Fired for teaching the natural law

Dr. Kenneth Howell, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Illinois, has not been renewed to teach after a student accused him of hate speech in his class.  What was his hate speech?  It appears just this: clarifying what natural law moral theory has to say about homosexuality as compared to what Utilitarianism might say.  Keep in mind, he was doing this in a Catholic studies course!  Seriously, if you cannot teach the natural law in a Catholic studies course, where can you teach it?  This is either intellectual excommunication by the liberal academic elite or the act of a cowardly administration that acts out of fear (lawsuits, etc) rather than principle (this is the same university that removed editors of the student run paper after they printed the Muhammad cartoons).

News story here.

Of some interest is that the U of Illinois atheist student group (AAF – Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) has come to Dr. Howell’s defense.  They describe him, despite obvious differences of opinion, as a “friend” of the group (apparently he has helped organize some events) and are generally appalled by the censorship of ideas in what should be, at a university, a free marketplace of ideas.  Their statement can be read here.

I must say that this whole thing hits pretty close to home with me.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

13 thoughts on “Fired for teaching the natural law”

  1. So Huenemann becomes an administrator and immediately starts covering up the mistakes of his brethren? :)

    A few things:

    I did not give the email in question a really careful reading, but my sense is that Leiter is quite unfair to it. I won’t come to the defense of Howell’s psychology of gender in homosexual relationships. And the email is pretty quick and loose. But he makes his point. As a broad stroke, it does not seem too far off to say that utilitarianism (or harm principle ethics) would tend to approve sexual acts that are consensual. We don’t know the caliber of his students, so I think it unfair to judge him for what appears to be an email that errs on the side of oversimplification. Besides, it would be hard to say that the University let him go because he was “incompetent” since he has been teaching there for 9 years (if he was such an idiot that he was incapable of philosophical depth, why did they keep renewing him?). Not only that, he won teaching awards two straight years.

    The sexual complementarity point, while not well made in the email, is the sort of thing that legitimate intellectuals defend. See John Paul II, or Robert P George (named chair of jurisprudence at Princeton and an advocate of the New Natural Law). Point is, his gloss on natural law is not all that deep, but as a broad stroke it is not that bad. Not knowing where his students are in terms of ability and understanding, that might be all he is able to do. Maybe Leiter has much better undergrads. For my part, I will confess to some serious oversimplification in some of my lower division courses.

    Anyway, there appears to be agreement that he was fired for hate speech, not incompetence. There is some question as to whether this is the first incident. But one thing seems clear to me from his email – there is no hate speech there, so I don’t see how this could count as an “incident” at all (first or last). Nor do I see any evidence of proselytizing. I read the email as being descriptive of a view. Perhaps he is pushing it some, so be it. Are professors disallowed from professing a view? I don’t think he even mentioned Catholicism.

    The student complaint is really lame:
    “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote in the e-mail. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.””

    No. Saying that homosexual acts violate natural laws of man might be offensive to some, but it is not hate speech. This is simply what the natural law teaches. The natural law is a perfectly legitimate moral theory. It is a theory that has been espoused by some of the greatest thinkers in our tradition (Aristotle is often called the “father of the natural law”) and still has notable representation by eminent scholars in philosophy and philosophy of law. It deserves, I say demands, a place in any ethics curriculum and certainly deserves a place in a Catholic studies course.

    If evidence comes out that Howell has a history of hate speech or crossing some line, then I will change my tune. Based on what I see so far, it looks pretty hard to justify the refusal to renew. I have a hard time seeing how this email could be the last straw to anything. If he had been accused of hate speech or crossing some line before, that was apparently not deemed sufficient to terminate at the time. But this is? That the campus atheist club, who seem to know the guy pretty well, are backing him suggests that his courses are not over-the-top conversion efforts.

    By the way, that relationship between the religious studies program and the Newman Center is not absolutely unique. Purdue has a Catholic priest at the Newman Center who teaches religious studies courses on Catholicism and theology that are credited courses in their program. Maybe I am oversensitive to these things, but when people speak about concerns with these sorts of relationships I end up thinking that might simply be code for people wanting to strip the public square naked of religion. PZ Myers‘ take on the whole affair is I think more honest – the underlying belief among many in the academe that only an idiot who thinks the moon is made of cheese could possibly be interested in defending the natural law.

    Anyway, consider my judgment provisional until more information comes out. I’ll admit I jumped the gun if evidence comes out that this guy was over the top. For the time being, such a thing makes people like me more than a little nervous. I teach the natural law in my ethics courses (I use a Robert George article). Sherlock recently taught an entire course on the natural law. The natural law is a significant part of Sherlock’s medical ethics course. For it not to be would be, in my judgment, a real oversight. Should I teach in fear that an over-sensitive student who complains to administration will imperil my job?


  2. Maybe I am just not reading things right, but I just did not read his email as being too strong on the advocacy side of things. You could say he was pushing a position. Is that bad? I do that all the time. Now I try to be even about it – I push every position I teach (when I am teaching Descartes, I try to play the good Cartesian). Still, we don’t know the context. Maybe his students were totally unsold by the natural law in class. So he went back at it to push it. I do that all the time, push really hard on positions that students seem too quick to dismiss (I should say that I do this on positions that I both agree and disagree with).

    But to back up from that the particular situation here, I am not convinced that “advocacy” in teaching is all bad. What is wrong with having a Buddhist teach the Buddhism class? Do we not trust students to understand that they are hearing points of view from human beings – that is, people who also have commitments and beliefs? I don’t mean to go all pomo here, but is radical objectivity either possible or even good? I think professors should sometimes profess, not hide behind the illusion of objectivity as if refusing to show your commitments is some kind of virtue. I am just less and less enamored with this idea that profs need to cloak themselves in this armor of objectivity. I am beginning to think that such a posture ends up only advocating one position – skepticism. Really, what does this teach? – that the model of intellectual sophistication is refusing to make any commitments on anything? (Sorry Huenemann, I did not mean that as a personal attack on you! :) )

    Now doing actual professing (“advocacy”) requires honesty and fairness – one must be honest about the legitimate criticisms against the position you might be advocating. But I am not convinced that it requires “detachment”. Obviously you should not be pressuring (in such a way that students feel their grade is on the line if they disagree). But I think we should trust our students enough to allow them to sort out the various different positions they are exposed to. I had profs in college who were overtly atheist, marxist, aristotelian, hegelian, etc. I am not damaged by this. I encountered passionate defenses of various “world-views”, often from people who were clearly themselves invested in those world views. So then I go home and try to sort it all out for myself. Really, what are we protecting students from when we insist on “non-advocacy” teaching? And, again, I think something is always being advocated anyway, even if it is closeted. Is the goal of a university education to make everyone non-committal? Is that what it means to be educated, that being educated is identical with being removed, detached, and skeptical? Bah!

    I should say, I do not always practice what I just preached. In my Intro classes in particular, I work very hard to keep myself out of it and I advocate for every position that comes along on the syllabus. With younger and more impressionable students, I think you need to walk a different path, in this sense. I do practice it a bit more in upper division courses. There I try to create a classroom environment that is pretty free-wheeling and where students feel free to object and disagree with whatever we are reading or discussing. But students in my Contemporary Euro class don’t have to be mind readers to know that I am enamored with Heidegger and Levinas, but considerably less enamored with Derrida. I am still fair to Derrida, and I offer criticisms of Levinas and Heidegger, but it is probably fairly plain to my students where I stand. Am I abusing my position as a teacher in this?

    One more thing, are we selectively picking on social conservatives when we get upset about classroom advocacy? Look at some of the books chosen by some colleges for the entering freshman “class read” project – aren’t those books advocating a position and even a specific politics? There are plenty of other examples like this. Would someone have been removed if they had written a similarly toned email that encouraged the view that we should accept homosexual behavior as morally permissible? Forgive my skepticism, but I doubt we would have heard a thing. Point is, professors and universities advocate for things all the time. I don’t really have a problem with this – the only problem I see is that there is insufficient diversity of ideas on the faculty. But it is clearly the liberal perspective that dominates in the American academe.

    On a different note: I am not sold on your natural law argument for homosexuality, Vince. But I have not adequately developed a counter-argument. Briefly, I reject one of the premises. While I am borderline kooky on the environment, I am not sold on the neo-Malthusian doomsday predications of population bombs. I am with Mother Theresa, “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” “Over-population” does not cause poverty. The reverse is true – poverty causes high fertility rates. And the doomsday predications of the Malthusians have been wrong every time.

    But you probably had more in mind climate change than poverty and hunger. Climate change (which I take very seriously) does add a different wrinkle to this. Still, I say the problem is over-consumption and an unjust distribution of goods, not too many people. Fact is, you could argue that Westerners are not producing enough children right now (Europe is not even replacing itself). Most of the hand-wringing about overpopulation concerns the population growth in the developing world. But, as far as climate change goes, the argument ends up falling flat there. A single American is responsible for the same amount of greenhouse emissions per year as about 238 Tanzanians (the numbers range from country to country in Africa). So should some Africans or Indians, who contribute almost nothing to greenhouse emissions, be discouraged from the joy of children because Americans are too selfish to give up their cars and iPods? Again, the problem is consumption. I hope the moral obnoxiousness of casting stones at poor countries (where the fertility rates are high) is starting to become clear, particularly when these “population programs” almost always include abortion. Once American liberals start consuming at the rate of Africans, I will start to listen to their population scare arguments on climate change. Of course, if Westerners would reduce their consumption rates this argument would not even get started to begin with. (Disclaimer: I consume to much, so I am throwing stones in a glass house … though I am not griping about the population bomb that asks much of the poor and little of me either).


  3. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but I’ll chime in with a couple of comments. First, I do agree with Leiter that the email is “amazingly bad.” Oversimplifying is one thing, but this guy sticks utilitarians with all sorts of plainly ridiculous views. The email suggests to me that this is definitely a slanted presentation of the materials. A teacher ought to show the strength of each theoretical approach.

    Second, should such slanted teaching nevertheless be protected in the academy? Here I need more info, especially about this dude’s grading. If he slants his material, but grades fairly, then he’s not a good teacher, but, well, what are you gonna do. But if only the students who agree with him are getting good grades, there’s a problem, and he should be canned, or at least sent to the woodshed.


    1. Utilitarians (I am thinking of Singer) stick themselves with plenty of ridiculous or obnoxious views, maybe he should have just used those as examples instead of producing examples himself!

      I did go back and read the email more carefully and it is not a fair presentation of Utilitarianism. About the only bone he throws them is his comment that lots of Americans probably use this sort of moral reasoning daily. I don’t think he is a philosopher, though I do not know his training. I don’t think the course was a philosophy or an ethics course, so he might have been a bit out of his depth in trying to discuss it. Anyway, I will back off my defense of his email as mere “oversimplification”. Still, I have a hard time believing that a sloppy email is cause for dismissal. Perhaps evidence will come out that he has a record of this bad teaching (and maybe unfair grading). But if that is so, then someone will need to explain how he won a teaching award two straight years. Maybe these teaching awards mean nothing and winners are selected using dart boards… but I don’t really want to say that since I won one last year! :)


  4. I agree that it is a good thing – perhaps as much for the prof as for the students – for a professor to teach a outside their area (the Buddhism class example). And let me be clear – I am not proposing really heavy handed position advocacy teaching (hear that, Associate Dean Huenemann? I am not supporting that! ;) ).

    This article makes the point I am trying to make more clearly than I have:

    An excerpt:
    “I am a college professor and I would like to reflect upon the powerful words of Paul VI from that perspective. It is hard to think of contemporary college professors as “witnesses,” especially when so many of them are reticent to “profess” anything (so why do they merit the term “professor?). One plague of the modern university is the bizarre notion that the teacher ought not to impose his beliefs upon his students. No, indeed! The professor ought rather to be a sophisticated master chef preparing the sumptuous banquet of neutral information.

    With prejudice towards no idea, a kind disposition towards all, and grave objectivity, the professor merely comments upon the relative strengths and weaknesses of each factual morsel comprising the feast of knowledge. Under this model, the uninitiated student, whose tastes are unformed, is left to his appetites – he gravitates towards what he personally finds interesting and meaningful. College thus becomes a type of four-year buffet where the student, safeguarded by the scrupulous “objectivity” of his instructors, makes knowledge and meaning for himself, without fear of interference from those serving him the banquet.

    Such an educational model rejects outright the notion of teacher as witness. Yet in an odd way Paul VI does have advocates in university circles. The intellectually honest among the professoriate know that the notion of the “purely objective” teacher is nonsense. Those who probe into the nature of education quickly conclude that it is simply impossible to “teach from nowhere,” as if the positions and perspectives of the teacher could simply be suspended in a weightless vacuum of objectivity. Further, this notion of pure objectivity in pedagogy treats neither the teacher nor the student with anything resembling the seriousness befitting human persons. ”

    He goes on to discuss Rorty and his defense of the teacher “as a witness”.


  5. As a teacher, and a teacher of Catholic theology, that email reads as a gut-punch to me–an attempt to lead students to disprove a specific philosophy, rather than an attempt to teach various philosophies regarding the issue. I can understand why a student was upset.

    Objectivity or subjectivity aside, I think the real question is this: Can a professor be fired, rather than reprimanded and refocused based on a singular communication and singular complaint? Or maybe this: Did education exist in that email?

    That is really the grander picture here. This is not really a philosophical banter regarding rights. This should be a question of the processes and standards the institution presently has in the treatment of valued and valuable thinkers.
    Ask this:
    If he says it in a classroom is it acceptable?
    If he writes it on the board is it acceptable?
    If someone tapes what he says or takes a picture of the board is it acceptable?
    If he writes it en masse via email…is it acceptable?

    And then, what’s the difference?

    I agree what he wrote is sloppy and lop-sided, possibly loaded with agenda.

    When I was a student at USU I started out as an English major (twenty years ago), and had a professor who taught that The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe was a sexual poem. Not a poem about death–but one of sexual desire and imagery. We rebelled, but in the classroom, in open conversation. He did not have a solid case, we did and we left vindicated after three days of what became spirited but respectful discussion. He recanted. It was a process of learning for all involved, including him. We we more solid students. He became a more solid professor. It was a true educational process.

    Move it to email and a question lingers. Who can respond publicly, converse publicly, test and try?

    And if that is the issue at hand, then the college should say it. If it’s merely technology and technology policy, it should be said. The confusion surrounding this is one of transparency (sorry for the use of that word–I loathe it too) from the get-go. And the anger revolves around the process and response.

    Freedom of education means public education, and should mean a student’s freedom for public rebuttal. A gracious teacher accepts that, maybe apologizes, most likely changes. That’s a good thing.


    1. Very interesting thoughts, Diane. I had not really thought about how the medium (email) was a part of how things went wrong here – the difficulty or impossibility of a public response on the part of the students.
      I don’t mean to put words in Diane’s mouth, but to tie this in with my point above: we need not demand absolute objectivity on the part of our teachers, so long as there is open discussion, fairness, and the possibility of public rebuttal. I loved the example from you English class – that is just great. Prof has a view, students challenge it, there is a back-and-forth, everyone learns.


    1. Just a clarification:
      I believe the Newman Center was paying his salary and the university was not paying him at all. I think the way it was sorted out was that he taught Newman Center courses (on the dime of the Newman Center) but those courses counted for university credit. Wasn’t it nice of the Church to basically subsidize university credit courses in Catholic Studies for all of these years? :)

      So one might say that the end is coming to the university providing credit for courses taught by teachers who are not actually employed (in the sense of being paid or hired) by the university. I think this is a good idea. At a minimum, they should pay him adjunct money even if his main job is at the Newman Center. Then they are responsible for his contract and course content since he is their employee.

      I believe this is how it works at Purdue. The Catholic Studies courses are taught by Thomas Ryba (PhD Northwestern in history and lit of religion). He is a “theologian in residence” at the Newman Center and does religious eduction courses there. But he is also an adjunct professor for some of the university courses in Catholic and Jewish thought. I don’t see that being employed by the Newman Center is a problem as far as hiring him to teach university courses goes, so long as the University is paying him and vetting the adjunct hires (and Ryba is more than competent to teach the courses he teaches).

      It seems to me that if the U of Illinois was not happy with this adjunct instructor (who they were getting for free!), they were free to go and hire an adjunct on their own dime at any time. Instead they awarded him with two teaching awards in the last 3 years. So I still think something fishy was going on with his dismissal.


      1. At least one story I have read indicated that the university would require, as a condition for employment, that Howell cut working association with the Newman Center. Supposing that is true, why should that be? Are other adjuncts and part-timers prevented from working with organizations associated with their faith as condition for employment? At least at first glance that looks like a possible violation of his academic freedom or freedom of religion. Would a part-time or adjunct teaching job at USU prevent me from working as the Newman Campus Minister?

        I suspect Howell will not last long. Even if the University wishes to keep him, if he has to cut all associations with the Newman Center (which was paying him a livable wage), he will likely not be able to live off adjunct pay for long.


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