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Student Has No Right to Discuss “Gay Marriage” in Marquette Ethics Class?



Jacob W. Wood - published on 11/30/14

Those who lay claim to rights by modern standards will lose them when the culture is against them.

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Controversy has erupted over a single Ethics class at Marquette University.

According to Inside Higher Ed, class discussion concerned John Rawls. The Teaching Assistant asked for concrete examples of situations which might illustrate Rawls’s idea that people’s exercise of their rights ought not to infringe on the rights of others. A student proposed the example of gay marriage. The TA declined to consider it. Another student approached the TA after class. Chaos ensued.

No, it didn’t come to blows. There was no shouting. No one was kicked out of class.And no one has been suspended. Instead, a student and the TA discussed at the appropriate time and with with appropriate decorum why the other student’s example was passed over. So what’s the big deal? It’s what that student and the TA said to each other after class, not what they did.

The student argued on analogy with modern liberalism: everyone has the right to express his opinion; he had an opinion; ergo he had the right to express it. The TA argued on analogy with post-modern progressivism. The student’s opinion might be hurtful to LGBT students in the classroom; the LGBT students have a right not to be hurt; ergo he did not have the right to express it.

Perhaps unwittingly, the student and the TA played out the Rawlsian scenario envisaged by the class. Where do rights come from, and when push comes to shove, how do we balance competing claims to rights?

Post-modern approaches to political philosophy have long shown that in a Rawlsian competition of rights, a resolution (if we can call it that) inevitably arises from the imposition of one person’s claim over another’s, because of the lack of an objective account of the purpose of rights. And armies have now been raised on both sides for such a contest. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and The College Fix claim that the student was the victim of a deliberate attempt to stifle support for Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. On the other hand, the Daily Nous claims that the TA has been the victim of a right-wing smear campaign, and an LSU professor has written an open letter stating that criticism of the TA endangers academic freedom.

Whose claim to rights prevailed in the end? Not the student’s—the university administration backed the TA, and so the student had to withdraw from the class. But does that make our modern student a marginalized victim of post-modern injustice, rightfully commanding the collective empathy of social conservatives? Yes and no. To be sure, it is a contradiction in terms for a TA in an Ethics class at a Catholic university to ban discussion of the very truths that an Ethics class should be teaching. But then again, it is not exactly surprising. Those who lay claim to rights by modern standards when the culture is for them will lose their rights by post-modern standards when the culture is against them.

It didn’t have to be this way. All it would have taken was some consideration for the purpose of a classroom. That purpose then sets a standard for the evaluation of individual claims to rights only insofar as they are conducive towards the purpose. The student would have to acknowledge that the university is not and never could be a mere "marketplace of ideas" where everyone can claim a right to voice any opinion at any time for any reason. There is a goal in a classroom, and it entails learning the class material. If a TA does not think that your example will be the best example to help everyone learn the class material, you don’t have a right to insist that the discussion use your example.

On the other hand, the TA would have to acknowledge that the university is not and never could be a place whose goal it is to make people feel good; universities exist to seek the truth, and learning the material in the classroom is part of that pursuit. At a Catholic university, that search assumes the truths of reason and of faith; in an Ethics course at a Catholic university, that means the natural law and Catholic moral teaching on marriage and sexuality. Even if those truths make people feel bad, that does not and cannot ever place them off limits to classroom discussion. Students have a right to discuss and learn them, and to deny students that right would be to change the purpose of a university.

As it happened, I think it is safe to say that the TA achieved her goal. The student learned the day’s lesson: when competing claims to rights clash without any consideration for the purpose of those rights, there are ultimately winners and losers. If you articulate your claim to rights on the basis of a competition with others instead of the collective pursuit with them of the common good of humanity, known in part by the natural law and professed in full by Catholic moral teaching, you won’t always be strong enough to find yourself among the winners.

What happened at Marquette is a true story. But it is also a parable for the plight of the Church in contemporary American society. We have gone "all-in" on the right to religious liberty in the face of the contraceptive mandate and the rising tide of same-sex "marriage." But we need to think long and hard about what we mean by "rights" and by "liberty." If we mean the same thing as those who push contrary agendas, we may well find ourselves in the company of the student—forced to withdraw from society because the culture will no longer allow us to speak. As in class, so in society: Rawls might be on the syllabus, but no one is really playing by his rules anymore.

Instead, we need a new language and a new way to address the culture, one which explains our common good and pro-actively invites others to join us in making progress towards it, rather than exhorting them, "don’t tread on me." C.C. Pecknold’s Dominican Option is one such model for an attitude of common engagement. If we wed it to a vision of man, of rights, and of liberty, which is inspired by the common good and not a competition of individual claims to supposed "rights," it might be just the thing we need to keep the discussion alive, and even to steer it in the right direction.

Jacob W. Woodis an Assistant Professor of Theology and a Faculty Associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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