Non-gory cases (in philosophy of education)

by Harry on March 23, 2015

Whenever we discuss thought experiments in moral philosophy here, Daniel and JQ give me a hard time about various things, including the goriness of the thought experiments that moral philosophers frequently use (viz, trolleys killing workers, fat men, babies drowning… you name it). During the last round one or both of them challenged us to come up with some non-gory thought experiments. I haven’t. But I do have an article in yesterday’s local paper concerning a real case which serves as a sort of thought experiment—the case of Boston Public Schools’ deliberate and explicit pandering to middle class parents in the design of its choice system. The article is part of an insert that the College of Letter and Science at UW-Madison placed in the Wisconsin State Journal which, I think, is a model for communicating the value of our research (and, to a lesser extent, teaching) to the people in the state. PDF of the insert is here.

I took the case directly from Meira Levinson’s excellent Justice in Schools site: her team, which I think shares, to some extent, JQ and Daniel’s unease about the science-fictiony and gory cases we often use in moral philosophy, has been developing a series of carefully constructed cases (all based on real decision problems), with the aim of helping academics (including philosophers) teachers, policymakers and the public to train their ability to discern what values are at stake in particular situations and better make judgments about trading them off against each other. I’m designing a course around the cases for this coming fall. My favourite reaction to the site (which I used in the description when I was seeking approval for the course) comes from a (now former) elementary ed student I know quite well, who just graduated (and was snapped up by a school district in a different state that has gotten its act together). I sent her some of the cases, which she discussed extensively with her cohort. Along with her, typically well-considered, responses, she emailed:

“I wish they would give us more readings like those in my school of education, they are much more realistic than most of the readings we do, which are more idealistic… Actually I think that tension is something I struggled with a lot throughout the program-but didn’t fully understand why it was so frustrating to me. In my practicum I would see my teachers facing problems like this one-and the other behavior case every day-multiple times a day. Then in our content classes these very real problems were almost watered down, and approached in terms of ideal theory. We talked about the benefits of all-inclusive classes, being preventative, and reflecting in action. But we never really had conversations about how this looks in imperfect practice”

Which is both right (about the justice in schools project) and…depressing.

{ 70 comments }

1

LFC 03.23.15 at 7:26 pm

I’ve read the first link that lays out, briefly, the Boston P.S.’s choice program. I understand the dilemma posed by it, but I think I would need a good deal more knowledge than I have about the context (including geography, history, and demographics of the areas [i.e. the various parts of the city] covered by BPS) to reach a judgment on it. (Maybe there is more context at the Justice in Schools site but I don’t have time to look at it right now.)

It’s laudable to develop (in the OP’s words) “a series of carefully constructed cases (all based on real decision problems), with the aim of helping academics (including philosophers), teachers, policymakers and the public to train their ability to discern what values are at stake in particular situations and better make judgments about trading them off against each other.” Presumably the course to be based on these cases will give students the opportunity to research the empirical contexts without which, IMHO, reaching considered judgments on these sorts of ‘hard’ cases is usually either close to impossible or flatly impossible.

2

dsquared 03.23.15 at 7:28 pm

This is really fascinating, thanks Henry, although being British, I now want to know how the Boston system certifies you as being middle class. Do you have to listen to a specified number of hours of radio 4 or something?

3

dsquared 03.23.15 at 7:28 pm

I am now writing “Harry not Henry” on a chalkboard 200 times.

4

engels 03.23.15 at 7:31 pm

NPR shurely?

5

Phil 03.23.15 at 7:38 pm

I think in US statistical parlance “middle class” means “university graduate”, which explains a lot about the whole discourse of liberal elitism. But I don’t know how Boston knows about that either.

6

engels 03.23.15 at 7:38 pm

(…or a points-based framework developed from this)

7

LFC 03.23.15 at 7:43 pm

Do you have to listen to a specified number of hours of radio 4 or something?

Ha ha.

They could dig up specific income/wealth info for individual families, to the extent it’s publicly available, but I’m guessing they do it in a rough approach, i.e. by geographic area (so if you live in an area with one sort of overall socioec. profile, you get one choice package, and if you live in a different sort of area, another). While ‘gentrification’ may introduce complications, the different parts of big northern US cities are, I assume, still fairly segregated by class (‘socioeconomic status’), if not even moreso than before.

8

LFC 03.23.15 at 7:49 pm

Phil @5

I think in US statistical parlance “middle class” means “university graduate”, which explains a lot about the whole discourse of liberal elitism.

No, I don’t think so. First, US “statistical parlance” strictly speaking, meaning the official statistics that come out of govt agencies, probably doesn’t use the phrase “middle class” at all. In ordinary conversation about US stratification, “middle class” does not necessarily mean ‘college graduate’, I don’t think. However, in political discussion by pundits (and people who study elections and voting), “working class” is sometimes or often used to mean “not having a univ. education.” Which is a bad definition or criterion, IMO, but seems to have become somewhat standard (at least in some discussions).

9

engels 03.23.15 at 7:53 pm

Like LFC, I did not think ‘middle class’ meant ‘university graduate’ in America. I thought it meant ‘middle of the income distribution’ (which perhaps makes you ‘respectable working class’ or ‘working class but not poor’ in British terms).

10

bianca steele 03.23.15 at 7:54 pm

I’ve been thinking of writing something about what I learned from our school choice process, but haven’t gotten around to it. My town is much smaller than Boston is, and I think choice was instituted in response to NCLB rather than desegregation. Choice means, for instance, that there have to be buses from every address in town to every school. But I assume it simplifies special ed and ESL somewhat because they can centralize programs and distribute the leftover spots by lottery. And they can reduce incoming spots in overcrowded schools without redrawing boundaries.

My understanding is that Boston’s situation is much as the article describes it. Formerly, parents could choose any school in the district, and that resulted in kids being bused long distances. There was no chance of re-instituting neighborhood schools, but there was an attempt to rein things in. And there have been complaints that the system wasn’t fair, in many ways, as I remember.

NCLB reports include rough statistics on SES in each school, and not surprisingly there’s a strong correlation between SES and percentage of unsatisfactory scores (also between number of ESL students and unsatisfactory scores on language tests).

11

bianca steele 03.23.15 at 7:56 pm

There are an awful lot of university graduates around, in the under-55 crowd. A not-nice way to put it might be that the middle class parents are the ones who threaten to pull their kids out of the system if they don’t get a school that’s considered “desirable,” but that’s somewhat circular, in the context of the article. Another way to put it might be that middle class parents have the time, ability, and inclination to participate in fundraising and organizing.

12

LizardBreath 03.23.15 at 8:10 pm

LFC almost certainly has it right — ‘middle class’ would have to mean, in context of the Boston school system’s choice program, ‘people living in a low-poverty neighborhood.’

13

LFC 03.23.15 at 9:43 pm

engels @9
Two separate questions here:

1) what does ‘middle class’ mean in the context of the Boston school system’s choice program? — on which see LizardBreath above, and my comment @7.

2) what does ‘middle class’ mean in ordinary conversation in the U.S.? — short answer: often nothing v. specific, could mean different things depending on who’s speaking, to whom, etc. etc. (The phrase “decline of the middle class” is a common part of political discourse, but again, not always with a v. precise referent.)

14

Bloix 03.23.15 at 11:42 pm

Modern American usage does not admit of the existence of anything called the working class. “Middle class” (generally not “the middle class” – “middle class” is typically an adjective that describes individuals, not a noun phrase that describes a social class, which we do not generally admit to having, unless we are being euphemistic about race) describes everyone who is not poor or rich. This is a pleasingly malleable definition which can be bent to support any argument you may wish to make.

In this case, “middle class” means “families who could afford to buy houses in suburban school districts or to put their kids in private schools” – anyone who has enough money for an alternative to city public schools. Since private, parochial Catholic schools are an alternative for many Boston families, plenty of people who would be working class in the English sense fall into this category.

The point of Harry’s article is that middle-class families have choices. Therefore they must be offered benefits if you want to keep them (or bring them back) to the public school system.

If the goal of a choice system was to improve the schools, this would not be necessary. You could give everyone the same choices, and if middle-class families chose to opt out, that would be their choice.

But the point of choice is not just to improve the schools. It’s to improve the students, by bringing in children who will be better prepared, have more involved parents, and have more stable home lives. And to do that you have to convince middle-class parents that the city school is a plausible option.

You don’t have to convince poor parents of anything. The poor have nowhere else to go.

15

LFC 03.24.15 at 12:47 am

Bloix @14
I agree with a lot of this but not all.

Modern American usage does not admit of the existence of anything called the working class. “Middle class” (generally not “the middle class” – “middle class” is typically an adjective that describes individuals, not a noun phrase that describes a social class, which we do not generally admit to having, unless we are being euphemistic about race) describes everyone who is not poor or rich. This is a pleasingly malleable definition which can be bent to support any argument you may wish to make.

Yes, but:
(1) people who analyze U.S. elections routinely talk about “the white working class,” a main criterion for membership in which is, apparently, not having a college degree; as I said earlier, I think it’s a bad usage/criterion, but it’s common in discussions of voting (and one can find the usage on CT, I believe). Whether this group actually comprises an identifiable voting bloc, I don’t know.

(2) “Middle class” in American usage may well be “typically” adjectival, but it’s not always so, as in “the decline of the middle class” or “we need to expand the middle class” or routes of entry into “the middle class,” all fairly common lines in political discourse. Malleable in terms of definition, yes.

But the point of choice is not just to improve the schools. It’s to improve the students, by bringing in children who will be better prepared, have more involved parents, and have more stable home lives. And to do that you have to convince middle-class parents that the city school is a plausible option.

The line between ‘improving the schools’ and ‘improving the students’ is blurry, I think. A premise of the program would seem to be that the presence of students from a range of socioec. backgrounds makes for better educational outcomes for all students, or at any rate for the poorer ones — and hence, for better schools. Also, public schools with students mainly from poor neighborhoods have a harder time recruiting good teachers, as Harry’s summary mentioned. (Btw and on a tangent, I kind of hope the people running the BPS are aware of some of the troubling, indeed shameful, aspects of its past in terms of the treatment of poor black students. But that may not be directly relevant to the OP.)

16

Bloix 03.24.15 at 1:10 am

“The line between ‘improving the schools’ and ‘improving the students’ is blurry, I think”

You’re right of course. And it’s less than blurry – it may not even exist. It’s brutally hard to improve schools if you don’t have the support of engaged parents. And the higher the percentage of children from chaotic or troubled homes, the tougher things are. Plus, parents whose kids go to public schools vote for school funding. So getting children of middle-class parents into the public schools is crucial.

And this is putting aside the issue of race. I remember when a colleague of mine, whose child was in a private school, made an appointment to visit a magnet (public) school that she could attend. The school authorities bent over backwards to accommodate them – that little girl was white, so her return to the public school system would improve the school’s statistics. A white child was a plus – a black or Hispanic child would have been a minus. Boston, I’m sure, has the same concerns.

I don’t mean to be cynical about the problem – it’s a horrible conundrum and I understand why the Boston authorities came out where they did.

17

John Quiggin 03.24.15 at 1:32 am

I believe (though I’m not sure) he conflation of “working class” with “no degree” in political discussion partly reflects the fact that exit polls routinely ask about education – this is combined with a view of class that is almost entirely cultural rather than economic, so that a measure that classes lots of small employers as “working class” isn’t regarded as problematic.

18

John Quiggin 03.24.15 at 1:40 am

On the main point of the post, these are great questions for consideration. Avoiding the spurious precision associated with trolley problems, but still simple enough to test ethical principles and intuitions.

An aside on amusing misreadings, when I read “(now former) elementary ed student”, my immediate reaction was “so she’s in high school now?”

19

T. Oppermann 03.24.15 at 2:22 am

Could we have the link to the earlier discussion about the limitation of the ‘extreme situation’ trolley problems?

20

js. 03.24.15 at 3:02 am

An aside on amusing misreadings, when I read “(now former) elementary ed student”, my immediate reaction was “so she’s in high school now?”

Right! I also had a—wow, that’s a really articulate middle schooler!—reaction for a second.

On a very slightly tangential topic, I will put in a qualified brief for “gory” cases. It’s really what I say every time this topic comes up: what matters is not whether there’s a gory example, but how that gory example is used. Basically, if you use a gory example to “pump intuitions” and elicit a first-order normative ethical response (i.e. “this sort of thing is the right thing to do in this sort of case”), you should be held liable for professional malpractice. On the other hand, I would guess—and I would honestly love to be corrected—that a majority of the people who rail against trolley cases and fat men and drowning people, that a majority of these people have not read the Foot paper that introduced most of these cases, and wouldn’t be able to you what her point was in introducing them.

And just to be clear, I don’t at all mean to say that the problem lies only or primarily with non-philosophers. Certainly lots of philosophers have read the Williams paper with the “Jim and the Indians” case and straightforwardly drawn conclusions that Williams himself is careful not to draw.

In any case, the point about gory cases is precisely that they do elicit strong yet often conflicting first-order normative responses. So, deployed well and carefully, they can be useful for reflection on these first-order responses, and in a way that is not so easy with more mundane examples.

All that said, I am of course also completely in favor of developing the sort of “carefully constructed cases (all based on real decision problems)” that Harry mentions in his second paragraph.

21

js. 03.24.15 at 4:37 am

The evidence tells BPS officials that middle-class families are more likely to leave the district only if they have an equal chance of going to a good school

Also, I don’t understand this. (1) Is it really “only if”? It seems sort of counterintuitive vs. “if”. (2) More importantly (and perhaps relatedly), I don’t get the consequent. Does “they have an equal chance of going to a good school” mean: the children of middle class families have the same chance of going to a good school as the children of poor families (or families in any other socioeconomic bracket). Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but I’m just genuinely looking for clarification here.

22

Martin Bento 03.24.15 at 6:46 am

Perhaps the phrase should read :” middle-class families are more likely to leave the district if they have only an equal chance of going to a good school”?

23

Al 03.24.15 at 7:59 am

It is obvious given the context, though perhaps not in isolation. The comparison is between their “chance of going to a good school” if they leave the district and that chance if they stay. The point is that if leaving the district reduces their chance of going to a good school, then middle-class families are no more likely to leave than anyone else.

24

David J. Littleboy 03.24.15 at 8:25 am

I wonder if the premise of this discussion is true: i.e. is there really a significant number of Boston residents who would move to the suburbs if they didn’t get better choices for schools? The truly affluent Beacon Hill types whose kids don’t get into Boston Latin bus* their kids to private schools in the suburbs. Presumably ditto for the gentrified South End. But my horribly out of date impression (I grew up on Beacon Hill in the 60s) of Boston Latin at the time was that most of my peers were from families that didn’t have the option of moving.

Note that this is a demographic, factual question. I like this sort of ethics example way better than the “would you push a fat man in front of a truck to save a gaggle of lawyers” sort of question.

*: It was quite amusing walking across Beacon Hill to school in the morning during the period when “bussing” was first a big deal to see all the school buses lined up to take kids out to private schools in the suburbs. There’s nothing wrong with busing if you are paying for it…

25

gianni 03.24.15 at 9:12 am

@23

One might postulate that the reason you saw very little of this in your own experience is because it already happened – the middle class families able and willing to move actually did so, while the affluent solved the issue by throwing more money at it (hiring new buses). So you didn’t see many people who had the means to move, but perhaps that was not because they were few in number, but instead because they had already packed up and left.

Imagine that Junior is going off to a new school in the fall, but you don’t really get many good options so he ends up in a school of ill repute. Let’s say you have the means to move: there are plenty of towns between Worcester and Boston of varying CoL, wouldn’t you be tempted to move to one of these areas where you could guarantee that Junior goes to a better school? And how much stronger does that temptation get after the first couple of months and Junior comes home with stories about (insert schoolyard horror-story here)?

Of course, it comes down to the empirical data. But I find the decision process easy enough to follow.

While I do like this thought experiment (gets me thinking a fair bit more than a ‘trolley problem’ ever has), I am not sure that it is probing the same sort of values/moral intuitions. My first reaction to the linked ‘thought experiment’ is to want more data before I take a more definite stance. But then again maybe that response is itself interesting and reveals something about my moral preferences already.

26

dbk 03.24.15 at 9:24 am

Many thanks for this “alternative” case, Harry.
I went onto the website of Justice in Schools and scanned the case study itself – in the end, though there are some tweaks that could have improved the chances of a poor child to get into a Tier I school (e.g. upping by some reasonable percentage the number of schools in their “basket” of choices so that poor children would have a chance at roughly the same number of total places), it’s clear that much thought went into it.

How can we achieve “justice” in an “unjust” system? This seems to me one question asked by applied ethics as opposed to theoretical ethics, and problems like this one are an excellent example of how one attempts not to make the system just, but to prod it into being a little less unjust.

Let’s hope that the JiS folks amass a large bank of case studies from all over the country (CPS – sigh – the “charter school” movement come to mind immediately), and that they’re used by Phil of Educ faculty and educators and parents and … students.

A couple days ago I read that Finland is revamping its entire primary-secondary education program, switching from course-based to topic-based learning/teaching. I could easily imagine a high school class devoted to this topic, with sections on math (statistics & probability), politics (school board districting, funding priorities), history (local, including the development-evolution of urban planning) and ethics.

27

bianca steele 03.24.15 at 12:06 pm

I’ve been assuming by “middle class” they do mean in the middle range of incomes–not truly affluent, six-figure incomes or higher, and so on. Around Boston, a lot of those, though not all, are in surrounding towns and other districts, or in the factory towns not far away (as are a lot of the really affluent areas). It’s not like New York or Philadelphia, which have truly vast middle and working class neighborhoods, going out for miles, and (even Phila. increasingly now) enormous numbers of rich people.

28

bianca steele 03.24.15 at 12:40 pm

Also, in addition to NCLB, Romney’s attempt to institute English-only education played a role (certain schools can get a waiver to do bilingual longer, some districts created special programs that avoid the requirement, etc., but everyone else has to be English-only after a couple of years). Both IIRC happened about the same time.

29

TM 03.24.15 at 2:23 pm

I’m a big fan on realistic, real world case studies (though in a different field) but surprisingly (or perhaps not all that surprisingly), students don’t generally seem to like them. Many of them, I hypothesize, have learned that stuff they learn in school is theoretical, useless and soon to be forgotten, and it’s hard to convince them otherwise.
I’d be curious as to Harry’s and other commenters’ experiences (Harry quotes from one positive response but how representative is it?)

Other question, how do you talk about the systemic constraints underlying these cases? Do they induce students to understand how and why the system came to be broken and to think about how to overcome it, or is it just about how to tweak the few aspects within the broken system open to tweaking?

30

Tom Hurka 03.24.15 at 4:11 pm

About gory cases:

First, they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. In works from the earlier part of the last century, e.g. W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good, the central examples are ones like returning a book you borrowed from someone by putting it in the mail, helping a blind person across the street, etc. — almost all of them gore-free, though also schematic rather than fleshed out with e.g. the title of the book, whether you enjoyed reading it, etc.

Second, many of the best-known gory examples were introduced by women philosophers — e.g. Philippa Foot, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Frances Kamm. Likewise for fat-man examples. Any gender theorists want to venture an explanation of this?

31

Bloix 03.24.15 at 4:33 pm

On the American use of “middle class,” note today’s post on Slate, at

http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2015/03/24/middle_class_neighborhoods_they_re_disappearing.html

which uses “middle class” to mean “middle income” and defines it as between 67% and 125% of the median income in a metropolitan area.

Below 67% is “low income” and then “poor” and above 125% is “high income” and then “affluent” or “rich.”

32

Main Street Muse 03.24.15 at 5:31 pm

T M @28 – “I’m a big fan on realistic, real world case studies (though in a different field) but surprisingly (or perhaps not all that surprisingly), students don’t generally seem to like them. Many of them, I hypothesize, have learned that stuff they learn in school is theoretical, useless and soon to be forgotten, and it’s hard to convince them otherwise.”

In my experience (also in a different field than Harry), my students are not necessarily happy with the “gray” zone they must inhabit when dealing with real-world case studies – most come to college with a black-and-white frame for their world – complexity puzzles and frustrates them. Those that wallow in this gray zone for a while – for a paper or a presentation – tend to come away feeling like they’ve gotten something good out of it. At least that’s what they say… and of course there are also students who don’t like this kind of work at all.

33

mdc 03.24.15 at 6:07 pm

BTW, it’s sort of amazing a distinction between “working class” and “middle class”, while rarely understood, is so current in ordinary and media talk in the US. I would have thought ideological tendencies would have effaced the term “working class” by now. (I even hear, way more often than I would expect, the term “ruling class” escape media-types’ lips.)

34

harry b 03.24.15 at 6:50 pm

I’m always surprised when students identify as working class. I used to think it demonstrated some political consciousness, but it doesn’t (it does demonstrate class consciousness though).

My experience teaching these cases was last semester, when I used several in a political philosophy class, after a lot of discussion about justice, but without much of justice in education. It went really well. But that’s one class. I’ll report back when I’ve taught an entire course based around them.

35

Bruce Wilder 03.24.15 at 6:54 pm

Main Street Muse: my students are not necessarily happy with the “gray” zone

I suppose it is a matter of age and progress thru education. The young and ignorant want to believe someone has answers and that they can learn the answers. They may also experience the extraordinary energy of finding questions they never knew could be asked.

Then, they find that they must get on with it, and take sides in the endless battle between impractical idealism which affords no useful answer and a practical hypocrisy, which fears the failure of idealism in the long-term, while taking profit in the short.

Thus, we may rely on the rueful laughter that follows when new graduates are ritually welcomed into the company of educated people as the only true opinion acquired in college.

36

Michael Cholbi 03.24.15 at 7:42 pm

@Tom, #29: A small bit of gender equity in philosophy, I guess? Yes, it’s always a male victim: the fat man in the cave/being pushed to stop the trolley (though Singer seems careful it’s always a drowning *child*). Curious to see how intuitions would shift if Thomson’s violinist had been a woman!

37

bianca steele 03.24.15 at 7:51 pm

On “working-class”: I’d give two examples, though they’re both from decades ago. I was recently looking up the MOVE incidents in Philadelphia. The media often reported the neighborhood in question as working-class but the neighbors thought of it as middle class: they were schoolteachers and civil servants (defining working class by what it isn’t). The other would be a neighborhood like Charles Murray’s Fishtown, where it’s used to dignify a white high-crime neighborhood where a fair number of people don’t have steady work and don’t want it.

I half-remember John Hughes claiming that his background was “working class,” meaning he was expected to get a job when he finished college, unlike the “rich kids” he went to school with.

38

Phil 03.24.15 at 8:18 pm

A white child was a plus – a black or Hispanic child would have been a minus.

Which reminds me of an emigre friend of mine’s comment on this – “Americans love to say they don’t have a class system, but they do – they call it ‘race’.”

39

TM 03.24.15 at 10:20 pm

35: Since you mention Philly and Fishtown in one paragraph, I have to point out that Fishtown is a real Philadelphia neighborhood described on the official visitor site as follows:
“Cool is the rule in Fishtown, which has emerged as Philly’s truest harbor of artistic, culinary and musical action. This classic working-class neighborhood…” (http://www.visitphilly.com/philadelphia-neighborhoods/fishtown/)

I think the “classic working class” really just means: this used to be an industrial area.

40

mdc 03.24.15 at 11:13 pm

Ha, good examples I know something about. MOVE’s first, 70’s neighborhood, where I lived– Powelton–was definitely working class. So was Osage Avenue, their fatal 80’s abode. If a black radical back-to-nature armed collective can get a house in your neighborhood, it’s probably not middle-class.

Fishtown, also, is working class. It easily gets called that by Murray and others, and not just “poor”, because it’s a white neighborhood. Journalists and public-intellectuals are taught somewhere that there is no black working class.

41

bianca steele 03.24.15 at 11:15 pm

TM,

I grew up in the Northeast, I know what kind of neighborhood Fishtown is (probably still). I was curious whether they bothered to build factories up that way or just houses along the El. These days it’s pretty residential.

42

Jake 03.25.15 at 3:02 pm

@TM #29

When we (I am one of Meira’s doctoral students) have piloted some of these cases the issue of structural constraints versus working within those constraints comes up often. They represent two different sets of questions, perhaps. On the one hand, the cases may clearly illustrate particular constraints that schools/reformers/policymakers may want to change. On the other hand, oftentimes we cannot wave a magic wand and make these constraints disappear, so there are distinct questions about what people working in unjust conditions should do. Admittedly, answers to this second set of questions are potentially in flux because conditions and structures can change, but nonetheless, these questions are valuable.

The common tendency, I think, is to drift toward proposing the structural changes that would eliminate the ethical dilemmas educators find themselves in, which is certainly interesting. It is almost cathartic. But then discussion shifts back to what individuals should do given circumstances as they are. There is typically a lot of indecision and “gray area” here, and rarely do we end with consensus. But what often happens is that people reference a range of values, some predictable others not so much, to justify their decisions. For philosophers, this is interesting to think about, at least in terms of the balancing acts that Harry mentions. For practitioners, its a different framework to talk about challenging (often divisive) decisions.

43

TM 03.25.15 at 4:00 pm

Is Murray’s Fishtown modeled on that Fishtown? Just curious.

http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Fishtown-Philadelphia-PA.html

44

oldster 03.25.15 at 4:33 pm

“I understand the dilemma posed by it, but I think I would need a good deal more knowledge than I have about the context (including geography, history, and demographics of the areas [i.e. the various parts of the city] covered by BPS) to reach a judgment on it.”

Not to pick on LFC, but isn’t this *exactly* why philosophers use cases with stick-figure cut-out characters?

I.e., if you want people to focus on the trade-off between a more egalitarian situation with a lower floor, and a less egalitarian situation with a higher floor, then questions of “geography, history, and demographics” all count as distractions.

Of course, an argument in favor of stripped-down, stick-figure cases is not the same thing as an argument in favor of gory cases: the gory vs. bloodless distinction is different from the stick-figure vs. richly detailed and historically specific distinction.

45

bianca steele 03.25.15 at 4:49 pm

TM,

News reports call the book’s Fishtown (Kensington) and Belmont fictional, at least recent ones do. I just borrowed the book and it looks like there is a fictional component and a factual one.

46

bianca steele 03.25.15 at 5:07 pm

oldster,

Not to speak for LFC. but it would be interesting to know whether these middle class people are black or white and what their income is. Otherwise it isn’t easy to see how we can guess what values are being promoted. Is this about gentrification or something else?

I’m personally also curious how closely these tiers are really correlated to individual student performance, at the margins. If a difference of ten percentage points in low income or minority or special Ed students makes the difference between tier I and tier III, what impact does that really have on each student’s educational experience?

47

bianca steele 03.25.15 at 5:16 pm

TM,

My first response is in moderation….

I’m not really sure what you’re trying at. The stats linked don’t show a lot of things. They don’t show how many families are new and how many aren’t, they don’t show ethnic origin or religion (traditionally segregated), they don’t show how many residents are Jews are Muslims. So it seems I’m missing your point.

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TM 03.25.15 at 5:32 pm

You notice that I was asking a question, not making a point.

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bianca steele 03.25.15 at 5:36 pm

Way to sweet talk me into writing out my first comment again.

50

harry b 03.25.15 at 6:34 pm

Somehow I missed LFC’s first comment. Oldster’s right! But also, part of the purpose of these kinds of case (as opposed to the more standard abstract thought experiments which, I think, have largely different purposes) is to help people figure out what they don’t know that they would need to know in order to make a considered judgment. And to highlight the fact that people who have to make decisions often don’t know what they would need to know — and this is not a criticism of them, but it is, to some extent, a criticism of the social scientists whose enterprise is not optimally oriented to producing the kind of knowledge needed. One thing that the JiS team wants to do is get people more used to facing real trade-offs among values where they have imperfect information; another is to convince social scientists to produce more (of the relevant) information.

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harry b 03.25.15 at 6:35 pm

And –I think LFC basically gave me the term paper assignment, so thanks for that LFC!

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TM 03.25.15 at 8:02 pm

I think the criticism is that moral reasoning shouldn’t be based on contrived examples beyond any real-world connection. One would think that there are enough real world test cases – gory or otherwise – to use. And you are right to point out the uncertainty of real world situations. But this uncertainty isn’t something that could be remedied if only we tried harder, it’s an essential feature of reality and any thought experiment that abstracts away that essential part of reality (as is the case in the trolley problems, but also in economic theory) is probably useless.

Btw any thoughts concerning my other question at 29?

53

EB 03.25.15 at 8:32 pm

So, how much reassurance does BPS have to be giving middle class parents before it becomes unacceptable pandering? Until I read the figures far down in the linked article, I thought that they were being given preferred access to all-middle-class or nearly all white schools. Turns out, however, that the most desirable schools averaged out at 72% minority, 64% low income; the least desirable at 95% minority, 86% poor. I can see why BPS is trying hard to retain middle class families of all races; given that school performance and desirability seems highly linked to class (and race), they would be irresponsible not to.

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legalcommentator 03.25.15 at 8:35 pm

For the uninitiated:

Mass. pays school costs w/ property taxes. School costs are usually one of the highest single items on the whole tax bill.

The more your house is worth, the lower your tax RATE has to be to produce the same gross tax income. 5% on a 1 million house is the same dough as 20$ on a $250,000 house.

But there are functional caps on tax rates. Nobody likes to pay 20%. So that means that lower class neighborhoods tend to have less money to spend on schools, and therefore tend to have worse schools.

This creates a basic choice for parents who want their kids to go to a good school:
1) You can live somewhere cheap, and pay to send your kid to private school. You then have an incentive to vote against school funding (since it lowers your taxes.)

2) You can live somewhere expensive, which has good schools, and send your kids there. You then have an incentive to vote for school funding (since it gives a disproportionate benefit to school children, by taxing everyone.)

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Main Street Muse 03.25.15 at 9:17 pm

Bruce Wilder at 35 “I suppose it is a matter of age and progress thru education. The young and ignorant want to believe someone has answers and that they can learn the answers. They may also experience the extraordinary energy of finding questions they never knew could be asked.

Then, they find that they must get on with it, and take sides in the endless battle between impractical idealism which affords no useful answer and a practical hypocrisy, which fears the failure of idealism in the long-term, while taking profit in the short.

Thus, we may rely on the rueful laughter that follows when new graduates are ritually welcomed into the company of educated people as the only true opinion acquired in college.”

OR we could become mired in a thick, viscous tar pit of cynicism and loathing…

56

bianca steele 03.25.15 at 9:19 pm

I guess my comment is not going to be released, and given its brevity, I assume it’s because of the topic itself, so I’ll rewrite it to this extent: he speculates about a community, named apparently arbitrarily, and further on reveals there’s a real community by that name, and provides real data about it, and apparently proceeds to discuss both interchangeably; the press seems to have decided on “fictional.”

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Kevin Erickson 03.25.15 at 10:00 pm

This may be orthagonal to the thread, but on the the topic of gory thought experiments, I’m aware that the Walking Dead game produced by Telltale games has been used in danish classrooms to teach ethics. It’s sort of a “choose your own adventure” approach to storytelling, with lots of conflicting concerns to weigh.

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oldster 03.25.15 at 10:24 pm

Further to my above (#43 right now, but given how CT works, it may be renumbered soon).

I proposed a rationale for simplified cases which avoid real-world complexities: they allow the students to focus on the point at issue, without irrelevant distractions.

So philosophers use simplified, schematic cases for the same reason that physics use spheres of uniform density: if the point of today’s lesson is to study angular momentum, then it does not matter what color the sphere is, or what it is composed of, and anyone who asks “but is it a glass sphere or a steel sphere?” should be gently reminded that today’s topic is angular momentum, not materials science.

This same rationale, though, may well show why philosophers should *not* use gory cases: the goriness itself can become a distraction. Death, dismemberment and other dangers trigger our alarm mechanisms; for some of us, the ringing bells and red flags make it harder to think clearly, not easier.

Philosophers may think that the case has been simplified and streamlined so as to remove all possible distractors, but the plight of the fat man on the bridge–and the question whether it is fat-shaming and discriminatory to use a fat man at all–and the doubts about whether it is plausible that he can be fat enough to stop the trolley–and a dozen other such peripheral issues–are all acting as distractions.

Philosophers can say, defensively, “but you’re just not seeing the point! Today’s lesson is not about fat-shaming, but about utilitarian trade-offs!” I say, “if your example keeps triggering responses like this, then you have chosen a bad example.”

The only good rationale for gore is clarity. But the clarifying effects of gore are very commonly overestimated. It can contribute to clarity, sometimes, but it can also constitute a new and gratuitous source of distractions.

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mdc 03.25.15 at 10:58 pm

Fishtown’s working-class name is outdone only by nearby Baltimore’s Pigtown, also real.

The unintentionally hilarious part of Murray’s book is that his concrete proposal for how to help the (white) working class is to have more educated professionals with healthier life and work habits to move into Fishtown, becoming exemplary neighbors with their culturally ravaged lower class brethren. Not sure he knew that even at printing, every yuppie who couldn’t afford Center City (especially those new to the city) was being driven by realtors up to Fishtown and shown overpriced “affordable” stainless appliance, granite-countertop rehabs.

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LFC 03.25.15 at 11:18 pm

harry b
And –I think LFC basically gave me the term paper assignment, so thanks for that LFC!

welcome

p.s. i’ll try to respond to oldster’s pt a bit later.

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Matt 03.25.15 at 11:47 pm

The unintentionally hilarious part of Murray’s book is that his concrete proposal for how to help the (white) working class is to have more educated professionals with healthier life and work habits to move into Fishtown, becoming exemplary neighbors with their culturally ravaged lower class brethren. Not sure he knew that even at printing, every yuppie who couldn’t afford Center City (especially those new to the city) was being driven by realtors up to Fishtown and shown overpriced “affordable” stainless appliance, granite-countertop rehabs.

I am going to assume “healthier life and work habits” is his term rather than yours. It’s hilarious/appalling to think that having precarious low pay employment vs stable well remunerated employment is a habit, like remembering to brush your teeth. Why do people with good jobs and matching social status embrace American social institutions while people without it give up after bouts of unemployment? Let me narrate it using “culture” as the independent variable…

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TM 03.26.15 at 12:08 am

56: What is disputed is rather whether trolley problems are to real life situations as frictionless spheres are to realistic physical bodies. I think the answer is no. I don’t necessarily think that moral philosophy shouldn’t talk about gory problems, if reality poses them, but why invent unrealistic ones when there are so many realistic ones to choose from?
“the goriness itself can become a distraction” – this is an interesting point. Drone strikes are gory but we don’t get to see the goriness and tend not to react accordingly. And even more so for many other moral problems, such as food stamp cuts, school closings, etc. Seemingly mundane bureaucratic decisions may cause more suffering than many a gory scenario. So focusing on gory ones – especially when they are contrived – seems a poor way of preparing students to think critically about what actually matters in modern society.

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bianca steele 03.26.15 at 12:38 am

There’s only one hilarious part? Anyway should we blame the sixties by preference to the Hells Angels? Either way Kensington was a no-go zone [1] when I was growing up, and it seems like gross romanticism to think it was like Ozzie and Harriet before. (There was, in fact, a fashion recently for reminiscing about how great it was to be young and white there in the seventies, how men had jobs and people respected their dads, who wore suits and hats.) But expanding the area where people actually want to go, given what Center City was like thirty years ago, can only help. And it’s ridiculous to suggest that organized crime is an adorable working class folkway that it’s prejudiced to put down.

1- Not like people were going in droves to my neighborhood, but that’s because there was nothing to do and no way to get there.

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LFC 03.26.15 at 1:08 am

@oldster:
(1) The stick-figure (or abstract) thought experiments and the real-world cases may have different purposes, as harry b said @50.

(2) A number of commenters in this thread seem to me to be in tune w/ the spirit of the exercise as I understand it, which is, partly, to bring together philosophical questions/arguments and real-world situations. Call it applied ethics or whatever you want. I think it’s often more interesting and useful than the abstract thought experiments (whether they happen to be ‘gory’ or not).

(3) From this standpoint the facts about the real-world case are not distractions from the “point at issue”; they are part of the background one needs to argue intelligently about the point at issue. Simply asking people “to focus on the trade-off between a more egalitarian situation with a lower floor, and a less egalitarian situation with a higher floor” (to quote you, oldster, from a comment above) is not as interesting in the abstract as it is when it’s connected to a real situation.

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LFC 03.26.15 at 1:18 am

On the “issue of structural constraints versus working within those constraints” (to quote Jake @42) — some of these constraints, as he suggests, are presumably v. hard to change. Take the matter of financing schools via property taxes, as many states do, apparently including Mass. (see ‘legalcommentator’ @54). The US Sup. Ct. said in c.1973, if I recall correctly, that this kind of financing system did not violate equal protection. So states are free to do it. Indeed, more than one ‘structural constraint’ in this area, I think, will be found to stem from bad US Sup Ct decisions that basically have no realistic chance of being overturned any time soon. So, not being able to wave a magic wand, as Jake says, and change the constraints quickly, there is some value in asking how one shd act within them.

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Kiwanda 03.26.15 at 3:03 am

@oldster:

A concern I have for some trolley problems is not the possibility of distractions of gore or fat-shaming etc., but that they are not schematic enough to eliminate confounding intuitions: my reaction to the prospect of killing the fat man to save others is colored by the feeling that killing him won’t actually help: really, a single body is going to stop a train? In a another example it’s supposed to be a certainty that two colliding trains will roll down a hill and kill a man in a hammock. Really?

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joe koss 03.26.15 at 4:38 pm

I was hoping you´d post on the new Center Harry. Great stuff. The Justice in Schools site is an excellent resource to get discussions started within and across schools so thanks for that link. I had many of the same feelings concerning our core course work during my time in the UW SoE that your student did. Luckily I also had Diana Hess for my methodology courses.

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RSA 03.27.15 at 2:34 am

This may be a distraction from the topic of the thread, but I’m reminded of the first time I cracked a book on operations research. Lots of textbooks in engineering and statistics contain simplified, artificial examples. The example I’m remembering was about choosing an appropriate means (or combination of means) to alleviate air pollution produced by a given factory. The optimal solution, given various costs and assuming that particulates were collected at ground level, was to raise the heights of the smoke stacks. There was no commentary in the text about any drawbacks to this solution. I thought it was interesting.

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ZM 03.27.15 at 2:46 am

Last night i went to a talk where our philosophers Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita discussed the ethics of the real life case of the developer who is trying to build a broiler farm/chicken factory in the shire where I live.

Our town council rejected the developer’s application — but now he has gone to our planning tribunal. The case was to be held this week — but property owners adjoining the proposed site just very recently happened to buy two already built houses and moved them to their properties so the case had to be postponed to consider the impacts on the residences. The philosophy discussion was to fundraise for the case when it starts again, because Gaita grew up near the proposed site for the broiler farm.

It was very interesting because they are quite different sorts of philosophers.

Gaita recounted a friend saying “Bloody oath — you two are finally allies!” since they both agreed that the broiler farm would not be an ethical development.

But they reached the same conclusion through different ways — so there was quite a discussion of their different philosophical methodologies and the roles of reason/logic and sensibility in ethical deliberations.

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js. 03.27.15 at 6:50 pm

any thought experiment that abstracts away that essential part of reality (as is the case in the trolley problems, but also in economic theory) is probably useless

It’s really not, though. Any more than geometry is useless because there are no perfect circles in nature. Any real-world situation involves various variables or factors that are mixed up in all sorts of complicated ways. Isolating one or more of these and testing reactions to them is entirely useful in evaluating how one does or should react to real-world situations where these same variables occur tho not singly.

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