Higher Education Can Be More than Mere Election Among Evils


Moral Responsibility
Behaviour considered normative in nature is bound by the familiar Kantian paraphrase, "ought implies can."  Proper analysis of the phrase depends on the meaning given to "can" and related notions of possibility, but on one interpretation: if an agent’s behaviour is unavoidable, if there is no possible alternative, then there is no moral traffic.

This is a logical point that partially scribes the domain of ethical theory.


Of course what is “avoidable” or “possible” in terms of moral agency is complex, involving factors from individual psychology to independent states of the world.  For instance, behaviour that is symptomatic of mental disease is not immediately ethical but clinical in nature and so the proper subject matter of neuropsychology.  Diseased behaviour, like diseased tissue, is strictly speaking open to descriptive and not normative analysis.

As such, individuals afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia are not morally responsible for symptomatic behaviour and its fallout.  There is no question of what they ought to do during psychotic episodes, because there is nothing they can otherwise do.

Or consider a pair of friends hiking the hills where one sustains an accidental, fatal injury and the other lacks specialized medical knowledge necessary to save the party.  There might be issues of moral responsibility, but in this circumstance the failure of the individual to take action that can save their friend is not among them.

No such action was possible and so there is no basis for ethical assessment, including assignment of blame or praise.  One ought to save the life of one’s friend, but no one is obliged to do the impossible.

Be it an act of commission or omission, if there is no possible alternative, then there is no question as to what ought to be done and so no opportunity to condemn or condone.  It is this observation that fundamentally and largely releases the current higher education paradigm from moral responsibility for a legacy of civil and individual harm.

Release from Moral Responsibility
Ethical issues arise under the reigning higher education service paradigm – a functionary triad of institutions (university/college), governments and unions.  Each enjoying a form of moral agency, these functionaries are severally or jointly subject to ethical analysis.  An incomplete account of the analysis identifies issues such as access limited by ethnicity and economic status, scarcity of employment, exploitation of labour, and service of dubious quality.

These are serious charges in any civil enterprise, but perhaps especially in higher education.

However, there are mitigating circumstances.  As things stand now use of the triad paradigm is not election among evils, as though there were available alternative service paradigms each of which has been proven a less suitable candidate.  There are no other candidates, no other possibilities, only variation on this iconic theme.

Consequently any ethical analysis that occurs does so from within the solitary, unavoidable, and necessary conditions scribed by triad higher education.  With the scope of moral responsibility so qualified, any variation on the theme, failure to choose the lesser evil or use due diligence in the election process are acts subject to censure, but the theme itself is outside the scope of ethics. 

By analogy if the only possible form of governance is divine rule, then it would be impossible to assess it on ethical criteria.  If circumstances of governance cannot be any other, then there is no moral dilemma regarding the use of such rule, only relative aspects of its implementation under conditions necessary to the form.

None of this excuses the routinely inappropriate election among evils we suffer and lament as participants in higher education.  But it does put them in perspective, as the consequence of the necessary, irreplaceable, singular triad service paradigm.

We can work for better conditions from within or hope for an alternative that can improve matters from without, but we cannot hold the triad morally responsible for the current conditions.  After all, it is not possible for them to be any other way.

Possible Alternatives Reinstate Moral Responsibility
When functionaries devised to serve the ends of a civil enterprise such as higher education have persistent, serious negative impact on society, are no longer practical, or diminish in relevance and value – all of which is true of the triad – then corrective action must be taken.  This seems obvious.

But Kant insists that the obligation to alter such circumstances exists only if it is in fact possible for the circumstances to be other than they are.  In this case, only if it is possible to replace the triad.

So far the case for triad absolution has been based on the assumption that there is no other way to provide higher education and research.  This is a ubiquitous, entrenched and fortunately, false assumption.

In fact there are at least two other service paradigms that might be used to provide higher education and research: the professional and the cooperative.  Both are vastly superior to the triad on all metrics important to the civil enterprise.

Because the conditions of higher education are so abysmal, we have always been compelled to improve them - if only it were possible.  The professional and cooperative paradigms are possible candidates that allow us to honour this moral responsibility beyond mere variation on a defunct theme of election among evils.

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