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Philosophy professor: Students too fearful to debate controversial topics

UT Austin professor says political correctness killed his moral ethics course 

The art of debate and discourse on campus has largely been lost due to students who no longer feel comfortable openly deliberating ideas that might get them labeled a racist or misogynist or some other name.

That according to University of Texas at Austin philosphy Professor Daniel Bonevac, who has experienced first hand the impact of this trend.

In 2011, seeing signs of this phenomenon, he stopped teaching an extremely popular course examining contemporary moral problems — a class he offered for more than 20 years — because today’s students are unwilling to debate controversial, politicized issues.

Political correctness has frozen debate to the point that the trouble and backlash he might receive by offering such a course it not worth it, he said. At this point, he’s not willing to resume teaching the class.

“Students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial and one side might be viewed as politically incorrect,” he told The College Fix via email. “The open exchange of ideas that used to make courses such as Contemporary Moral Problems exciting doesn’t happen.”

“It’s not possible to teach the course the way I used to teach it.”

Historically, Bonevac’s “Contemporary Moral Problems” focused on four issues fundamental to moral and political philosophy: liberty, first principles, rights and justice.

Bonevac discussed these issues by connecting them to contemporary moral issues such as drug legalization, sexual behavior, the environment, abortion, capital punishment, war, economic equality, affirmative action and immigration.

His students read both the classical philosophical texts of Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Kant, Mill, Rawls and others, as well as contemporary articles tackling various sides of modern moral issues.

The course was extremely popular, according to Bonevac, sometimes enrolling nearly 600 students in a single class.

In a typical Monday lecture, Bonevac would present arguments in favor of one side of a moral issue, and then during Wednesday’s class he’d explore contrary arguments on the same topic.

“Teaching the course successfully requires presenting a fair balance of arguments, treating each side respectfully but also critically, and exposing students to the best arguments I can find on each side,” said Bonevac, who is known as a conservative-leaning professor on campus.

“For decades the University of Texas at Austin has been an ideal place to do that. Students bring a wide range of opinions. They’re open-minded. They argue for their own views vigorously while listening carefully to the other side and treating its advocates respectfully,” he said.

Yet, the rise of political correctness and fear of certain types of speech continue to challenge the free inquiry necessary for the success of “Contemporary Moral Problems,” he said.

“One or two students who don’t share those qualities mentioned above can shut down discussion and destroy such a course,” Bonevac told The Fix.

He recalls that in the early years of teaching the course, he had no problem presenting Sidney Callahan’s and Roger Scruton’s arguments in favor of traditional sexual morality, Don Marquis’s arguments against abortion, Justice Scalia’s and Thomas Sowell’s arguments against affirmative action, and Immanuel Kant’s, John Rawls’s, and George Borjas’s arguments for restricting immigration. He would also present counter arguments to those stances as well.

More recently, however, Bonevac noted that exploring conservative viewpoints on moral issues such as abortion, sexual morality, affirmative action and restrictive immigration has become prohibitively difficult in a classroom setting.

“Ninety-nine percent of the students might be excited to encounter arguments they had never heard before, whether they were inclined to agree with them or not. But the one percent who are not can poison the well. Indeed, they have poisoned the well, even if they say nothing in class,” Bonevac said.

The rise of political correctness makes students unwilling to “say anything that could get them denounced as racist, sexist, xenophobic,” and the like, according to the professor.

“But there’s another, less-noticed dimension,” he continued. “Students know there’s a politically correct view on a lot of issues. So, when anything connected to race, sex, etc., arises, I see a lot of students turn off. I think they see it this way: Either what comes next is politically correct and they’ve heard before, in which case it’s pointless and boring, or it presents a challenge to that perspective, in which case it’s dangerous.”

MORE: Stanford Axes ‘Moral Foundations of Capitalism’ Class

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About the Author
Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame