The limits of impartiality in teaching applied philosophy

by Chris Bertram on April 30, 2019

In Harry’s thread on teaching applied ethics, one commenter expressed the view that teachers should not say which side they support in a debate and should think of themselves as acting as lawyers for both sides. I think Harry sort of agreed with the first point. However, this isn’t always possible and sometimes isn’t even desirable. It won’t be possible when you have expressed yourself publicly and in-print on the issue at hand. When you have, then students will know what you think. Sure, you can present the best counter-arguments to your view in their best light, and you should, and you should encourage disagreement (and discourage unwarranted praise). But they’ll still know.

Some cases, though, are more resistant to impartiality. Take the ethics of migration, for example. I don’t find it hard to present arguments for restriction as put by people like David Miller or Christopher Heath Wellmann. So to that extent, even where the students know where I stand, they also know that I think there are philosophically respectable people whose arguments need addressing and that if they agree with, say, Miller, rather than me, that’s OK. Much more difficult, I find, is when we get onto state enforcement of immigration policy. The problem here is that even the restrictionists hedge their support for restriction with an acknowledgement that states must respect human rights and the values embodied in the rule of law.

States too, at least of high days and holidays, proclaim their allegiance to those same value. So, for example, the then Conservative Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, [gave a speech in his official capacity in 2013 about the meaning of the rule of law]( (See also the “British values” that the UK state is supposedly commited too.) When he gave that speech, Theresa May’s “hostile environment” was in full swing, with terrible effects on the human rights of individuals and a series of parallel moves made it much harder for people caught in the maw of immigration enforcement and subject to detention and detention to affirm their legal rights. Since then, the British state has done things like using exemptions from data protection that it has granted itself to delve into migrants’ medical records in order to undermine asylum claims. I won’t provide a full catalogue of state crimes here.

So what does impartiality require of the teacher here? To invent a justification for state actions that departs from the state’s own publicly proclaimed values in order to have a position to argue against? We can only entertain in a philosophy class arguments that don’t pass the laugh test, and all we have in this case are the one-line rationalizations of polticians for really nasty policies, rationalizations that are obviously inconsistent with other things they say.

So yes, we have an obligation to present all *serious* arguments fairly, and we have a duty not to be openly party-politically partisan. But sometimes we must be open about what we think and there are some positions and policies that it is unreasonable to even try to find a case for.



Matt 04.30.19 at 1:07 pm

I haven’t taught on immigration to philosophy students for a couple of years now, but when teaching Australian migration law over the recent (Southern Hemisphere) Summer term, and discussing the long series of utterly lawless actions taken by the government in relation to refugees and others, I actually did find it useful in class to ask students if they could think of acceptable reasons for the actions. I tried my best not to show my complete contempt for some of the actions, so that we could, I hoped, think through exactly what was going on. But, I did think there was some value in having the students try to work through the government positions, so as to see exactly how gross and hollow they were.


Harry 04.30.19 at 1:49 pm

Just to be clear I think I agree with all this. I have a lot of freedom over what I choose to teach, and wouldn’t teach an issue in CMI if there weren’t quite strong arguments on more than one side. I also wouldn’t teach an issue in which I thought that students were being systematically misled either by my pedagogy or by the arguments. So, for example, I think there are very good arguments for, and against, various forms of affirmative action, but when I taught it I found it impossible to shake the tendency of students to seek arguments that enabled them to rationalize their priors (on both sides, actually): I found that when teaching abortion at first, too, but learned how to interrupt that tendency.

A central criterion for me is that the positions we are discussing should be grounded in high quality and accessible philosophical literature. So, no, you shouldn’t invent arguments for ludicrous positions. In fact, I wouldn’t really start out with even quite sensible positions without the right literature behind them (though I would entertain and even encourage them from the students). So this is a way in which it is very unlike courts of law in which lawyers are often called on to defend quite ridiculous claims.

I also genuinely think that non-disclosure/disclosure is a pedagogical choice, and there are reasons to use one strategy rather than another depending on the context, including the composition of the class. So, for example, if a student if a very large majority of the class held roughly the same view as I do about something that would pretty much decide me never to disclose; whereas if I know they’re all against the view I hold, and I judge that they are pretty confident and robust, I might think its a good idea to disclose.

The choice is complicated by the need for devil’s advocacy, which I practice with enthusiasm, usually for positions I know will be unpopular.

If a student comes up with a position or argument that really is quite bad, I want them (and the other students) to see its defects; but, pedagogically, I’d prefer that other students, rather than I, do the open intellectual work of showing why it is wrong. I have to say, while all students get arguments wrong, its extremely rare that I encounter anything that seems beyond the pale. But maybe if I taught about migration I’d find it.


Bill Camarda 04.30.19 at 3:01 pm

My study of philosophy has only been casual, not rigorous. Still, I’m surprised that you can’t cobble together a credible philosophical counterargument for borders based on claims like these:

• Humans aren’t fungible; they build cultures together, and have non-zero rights to pass some aspects of those cultures along (rights that are far more limited than, and can be qualitatively distinguished from, the vicious and insane claims of white nationalists)
• Extensive social science evidence appears to suggest that unlimited and rapid immigration reduces the willingness of citizens to support the social democratic programs that seem necessary for modern societies to function well
• A related point: it is at least conceivable that as societies have become more complex, they have chosen to create borders not solely out of bigotry and the need to define outsiders as separate from themselves, but also simply to make themselves more manageable
• Vast majorities of citizens oppose fully open borders; is it entirely self-evident that their opinions must count for nothing?
• Certain arguments for border restrictions, such as preventing the entry of individuals with contagious diseases, seem potentially stronger than others; perhaps the arguments for border restriction exist on a continuum rather than all being equally worthless?
• Even if (as I believe!) immigration is a net benefit to the receiving society, it will hurt some (less economically competitive) citizens. One can certainly argue these citizens have no right not to be hurt. That claim isn’t self-evidently true; it seems at least debatable. One might also argue that this establishes a moral obligation to protect those citizens through compensatory social programs or direct payment. But if that moral obligation simply cannot be met for reasons of political reality, what then?
• And, of course, the self-serving arguments that a state makes for its hypocrisies are not necessarily the best arguments, and obviously one ought to be contending with the best arguments available, not those of political hacks

As I’ve tried to imply above, I see myself as being in the broad mainstream of (US) opinion on immigration. Overall, I think it creates more benefits than harms to those who live here now – but it doesn’t help everyone. I think this would likely be not the case for a fully “open borders” policy, and that is (at least potentially) a legitimate argument against one. I think emigrants also have claims, but those claims may not be infinite. And I think the fact that most people can’t meaningfully treat all eight billion human beings identically is a reality that philosophy can’t afford to ignore.

Again, I’m not saying your conclusions are wrong. I’m saying only this: it surprises me that you conclude the issue isn’t even sensibly debatable.


Mike Huben 04.30.19 at 4:03 pm

“We can only entertain in a philosophy class arguments that don’t pass the laugh test”

And which are those?

Philosophical and rhetorical arguments seem to me to be merely fluffy elaborations on values designed to get more support for the values. All those arguments are defeasible. A few people might adopt the values, a few might be support the values while not adopting them (because they were fooled or strategic), and most people will retain the DIVERSE values they were originally indoctrinated in during childhood, without arguments.

The underlying values are often as simple as “my tribe first” or “I want the power distributed this way”. Especially in issues such as immigration. I really can’t understand how the arguments matter when the real issue is the underlying values.

“the state’s own publicly proclaimed values”

I don’t think this assumption should have survived the invention of the word realpolitik. These proclamations are the result of political conflict, not philosophical thought. They are intended to fool the rubes. Hardly anybody takes these seriously when they conflict with self-interest, one of our primary values.

Much as I admire you folks from many years of reading your posts, and agree with your values and pedagogy, the problem with “serious arguments” is that they all are formally based on assumptions subject to widespread disagreement and they all are motivated by values that are also in conflict. In that respect, I’d suggest that the first valuable skill would be identification of unspoken assumptions and values. Then I’d discuss the origins of these assumptions and values, from psychology to propaganda. For example, in abortion issues there is the psychology of squeamishness and the propaganda campaign started a few decades ago to create a wedge issue.


ccc 04.30.19 at 5:05 pm

Another limit to impartiality is in the necessary selection of what material to cover in the course and what not to cover. For example the course Harry mentioned included sections on abortion. It seems to often be taken for given that human induced human fetus abortion should be a big topic in applied ethics and that a lot of space and time should be devoted to it. To include that topic, rather than one of the many other topics in contemporary ethics, is a normative choice that likely strengthens the impression in students that abortion is a very important moral issue, regardless on what position they the go on to take on that issue. In contrast some other topics will likely be considered less important by the students in light of them not being covered at all in the course. Similarly when teachers, as seems to standardly be the case, cover non-human animals in a single session, or at least devotes a clear minority of the time on ethical issues relating to them, then that transmits the view to the students that humans are much more important morally.


nastywoman 04.30.19 at 5:29 pm

”It won’t be possible when you have expressed yourself publicly and in-print on the issue at hand”.

That’s what I thought – but then there was this point about ”concrete problems we look at” – and I forgot that – like in the ”American Part” of my own family – concerning ”concrete problems” it can be very VERY confusing – as – to use the three concrete problems Prof. Brighouse used:
”Abortion” –
”Licensing of Parents”
”Sex between consenting adults”
– in the ”European Part” of my family ”the philosophy” concerning these problems could be called ”pretty much stereotypical progressive” -(or should we define it as ”liberal”) while our American Family -(and friends) often completely surprise US with a wild mix of ethics we have a very hard time to comprehend?
-(and is that Von Clownstick’s fault?)


Chris 04.30.19 at 7:25 pm

Bill Camarda: From the post: “I don’t find it hard to present arguments for restriction”


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.30.19 at 7:48 pm

I don’t see inconsistency by a state–even deliberate inconsistency that amounts to a lie–as indefensible. States are not moral actors. Full stop.

Is this principle disgusting? Quite possibly so. Indeed, I think it is. But it is quite defensible, and by no means inconsistent with many takes on international law.


Chris Bertram 04.30.19 at 8:41 pm

@Matt thank, pedagogically useful

@Chris thanks for pointing that out to Bill


Leo Casey 04.30.19 at 9:28 pm

By the time of high school, intelligent students are discerning. With a little bit of effort, they can figure out the views of virtually every teacher or professor on the controversies being taught.

Yet educators often greatly underestimate the ability of our students to figure these matters out, especially when we assume that simple Google searches (our name + affirmative action, abortion, LGBTQ rights) is the only tool for doing so. Most students develop a hermeneutics of their teachers’ views, using both tacit and conscious knowledge. Since we as intellectuals make efforts to be consistent and coherent in our views, it is not that hard to use what they can find of our views — in our published writings and our spoken words — to impute a good general idea of where we stand on other controversies. And that is only one source of information. Since we arrive at our views with some consideration, we generally make efforts to be faithful to those views in how we act. How an educator interacts with students of color, for example, is not irrelevant information on the question of what they think about affirmative action. The extent to which an educator makes the classroom a welcoming place for LGBTQ students is not irrelevant information on the question of what they think about gay rights. And so on. None of this is perfect information, but put together enough of it and in Bayesian fashion, any intelligent student will be pretty damn close to the mark.

So I would argue that from high school on, the educator who thinks their views are inscrutable to their students is largely engaged in self-delusion. Not all students care what we think, but for those who do, they can figure it out without too much difficulty.

I would also argue that the view that students learn best when they don’t know their teacher’s or professor’s views, when they are behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ is a mistaken one. (I won’t belabor the reasons for the quoting of Rawls here, other than to say that students who don’t have a good idea of our views are students who choose not to engage in the exercises which would give them that insight.) A teacher’s personal views — if you want, his or her ‘answers’ — is one of the least influential ways in which students thinking is shaped, precisely because it is easier for students to take their knowledge of the perspectives of the educator into account in coming to their own conclusions. Didactic educators convince very few students of their stated personal views. Far more powerful in the shaping of students’ thinking are the ‘questions’ the educator poses (and doesn’t pose) — the selection of what issues to discuss (and what to ignore), the choices about what should be required reading (and not required), the decisions on what lines of reasoning and evidence to challenge (and what not to challenge). The decisions of framing are far more influential in no small part because they are largely invisible to the student. Students don’t know what they don’t know, and so won’t understand the intellectual and political choices that go into studying Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and Rawls’ Theory of Justice, but not Walzer’s Spheres of Justice, in a class of 20th century American moral and political philosophy — they won’t even know that there was a choice to be made. Attempting to hide your own views as a moral and political philosopher of a libertarian bent from your students does not make their educational experience any better. In fact, the more they do know of your own views, the better equipped they will be able to independently assess your class choices and framing.

What is the responsibility of the educator? Not to pretend that he or she is not a citizen, who has views of the world in which we live and who acts on those views to make the world what would be, in our estimation, a better place. (Indeed, if students need to be shielded from our views, should we withdraw from active citizenship, to protect them from that knowledge?) No. Our responsibility is to conduct our classes in ways that are consistent with a truly deliberative democracy — one in which all views can be and are expressed, whether or not they are in accord with the educator’s own views or the views of the majority of the students; one in which exchanges are respectful and differences are articulated in terms of logical argument and evidence; and one in which all comers are equal, regardless of their status in the outside world. Deliberative democracy has its shortcomings as a model of democratic self-rule in an agonistic world, but it provides a remarkably good model for how to nurture the best of classrooms.


SusanC 04.30.19 at 9:29 pm

So, no, you shouldn’t invent arguments for ludicrous positions.

I have a lot of sympathy for what you’re saying here, but … isn’t most of philosophy about inventing arguments for completely ludicrous positions? :-)

e.g. radical scepticism of the “what we perceive with our senses might be the result of a malicious demon” variety, which has a quite impeccably high quality literature associated with it, from Descartes to Eric Schwitzgebel.


J-D 04.30.19 at 9:43 pm

Ebenezer Scrooge
Every state action is an individual action. If a state gives orders for somebody to be put to death, the way that happens is that an individual speaking for the state gives orders for that person to be put to death. If a state holds somebody in detention under physical restraint, the way that happens is that individuals acting for the state place that person under physical restraint. If a state imposes a licensing scheme on lawyers, the way that happens is that individuals acting on behalf of the state decide whether an application for a licence should be approved, and other individuals acting on behalf of the state take enforcement action to take away licences from people who violate licence conditions and to impose penalties on people who attempt to practise law without a licence. And so on.

Since individuals don’t cease to be moral actions when acting on behalf of the state, it’s not clear to me whether it makes any difference whether we consider states to be moral actors.


grymes 04.30.19 at 10:09 pm


Harry’s data (from the other thread) pretty clearly show that he, at least, is exempt from your first generalization. And I’d guess that I’m exempt too, given how often students ask me about my views (and express–sometimes mock, sometimes genuine–frustration when I refuse to disclose until they’ve graduated). Indeed, I’d guess that the generalization is false. I would be surprised to find out that I’m abnormally good, among nondisclosers, at masking my views. Indeed, I don’t really make any special effort to mask my views–I just don’t explicitly disclose, while earnestly defending all the views we discuss in class (as I would even if I were a discloser). As far as I can tell (though I’ve never done any polling like Harry), students tend to see me as playing devil’s advocate for every view. When this frustrates them, it usually seems to be because they’ve been shown that there are good arguments *against* every view, and want to epistemically defer (i.e. be told what to think).


steven t johnson 05.01.19 at 12:02 am

So far as I can tell, this is at heart advising the Socratic method. The practical limitation then is that the Socratic method seems largely to be useful for training lawyers, or to help philosophers play lawyer for their preferred wisdom, or theological training for clergymen who have learned too much to believe. Again, it is not at all clear that the real path isn’t learning to recognize good evidence. Barring the presumption there is no such thing as knowledge, that is.


Mike Huben 05.01.19 at 12:35 am

J-D @ 12:

Every individual human action is an action by an individual cell, by your standards. Daniel Dennett would call your claim “greedy reductionism”. You simply ignore the cases where state action (such as voting, legislation, etc.) is by groups of individuals.


Bill Camarda 05.01.19 at 12:52 am

Thanks to both Chrises for pointing out my careless reading, with my apologies and intention to do better.


Matt L 05.01.19 at 2:59 am

“By the time of high school, intelligent students are discerning. With a little bit of effort, they can figure out the views of virtually every teacher or professor on the controversies being taught.”

Sure some students can figure out a teacher’s politics, in a general sense, but that doesn’t mean much. I am grading quizzes for my western civ class tonight. A substantial portion (1/5) of the class still has a hard time defining Liberalism, Socialism and Feminism. We’ve been banging away at defining these ideologies and reading examples of them in primary source documents since January. Just because a student knows what an instructor’s views are doesn’t mean they know what to do with that information, or even if they understand the professor’s politics.


Alan White 05.01.19 at 3:18 am

FWIW I taught Philosophy of Religion for many years with a syllabus that included a caveat bio page about where I come from–a former evangelical who took philosophy and lost faith as a result. I took pains in that announcement to say that phi/rel only has one goal–to examine the major issues in light of rational criticism and not at all to proselytize either against or for religion. What’s interesting is that later in the semester, when we’ve done Kierkegaard and see that it is by no means easy to see when one is genuinely spiritual (an offshoot of the teleological suspension of the ethical), students frequently came to the conclusion that I did not lose my faith after all. While I have never in the least wavered from my loss of faith at 20 as a ministerial student studying philosophy, I took pride in the fact that even after announcing officially that I was not religious, many students at the end of the course could not confidently say whether I was or not. No doubt that’s a function of the brilliance of SK–but still, I took pride that not once did a student ever say in student evaluations that I tried to dissuade them from practicing their faith.


nastywoman 05.01.19 at 5:41 am

”So I would argue that from high school on, the educator who thinks their views are inscrutable to their students is largely engaged in self-delusion”.

But I always loved that with my Prof’s – that they had no idea what we – his -(or her) students – really thought about him -(or her) –
and I guess that’s why Prof. Brighouse always tries to find out and does this survey? – which doesn’t work ”that” well with ”Art” or ”Communication”-students – as they love NOT to disclose by disclosing all kind of… ”unrelated stuff”.
– in order that their Prof’s will just get – what the students think – their Prof’s want –
-(but NOT too much of it)


nastywoman 05.01.19 at 5:50 am

”And I’d guess that I’m exempt too, given how often students ask me about my views (and express–sometimes mock, sometimes genuine–frustration when I refuse to disclose until they’ve graduated)”.

And after they graduated -(and you have ”disclosed”) they… could we call them ”unethical” students tend to inform anybody who wants to know -(for a few bucks or more) that you are the type of Prof who loves it if they give you the impression that they know nothing about your views…


nastywoman 05.01.19 at 6:08 am

”Just because a student knows what an instructor’s views are doesn’t mean they know what to do with that information, or even if they understand the professor’s politics”.

Almost all of them always know it – if knowing it and using that knowledge could get them better ”grades” – if it doesn’t get them better grades – there is no reason trying to understand a Prof’s politics.


J-D 05.01.19 at 8:17 am

Mike Huben

It is true that state actions are sometimes the actions of more than one individual rather than of just one, but since none of those individuals cease to be moral actors as a result of acting on behalf of the state, it still seems to me that it makes no difference whether we regard states themselves as moral actors.


hix 05.01.19 at 9:51 am

Hyporisy is pretty much standard operating procedure for politicians, sometimes more sometimes less overt , sometimes with more dysfuntional end results sometimes with less. There must be someone makeing the honest argument even on subjects like the right asylum, which mainly would involve admitting one does think there should be no right to it, or even already operates on the assumtion there is non instead of trying hard to cover that up as a starting point*.

*That should do quite well in the polls, so I´m a bit puzzled why mainstream politicians dont just do it.


grymes 05.01.19 at 2:00 pm

nastywoman @20:

Ha! Possible! I frankly doubt I’m *that* fascinating to more than a few of my students. (Few actually do follow up after graduation…)


grymes 05.01.19 at 2:04 pm

Alan @18:

That’s interesting (and an excellent result). I wonder whether they take the disclosure as a kind of trick–a way of ingratiating yourself with both the Christians and the atheists–and discount it accordingly. (Not that I would be against using that kind of trick if that is indeed part of the point!)


Phil 05.01.19 at 2:32 pm

“there are some positions and policies that it is unreasonable to even try to find a case for.”

Agreed with reservations. I think it would be dangerous to think we could identify a type of position that it was unreasonable, etc; as a teacher I do try to keep open the option of taking positions I think are both fundamentally wrong and dangerous. What we can do, though, is – as you say in so many words – take governments and political forces seriously, attending to what they say but judging it in the light of what they do. We can’t say “Broken Windows policing is just a fancy way to justify mistreating minorities” or “trying to starve people into work is evil”, but we can say three things:

1. They say they believe in X; is that what they’re doing? If so, with what exceptions?
2. They say that doing Y will achieve result Z; could that work? If so, at what cost?
3. They say they know that doing Y will achieve result Z; do they? If not, what do we know?
4. [optional] If while proclaiming their belief in X they’re actually doing Y, and if it isn’t going to achieve result Z… what do they believe in?

Call me a consequentialist*, but I think questions 1-3 give you (and give students) quite enough protection to make it possible to table the possibility that cutting taxes to zero would boost the economy, say, or that rearming will make the country great again, without any a priori caveats.

*Please don’t call me a consequentialist.


nastywoman 05.01.19 at 7:46 pm

”But sometimes we must be open about what we think…”

– especially in times of the ”Von Clownstick Rule” – our ”good” educators need to be even more open about what they think – and if it’s only to offer some kind of (ethical) counterbalance to all the noise of the morons – and to make sure that the FF’s don’t dominate ”ethics” by finally getting rid of it completely…


TM 05.01.19 at 8:13 pm

SusanC “isn’t most of philosophy about inventing arguments for completely ludicrous positions? :-)”

My thought too. This whole discussion hinges on what one considers legitimate (philosophical) argument.


nastywoman 05.02.19 at 7:07 am

”This whole discussion hinges on what one considers legitimate (philosophical) argument”.

– and I thought it ”hinges” on –
”the limits of impartiality in teaching applied philosophy”?


nastywoman 05.02.19 at 7:27 am

– and there seems to be this… ”trend” in daily American -(and UK?) Life – to NOT ”disclose” PRIVATELY any parts of any believes of any part of applied ethics.

As discussions of topics such as ”immigration” and to a lesser degree ”abortion, inequality in education, parental licensing, the gendered division of labor, sex on campus, and speech on campus” can become so… ”contentious” (lately) – that it can lead to all kind of… ”unfriending” –

But who (still) wants to be ”friends” with somebody who believes in ”alternative ethics”?

And so – as some of US – in our daily lives – try to avoid all of these… topics – in order NOT to get into a fight with somebody every day – we at least should have some ”educators” who will tell US honestly that Mr. Barr is a FF too?


Moz of Yarramulla 05.03.19 at 12:02 am

try to avoid all of these… topics – in order NOT to get into a fight with somebody every day

I have this at work on a regular basis, and it’s somewhat surprising how positive a work-friendship can be despite substantial philosophical disagreement, and how people who I have more in common with philosophically can be much more difficult personality-wise. Working in engineering means there are lots of others who are also not social or socially adept, so possibly those problems are more obvious (even to the socially unaware). I’ve worked in much more people-oriented places where the problems are less obvious but also much more serious (people quit the career or commit suicide, for example – a socially adept bully is a frightening thing).

I also commonly have the problem that my ethics inform obvious things in my everyday life – I don’t own a car or travel in them when I can avoid it, so it’s very easy for that to be obvious to anyone. Trying to avoid that topic is tricky… I quite regularly get defensive rants about how cyclists are awful and the ranter needs their car, regardless of anything I’ve said or say. Any member of a visible minority will likely have had that experience, and I’m not sure ethical choices are special in that regard (from what I hear being a fat person in a wheelchair often triggers much worse behaviour).


Moz of Yarramulla 05.03.19 at 12:13 am

Back to the original:
what does impartiality require of the teacher here? To invent a justification for state actions that departs from the state’s own publicly proclaimed values

I’m also struck by the problem of “ethical leaders” who don’t*, with a blatant example being the Catholic Church’s role as a criminal organisation/paedophile ring. But this is commonly also a problem within universities when it comes to sexual assaults. A lot of academic staff are troubled one way or the other by the #metoo movement and I’m not sure how a lecturer on either side of that debate could (or should) pretend impartiality.

Does a lecturer have an obligation to invent a justification for any side of the #metoo discussion, even the criminal or purely self-interested ones? That’s aside from any personal issues working with or teaching the side(s) you might disagree with.

* except in the sense of the meme “sometimes the best you can hope for is to serve as a warning to others”.

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