“Fuck the Second Amendment!” Redux,
and “Fuck the Death Penalty!” Too.

APP Editors’ note:

This discussion is based on the recent (15 May) post, “Fuck the Second Amendment!”: Free Speech and Contemporary Professional Philosophy. A Short But Very Edgy Essay by Z.

Y: My sense is that uttering “fuck the second amendment” would be received very differently at an urban east coast school, where students are far less attached to the idea of gun ownership. I most definitely think that as a matter of academic freedom, you should be able to voice such views without being reprimanded by a department chair. But here’s the best sort of counter-argument that immediately springs to mind:

Presumably, you don’t want to force your own views on the students. You want them to think more carefully about the second amendment, the notion of arbitrary coercion, the legitimacy of the use of violent force by police and military officers, etc. But you, yourself, are in a position of power as the professor. By expressing a controversial view so emphatically (and in using curse words) you are closing off opportunities for meaningful debate and dialogue. Students who feel especially attached to the second amendment may feel as if your utterance is a personal attack on them, but they won’t feel comfortable confronting you, the professor. So they will go talk to someone else about it, say, a department chair. That said, perhaps if would be better to “encourage the expression of differing viewpoints” (that’s the language used in course evaluations at my school), which requires creating an inclusive atmosphere in which everyone feels safe and nobody is using curse words.

I do think there is SOME merit in this line of thinking. I also think that the tendency these days is to treat students like children who need to be protected rather than like adults who can handle having their views challenged. I have found myself apologizing to students for “offending them,” when all I really did was let aspects of my own viewpoint/position (“bias”) show through. It seems as if there is a growing expectation that professors be neutral and present all sides of a debate as if they were equally reasonable. No doubt that expectation is in tension with academic freedom….

As far as the second amendment goes, I don’t think I have thought enough about it to say whether I agree or disagree.

But I can say this: “fuck the death penalty!”

Z: As to your “best sort of counter-argument” against a philosophy professor’s shouting “Fuck the Second Amendment!” in class—

Sadly, what I’d want to say is that this line of argument (not your own of course) is basically sententious politically-correct left-wing drivel.

More precisely, I think that the idea that professors morally mustn’t emphatically present rational opinions on controversial subjects in class because of the unequal power-relation between professors and students, and because they might hurt someone’s feelings, is complete bullshit. And here’s why.

In the first place, as you rightly point out, it’s in direct conflict with academic right to free speech, and also with the more general moral and political right to rational free speech, to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, etc.

For the same free speech reasons, I have no problems whatsoever with students rationally disagreeing with me in class, or in their papers or exams, or someone shouting “The Second Amendment, fuck yes!” in class. Provided that the discussion is generally reasonable and friendly, that sort of thing can be pretty exciting pedagogy.

Secondly, as we all know, and alarmingly, students now possess the power of anonymous poison-pen informing on their professors, which more than balances the power-differential between them, and in fact has most professors, especially philosophy professors, scared shitless, especially untenured ones.

Indeed, in an article published on 18 May, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reports that the professoriate at Germany’s top university, Humboldt University in Berlin, is being terrorized by anonymous internet student accusations of racism, fascism, and sympathy for colonial crimes.

Thirdly, finally, and possibly most scarily of all, in Colorado and other states, students can legally carry concealed weapons in their backbacks, which obviously changes the professor-student “power dynamic” somewhat when you’re loudly dissing the Second Amendment in class….

As to “Fuck the Death Penalty!”—

I couldn’t agree more! Of course you were specifically thinking about the Boston Marathon bomber case, yes?

Relatedly, during my dawn-walk this morning I was thinking about knock-down arguments against capital punishment, and came up with these two:

First argument: from the meaning of life/highest good

(i) The meaning of life/highest good is the pursuit of principled authenticity. (premise: existential Kantian ethics)

(ii) No one can pursue principled authenticity if they’re dead. (premise: fact)

(iii) So it’s wrong to kill people intentionally, other things being equal. And the only exceptions here are “last resort” cases, in which someone is trying to prevent someone from doing something horrendously evil—say, rape, torture, murder, mass murder, genocide, etc.—to oneself or someone else, and the only way to stop them is to kill them. And even here, minimal preventive lethal force is required. (from (i) and (ii), and existential Kantian ethics again)

(iv) If it’s rationally unjustified and morally wrong for ordinary people to do X, then it’s rationally unjustified and morally wrong for the State to do X. (premise: ethical anarchism)

(v) Now capital punishment is the State legally killing someone, and no case of capital punishment is ever a last-resort case. (premise: the definition of “capital punishment,” and fact)

(vi) Therefore capital punishment is rationally unjustified and immoral, unconditionally. (from steps (i) to (v))

Second argument: from the primary moral function of legal punishment

(i) The primary moral function of legal punishment is to make it possible for criminals to take responsibility for their crimes, and freely change their lives for the better. (premise: “responsibilism” about punishment)

[Some quick sidebar comments:

Responsibilism about punishment obviously follows directly from the idea that the meaning of life is principled authenticity, since you can’t achieve any degree of principled authenticity unless you’re able to take responsibility for the bad things you choose and do, and freely change your life for the better.

If responsibilism is correct, then retributivism, rehabilitationism, and restitutionalism are all false as general theories of punishment, even if there’s room for rehabilitationist and restitutionalist methods inside a legal punishment scheme with overall responsibilist aims.

Only retributivism is completely antithetical to responsibilism. Scarily, as far as I can tell, all the people interviewed in the NYT article, even those who were against capital punishment, were retributivists. So how can fairly intelligent and reflective people think that doing something really immoral to someone who did something really immoral, is really morally good, especially in view of the fact that the past and all its crimes can’t ever be changed?

Clearly, retributivism is all about how the visceral satisfactions of “closure” for victims’ families, revenge, Schadenfreude, and Augustine’s “concupiscence of the eye,” or whatever it is that mesmerizes people at car accidents, public hangings, public beheadings, etc., together pre-reflectively generate the exceptionally persistent and powerful psychological illusion that two wrongs can make a right.

Let’s call the collection of these psychological engines, The Furies. The robustness and staying-power of the retributivist illusion created by The Furies should never be understimated. I mean, more than 2000 years ago Aeschylus wrote The Oresteia trilogy to try to undermine it!; and even Kant was a bloody retributivist, for godsake. OK: end of blah-blah-blah.]

(ii) No one can take responsibility for their crimes and change their lives for the better if they’re dead. (premise: fact)

(iii) Now capital punishment is the State legally killing someone. (definition of “capital punishment”)

(iv) Therefore capital punishment is rationally unjustified and immoral, unconditionally.

What do you think?

Y: The commonly held view seems to be that once you’ve done something really horrendous, you no longer are capable (or eligible) to pursue principled authenticity. The part that really stood out for me [about the Boston Marathon bomber case] was the idea that “nobody has sympathy for this guy.” This definitely resonates with discussions I’ve seen unfold in class: students agree that someone should receive the “worst possible punishment.” It’s just that they disagree about whether life in prison or execution is the harsher punishment. Sometimes people do take a more utilitarian view, but only in a narrow sense: they focus on what would make the victims and their families happy, though they typically don’t pay much attention to what would be better for society as a whole. (Reiman has a really interesting argument about how it would be best for society to get rid of capital punishment, and refuse to kill people even if they deserve it, since this would have a civilizing effect.) But the question I always end up coming back to is this: how can people have no sympathy for this guy, who had so much potential, and somehow went so far astray? I imagine it has to do with anger and desire for revenge and a need to see “evil people” suffer. (And as a side note, seeing what folks post on Facebook about all this has been truly depressing.)

But regarding discussions about controversial topics during class: I think the concern might be framed in pedagogical terms: it’s not so much that you might hurt students’ feelings, but that a professor’s very forceful presentation of his or her own views closes off opportunities for meaningful dialogue. (Students feel very comfortable trashing a professor in course evaluations, but they may not feel quite as comfortable challenging a professor’s views during class.) And then, if students don’t feel “safe” or are disinclined to engage in debate/discussion, opportunities for productive dialogue are closed off. Students may disengage, refuse to participate in discussion, or even just stop listening.

Z: Two very quick follow-up thoughts to your follow-up thoughts.

First, as to the “commonly held view seems to be that once you’ve done something really horrendous, you no longer are capable (or eligible) to pursue principled authenticity,” I keep thinking of this New York Times article I read back in 2000, about the lawyer Elisabeth Semel, who defends death row convicts.

Anyhow, the article contains these two paragraphs, which I’ve never forgotten:

But Ms. Semel never refers to [Juan Garza, who was convicted of three murders, and excuted in 2001] or any of her former clients, as a murderer. ”That’s not how you define a human being,” she said. ”A human being is always more than the worst thing he’s ever done. Do you deny the crime an individual has been convicted of, or the fact that he’s guilty? No. But that’s not who he is.”

”You don’t define me by saying I’m a criminal defense lawyer,” she added. ”That’s not all I am.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, as bad or evil as it is. As long as someone is alive, minimally rational, and autonomous, she can pursue principled authenticity and change her life for the better.

Second, as to the argument against a professor’s shouting ‘Fuck the Second Amendment!” or “Fuck the Death Penalty!” in class, that “it’s not so much that you might hurt students’ feelings, but that a professor’s very forceful presentation of his or her own views closes off opportunities for meaningful dialogue.”

Hmm, again, sadly, I think that’s bullshit. Suppose I came into class and said in a very calm and measured tone of voice, “I just wanted to let you know that I think that the Second Amendment is rationally unjustified and immoral,” then that would be no more or less likely to close off opportunities for meaningful dialogue than if I’d shouted “Fuck the Second Amendment!” passionately. What closes off opportunities for meaningful discussion is the students’ sense that the professor is an arrogant, dogmatic asshole who will penalize people for disagreeing. But that has little or nothing to do with forceful presentation….

Y: Regarding the death penalty: Yes, people are most certainly more than the worst (or best) thing they’ve ever done. I think that’s a claim that Sr. Helen Prejean has made repeatedly, and definitely resonates with existentialist philosophy, the notion of radical freedom, the idea that there’s always a possibility someone will choose to act and live differently in the future, etc.

Regarding forceful presentation v. professors who are arrogant, dogmatic assholes: Right, there is a distinction between this sort of professor and one who presents his or her viewpoint very forcefully. But at what point (if any) does forceful presentation qualify as dogmatism? Certainly merely uttering the words ‘fuck the second amendment’ doesn’t qualify. Maybe the key factor is ensuring that students don’t believe that they will be penalized (whether via in-class shaming or poor grades) for expressing views that don’t line up with those of the professor. And sometimes I think the BEST thing to do, especially with disengaged students, is to start saying provocative things and invite them to disagree with me!….

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About Y

Y is a 30-something female tenured associate professor of philosophy at a liberal arts college somewhere in North America.

About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.