seen as outlining, though not endorsing, an extremely left-wing conception of distributive justice, had not been so clear, I suppose I should have been pleased that my own political views are not readily recognizable from my teaching.

{ 65 comments }

1

Matt L 01.31.10 at 3:52 pm

Sorry, but since when are 20-year-olds intellectually equipped and experienced enough to form sound judgments on anything, much less the curriculum and intellectual caliber of an academic department? After all these are the prime consumers of “Natural Light” beer. If they cannot form a sound judgment about beer, why should anyone take what this clown says about Rutgers seriously.

2

Justin 01.31.10 at 3:57 pm

I saw that, and was similarly nonplussed. As a charitable interpretation, he could have been referring not to the philosophy department, but experiences in other classes. Or just as likely, that he’s not referring to anything specific at all, and just assuming that this is how the university must work.

3

rosmar 01.31.10 at 3:59 pm

This reminds me of a time one of my student evaluations said I’d only taught leftists in my Classics in Political Thought that semester–a semester in which the line-up was Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Marx, and Arendt.

(Fortunately, most students seem a little more attentive than that.)

4

text 01.31.10 at 4:28 pm

After all these are the prime consumers of “Natural Light” beer.

This consumption choice actually makes a lot of sense, given the particular aims and constraints of the consumers at issue.

Having once been young and glib and right wing, I have a theory on the larger question, which is that most campus conservatives are basically intellectually lazy. They know an argument which says they are smart and deserving, and spend most of their mental energy looking for support for that argument rather than actually struggling to understand whatever it is has been printed out for them. Everyone does this to a certain extent; they do it more and pathologically. A person like this who has some facility with words can decieve himself wondrously.

I wouldn’t use this slur against all self-reporting conservatives but it applies to people like O’Keefe.

5

lgm 01.31.10 at 4:36 pm

Yup, there sure are dumb conservatives. Is that the same as “conservatives are dumb”? I think I missed that point in philosophy class.

6

djw 01.31.10 at 5:13 pm

I’vefound students sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between some arguments for certain forms of pluralism and/or tolerance and relativism. I imagine this tendency is exacerbated by 1) the strong belief that all three of them are very wrong, 2) prima facie belief that your professors are trying to trick/indoctrinate you into their leftist worldview, of which they’ve been assured “relativism” is a major part, and 3) intellectual lazyness.

Still, students can be confused about the boundaries of these concepts even without these three factors.

7

mpowell 01.31.10 at 5:34 pm

Isn’t this kind of a dog bites man story? I wish I could say I was surprised, but I have come to realize that not only can people who hold these types of views manage to feed themselves in the morning, but they can also attend and graduate college and even write semi-coherently. Really, the mind is very good at rejecting data that doesn’t fit inside it’s worldview. I suppose it is a required evolutionary trait in more primitive contexts.

8

praisegod barebones 01.31.10 at 6:13 pm

‘As a charitable interpretation, he could have been referring not to the philosophy department, but experiences in other classes. Or just as likely, that he’s not referring to anything specific at all, and just assuming that this is how the university must work.’

That suggests more good faith than there’s evidence for, as do several other comments here. Likely as not he’s just playing to the gallery, and telling his intended audience things they’re likely to want to hear anyway.

9

Hidari 01.31.10 at 6:40 pm

‘But I took a look at the faculty list, and cannot imagine who was drowning him in relativism (especially of the moral variety which is the kind that is hinted at). Not one of the normative philosophers in that department is a relativist and I imagine that most of them, like me and most of their colleagues, explain fairly clearly why most of what happens in their courses makes no sense unless relativism is false.’

Yes but the word ‘relativism’ (especially, of course, moral or cultural relativism) is and always has been right wing ‘code’ for ‘a system of values I don’t agree with’, just as ‘relativist’ is code for ‘someone who disagrees with me’.

Moreover this has been the case right back into the 19th century. Everyone forgets it nowadays, now that ‘if you read Marx it automatically makes you personally responsible for the Khmer Rouge’ is the preferred right wing smear of the Marxist worldview, but originally the main right wing critique of Marxism was that Marx’s materialist view of history denied the concept of ‘human nature’, and its insistence on cultural ideas being society specific* led inexorably to ‘relativism’.

In many cases you can take a right wing attack on Marxism from the late 19th, early 20th century, omit the word ‘Marxism’ and substitute the word ‘postmodernism’, and realise it could have been written yesterday.

I think this got overlooked in the whole Sokal/Bricmont debate: we have been here before.

*whether that’s what Marx actually said is a moot point, but that’s how the right always interpreted him. Likewise, it’s often forgotten that Rorty (and others) denied they were relativists, which is true enough, but in the right wing use of the word (someone who disagrees with George Bush) of course he was a relativist, and his denials were meaningless.

10

LFC 01.31.10 at 6:41 pm

Now, I do believe that he may have encountered the concepts of distributive justice and the redistribution of wealth in that department (that he finds this problematic is odd, since he seems to have committed himself to a career aimed at redistributing wealth in accordance with a particular conception of distributive justice, but what can you do?).
What can you do? One thing is to point out that O’Keefe doesn’t understand the common meaning of words; another is to wonder why the NYT is writing about him.

11

ECW 01.31.10 at 6:50 pm

This is less complicated than we professors tend to think. For hard-line conservatives, truth (with a capital T) is what they believe. Failure to recognize this truth and to teach it is strong evidence of relativism. This description works for evangelical conservatives, Randian conservatives, libertarian conservatives, and movement conservatives, despite the differences in content between these doctrines. If you believe there is one true account of politics and morality, and that this account is basically self-evident to any thinking person, than the choice to teach other accounts in a serious way indicates either stupidity or venality. Thus, O’Keefe was “drowning in relativism,” where relativism is a code word for “smart people who are so evil or deluded that they take seriously objectively false accounts of reality.

12

anonymous 01.31.10 at 6:52 pm

I am a recent RU phi major who was a year behind O’Keefe and had him in several classes. I’d imagine that he’s referring to the school as a whole and not department courses as they weren’t politicized at all.

13

ECW 01.31.10 at 6:52 pm

As an example of the comment above, I regularly teach conservative texts in my courses, including Oakeshott, Kirk, Hayek, Friedman, Kristol (the elder), and Scalia. Only Scalia has escaped the wrath of some segment of my conservative students, mainly because they know they are not to contradict the great man; the others are attacked as relativists or “not real conservatives” to varying degrees, depending on the position of the students. The evangelicals hate Oakeshott and Hayek, the libertarians hate Kirk and Kristol, the Randians hate them all (though think Friedman might be salvageable), and the movement conservatives are upset that we aren’t reading propaganda. And since I teach these texts along with liberal thinkers and make the strongest argument possible for all of the accounts, they consider me an unrepentant relativist, despite being one of the only faculty members in my campus willing to teach any conservative ideas at all.

14

Hidari 01.31.10 at 6:57 pm

#11: ECW makes the point I was trying to make as well.

#12: I might add in passing that one could certainly teach Oakeshott and Hayek (and possibly other Conservatives, like Hume or maybe even Popper) as moral or even epistemological relativists if one had a mind to do so. And of course it is a standard critique of radical right wingers (Nietzsche, Heidegger) that they are relativists.

Personally I would ban the word, unless people were prepared to use it properly, and not just as a term of abuse.

15

Barry 01.31.10 at 6:59 pm

lgm:

” Yup, there sure are dumb conservatives. Is that the same as “conservatives are dumb”? I think I missed that point in philosophy class”

It was LibPhil 666, ‘The Evils of Conservatism’. Pre-reqs: Womens Studies 101 (‘Lesbianism, Witchcraft and Killing your Husband and Sons’), LibPhil 101 (‘The Evils of Your Parents’ Beliefs, and Why You Should Hate Them’) and MarxEcon 207 (‘Why All Hard-Working Productive People Should be Shot’).

16

MattF 01.31.10 at 7:49 pm

Well, to be fair, are any students attentive? I have a vague recollection of attending some classes, many years ago. And sometimes, now, in my dreams, I can hear what the lecturer is saying… but that’s about it.

17

Chris Bertram 01.31.10 at 8:38 pm

djw @#6: _ prima facie belief that your professors are trying to trick/indoctrinate you into their leftist worldview_

When I entered university as a young committed Marxist in 1978, I certainly held a prima facie belief that my professors were trying to trick/indoctrinate me into their bourgeois worldview.

18

engels 01.31.10 at 8:40 pm

I don’t think the ‘main’ right-
wing objection to Marx was ever that he was a relativist. ‘Relativism’ is imo more often a charge thrown at left-liberals, eg. as DJW says it sometimes gets mixed up with pluralism. And some forms of (esp. American liberalism/pluralism) aren’t that easy to disentangle from relativism imo.

I think the term ‘relativism’ has two common meanings. One is ‘anything goes, there’s no right answer to what is true, or good or bad, or politically desirable’ the other is ‘what is true, or good or bad, etc is relative eg. to the culture you live in’. I suppose the first is what is usually meant when it is used as a pejorative but I don’t think either sense is more ‘proper’ tham the other…

19

Jonathan 01.31.10 at 8:41 pm

If I remember correctly, Fodor is a relativist who likes fiberglass powerboats.

20

Matt 01.31.10 at 8:46 pm

Chris- I actually find that slightly more plausible.

My experience is like DJW’s- I’ve meet many conservative students, and even some grow-up conservatives who are not generally dumb, who think that, say, Kantianism and Utilitarianism are largely relativist views and that it’s just obvious that Rawls is a relativist. The impression I get is that they think anything other than a divine command voluntarism must be a relativist view, if they can formulate a view at all. (Oddly enough some of the grown-ups like to defer to tradition quite strongly without realizing that that might at least possibly be in tension with their professed anti-relativism.)

21

Anonsters 01.31.10 at 8:49 pm

But I took a look at the faculty list, and cannot imagine who was drowning him in relativism. . . .

Had to be Jerry Fodor and Ernie Lepore.

Down with the philosophers of cognitive science! And stuff.

22

ECW 01.31.10 at 9:02 pm

Another way to understand this issue is to focus on some conservative students’ absolute intolerance for ambiguity. If a moral code could plausibly produce two or more justified actions in response to the same situation, they are likely to call this relativism. If utilitarianism or Kantianism, or liberal theological positions are apt to produce multiple justified outcomes, then they will be labeled relativistic. The fact that such systems rest upon firm principles that the adherents believe to be true isn’t relevant; for someone with a low tolerance for ambiguity, a system that doesn’t produce A right answer is a relativistic one, and the underlying principles aren’t important. I regularly hear some version of this from many of my students, actually, liberal and conservative.

23

Justin 01.31.10 at 9:19 pm

@8 when I say that it’s “just as likely, that he’s not referring to anything specific at all, and just assuming that this is how the university must work”, the simplified version of what I said is “he’s stupid”. So I’m not sure I can be accused of too much charity…

24

Hidari 01.31.10 at 10:18 pm

‘I don’t think the ‘main’ right-wing objection to Marx was ever that he was a relativist.’

Did i say ‘main’? Too many late night classes of wine. OK, ‘one of the key right wing objections to Marx….’

25

Dave 01.31.10 at 10:20 pm

I suspect O’Keefe did very well in school. He’s from a rich NJ suburb, and he probably got a good education, maybe some fancy private school that taught him how to say “veritas.” He didn’t get recruited by this and that Institute because he’s a moron. As text says above, he’s probably very adept at deluding himself. Regarding his philosophy major, I’d guess he turned everyone he read into a conservative. (“By Kant’s law of synthetic a priori judgments, liberals are stupid relativists,” etc.)

26

william uspal 01.31.10 at 10:33 pm

I’ve had it put to me, by an otherwise well-informed and politically liberal software engineer, that all top philosophy departments have been conquered by postmodern theory. Someone should ask Mr. O’Keefe whether this was the case at Rutgers.

27

Sebastian 01.31.10 at 11:07 pm

It kind of depends on when someone went to school. Relativism really was quite a rage in the late 80s/early 90s. In the Dimensions of Culture required class taught at UCSD (it was theoretically the basic writing class and was thus a requirement for all students of my particular college) the anthropology professor who taught the first quarter (name currently escapes me) taught that all moral positions were completely relative to culture. In a class weeks later we were talking about South Africa, and I pointed out that either all moral positions were not relative, or apartheid was merely an expression of culture for which we had no independent basis for criticism. For that I was called a racist and my point was ignored. (Of course calling me a racist in class both made my point and was really unpleasant for my early college years but there we are).

28

Hidari 01.31.10 at 11:21 pm

‘In a class weeks later we were talking about South Africa, and I pointed out that either all moral positions were not relative, or apartheid was merely an expression of culture for which we had no independent basis for criticism’.

What does the word ‘independent’ mean in this sentence?

Independent of what?

29

engels 01.31.10 at 11:38 pm

Independent of one’s culture. Ie. you can say that apartheid is un-American, or goes against Western values, etc, but you can’t say it’s wrong, unjust, abhorrent, or object to it in any other such general moral terms.

30

Martin Bento 01.31.10 at 11:48 pm

Why are we assuming this clown is talking in good faith? I realize for philosophical debates and such, it is good to assume this, but this guy is a political hack mouthing a boilerplate right-wing grievance. Indeed, for him to claim anything else could roughen the ride and cause spillage on his filled-to-the-brim gravy train. On the other hand, he may actually believe it, but that may be because his beliefs are following his interests rather than vice versa.

31

Michael Griffiths 01.31.10 at 11:57 pm

As an undergraduate, I’m going to guess that said student (who wrote the hate-email) simply wasn’t paying close enough attention. It’s easy to zone out for a couple of minutes and miss the disclaimer(s).

However, I probably would have spin the quote by Mr. O’Keefe as an example that “…reality has a well-known liberal bias” to quote Steven Colbert. Mr. O’Keefe seems to suppose that his worldview is a priori accurate, so the professors are not presenting valid alternatives – they’re deliberately brainwashing him!

32

belle le triste 02.01.10 at 12:04 am

Q: “are campus conservatives attentive students?”
A@24: ” the anthropology professor who taught the first quarter (name currently escapes me)… “

33

Hidari 02.01.10 at 12:04 am

‘Independent of one’s culture. Ie. you can say that apartheid is un-American, or goes against Western values, etc, but you can’t say it’s wrong, unjust, abhorrent, or object to it in any other such general moral terms.’

It’s late here so I’ll just make two points:

1: saying that something is not independent of culture (and I have to confess I no longer think the concept of something being independent of culture has any meaning) is not to say that you can’t make criticisms of other cultures. Indeed, it is a key point of many cultures (especially Western ones) to have as an integral part of their own cultures, the idea that their culture is better than others. If you see what I mean. Westerners make criticisms of other cultures because their own rhetorical strategies are so specific to their own culture. Which is merely to point out that all such criticisms are rhetorical and functional. Many people, before the second gulf war, made criticisms of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And these criticisms posed as being anti-relativistic, unmotivated, disinterested, general and ‘independent of culture’. But of course they were anything but.

In any case, the point about not being able to criticise ‘other’ cultures would only have crushing force if cultures are hermetically sealed entities with strict boundaries. But of course they’re not and never have been. ‘We’ can criticise apartheid if we want, for many reasons, but mainly because South Africa is not, in fact, completely ‘other’ or ‘alien’. Indeed, it is because South African politics are so profoundly intermeshed with our own that many of us felt so strongly about the issue (American support, British sanctions busting , etc. the apartheid regime’s origins in European imperialism etc.).

2: Imagine going on a journey through time and space, as the Mighty Boosh might say. Now imagine we end up in a different part of the Universe (not galaxy). Or, if you really want to play the game, imagine it’s one of those hypothetical parts of our cosmos where the basic laws of nature are different. And imagine we come across a species on a planet here that is as different from ours as we can imagine. Perhaps they were descended from their equivalent of the Preying Mantis, and they now believe its unethical not to bit your lovers head off after sex. Or perhaps a sentient cloud of gas a la Fred Hoyle’s the Black Cloud. As different as you can imagine.

And now trying to explain to these ‘people’ why you thought abortion was right (or wrong). Or why the second gulf war was wrong (but not the first). Or vice versa. Or why the Kosova ‘intervention’ was against international law.

You might, just, get across the concept that there was a thing on our planet called ‘war’. But would any of it mean anything to them? Would they ever grasp why we felt so strongly about it?

My point is that almost everyone accepts, unless you are an out and out Platonist, or are religious, that our morals are relative to our biology and our location (i.e. Earth). Which is a kind of relativism. The point is: where do we draw the line?

My final point is that, you might be surprised to hear, I’m extremely sympathetic to this point. I used to be the guy wittering on about relativism in the back of the philosophy class. But eventually, as I got older, I came to think that objectivism was just a non-starter, unless one believes in Platonic metaphysics, or turns to religion. But, to be very clear, the sort of ‘relativism’ (if you want to use that word) I am interested in is the kind sketched out by the later Wittgenstein. Which is very different from ‘postmodern’ relativism.

And in any case moral relativism (which I kind of think is, ahem, ‘true’) is very different from ontological or epistemological relativism, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

34

Witt 02.01.10 at 12:42 am

I second everyone who has pointed out that there is no reason to believe he was referring to the philosophy department. I also agree that he’s making an inflammatory political claim, which can serve its purpose just fine without being either logical or empirically verifiable.

But I also think DJW’s 6 and ECW’s 11 are important. To add to 6, it’s not only that students may struggle or even not try to understand the differences, it is that instructors themselves do not always understand the concepts well.

I know I sound like a broken record these past few threads, but I think a scholarly community like CT, composed of generally competent people with generally good skills, might have a blind spot when it comes to just how many ill-prepared and ill-equipped instructors there are. (And that’s leaving aside the instructors who genuinely do think there is a right answer and it’s their job to share it with students.)

35

Mario Diana 02.01.10 at 12:46 am

Sebastian @ 24

My philosophy professor in college had a two sentence criticism for cultural relativism.

“You shouldn’t judge!”

“Shouldn’t?”

36

Jackmormon 02.01.10 at 1:09 am

I know I sound like a broken record these past few threads, but I think a scholarly community like CT, composed of generally competent people with generally good skills, might have a blind spot when it comes to just how many ill-prepared and ill-equipped instructors there are.

And more often than not, the ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and most importantly, YOUNG instructors are teaching the most intensive courses, like freshman composition or Sebastian’s “dimensions of culture.” During my first year of teaching, I was also taking four graduate-level courses and freaking out about my orals. I was barely 24 and a little high-strung, shall we say? It probably takes most teachers a few years to relax into their roles—and, frankly, to care less about students’ being wrong—but universities don’t have to pay grad students very much, so the experience of conservative students encountering defensive, brittle university instructors will likely only continue.

37

Alex 02.01.10 at 1:09 am

Independent of one’s culture. Ie. you can say that apartheid is un-American, or goes against Western values, etc, but you can’t say it’s wrong, unjust, abhorrent, or object to it in any other such general moral terms.

I think we have a false dichotomy.

Take slavery. Surely it is possible to say that slavery is equally wrong in all times and all places (forget about stupid ticking fat violinists and whatnot), but say that the people committing slavery in Roman times shouldn’t be as criticized as those who commit slavery in the 21st century developed world. Still should be criticized (obviously I’m not suggesting time travel here, but you know what I mean), just not quite as much as those doing it today.

So let’s generalize. Say there’s two very diverse cultures, A and B, separated in time or space or both. In culture A, resides person P. In culture B, resides person Q. Both P and Q commit action X (e.g. slavery, eating an ice cream, whatever).

Now whether or not X is an immoral action or not could be said to be independent of culture, as people are arguing. Slavery is either wrong or it isn’t.

But how much moral blame should we appoint to P and Q? The same? But they grew up in different cultures. Surely we should apportion “blame” for an action based on the stimuli a person doing that action received beforehand? Surely in a luck Rawlsian and no free will kinda sense, blame has to be some function of one’s environment? Intuitively, don’t we see racists that became racist because they were brainwashed as children growing up into believing the “other” were inferior, don’t we them as less blameworthy than the racist who didn’t have such a childhood?

So the amount that P and Q should be blamed for their immoral actions should be based on their culture, and not just on the wrongness in the action itself. But they both still should be blamed, just not necessarily the same amount.

And if you look at it this way, you actually reach the exact opposite of relativism usually implies. With this, while you still blame the individuals for their actions in some way, you also blame the culture it was committed in to some extent.

In this way, a racist South African 30 years ago is committing a morally wrong action by being racist. An American today doing the same is also committing an equally morally wrong action. But the South African should get less blame for it than the American, with the difference being used to blame the culture of South Africa at the time (that simplifies a bit, since no culture has wholly eradicated racism, and so a small portion of blame would still go to modern American culture – particularly if the American lived in the South – just nowhere near as much for South Africa 30 years ago).

38

kid bitzer 02.01.10 at 1:11 am

given that this is exactly the kind of thing that douthat said about harvard in order to make his conservative bones–and given that it was just as ignorant in regard to harvard as o’keefe’s claim is in regard to rutgers–i can only assume that o’keefe is angling for a position on the nyt editorial board.

and i predict he’ll get one, too.

ah–a little googling gets me douthat’s own incisive prose, from “the truth about harvard”:

“The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum. Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists”

this of course came as something of a surprise to scanlon, korsgaard, kamm, etc. etc.

but the point of these pronouncements by young conservatives is not to say something true in any case: it is to show that you were as unaffected by your years at uni, as if you had spent four years being tortured by the chinese communists–and never broke! to learn something would be to give in, to crack, to surrender. only complete ignorance can demonstrate that you never relented in your defiance, never compromised your proud conservative principles.

yes, i see a bright future for young o’keefe. he can’t be the pudgy david brooks–douthat already has that sewn up. but he can inherit some other sinecure in wing-nut welfare, and have a long, long career of spreading ignorance.

39

Jim Harrison 02.01.10 at 1:18 am

I don’t find much use for the term relativism in my private thinking because it can mean too many different things, but the traditionalist assertion that God’s will must be invoked to ensure the objectivity of morality always struck me as moral relativism if anything ever was moral relativism since it implies that there are no such things as cogent arguments for one course of action over another. What Mr. Big says goes, and nothing else matters. Now it isn’t just that the primacy of divine will over reason might lead in principle to situations in which terrible things are done in God’s name: but that over the course of history, terrible things have been routinely done in God’s name. Indeed, the horrors God wills are crucial evidence of his transcendence of mere human reason. How isn’t this sort of thing not relativism?

40

Jim Harrison 02.01.10 at 1:19 am

I don’t find much use for the term relativism in my private thinking because it can mean too many different things, but the traditionalist assertion that God’s will must be invoked to ensure the objectivity of morality always struck me as moral relativism if anything ever was moral relativism since it implies that there are no such things as cogent arguments for one course of action over another. What Mr. Big says goes, and nothing else matters. Now it isn’t just that the primacy of divine will over reason might lead in principle to situations in which terrible things are done in God’s name: but that over the course of history, terrible things have been routinely done in God’s name. Indeed, the horrors God wills are crucial evidence of his transcendence of mere human reason. How is this sort of thing not relativism?

41

Jason Stanley 02.01.10 at 2:11 am

There were no relativists on the faculty during Mr. O’Keefe’s time in the Rutgers Philosophy department. But this year we hired Andy Egan, from the University of Michigan. He’s a relativist about epistemic modals, and some other topics as well.

42

K 02.01.10 at 2:17 am

Does anybody know the history of the use of “relativism” as an epithet on the US right. I remember it being used by barely literate folk in the early ’60s, & assume it was widely used before that. When did conservative preachers start warning about “moral relativism”?

43

Phillip Hallam-Baker 02.01.10 at 3:10 am

It is a mistake to expect such people to understand what logic is, much less apply it to their own actions.

It seems pretty likely that O’Keefe indulged in the usual right wing blather about hash sentences for criminals, zero tolerance, etc. So now that he has been caught in the act of committing a five year felony he will be calling for himself to be given the harshest possible sentence – right?

Instead he is attempting to justify his actions and is demanding apologies from the media who dared report that he had been intending to plant a wiretap (a five year felony) instead of interfering with a federal communication system that carries a ten year sentence.

The modern right is composed of the same people who would have been communists in the 1960s. They like attracting notoriety, they like the idea that they are unpopular for being ‘right’. They have an absolute and total belief that they have discovered a single simple theory that is indisputable and the only reason that anyone would disagree with it is because they are either stupid, or evil, or both.

44

Salient 02.01.10 at 3:13 am

they were “drowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and redistribution of wealth.”

The truism “it only takes an inch of water to drown an infant” sprung to mind, but that’s horrible of me.

Witt, Intro to Phil classes would be taught by professors and only TA’d by graduate students at Rutgers. For example, in Fall 2009, Dr. Stephen P. Stich (Professor II) taught the course. All sections (except honors sections) have an additional TA grad student, but lectures are apparently given by a full professor.

This isn’t meant to address your larger point about the existence of lots of unprepared or underprepared instructors, just the specific concern about the level of experience of an instructor who would have delivered lectures to Mr. O’Keefe at Rutgers University.

45

David 02.01.10 at 5:16 am

I’m surprised that someone with a libertarian economic tilt is willing to accept massive public subsidies to fund his education but feels no obligation to learn anything.

I’m surprised that Harry is the least bit surprised by this. Libertarians generally benefit in many ways, large and small, from massive public subsidies and almost never learn from it.

46

C.S.Hudspeth 02.01.10 at 5:33 am

@ Hidari #33

I have, in the past, accepted a claim something like the one you make in point number 2 but reading it today I am suddenly not sure that I should. Let me see if I can make my hesitation clear. The idea is that we have come across a species as unlike ours as is possible to imagine and from this experience we realize that moral concepts are relative to our particular way of being. But then, I wonder, why isn’t everything else as well? That is, not just moral concepts but every concept.

Here’s this radically different other, so different from me that no more difference can be imagined, but with whom I can still have a conversation (in some sense). How am I conveying information like “being” let alone “war” and “wrong” such that the only part of “war is wrong” that is problematic is the “wrong”? Why is morality what is lost in translation while “being” and “war” remain? Any concept would seem to just as plausibly be unknown to these aliens. After all, this is a creature for whom no greater difference can be imagined.

However, if they have any moral concepts then humans could, in theory, explain why we think that this particular thing (war/ Saddam Husein/not paying attention in class) fits within that category. At the very least we should be able to get them to understand that we think it fits the category, even if they don’t themselves accept it in that category, in which case “wrong” will have meaning for them. I admit that the conversation might be difficult, it might be hard to find a Rosetta Stone, but difficulty is a separate issue. I guess this means that I disagree with the claim that “our morals are relative to our biology and our location.” Rather, I would claim; “that we have morals at all is a result of our capacity to think about certain concepts and those concepts will have meaning for any creature capable of thinking about them.” Either you can think about moral concepts or you can’t. But the existence of a creature not capable of thinking about moral concepts does not entail moral relativism since that creature, by definition, has no concept of morals – they aren’t in on the moral debate. If you can think about moral concepts then you are primed your understanding what “wrong” means.

Now, this might make me an out and out Platonist. Or, it could just mean that I am a Kantian. But, I can’t accept the thought experiment “imagine a creature that has moral concepts but for and to whom our moral concepts are unrecognizable as moral concepts” as evidence that there is (any kind of) moral relativism. Even if a radically different other exists, in what sense can I admit that it has moral concepts without admitting that these moral concepts are recognizable as such?

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Jamey 02.01.10 at 5:34 am

Relativism is just another one of those words that no longer has any meaning when used by someone on the right. Like “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench”. Those words when used by conservatives merely mean, “I disagree with your interpretation of the law or the constitution”. Same with relativism. Rather than merely say, “I disagree with your views of right and wrong”, many conservatives will typically resort to accusations of having no views of right and wrong. Presumably because such an accusation is rhetorically more effective.

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Keith 02.01.10 at 5:39 am

You’re overthinking this. He’s another privileged conservative douchebag, grousing about how no one in his department will take Ayne Rand seriously as a philosopher. It’s not the Rutgers Philosophy department’s job to make sure the legacy brigade is up to the task of thinking. I mean, this guy and his buddies thought tapping a senator’s phone was a good idea. It’s a wonder he can tie his shoes in the morning without blaming liberals for how his laces are always knotted and uneven.

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Ted 02.01.10 at 5:45 am

This issue is another consequence of the American misuse of the concept “liberal/ism”, particularly its conflation with leftism/soc1al1sm.

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Keith 02.01.10 at 5:53 am

When did conservative preachers start warning about “moral relativism”?

Round about 1620 or so, right after they got off the boat.

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Ahistoricality 02.01.10 at 6:02 am

The impression I get is that they think anything other than a divine command voluntarism must be a relativist view

I think that’s a big part of it, along with the self-willed ignorance of the selectivity necessary to construct a single view of “tradition” which would support such a simplistic claim.

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praisegod barebones 02.01.10 at 7:06 am

Justin @ 23: In my culture, it’s more charitable to think that someone is saying something false because they are young, stupid and/or inattentive than to think they are saying something that they know to be false out of malice and a desire for self-advancement. Perhaps that’s not the dominant culture here at CT. :-)

Martin @30, kid @38: That’s more or less what I was trying to say.

Actually, maybe ‘something they know to be false’ is too strong. It may simply be ‘bullshit’ (in the technical sense of the term, of course).

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alex 02.01.10 at 11:17 am

@35: Nice, but neither of those two utterances is a sentence.

The Alex @37 – Your a priori judgments are showing. It is possible to say that slavery, etc etc. but it is also possible to say that colourless green ideas sleep furiously. So what? Your exciting calculus of relative blame may help get you through the day, but I fail to see what it has to do with either a philosophical or an historical understanding of the structures you hate so virulently.

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Alex 02.01.10 at 8:50 pm

The Alex @37 – Your a priori judgments are showing. It is possible to say that slavery, etc etc. but it is also possible to say that colourless green ideas sleep furiously. So what? Your exciting calculus of relative blame may help get you through the day, but I fail to see what it has to do with either a philosophical or an historical understanding of the structures you hate so virulently.

I’m not sure I follow. I was trying (and maybe I failed) to explain that saying “culture” is relevant means that you can’t say apartheid was “wrong” is a false dichotomy. You can say that it’s wrong, but it does make it harder to “judge” individuals.

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Dave Baldwin 02.01.10 at 11:06 pm

While I highly suspect O’Keefe is just mouthing the tired, old, ignorant right-wing whine about academia, and one would be a mug to think he’s speaking in good-faith, Stanley may not be quite right: Bruce Wilshire was teaching at the time O’Keefe was at Rutgers. His classes were–I understand–quite popular with undergraduates, and from what very little I know about his thinking, I shouldn’t be surprised if it was heavily colored with relativism. Still, that’s just one lone teacher.

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hilzoy 02.02.10 at 2:41 am

Two points:

(1) Recall that a lot of college movement conservatives are influenced by Ayn Rand, who rather astonishingly thought that Kant was a subjectivist and relativist about morals.

(2) About kid bitzer’s point:

“given that this is exactly the kind of thing that douthat said about harvard in order to make his conservative bones”

— this has a long pedigree. I recall watching Bill Bennett give a presentation at Harvard, back in the 80s, in which he claimed that Harvard didn’t believe in teaching ethics. Harvard at that time had not just the philosophy department, a whole slew of ethics courses in the various professional schools, etc., but required all its undergraduates to take a moral reasoning course as a condition of graduation. My Dad pointed this out, whereupon Bennett said: “By “teaching ethics” I don’t mean some dry academic course; I mean getting the drugs off campus”.

Ah. Right. I see. — It put me in mind of Lewis Carroll:

“”There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ “

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is, ” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty. “which is to be master—that’s all.”

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Anon 02.02.10 at 5:17 am

The quotation in the Times apparently comes from a student newspaper article that is attributed to O’Keefe. A fair reading of the article makes it clear that his complaint had little to do with the philosophy department at Rutgers:

“Conservatives and traditionalists are in this respect very
fortunate in college. They are challenged. They learn material
through postmodernism, historical revisionism and the plight
of the disenfranchised. The are forced to disect morality and
examine the ethical obligations of the West. They are lectured
about the injustices and struggles of those who have been
victim of systems favorable to those in power. They are
drowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and
redistribution of wealth. They are taught that there is no such
thing as truth and you are not allowed to make judgments
upon anyone or anything, except America. They are taught to
be sensitive and defensive, emphasizing artifice and political
correctness over fact. For Rutgers students who have not
taken any classes in the liberal arts, look no
further than your mandatory Expository
Writing course. You read about the evils of
capitalism and the gluttony of America. You
read about the corruption of the elections
processes which elect diplomatic morons.
You learned about the consequences of globalization, the need
for cultural contexts and the corruption of an all men’s
institution discriminating against women. Liberals are very
unfortunate in college. They aren’t really challenged at all.”

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matthias 02.02.10 at 2:42 pm

The Argument From Nazis (“if there are no justified transhistorical moral judgments, you can’t condemn the nazis”) is enthymatic, and the suppressed premise is “there is a transhistorical obligation not to morally judge people except on a sound transhistorical basis.” But this violates the visible premise.

This indeed means that what gets called moral relativism is indeed a bad basis on which to argue for tolerance (if one can “argue for” basic values at all.) But that is not, to my knowledge, what motivates philosophers professing “moral relativism!” They just think it’s true, that’s all (excepting say people like Rorty, who are “relativists” much more generically.)

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bartkid 02.02.10 at 7:39 pm

>As a philosophy major at Rutgers University, Mr. O’Keefe came to believe that conservative-leaning students were being force-fed a diet of academic liberalism.

As a science major, Ms. X came to believe Y. As a literature major, Mr. Z came to believe A., etc., etc.

I see this as a faulty premise, blaming the degree or the school for the reaction of Mr. O’K. Next, you will cite Gandhi as worse than Hitler because of his (Gandhi’s) novel counter-proposal for decades of authortarian rule by an occupying force.

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bartkid 02.02.10 at 8:04 pm

Sigh.
authoritarian.
My kingdom for a spellczech.

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M 02.02.10 at 8:18 pm

You also misspelt “more violent” as “worse.”

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Anarcho 02.03.10 at 11:53 am

“I’m surprised that someone with a libertarian economic tilt is willing to accept massive public subsidies to fund his education but feels no obligation to learn anything.”

What, he considers “Property is theft”? He advocates workers self-management to replace capitalism? He advocates the anti-state socialism of Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin?

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/the-economics-of-anarchy

Oh, you probably mean propertarian, not libertarian. Libertarian was first used by the left in 1858. Right-wing appropriation of the term started over 100 years later — while we were still using it!

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/150-years-of-libertarian

So, please, use the term propertarian to describe these people — they are more into property than liberty so that name fits far better.

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bcsmith 02.03.10 at 2:38 pm

quibbling historian: “You can say that apartheid is unAmerican,. . .” but that would be historically incorrect. It might also deprive us of a deep source of understanding and conviction about the conditions and costs of apartheid.

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engels 02.04.10 at 3:33 pm

Fascinating how a single sentence attempting to _state_ (not criticise) moral relativism draws forth such a flurry of excited efforts to enlighten me. In case it is unclear to anyone, I didn’t advance the claim that apatheid is unAmerican…

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engels 02.04.10 at 4:23 pm

(But, to be less irritable, BCSmith’s point is true and important…)

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