New York University is punishing students who protested the genocide in Gaza by forcing them to take a philosophically confused course on “integrity.” University administrators are the ones who need to brush up on that subject.

Pro-Palestinian protesters outside New York University buildings in lower Manhattan on May 3, 2024, in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

At the end of spring semester, encampments popped up at universities across the country to protest the genocide in Gaza. A few weeks ago, I led a teach-in at the encampment at Princeton on how to respond to the arguments made by Israel’s apologists in the West. The students asked perceptive and sometimes challenging questions in the Q&A. I enjoyed the discussion.

I thought about those students last week when I saw an article in the New York Times about a different group of student Palestine protesters, about an hour and half away from Princeton. Dozens of protesters were arrested at New York University (NYU) at the end of April.

According to the Times:

While the university eventually moved to have the criminal charges against the students dropped, it initiated a disciplinary process against some of them (the university will not disclose how many) that seemed as if it had been conjured in the writers’ room of a dystopian sci-fi series. In order to return to the university, some students would be required to complete a 49-page set of readings and tasks — “modules” — known as the Ethos Integrity Series, geared at helping participants “make gains” in “moral reasoning” and “ethical decision making.”. . .

Some students would [also] be assigned a “reflection paper,” the details of which were laid out by the Office of Student Conduct. In it they would address several questions, among them: What are your values? Did the decision you made align with your personal values? What have you done or need still to do to make things right? Explicitly instructed not to “justify” their actions, the students were told to turn their papers in by May 29 in “12-point Times New Roman or similar font.”

It didn’t seem to me that any of the student protesters I’d talked to were in need of rudimentary instruction on moral reasoning. Indeed, students who do come out to protest when US bombs are sent to a foreign ethnostate to drop on schools and hospitals and refugee camps strike me as likely to spend a lot more time thinking about questions of justice and injustice than those of their classmates who are content to go about their lives as if it isn’t happening.

And those “reflection papers” sound like a version of a Maoist “self-criticism” session that’s been watered down to fit the sensibilities of vapidly centrist college administrators. What exactly are the students supposed to write?

Please Reflect — and Please Come to the Approved Conclusion

If not for the ban on “justifying” the protest, papers reflecting on how students’ moral commitments led them to risk arrest and put their academic futures in jeopardy to oppose the ethnic cleansing in Gaza could make for powerful reading.

It’s a statistical near certainty at a university like NYU that many of these students are Jewish, so I’d expect, for example, some reflection on how thinking about Jewish history could lead protesters to the conviction that “never again” means “never again for anyone.” I’d expect college students who care about their own campus experience to reflect on seeing every university in Gaza reduced to rubble in a campaign so systematic that an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier posed for a picture of a university library burning behind him and the last campus that hadn’t been brought down by aerial bombardment was actually blown up with a controlled demolition. I’d expect students who have beloved baby nephews or nieces, or graduate students who might have young children of their own, to talk about how they thought about these loved ones when viewing videos of dead and maimed babies in Gaza or small children screaming in agony as they’re operated on without anesthetics.

But none of that’s allowed. Perhaps students are supposed to write something like: I once foolishly believed that the IDF expelling 1.9 million of the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza was morally wrong, and that as a person of conscience I should be disturbed by my university investing in Israeli companies, and perhaps even weapons manufacturers supplying some of the bombs being dropped on refugee camps, and that as such it was the right thing to join a protest to advocate that NYU disclose any such investments and divest. But now I see that I was wrong.

If not for the ban on ‘justifying’ the protest, papers reflecting on how students’ moral commitments led them to risk arrest and put their academic futures in jeopardy to oppose the ethnic cleansing in Gaza could make for powerful reading.

Curious about how this strange neoliberal version of a reeducation class actually worked, I managed to track down a copy of the forty-nine-page “Ethos Integrity Series” packet. As a philosophy professor who has taught many ethics classes over the years, I wanted to know how administrators think the process of remedially instructing protesters in “moral reasoning” was supposed to work. Would the students be exposed to the rival ethical theories formulated by great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Rawls and John Stuart Mill? Would they grapple with thought experiments like the trolley problem, designed to help them weigh competing moral intuitions?

And — how would any such crash course in critical thinking about moral issues fit with the blanket ban on coming to conclusions that justified the protest? A well-known danger of teaching people to carefully and rigorously think things through on their own is, after all, that they might not end up agreeing with you.

The Ethos of Integrity Series

The document consists of seven “semi-self-directed modules” for students to work through. Before that, there’s an introduction I can’t read without hearing it in the kind of vaguely British robot voice you’d hear in a science-fiction movie telling you that the blast doors had been closed and the self-destruct sequence could no longer be stopped. “Although you are completing this project as a sanction for being found responsible of an NYU policy violation,” it says, “we hope that you will find this experience both educational and beneficial for your daily life.”

As a human being, I’m offended by the idea that administrators think students need rudimentary instruction on moral reasoning because they protested a genocide. As a philosophy professor, I’m professionally offended that this is what they think such instruction looks like.

The first module was enough to convince me that none of the philosophy professors who teach actual ethics classes at NYU were consulted in preparing this document. Students are told that because values are “personal” there “are no better or worse values.” This is qualified at the end of the module, but not in a particularly helpful way:

Earlier in this lesson, it was stated that there are no better or worse values, but there is a caveat to that statement. Unexamined values are “bad” values. If you do not know how you got your values or why you (still) have them, how do you actually know that these are your values? How do you know that you haven’t just adopted someone else’s values? Think about all of your values and where you got them. Are these values really things that you, personally, think are important to you and not just something someone else told you [that you] should think is important? If after you think about your values, they are still your values (even if they started out as someone else’s values), that’s fine. You have now clarified for yourself why these are your values and made them your own. But if you say or think you value something but you do not have a personal reason for it, it could present problems for you in the future.

An obvious initial question is how this can possibly be reconciled with NYU’s ban on disciplined protesters trying to “justify” their earlier decisions. If all values are fine, why not values from which it follows that protesting was the right thing to do? Does the NYU administration believe that there is no possible set of values that would lead someone to keep thinking it was right to protest genocide, even after a suitable period of reflection?

Page 7 includes a vapid little exercise where students are supposed to assign a numerical ranking to a number of different values, with an option to write more in spaces provided at the bottom, and even this list includes “fairness” and “service to others.” I would think both of those could motivate students to protest as two-thousand-pound bombs are dropped on refugee camps full of people who have already fled in terror from their homes elsewhere in Gaza. It’s true that any student who wanted to mention “human rights,” for example, would have to write it in on one of those spaces at the bottom. The only directly political values the reeducators see fit to include are “diversity,” “equality/equity,” and “patriotism.”

It’s All Relative — but You Still Have to Agree With Us

Any remotely competent instructor will spend a fair amount of time early in an ethics class trying to show students that this extreme form of subjectivism — there’s no right or wrong, just right for me, right for you, right for Adolf Hitler, right for John Wayne Gacy — might itself be something they don’t really accept on reflection. After all, if it is, the whole enterprise of thinking through moral theories and arguments, which is at the core of any ethics class, would be pointless.

In the second module, things (just barely) get better. Moving from “values” to “ethical standards,” the reeducators progress from individual relativism to cultural relativism. “Ethical standards,” it says, “are society-based values and norms that people are expected to uphold and consider when making decisions.”

I would hope that students who have taken actual ethics classes at some point in their academic careers hear these words like nails on a chalkboard. In many such classes, for example, students read James Rachels’s classic essay “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” where Rachels demonstrates a number of ways in which this kind of relativism leads to deeply counterintuitive consequences.

If right and wrong are whatever your society decides they are, for example, that entails that dissidents are always wrong. The very notion of “moral progress” assumes that there’s some moral yardstick we can use to measure entire societies, but if cultural relativism is right, it would seem that the contemporary world, where there’s widespread consensus that slavery is wrong, isn’t any better than antebellum Southern society. It’s just different. And antebellum Southern abolitionists, who were going against what their culture had decided was right, must have been wrong.

The thought that some ethical standards are better or more defensible than others seems to be wholly foreign to the dull plodding minds of the neoliberal bureaucrats who put all of this together.

Many people find cultural relativism appealing because they associate it with liberal values of tolerance and multiculturalism — but what if my culture’s values include being intolerant of other cultures? (Anyone who knows anything about human history should realize this isn’t exactly a fanciful hypothetical.) If right-for-me is defined by what my culture thinks, don’t I have an ethical obligation to be intolerant? Not only do we not need cultural relativism to make sense of a reasonable degree of pluralism about cultural practices, but cultural relativism isn’t compatible with a steadfast commitment to such pluralism.

On page 18, students are instructed to “rank the top 10 values/ethical standards” of “New York University,” “your family,” your “closest college friends/friendship group,” and a fourth group that the reeducators generously let students fill in for themselves. I hope at least some of them chose the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ), both of which have been trying to slam the brakes on Israeli war crimes in Gaza. But the idea that the values upheld by the ICC and ICJ might be morally superior to those of NYU or the students’ families would require the premise that some ethical standards are better or more defensible than others. That thought seems to be wholly foreign to the dull plodding minds of the neoliberal bureaucrats who put all of this together.

Ethos, Integrity, and Liberalism

One thing that hit me about all of this fairly quickly is that this whole bizarre document is so clearly a product of mainstream American liberalism. In fact, I think any conservative students who are assigned the same course as a punishment for non-Palestine-related infractions would have a legitimate complaint about ideological bias. On page 14, for example, students are informed that “through conversations by people from all parts of society, particularly in roles of importance or authority (e.g., former vice president Al Gore, scientists), the value of environmentalism and sustainability” has “become a national ethical standard.”

I’m quite certain that everyone involved in producing these modules is a Joe Biden voter, as are the administrators who signed off on the punishment. These are people who care about “diversity” and “equality/equity” (if not, perhaps, economic equality). They admire Al Gore and care about “the value of environmentalism and sustainability.” They just don’t particularly care about dead children in Gaza. On any worksheet where they had to rank values, opposing these horrors wouldn’t even make the list.

The old saying about “politics” ending “at the water’s edge” might not quite be true, but the sad fact is that most disagreements between Democrats and Republicans end there. America’s global empire, and its support for various unsavory client states around the world, is just part of how things are in the worldview of standard-issue American liberalism. All of which is to say that the students may not be the ones who would most benefit from a crash course in moral reasoning.

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