Monday, April 6, 2020

Can We Morally Judge the Past? On Williams's Relativism of Distance

Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler. These are some of history’s greatest moral monsters: Leaders whose deeds are widely reviled and condemned. In my experience, people enjoy sitting in moral judgment of the past. It’s a mode of thinking they find it easy to slip into. This makes sense. We are constantly sitting in judgment of our contemporary peers. Why can’t we do the same when we look to our historical peers?

This finds support in the typical mode of historical education. When we are taught history, particularly in school, we are often taught it from a moral perspective. I remember this quite well from my own history education in Ireland. I’m not if it is still the same, but I certainly remember being frequently reminded of the cruelty and oppression visited upon us by our colonial masters (the British). The moralisation wasn’t always explicit, but I often went away from those history lessons with the sense that I was supposed to be morally outraged about what was done to my ancestors.

But is it right to judge the past in this way? I have had arguments about this before. Some of my colleagues think it is wrong to judge the past, particularly the remote past. They believe that the past is — to use a cliché — another country: the moral norms and standards were different back then. It is best not to sit in judgment. It is better simply to try to understand it. What did the people back then think they were doing? What were the moral, political, economic and social forces being brought to bear on their decision-making? We must understand the context, not judge the deeds.

This is a view that has found favour among some philosophers, perhaps most notably Bernard Williams who, in several articles, seemed to support the view that we shouldn’t moralise the past — to do so was, in some sense, a practical and epistemic mistake. In his article ‘Value Pluralism vs Relativism in Bernard Williams’s “Relativism of Distance”’, George Crowder critiques this aspect of Williams’s work. In what follows I want to make sense of the argument between Williams and Crowder.

1. Value Pluralism and Historical Relativism
To start off we need to understand some of the theoretical background to this dispute. Ethical theorists can be divided into two camps. First there are the monists. These are people who think that all ethical values and rules can be reduced to one single ‘master’ rule. Classical utilitarians are perhaps the best example of this in action: they believed that all ethical values were reducible to the psychological states of pleasure and pain. According to monists, ethical decision-making is simple in theory, even if it is difficult in practice. Whenever you are forced to make a choice between two options, you just compare those options along the single ethical metric provided to you by the master rule.

Second, there are the pluralists. These are people who think that there are many discrete ethical values and rules at play. You cannot reduce these discrete values and rules to one single master rule. Freedom is not the same thing as equality, which is not the same thing as fairness, which is not the same thing as well-being. They are all distinct ethical concepts. Sometimes we have to decide between them and trade one value off against another. This does not mean that we compare these values along a single metric. Such a metric is impossible. The discrete values are, to use the technical jargon, incommensurable: not capable of being measured in the same terms. Isaiah Berlin was, perhaps, one of the most famous proponents of ethical pluralism. Bernard Williams also endorsed this idea.

I have a soft spot for pluralism myself, but pluralists face a common enemy: the ethical relativist. According to the relativist, ethical systems of thought are culturally self-contained and cannot be meaningfully compared or contrasted with one another. For example, some cultures favour a highly individualistic ethics; other cultures favour a more communitarian approach. Which culture gets it right? The relativist says you cannot answer that question. There is no single universal standard you can use to assess the relative merits of the different approaches. You can only evaluate ethical systems internally, using their own rules. This might sound innocuous at first glance but then you realise that it means that you cannot easily judge other cultures for systematic human rights abuses, unless you first determine that they share an ethical system with you.

On the face of it, ethical relativism sounds a lot like pluralism. But many pluralists would like to avoid the crude ‘anything goes’ kind of relativism. They want to be able to judge some ethical systems to be worse than others. How can they do this? Crowder argues that they can do it by making a distinction between analytic forms of pluralism and holistic forms of pluralism:

Analytic Pluralism: It is specific values or rules that are plural and discrete (e.g freedom is discrete from equality) not entire ethical systems.

Holistic Pluralism: It is entire ethical systems that are plural and discrete.

Holistic pluralism is the equivalent of relativism but analytic pluralism is not. If you are an analytic pluralist, you can still hold out the hope of rationally choosing between values, e.g. prioritising freedom over equality in some cases, without assuming that it is possible to measure both values in the same terms. To put it another way, you can believe that, on some occasions, there is a ‘decisive reason’ to favour one course of action over another, without this implying that those reasons are reducible to some kind of cardinal ranking of options.

Williams endorsed analytic pluralism in his work, though he did believe that when we choose between different values it always leaves an ethical ‘remainder’ (i.e. an ineliminable ethical taint to our choices). He also felt that there were good reasons to reject holistic pluralism. It assumes, implausibly, that there are bright-lined boundaries between different ethical communities and traditions. In reality, there is often some overlap or sharing of values across traditions. This makes cross-comparison possible.

2. The Case for Historical Relativism

Williams’s position on the pluralism-relativism debate sounds reasonable. But then it raises something of a puzzle. Why does Williams reject relativism when it comes to cross cultural comparison but endorse it when assessing the past, particularly the remote past? As Crowder observes in his article, Williams doesn’t stake out a clear and consistent position on this point. Nevertheless, there are some discernible arguments at play.

For starters, it is worth noting that Williams’s historical relativism (or ‘relativism of distance’ to use his term) applies primarily to the remote past and not to the recent past. This makes a certain amount of sense. It makes sense to continue to morally condemn the actions of the Nazis, certainly while some of them are still alive and while their tradition continues to have some ideological pull. Why? Because doing so allows us to blame and punish those that are still alive and attempt to change the behaviour of those who might still be influenced by those beliefs. In other words, in this case, judging the past still has moral relevance for the present and the near-future.

But it makes much less sense to do this when dealing with the remote past. The moral worldd inhabited by the Ancient Greeks or the Medieval Knights are dead to us. We cannot meaningfully hold them to account for their actions. Furthermore, our present moral world is so different from theirs — so bound up with new moral ideas and norms — that we cannot properly evaluate what they were doing. Our moral judgments of their actions are, in a sense, like a naive form of fantasy role-playing. They have no relevance for our modern lives.

It might even be worse than that. In our eagerness to morally judge the past we might actually prevent ourselves from fully understanding it. We might, for example, be so quick to morally condemn the imperialistic bluster of Alexander the Great that we fail to understand why he acted the way he did. What was the political and economic significance of his warmongering? Why was it valued in the culture at the time? Why was glory and honour in battle a significant concern for so many? Approaching history with righteous indignation may prevent us from getting the answers to these questions.

3. The Problems with Historical Relativism
I think we can agree that we should try to understand the past. This may well mean that we must first get ‘inside’ the moral systems that were operative in the past and not rush to judge those systems based on our current norms and practices. Still, there are lots of problems with Williams’s proposed relativism of distance. Crowder discusses several of them in his article. On my reading, there are three main objections to it.

First, embracing historical relativism would force us to hold onto some counterintuitive and inconsistent views. For example, why should chronological distance be so important when it comes to ethical assessment? Why treat it any differently to cultural or geographic distance? It could be that some, contemporary, ethical cultures are so different from our own that we struggle to judge them in the same way that we struggle to judge the norms of ancient Sparta. It could also be that some historical ethical cultures are quite similar to our own and so it makes sense to judge them. Furthermore, even if we accept that chronological distance matters we can rightly wonder where the cut off line should be. There are no bright lines in the past either.

Second, it is not correct to assume that sitting in judgment of the past has no practical relevance in the present. It is true that we cannot hold people to account if they are long deceased, but that’s not the only practically important thing we can do through moral assessment of the past. We can use this practice to gain greater self-understanding, both at an individual level and a community level. For example, when the Jewish community adopted the slogan of ‘never again’ in relation to the Holocaust they weren’t just blaming the Nazis for what they did. They were using the horror of the Holocaust to assist with the process of moral education and developed. They were saying that we shouldn’t ever let ourselves or our societies slip back into that horror ever again. We could do this by both understanding and morally rejecting the ideology that allowed it to happen.

It seems pretty obvious to me that we are always doing this with the past: it is a constant source of moral guidance in the present. Crowder argues that this sometimes results in a two-way evaluation: we evaluate the past from the present and we evaluate the present using the past. We see how we might have improved from the past and how we might have disimproved. It’s true that mining history for its moral lessons can sometimes distort the process of historical understanding but this just means we need to be careful when moralising the past.

Finally, it is implausible to suggest that there are no shared moral traditions or norms across time, even long stretches of time. To state the obvious example: religious traditions are highly moralised and continue to exert considerable influence over contemporary moral theories. We still live with Christian, Islamic and Buddhist moral values and concepts, to at least some extent. Thus we can call upon these values to morally assess the past. It is not a completely alien world. Indeed, Williams’s own work seems to support this claim. In books like Shame and Necessity Williams showed how the moral concepts used by the Ancient, pre-Socratic Greeks were more sophisticated than we tend to think and still had resonance today. But if that is right then a strong form historical relativism is not sustainable: we can engage in a meaningful moral dialogue with the past.

In conclusion then, unless we are willing to embrace a more radical form of moral relativism, the suggestion that we should not moralise the past is implausible. This doesn’t mean that sitting in moral judgment of the past is straightforward or that it can’t hinder proper understanding of the past. It just means that it can be a epistemically meaningful and practically important practice.

Friday, April 3, 2020

73 - The Ethics of Healthcare Prioritisation during COVID 19


We have a limited number of ventilators. Who should get access to them? In this episode I talk to Lars Sandman. Lars is a Professor of Healthcare Ethics at Linköping University, Sweden. Lars’s research involves studying ethical aspects of distributing scarce resources within health care and studying and developing methods for ethical analyses of health-care procedures. We discuss the ethics of healthcare prioritisation in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, focusing specifically on some principles Lars, along with others, developed for the Swedish government.

You download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Stitcher and a range of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • The prioritisation challenges we currently face
  • Ethical principles for prioritisation in healthcare
  • Problems with applying ethical theories in practice
  • Swedish legal principles on healthcare prioritisation
  • Principles for access to ICU during the COVID 19 pandemic
  • Do we prioritise younger people?
  • Chronological age versus biological age
  • Could we use a lottery principle?
  • Should we prioritise healthcare workers?
  • Impact of COVID 19 prioritisation on other healthcare priorities

Relevant Links

Monday, March 30, 2020

72 - Grief in the Time of a Pandemic


Lots of people are dying right now. But people die all the time. How should we respond to all this death? In this episode I talk to Michael Cholbi about the philosophy of grief. Michael Cholbi is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He has published widely in ethical theory, practical ethics, and the philosophy of death and dying. We discus the nature of grief, the ethics of grief and how grief might change in the midst of a pandemic.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Stitcher and a range of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

Topics discussed include...
  • What is grief?
  • What are the different forms of grief?
  • Is grief always about death?
  • Is grief a good thing?
  • Is grief a bad thing?
  • Does the cause of death make a difference to grief?
  • How does the COVID 19 pandemic disrupt grief?
  • What are the politics of grief?
  • Will future societies memorialise the deaths of people in the pandemic?

Relevant Links

FUTURES Podcast - Cyborg or Virtual Utopia?

It's probably time for a short break from all the COVID-19 related posts. So here's a new podcast interview I did with Luke Robert Mason from the Futures Podcast. This was recorded in a hotel room in London back in early January of 2020 -- back when the world was a very different place. It's not really my place to say this but I think it is one of the better interviews I did about my book Automation and Utopia.

It mainly focuses on the ideas from the last two chapters of the book. Luke clearly took the time to familiarise himself with the nuances of the book and asks some great questions as a result. I'm grateful to him for taking the time to put this together.

You can listen here or in the video above.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

71 - COVID 19 and the Ethics of Infectious Disease Control


As nearly half the world's population is now under some form of quarantine or lockdown, it seems like an apt time to consider the ethics of infectious disease control measures of this sort. In this episode, I chat to Jonathan Pugh and Tom Douglas, both of whom are Senior Research Fellows at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in Oxford, about this very issue. We talk about the moral principles that should apply to our evaluation of infectious disease control and some of the typical objections to it. Throughout we focus specifically on some of different interventions that are being applied to tackle COVID-19.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Stitcher and a range of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

Topics covered include:
  • Methods of infectious disease control
  • Consequentialist justifications for disease control
  • Non-consequentialist justifications
  • The proportionality of disease control measures
  • Could these measures stigmatise certain populations?
  • Could they exacerbate inequality or fuel discrimination?
  • Must we err on the side of precaution in the midst of a novel pandemic?
  • Is ethical evaluation a luxury at a time like this?

Relevant Links


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

70 - Ethics in the time of Corona


Like almost everyone else, I have been obsessing over the novel coronavirus pandemic for the past few months. Given the dramatic escalation in the pandemic in the past week, and the tricky ethical questions it raises for everyone, I thought it was about time to do an episode about it. So I reached out to people on Twitter and Jeff Sebo kindly volunteered himself to join me for a conversation. Jeff is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. Jeff’s research focuses on bioethics, animal ethics, and environmental ethics. This episode was put together in a hurry but I think it covers a lot of important ground. I hope you find it informative and useful. Be safe!

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and many over podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

Topics covered include:
  • Individual duties and responsibilities to stop the spread
  • Medical ethics and medical triage
  • Balancing short-term versus long-term interests
  • Health versus well-being and other goods
  • State responsibilities and the social safety net
  • The duties of politicians and public officials
  • The risk of authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic values
  • Global justice and racism/xenophobia
  • Our duties to frontline workers and vulnerable members of society
  • Animal ethics and the risks of industrial agriculture
  • The ethical upside of the pandemic: will this lead to more solidarity and sustainability?
  • Pandemics and global catastrophic risks
  • What should we be doing right now?

Some Relevant Links

Monday, March 16, 2020

COVID-19 and the Impossibility of Morality

[Note to future readers: this was written in the midst of the 2020 Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.]

The stories coming out of Italy over the past two weeks have been chilling. With their healthcare system overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, Italian doctors are facing tragic triage decisions on a daily basis. In severe cases of COVID-19 patients need ventilators to survive. But there are only so many ventilators to go around. What if you don’t have enough? Who should you save? The 80 year old with COPD and other medical complications or the slightly healthier 50 year old without them? The 45 year old mother of two or the 55 year old single man? The 29 year old healthcare worker or the 38 year old diabetes patient?

Questions like these might sound like thought experiments cooked up in a first year ethics class, but they are not. Indeed, decision-making of this sort is not uncommon in crisis situations. For example, infamous tales are told about what happened at the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. With rising flood waters, no electricity and several critically ill patients who could not be evacuated, medical workers at Memorial had to make some tough decisions: abandon patients and leave them die in agony or administer euthanizing drugs to end their suffering more quickly? The suspicion is that many chose the latter course of action.

And medical decisions are just the tip of the iceberg. As we are all now being asked to isolate ourselves for the common good, many of us will find ourselves confronting similar, albeit less high stakes decisions. Which is more important: my duty to care for my elderly parents or my duty to protect them (and others) from potential transmission of disease? My duty to work to ensure that other people have the essential services they need or my duty to myself and my family to protect them from illness? We may not like to ask these questions, but we cannot avoid them.

But what are the answers? What should people do in cases like this? I don't know that I have much in the way of specific guidance to offer, but I do have a point that I think is worth making. It's at times like this that the essentially tragic nature of much moral decision-making reveals itself. This tragedy lurks in the background most of the time, but it is brought into sharp relief at times like this. Once we are aware of this ineluctable tragedy we might be inclined to change some of our common moral practices. We might be less inclined to blame others for the choices they make; and we might be more conscious of the pain of moral regret.

Let me explain what I mean.

1. Do Moral Dilemmas Exist?
One way to get at the point I wish to make is to consider whether or not genuine moral dilemmas exist. This is a topic that Lisa Tessman has addressed at some length in her work. Tessman argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between moral conflicts and moral dilemmas:

Moral Conflict: This is any situation in which two or more moral obligations appear to be in tension with each other in such a way that it is not possible to satisfy both obligations. Nevertheless, it is possible that one of the obligations overrides and cancels out the other.

Moral Dilemmas: These are situations in which two or more moral obligations appear to be in tension with each other in such a way that it is not possible to satisfy both obligations and neither obligation ceases to be an obligation just because you favour one over the other.

Moral dilemmas are, thus, a specific kind of moral conflict. They are a kind of moral conflict that is, in a critical sense, morally unresolvable. You may, as a matter of practical necessity, favour one obligation over the other but in doing so you do not eliminate the other. Your choice is, consequently, tragic because it necessarily entails some moral loss.

That's just to characterise the phenomenon. Do any genuine moral dilemmas exist? Some people argue that they do not. Such people typically fall into two different groups. The first group argue that basic principles of moral logic imply that moral conflicts cannot exist and so dilemmas cannot exist; the second group argue that conflicts do exist but none of them are genuine dilemmas.

The argument made by the first group can be quite complicated but the gist of it is easy to follow. It's best to use a concrete example to ground the discussion. Take the medical triage decisions now facing doctors with more patients than they have ventilators/respirators. Presumably we would ordinarily say that a physician has a duty to save any patient's life. So in the triage case, the following obligations would seem to apply:

Obligation A: You have a duty to save the 80-year-old patient's life.

Obligation B: You have a duty to save the 50-year-old patient's life.

Ordinarily, again, we would say that both obligations can be combined together into a single obligation stating that you have a duty to save both patient's lives. The problem is that, in the triage circumstances in which you find yourself, you cannot save both patient's lives. That's the root of the apparent moral conflict. But proponents of this first argument say that this conflict is not real because there is a general principle of deontic logic that stipulates that 'ought implies can'. In other words, you are only obligated to do that which it is possible for you to do. In the triage circumstances, it is impossible for you save both patient's lives. Therefore, you cannot be obliged to do so. Dilemmas cannot exist.

The second argument against dilemmas is the one favoured by moral consequentialists. They argue that moral conflicts do exist but that the tension between two or more moral obligations can be resolved, decisively, in favour of one obligation in most cases. As Tessman puts it, proponents of this argument believe that all moral obligations are defeasible or negotiable. So, although you might think you have an obligation to save someone's life, in the right circumstances that obligation can be outweighed by another weightier obligation. Take the triage case again. In that case you are weighing two lives against each other. Prima facie, it seems like you have an obligation to save both, but a closer inspection reveals that your obligation to save one life outweighs your obligation to save the other. How so? Well, a simple cost-benefit analysis makes it clear. The 80 year old has had a longish life anyway. They have an underlying chronic condition. Even if you save them from COVID-19 they will probably die in the not too distant future from that condition. The 50 year old has more life left in them. They are unlikely to die in the near future. If you save them, then you save more quality adjusted life years. The obligation to save the younger person's life clearly outweighs the obligation to the older person, at least in the difficult circumstances in which you find yourself.

Of course, it's not that simple. The cost-benefit analysis I just outlined is crass and, arguably, callous (although probably not that dissimilar from the kinds of decisions that doctors are now making in the wake of COVID-19). If we had the time, we might like to revisit some aspects of it. Is it really true that the 50 year old will live much longer? Could they have an underlying condition that has not yet been discovered? What have they done with their lives so far? Are they evil psychopathic killers? Might their death affect fewer people? The answers to these questions might push us in a different direction. Nevertheless, the basic point is clear enough: conflicts can be resolved if we examine the facts and likely consequences of our actions in a bit more detail.

In sum, these two arguments go against the claim I made in the introduction: that much moral decision-making is tragic in nature. They suggest that either (a) no moral decision-making is tragic because moral conflicts cannot (logically speaking) exist or (b) moral conflict is more apparent than real: moral obligations are negotiable and can be overridden in the right circumstances.

2. The Problem of Moral Remainders
It would be nice if those arguments worked. They wouldn't absolve us of the hard work of analysing apparent moral conflicts, but they would provide us with some reason to hope that this exercise is not in vain. They would suggest that it is possible to avoid moral wrongdoing when confronting difficult cases like this.

But it doesn't really feel like this, does it? Many times the conflict seems real and unresolvable. Bernard Williams once wrote an article that examined this problem in some detail. In it, he argued that you have to compare moral conflicts with two other kinds of conflict: conflicts of belief and conflicts of desire.

Suppose I believe that I got married on a Friday and I also believe that I got married on the 18th of November 2017. Suppose now that the 18th of November 2017 wasn't a Friday: it was a Saturday. Clearly, my beliefs conflict. But when I learn of the conflict, and of the underlying facts, one of the beliefs clearly wins out. My belief that I got married on a Friday must be wrong. The knowledge that the 18th November was, in fact, a Saturday cancels out this earlier belief. Nothing of that belief remains after the conflict is resolved.

Contrast that with a conflict of desire. Suppose I would really like to go to Aruba on my summer vacation but I would also really like to spend my summer on a visiting fellowship at New York University. I cannot fulfil both desires at the same time. In the end, I choose to go to Aruba. Does this mean that my desire for New York dissipates or ebbs away? Not at all. It lingers as a regret. I'll always be inclined to ask: What if I had chosen the other path?

As Williams describes it, the point here is that conflicting desires leave 'remainders' no matter how you resolve the conflict. And moral conflicts are much more like conflicts of desire than they are like conflicts of belief. When you are confronted by the triage case, and when you decide to save one life over the other, the sense that you violated your obligation to the life not saved lingers. It is a perpetual source of moral regret. It leaves a moral remainder.

This is an appealing line of thought and certainly resonates with my own experiences. Whenever I have had to resolve a moral conflict, I often find myself plagued by the sense that I violated an obligation. But apart from the intuitive appeal of Williams' comparison is there anything more to be said in favour of the idea that resolving a moral conflict often leaves a moral remainder? There is and Tessman says much of it in her book Moral Failure. Her position is a complex one and I cannot do justice to it here, but there are two facets of morality to which I would draw your attention that support the idea of a persistent moral remainder.

1. Value pluralism: We value many different things. We value freedom and equality; security and privacy; life and well-being; health and happiness; and so on. Although some people argue that these different values are reducible to something else (e.g. pleasure) many people reject that idea. They believe that each of these values is a different thing. They cannot be reduced to one another, nor can they be measure along a single scale of value. They are, to use the technical jargon, incommensurable. If we were asked whether freedom was more important than well-being, we would have a hard time coming up with an answer. If that's right, then any moral conflict involving a clash of different moral values will leave a moral remainder. Why? Because resolving the conflict in one direction doesn't mean that the neglected moral value is unimportant or cancelled out by the weight of the other value. It's just not really possible to make those kinds of comparisons

2. The Uniqueness of Persons: It is a common presupposition of moral thought that each human person is both unique and equally valuable. That is to say, no one person's life takes precedence over another's and all human lives are distinct. This implies that human lives are not fungible or interchangeable. This creates problems for any moral conflict involving competing duties to unique persons. Since every person is unique, you cannot trade your obligation toward them with an obligation toward another person. That obligation lingers, no matter what you do.

But, when you think about it, both of these features of morality are pervasive features of our daily moral lives. We owe obligations to many, distinct people -- our children, our friends, our colleagues, our partners and our fellow citizens -- and we work with competing values all the time. So many moral choices leave remainders, not just the kinds of radical dilemmas beloved by ethics professors.

3. Moral Remainders and COVID-19
This brings me back to my opening point. We are now in the midst of a global health crisis of historic proportions. People are dying on a daily basis because of this rapidly spreading disease. We are forced to make choices we don't want to make; to trade lives and values off against each other. The speed at which we are forced to decide is what makes the tragedy so apparent. Whenever we confront clearly limited resources, both temporal and physical, we can perceive moral conflicts in a starker way. Ordinarily, we live with the illusion that we can postpone hard choices or reverse/correct them if we make a mistake. In the midst of a crisis, this illusion is unsustainable.

What does all this mean? I'm not sure. We have to make choices, and we have to trade lives and values off against each other. I don't know of any way to do this without resorting to something like a consequentialist analysis of the probable outcomes of our choices. But we shouldn't be too confident in the power of that consequentialist analysis. It will sometimes rely on arbitrary and unjustifiable preferences. The people who make such decisions will have to live the moral remainders that result.

Correction: we will all have to live with them.

Monday, March 2, 2020

A Defence of Sexual Inclusion (Preprint)

Random and unrelated image

I'm almost reluctant to share this. I have a new paper coming out in the journal Social Theory and Practice later this year. The paper looks at whether we, as a society, should care about the problem of sexual inclusion and whether, if we do, this means that we should recognise the existence of rights to sexual inclusion. I argue, tentatively, that we should care about it and that it is not absurd to suppose that this supports such rights.

Although I think the position I defend in the paper is fairly modest, and, I hope, sensible, I'm conscious of the fact that some people are going to think it is ridiculous or controversial or dangerous because it engages with some tricky aspects of social justice (feminism, misogyny, disability rights theory etc). Given this, I hope that people read the full paper and engage with the arguments offered therein; I hope that people don't comment on or dismiss it on the basis of what they think it says based on the abstract or some third party summary.

I would also add, for what it is worth, that this paper was blind reviewed by two people. The first reviewer commented very favourably on the paper (probably the most positive comments I have received from a peer reviewer) but did note that the subject matter may prove controversial. The second reviewer was less favourable (though still recommended publication) but observed that the paper was much less controversial than I seemed to think. In fact, they suggested that the paper be revised to downplay its controversial nature.

So I'm not sure what to think about it as a result. Is it controversial and/or sensible? Or neither? Or what?

Title: A Defence of Sexual Inclusion
Journal: Social Theory and Practice
Links: Official (not yet); Philpapers; Researchgate; Academia 
Abstract: This article argues that access to meaningful sexual experience should be included within the set of the goods that are subject to principles of distributive justice. It argues that some people are currently unjustly excluded from meaningful sexual experience and it is not implausible to suggest that they might thereby have certain claim rights to sexual inclusion. This does not entail that anyone has a right to sex with another person, but it does entail that duties may be imposed on society to foster greater sexual inclusion. This is a controversial thesis and this article addresses this controversy by engaging with four major objections to it: the misogyny objection; the impossibility objection; the stigmatisation objection; and the unjust social engineering objection.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Moral Problem of Grading: An Extended Analysis

[This, admittedly quite long, post is a sample chapter from a book I may end up writing about the ethics of academia. I'm interested in feedback on it. Would people be interested in an entire book examining the moral dilemmas faced by the typical academic? Is this analysis of grading any good? Let me know]

Grading is the bane of most academics’ lives. Several times a year the working academic will be required to grade the students in their classes. Academics often complain about this process — begrudging both the time it takes and the mind-numbing nature of the task* — but rarely think about its ethics. Most see it as an inevitable and essential part of their jobs. If they didn’t grade students’ exams and assignments then what would be the point of all that teaching? It seems so obvious that grading is the natural denouement of teaching. It’s always been done and if it wasn’t done it would be weird. Students would complain and the general public would start to wonder what people are doing in universities. So, instead of subjecting the practice to close ethical scrutiny, most academics prefer to view it with ironic detachment. They laugh about it and then they get on with it.

A famous illustration of this ironic detachment is Daniel Solove’s article about the ’Staircase Method’ of grading. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, first wrote about the method in the lead up to ‘marking season’ at his university. He realised that many of his colleagues would soon be sharing the pain of grading stacks of 100+ papers. He thought he could lighten their load by offering a new method of grading. Instead of sitting down and actually reading through all those exam scripts and assignments, why not take the stack to the top of the nearest staircase and give it a good heave over the edge. If you do it right, the papers should fall to the ground at different points along the staircase. You can then assign letter grades to the papers depending on where they fall down. This, of course, throws up something of a dilemma: what kind of grading rubric should you use? Should the papers that land closest to you (near the top step) get the highest grades and the ones that land furthest away get the lowest grades? Or should it be the other way around? Solove assures us that there is an obvious answer to this question:

“While many professors still practice the top-higher-grade approach, the leading authorities subscribe to the bottom-higher-grade theory, despite its counterintuitive appearance. The rationale for this view is that the exams that fall lower on the staircase have more heft and have traveled farther. The greater distance traveled indicates greater knowledge of the subject matter. The bottom higher-grade approach is clearly the most logical and best-justified approach.”

Solove also defends the practice from its critics, pointing out that most grading systems are riven with subjective biases and inconsistencies. The staircase method is perfectly objective. Every professor can view the same distribution of papers along the staircase and agree on the grade (though there are some tricky cases such as when a paper hangs over the edge of a step). Furthermore, it is not a purely arbitrary system. It takes some skill to throw the papers in the right way:

“The key to this method is a good toss. Without a good toss, it is difficult to get a good spread for the grading curve. It is also important to get the toss correct on the first try. Exams can get crumpled if tossed too much. They begin to look as though the professor actually read them, and this is definitely to be avoided. Additional tosses are also inefficient and expend needless time and energy”

I have discussed the staircase method with my colleagues many times over the years. Most of them find it amusing. Recently, I asked some of them if they thought it would be ethically appropriate for me to actually use it when grading my student assignments. They were aghast. It most certainly would not, I was told. But why not? What if it turned out that for all their sophistication and effort, the methods that we actually use for grading students are as unethical as Solove’s tongue-in-cheek method?

The remainder of this article will try to answer this question. In the end, I will conclude that the ethical academic should be opposed to most of our current grading practices, but that they still need to grade students anyway. They just need to be more transparent and open with students about the limitations of what they are doing.

1. What is the moral function of grading?

In order for grading to be morally justified, one of two things must be the case: (i) grading must serve some morally legitimate purpose and/or (ii) there must be some moral duty to grade that arises from the nature of the teacher-student relationship. The former, if it were true, would provide grading with a consequentialist moral justification; the latter, if it were true, would provide grading with a deontological moral justification. Later in this chapter, I will consider the idea that there might be moral duty to grade in a little more detail. For now, I want to focus on the idea that grading serves some morally legitimate purpose. I do so because when I informally polled my colleagues on what they thought the moral justification for grading might be, they typically cited the purposes of grading in their replies.

So what are the moral purposes of grading? There are four that are worth mentioning. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that grades motivate students to learn. Learning, we assume, is a good thing and so anything that encourages it is, all else being equal, also a good thing. So if it is true that grades motivate students to learn, they can be morally justified because they contribute to the good of learning. Another way of putting this is that grading provides an incentive to learning through a simple punishment/reward mechanism. Low grades punish bad learning and high grades reward good learning. Students will have an aversion to low grades and an attraction to high grades. By dishing out the rewards and punishments appropriately, we can shift student behaviour towards the good of learning. Just like we change the behaviour of rats in a cage.

The second potential moral purpose of grades is that grades play an important role in the allocation of distributive goods. Although this is contentious, some people argue that modern society functions (or at least should function) largely as a meritocracy. What this means is that you are (or should be) rewarded on the basis of individual merit, not on the basis of social class, race, gender or other irrelevant factors. To put it more concretely, an individual should get high paying jobs and so forth if they have the demonstrable ability to do those jobs, and not simply because they know the right people or were born into the right families. Grading plays an important role in the meritocratic allocation of social goods because grades tell us something about an individual’s abilities. For example, a student who gets high grades in their medical exams will gets access to goods (career opportunities, attractive internships) that would not be accessible to a student who fails those exams. This is morally justified if grades really do track ability and thus ensure that goods flow to those who really deserve them.

Another way of putting this is to say that grades play an important communicative function in modern society. Grades are like signals. They tell people — peers, employers, other educational institutions — how good someone is at a particular subject or mode of inquiry. People then use these signals to make decisions about this person, i.e. whether to grant them a place on a prestigious course, whether to interview them for a job and so on. In this sense, grades are a lot like prices. The economist Friedrich Hayek once famously argued that the prices on open markets are signals: they tell producers and purchasers of goods and services what is worth producing and what is worth purchasing. They do this because they aggregate together lots of fragmented information about supply, production costs and consumer demand, and package it into a single, easy-to-interpret to signal. Arguably, grades do the same thing, particularly average grades such as the GPA. They package together lots of fragmented information about an individual’s abilities and put it into an easy-to-interpret signal. This is morally valuable because people need that information to make rational decisions about how to allocate social goods.

The third potential moral purpose of grades is that they play an important role in certifying the competence of particular individuals, and thus help to minimise risks or harms to society at large. For example, an incompetent civil engineer would be a risk to society. An incompetent engineer might design a faulty bridge and that bridge could collapse. This would injure lots of people. We don’t want that to happen. One way of preventing it from happening is by having a system that grades the competence of wannabe engineers. If they are incompetent, they will achieve low grades and will be prevented from qualifying and practicing as engineers. This moral purpose of grading is only really a feature of grading in certain subjects or courses. I doubt that there is much risk to society from an incompetent English major (though there might be). But it is very important in certain subjects such as medicine, engineering and law. Obviously grading isn’t a perfect inoculation against incompetence. People can be incompetent for all sorts of reasons. But it is one tool we can use to protect society from the risks of incompetence.

The fourth potential moral purpose of grading is that they give pleasure to students. Obviously this isn’t true of all grades. A student who receives low grades is unlikely to feel good about themselves. But for those who receive higher grades, grades can have this positive effect. They provide the student with some measure of their capacities and, perhaps, their relative social worth, and this can be quite a pleasurable thing to know. Think back yourself to those times when you received good grades. How did they make you feel? I’m willing to bet that they made many of you feel pretty good about yourselves, at least for a while. If we follow standard hedonistic logic, then we can use this aspect of grading as part of its moral justification.

There may be some other moral purposes of grading, but these four are the major ones. Note how each of them has a dark side. If it is true that grades play an important part in motivating students to learn, in justly allocating distributive goods, in protecting society from risk and in providing pleasure to students, then it is equally true that grading can, if done badly, be demotivating to students, facilitate the unjust allocation of distributive goods, increase the risk to society, and cause pain, anxiety and stress in students. In other words, grading is a morally fraught business. It is one of the many underappreciated moral dilemmas facing the academic. This suggests that our grading practices ought to be ethically scrupulous.

Are they?

2. What is grading anyway?

To properly evaluate the morality of grading, we need to take a step back for a moment and consider how grading systems work. As soon as we do this, we start to see some of the obstacles to developing an ethically scrupulous grading system. One of the major issues with grading, particularly at university, is that there are many different grading norms and practices at work. In their swingeing critique of higher education — Cracks in the Ivory Tower — Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness lament the fact that the universities assume that professors are all ‘speaking the same language’ when they assign grades to their students, but this is not necessarily true. In fact, Brennan and Magness argue, professors could be speaking any one of nine different languages when they assign grades to students (Brennan and Magness 2019, pp 119-120).

Consider a practical illustration of the problem. I currently teach at a university in Ireland. In Ireland we adopt the grading norms that are common in the UK higher education system (presumably a legacy of colonialism). Officially, we mark student assignments and exams on a numerical scale between 0-100. But within this numerical scale, we focus mainly on differentiating between first class grades (anything at 70% or above), higher second class grades (anything between 60-69), lower second class grades (anything between 50-59), third class grades (anything between 40-49) and fails (anything below 40).

I cannot speak for everyone who uses this system, but from my own perspective the fixation on differentiating between firsts, seconds and thirds, has an interesting effect on my grading. Primarily, it narrows my perception of what can be a legitimate grade. In my mind, given that the main goal is to distinguish between firsts, seconds, thirds and so on, I cannot actually mark assignments between 0-100. I can mark them between, roughly, 30-80. Anything below 30 is just generically bad, usually an indication that the student did not complete the assignment. Anything above 70 is very good, and although there a full 30 marks above 70 to play around with when differentiating between the really good assignments, you don’t want to go too far above 70 in differentiating between them. If you gave an assignment a grade of more than 90, that would suggest it is nearly flawless and, at least when it comes to the kinds of long-form writing assignments that I tend to mark, nothing warrants that evaluation. Furthermore, I was educated in this system at a time when getting barely above 70 was considered exceptional. As a result, I’m very reluctant to even go above 75 when marking assignments (I have only once given an assignment a score of 80).

In recent years, this understanding of the grading norms has become problematic. For some reason, increasing pressure has been brought to bear on staff to use the ‘full range’ of marks when grading. In other words, we are encouraged not to be afraid to give an assignment a grade of over 80 or even 90 if we think it deserves it (presumably this logic also applies to the lower end of the spectrum but this is rarely discussed). Some of my colleagues have taken to this new proposed norm with glee. They now freely give out marks of over 80, sometimes awarding as many as five or six such grades per class per year. Much to my own surprise, I have become the stodgy traditionalist, holding on to the old norm and refusing to be dragged into this brave new world. I think I have good reasons for doing so. I think sticking to the old norm means my grading is more consistent over the long term and enables better cross comparison between grades awarded in different years. But I have to accept that sticking to this norm might be a problem for my students. If they can get much higher grades from other professors, then I may be unfairly disadvantaging them. I may also make them more reluctant to do my courses. Either way, the basic problem is clear: the language that I am speaking when I award a grade of 71 seems to be quite different from the language that some of my colleagues are speaking when they award a grade of 71. In fact, my 71 could be their 81 and vice versa. This problem is further compounded by the that universities don’t account for these differences when they aggregate grades together into overall averages or GPAs.

There is also another problem with the grading norms we use. When trying to differentiate between firsts, seconds and thirds, I believe I apply an absolute standard of evaluation, or at least something pretty close to that. In other words, I think that what distinguishes a first class assignment from a second class assignment is a set of relatively invariant criteria. These criteria usually relate to the quality of argument, the depth of research, the clarity of exposition and so on. But what differentiates a 68 from a 67? Or a 55 from a 54? I’d be hard pressed to give an answer to that. I can, however, tell you what usually happens when I assign such grades. What usually happens when I assign number grades within a particular grade band is that I compare the current assignment to one I have previously marked. If I previously gave an assignment 66, and I think the current assignment is slightly better than it, I will give the current one a 67. If not, I might go slightly lower. Say a 65 or a 64. In other words, when it comes to assigning precise numbers, I switch from an absolute standard of evaluation to a relative one. I’m comparing assignments to others within a class or module group. I’ve suddenly changed the language that I am speaking.

All of this reveals that there are some tricky questions that need to be answered in order to decide exactly what it is we are doing when we grade assignments. Without belabouring the point, here are some of the main contenders when it comes to answering those questions.

  • (a) Grades could be an absolute measure of competency - when grading the goal might be to determine how well a student’s assignment (or perhaps the student themselves, see below) scores relative to some invariant measures of competency. Ostensibly, this is what many grading systems attempt to do by distinguishing between different numbered or lettered grades. The marker is trying to determine where along the absolute metric of competency the particular student falls. More formally, we might say that this form of grading assumes that markers use a cardinal scale to assess the competency of student assignments. This scale allows them to make meaningful assessments of the absolute merit of those assignments.

  • (b) Grades could be a relative measure of competency - when grading the goal might be to determine how well a student’s assignment (or perhaps the student themselves) does relative to some defined peer group. This will usually be either the other students taking the same course or module or some year group. This form of grading dispenses with the notion that grading requires a cardinal scale and instead assumes that grading involves an ordinal ranking of students. We can say that one student is better than another, but we cannot say by how much.

  • (c) Grades could be an output measure - when grading the goal might simply be to assess the merits (relative or absolute) of some particular piece of work (output) that is produced by the student. This might be an essay, an exam script, a presentation or something like this. In any case, the goal of grading is to focus on the merits of that output and not any other extraneous factors (e.g. how pleasant the student is; how much work they did and so on).

  • (d) Grades could be, at least in part, a process measure - when grading the goal might not simply be to assess the merits of an output but also, in part, to assess the processes through which the student arrived at those outcomes. In other words, we might try to assess the amount of work or effort the student put into producing the output, or we might give them credit for how much they have improved over a course of study. Many universities do something close the latter by assigning greater weight to assignments in later years of study.

  • (e) Grading could be an entirely backward-looking task - when grading we might be care only about past outputs and performances and focus solely on evaluating those past outputs.

  • (f) Grading could be, at least in part, a forward looking task - when grading we might care, in part, about the future. In other words, we might see one of the functions of grading as being to nurture or develop students for the future (Weis 1995).

These different possibilities are not mutually exclusive, at least not in practice. Many times people will teach courses in which grading is viewed as fulfilling more than one of these six ways. This can happen if students have to submit multiple assignments as part of one module, each of which adopts a different mode of grading. But it can also happen within the same assignment. I already explained how I myself sometimes switch between absolute and relative measures of competence when grading individual assignments. Although this practice is normal, it does create problems when it comes to the morality of grading.

3. The Immorality of Grading

There are several different arguments one can marshal against grading. Each of these arguments speaks to the immorality of the practice, and ties back to the moral functions of grading that were discussed previously. Although there are different ways of parcelling out these arguments, I’ll focus on three main ones in what follows.

The first argument against grading is that grading is immoral because it is unfair, inconsistent and error prone. In making this argument, we should be clear at the outset that some forms of grading, in some subjects, are immune from this criticism. Mathematics and some of the hard sciences, for example, often use tests and assignments in which there are clear, right or wrong answers to questions. Depending on the grading rubric involved, this enables markers to give reasonably objective evaluations of student assignments. There is little room for disagreement or debate about the merits of those assignments. If you got three different markers to assess the same student assignment they would agree on the mark to be given. Indeed, it may even be possible to automate the marking process because of the simple, binary nature of the marking rubric, and the high-level of intersubjective agreement on the marks to be given. In these cases, the marking process is fair, consistent and relatively error free (there is, of course, still some possibility of error in the marking process, either technical or human).

The problem is that a large number of university level subjects do not enable such consistency in marking. Many humanities and social science subjects test students on their capacity to complete long-form writing assignments, or other project-based work. There typically are no right or wrong answers in these assignments. Rather, the assignments are opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have learned and, most importantly, their skills in research, critical thinking, analysis and argumentation. Problems of inconsistency and unfairness arise when assessing these modules at both the individual and institutional level. For starters, problems arise when individual professors or lecturers are themselves inconsistent in how they perceive and approach the grading process. I noted this already above. A professor might view an assignment as a purely outcome-based measure or as a mix of outcome-based measures and process-based measures. They might attempt to apply an absolute measure of competence or a relative measure of competence, or a bit of both (as I openly admit I tend to do). They might factor in knowledge they have of a student, or they might adopt a strictly blinded system of marking (some institutions enforce this policy). This means that individual professors can themselves be inconsistent in grading. In other words, their grades can vary depending on how they happen to perceive the grading process at a given moment in time. There is a lot of room for subjective bias or error to creep in when marking in these disciplines. If you got three different people to mark the same student assignment in these disciplines, you would find considerable disagreement about the mark that should be awarded. Anyone who has taught in these disciplines will be familiar with this problem. I have myself been involved in marking student research dissertations in which I disagreed with another marker by as much as 20-30% (or 2 grade bands) on a particular assignment.

The problem of inconsistency and unfairness is compounded at the institutional level. Not only are professors inconsistent within themselves but they are inconsistent with one another across subjects. What a grade means in subject A might be very different from what it means in subject B. One professor might adopt a relative ranking and another might adopt an absolute ranking or some other combination of approaches. Universities then often do something strange. They aggregate the individual student grades from these different subjects together — often conveniently ignoring the different grading rubrics that may have been adopted (assuming this information is even available) — to generate an overall average or GPA for the student. This then becomes the students degree award and is often the main bit of information that students use when signalling to others how they performed at university. This aggregated number is, in most cases, a form of voodoo mathematics (Brennan and Magness 2019).

We should not overstate the problem, of course. There is some consistency to the grading process. There often are clear differences between first class (or A) assignments and fails. Most professors could probably agree on these high level classifications. Nevertheless, there are considerable problems when it comes to the finer-grained distinctions that academics often like to make. Furthermore, there are no easy fixes to the problem. In a widely-cited article, Daryl Close (2009) argues that current grading practices are unfair because they are not ideally impartial and consistent. He goes on to offer some recommendations on how to make the system more impartial and consistent, recommendations that include ending the practice of grading on the curve and dropping the worst assignment results from a student’s overall grade. But others have pointed out that if the goal is to achieve fairness in grading, these practices can be justified. Leslie Buckholder (2015) for example has argues a grading system is impartial and consistent if it satisfies a ’swapping test’, i.e. what would happen if you traded one individual’s assignments for another’s? Would they end up with the same grade? If they would, then the system is impartial and inconsistent. Buckholder then points out that grading on a curve and dropping individual assessments from an overall grade can satisfy the swapping test. Add to this the fact that some people think that fairness is often served by treating different cases (different students) differently and you start to appreciate the complexity of the problem.

The net result is a system of grading that is morally problematic. As noted earlier on, one of the moral functions of grades is to allocate distributive goods to people on the basis of merit. This can only happen if the system of grading is consistent and free from biases and other imperfections. But it is very clear that this is not true of the grading systems we currently adopt in universities. There is considerable arbitrariness and subjectivity at play. The signals that students send to employers and others are, consequently, not as meaningful as we like to think, and whether students end up being allocated distributive goods is, at least in part, a matter of moral luck. On top of this, if there are significant biases and subjective errors in the marking process (e.g. some professors being overly generous and others being excessively harsh), grades lose their meaning as markers of competence. This could increase the risk to society at large. No ethically sensitive academic should be sanguine about this state of affairs.

The second argument against grading is that it can be coercive and thereby undermine the good of education. Recall from earlier on that one of the moral functions of grading is that it acts as an incentive to students to learn. We want students to learn because we think learning is a good. Grades give them the motivation to do this. This is an attractive line of reasoning and our common sense would suggest that grades can indeed act as motivators. Speaking from my own personal perspective, I know was highly motivated to get good grades on my tests and assignments at college, and the desire to do well motivated me to attend classes and engage in extra-curricular reading. But my experiences may be exceptional. It’s quite possible that I would have been motivated to participate in the educational process irrespective of grading. Empirical research into the motivational effects of grading paint a mixed picture. Some research suggests that grades have a minimal, possibly counterproductive, impact on motivation (Grant and Green 2013); some research, including a recent meta-analysis by Koenka et al (2019), suggests that grades can induce anxiety rather than optimal motivation, and that written comments or feedback function as better motivators than grades (Koenka et al 2019; Chamberlin, Yasué and Chiang 2018).

Furthermore, even if it is true that grades act as motivators, the way in which they act as motivators is morally problematic insofar as they are coercive motivators. This is something that libertarian critics of compulsory education have long pointed out (Curren 1995). They argue that grades effectively function as threats to students to conform to a particular program of study or ideology of thought. By grading them, we are telling students that they must do this or else they will get a bad grade. This bad grade, in turn, can have devastating impacts on their life. It can block their access to career opportunities and other social goods. It is not a mild or trivial threat. In acting as a coercive motivator, grades thereby undermine the good of education by getting students to focus on extrinsic reasons for participating in the educational process (i.e. the desire to avoid bad outcomes) and not on the intrinsic pleasures of education. This can be counterproductive because it undermines students’ desires for self-learning, which some people argue should be the true purpose of education.

Is this argument really persuasive? Curren (1995) defends the coercive nature of grading, at least when it comes to the grading of children (as opposed to adults), on the grounds that education is a way of equipping students with the rational capacities they need to flourish as adults. We already justifiably do things to children against their will on the grounds that it serves their interests in the long run. That said, even Curren accepts that grading cannot be a justifiable form of coercion if it is unfair and inconsistent (as per the previous argument) and that it is more difficult to defend its coercive nature when it applies to adults, who are presumed to have already acquired rational competence. This is a problem for university grading since most university students are adults. It may, however, be possible to defend the coercive nature of grading on the grounds that university students freely enter into a contract with their universities, one of the terms of which is that they willing subject themselves to the university’s grading system. This could also provide grounds for thinking that academics have a duty to grade their students, a duty that stems from the promise inherent in the educational contract.

But this is the kind of argument that really only works in the cloud cuckoo land of abstract theory. When we apply it to the real world, it stretches credulity to suggest that most students freely enter into contracts with their universities. Given the economic importance and value of a university education in the modern world, it would be more plausible to suggest that students are compelled to accept these contracts out of practical necessity. Furthermore, even if they have some choice over the university they attend or the course of study they undertake, the reality is that they rarely have the option to choose a different grading system. Most universities and most courses adopt the same set of norms. Thus, students do not voluntarily subject themselves to grading systems. The problem of coercion, and the associated undermining of the good of education, remains.

The third argument against grading is the simplest. Grading is morally problematic because, far from being a source of pleasure, it is directly harmful to students. It puts pressure on them to perform to a high standard and thus fosters a lot of stress and anxiety as a result. The crisis of mental health, particularly the crisis of anxiety and depression, on university campuses is widely remarked upon. Systematic reviews of prevalence rates for anxiety and depression among college students suggest that it is higher than the prevalence rate in the general population (Ibrahim et al 2013; Pedrelli et al 2015). Some of this is plausibly linked to the importance of grading and the competitive nature of employment. An increasing emphasis is placed on high grades by employers. Anecdotally, in my own discipline of law, I know that employers often will no longer consider students who fail to get a 2:1 average in their degree. Indeed, sometimes employers are even suspicious of those average grades (rightly so if the previous arguments about inconsistency in grading practices are to be believed) and ask for full grade transcripts in order to see how the student did across the full range of their modules. This induces anxiety among student who now feel that their university education is pointless if they don’t get at least a 2:1.

There is a disturbing paradox in this argument. Grading is problematic because of the harm it does to students but, because of the social importance attached to grades, it can be just as harmful to not grade students. If you fail to grade them, you may be doing them a disservice and robbing them of a valuable signal that they can use to unlock social opportunities. This is another reason to think that academics might have a moral duty to grade. But because of this, and because of the potential harms of grading, many academics feel that there is an upward pressure on the grades they award: they are encouraged to err on the side of generosity and perhaps give students higher grades than they strictly feel they deserve. Although the evidence for grade inflation is not as strong as some people claim (Brennan and Magness 2019), the belief that there is such upward pressure on grades is widespread, even among the non-university population. This means that there is general perception that grades are becoming divorced from the reality of student competence which, in turn, undermines whatever moral purpose they might serve in signalling and allocating social goods. The result is that the harm argument against grading is particularly powerful because the harmful nature of grading has ripple effects that undermine the other moral purposes of grading.

4. Can we make grading more ethical?

If the preceding arguments are correct, then grading is in a lot of trouble. They way in which the grading system currently operates in universities prevents grades from performing the morally desirable functions we would like them to perform. In fact, it is much worse than that: grades may also do direct moral harm by undermining the goods of education, unfairly blocking access to social goods, and by being psychologically damaging. Is there anything we can do to rectify these problems? Let me close out this chapter by considering four possibilities. Each of these possibilities shares the general goal of simplifying the grading process and making it more transparent.

A. The Triage Model
First, we could adopt the ‘triage model’ proposed by William Rapaport (2011). The name here is somewhat is deceptive. The triage model proposes that we embrace the idea that grades are absolute measures of competence but we then abandon the attempt to make fine-grained numerical distinctions. Instead, we just offer three general grade classifications: full credit (if an assignment is substantially correct), minimal credit (if it is substantially incorrect), and partial credit (if it is somewhere in between). Rapaport’s use of the word ‘correct’ to describe how these grades work is unnecessarily limiting. In many disciplines there is no correct way of answering a question; there are, rather, more or less competent ways of doing so. Nevertheless, the basic gist of his proposal — that we should only make a few high-level distinctions between the merits of assignments — is worth taking seriously. It would certainly seem to take some of the arbitrariness and inconsistency out of the grading process. Professors that currently disagree about whether a student assignment merits 64% or 66% would probably be able to agree that they deserve full credit. There may, of course, continue to be some disputes about borderline students, but, overall, the room for subjectivity and bias to enter into the grading process is greatly reduced. Furthermore, the system could be made very transparent to students and thereby limit their tendency to appeal grades and ask for a few more marks to be added to their assignments to bump up their overall average.

Despite its appeal, the triage proposal suffers from some significant defects. The most obvious is that if we only have three grade classifications grades lose some of their signalling value. They are no longer indicative of the precise quality or ability of the student. They are vague and imprecise markers of ability. This means that grades can no longer play a decisive role in allocating social goods according to merit. If, for example, an employer is confronted with two students, each of whom has received a grade of partial credit, how is she to decide between them? Presumably (as is already starting to be the case) they will resort to some other ranking and rating process to assist their decision-making (Erdi 2019). For example, they might place increasing reliance on commercial psychometric or critical thinking tests. This is likely to just replace the old problematic system with a new, possibly even more problematic system, and, in the process, undermine the social value of a university education. So, somewhat perversely, someone who adopts the triage model in an effort to make their grading system more transparent and consistent could end up shooting themselves in the foot.

Of course, some people might argue that we shouldn’t be allocating social goods on the basic of merit and so shouldn’t be relying so much on the signalling value of grades. Meritocracy is a myth and all alleged systems of meritocracy just perpetuate and reinforce systems of social oppression and inequality (Markovits 2019; Littler, 2017). Good riddance to the lot of them. If we, as academics, can do anything to undermine them then we should. That’s all well and good, but if you want to deconstruct meritocracy or meritocratic systems for allocating social goods, then that’s something that needs to be done at a social and institutional level. If an individual academic adopts the triage marking system on their own, then they risk disadvantaging their students relative to the existing system. This reveals a common flaw in all the solutions I shall discuss in this section: though they might resolve some of the problems with grading, they are difficult to justify at an individual level.

B. The Strict Relative Ranking Approach
An alternative to the triage model, but with a similar underlying aim, has been suggested by Christopher Knapp (2007). Knapp criticises existing grading practices along similar lines to those presented in this chapter: they are unfair, inconsistent and hence unreliable signals. To resolve this problem, he suggests that we embrace a relativistic approach to grading. In other words, we should accept that it is impossible to consistently evaluate students against some absolute measure of competence and accept that the best we can do is rank students — or more precisely student assignments — relative to one another. Grading thus becomes an exercise in preparing a purely ordinal ranking of student assignments. If this is made transparent to all, then it becomes crystal clear what grades really mean, and thus they can be credibly used to perform the functions we require.

Knapp’s proposal again has the merits of simplicity and transparency. Academics are not pressured to make fine-grained distinctions between students based arbitrary or subjective criteria. Still, there are some obvious problems with the idea of embracing a purely ordinal ranking. The most obvious is that it would again rob grades of much of their signalling value and force people to rely on other, possibly more troubling criteria, to distinguish between different students. If all a grade tells me is that a student did better than another student taking the same module, in the same year, in a particular university, then what does it really tell me? That depends on the number of students taking this module (what if 150 students took it? what if only 5 did?) as well as other assumptions I might make about the quality of the university and the cohort of students within it. If the student comes from an elite university, then I might be inclined to weigh their result highly; but if they come from a lower ranked university then I might be inclined to discount them. This could just further exacerbate elitism and inequality in the allocation of social goods. For all the flaws it might entail, treating grades as absolute measures of competence at least allows for the pretence of levelling the social playing field. A first class grade from one university should — in an ideal world — be as good as a first class grade from any other. I know I certainly like to convince myself that this is true.

In addition to all this, as Knapp himself notes, this approach would only work in practice if there was institutional reform and acceptance. An individual academic who adopted it without such institutional support might do their students a disservice and be sanctioned in the process.

C. The “No Grades” Model
A more radical solution to the grading problem is to simply abandon the practice altogether. Don’t give grades. Instead give critical comments and feedback, and enter into a dialogue with students about their work. The philosopher Robert Paul Wolff writes about this in book The Ideal of the University (originally published in 1969). He contrasts different approaches to grading: evaluation and criticism. He notes that, in many ways, criticism is the norm in academia. When academics write articles and submit them for peer review, they don’t expect to be graded. They expect to receive detailed, qualitative, critical feedback, highlighting both the merits and demerits of their work. It is somewhat odd then that when these same academics turn their attention to students, they focus largely on quantitative grading, not qualitative feedback. That’s not to say that they never provide qualitative feedback — they do and in some countries they are being encouraged to provide more of it — but it is to say that the primary focus is on the quantitative grade. Why not ditch this and focus solely on the critical feedback?

The educational theorist Jesse Stommel adopts a similar attitude to Wolff. He proudly declares on his professional webpage that he doesn’t grade students. Instead, he focuses on dialoguing with them and providing qualitative feedback. Indeed, he goes a step further and encourages students to largely assess the merits of their own work, for themselves.  He thinks this approach can save education from the tyranny of grades:

“...grades are the biggest and most insidious obstacle to education… Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another. Grades (and institutional rankings) are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction. Grading is a massive co-ordinated effort to take humans out of the educational process…

There is a lot to admire in Stommel’s idealism. The critical feedback approach has been the hallmark of the Oxbridge tutorial system of education for centuries (albeit combined with a lot of quantitative and competitive grading). In addition to this, critical feedback, not numerical grading, is the language of ordinary professional life. If one of the goals of education is to prepare students for the professional world, then criticism is the way to go. Doing so would also remove much of the anxiety and competitiveness from the process.

Nevertheless, it is not a flawless solution. Numerical grades work as simple communicative signals of ability (even if they are flawed); detailed critical comments do not. Likewise, as anyone who has undergone the process of peer review will know, it is just as prone to arbitrariness and subjective bias as the numerical grading system. In fact, it may be even more prone to it. Furthermore, qualitative feedback isn’t a practical solution for many academics. It might work well in small groups but anyone teaching large groups will quickly struggle to provide meaningful qualitative feedback to all students. At the very least, it would require significant additional resources to make it worthwhile. Finally, it is often not feasible for an individual academic to abandon grades altogether since students and institutions expect them. Jesse Stommel faces this problem in his own classes. Although his emphasis is on qualitative feedback, at the end of a module he does provide grades to his students since they are required by his university. So although he may want to resist the capitalistic model of education, he cannot do it on his own. Again, we have the problem of the individual vs the institution rearing its ugly head.

D. The Moral Compromise
The last solution to the problem is not really a solution at all. It is to throw our hands up and accept that we cannot, by ourselves, create a morally perfect system of grading. We cannot address the injustices of meritocratic social allocation; we cannot remove all the anxiety and competitiveness from modern social life. The best we can do is compromise with the system we have, and make the best of it. For my own part, I think this means that academics should do three things when marking student assignments:

  • (i) They should accept that, for the time being, grading of some sort is inevitable: students expect it, institutions require it, and society demands it. Oftentimes it would be worse for students if you didn’t do it and it would, arguably, be a dereliction of duty.
  • (ii) They should be open and transparent with students about how they approach grading and what a grade means in their class, i.e. they should explain to students whether they are measuring outcomes or processes, trying to develop relativistic measures or absolute measures, and the criteria they typically use to help make evaluations.

  • (iii) They should acknowledge the limitations of the current grading norms and reduce their arbitrariness as much as is possible. So, for example, someone like myself, working with the numerical grading system in which the main focus is on distinguishing between different grade boundaries (1sts, 2nds, 3rds etc), should try to be fair and consistent in allocating students to the major grade categories but then avoid fooling themselves into thinking they can make lots of precise delineations between specific numerical grades.

This may not be perfect, but it is a start.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go throw some papers off the top of the nearest staircase.


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