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.