Talking About Injustice in the Classroom

Talking About Injustice in the Classroom

Teaching Excellence Workshop, St. Mary's College of Maryland - Fall 2016


I’m a philosophy professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. I’m also a member of the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity working group on Education and Training.

My research focuses on the intersection of two main areas of moral philosophy: interpersonal ethics and social justice. What I’m interested in (and what all of my classes engage) is how we ought to act as individuals within a larger, unjust social world.

When I had the idea for this session in the spring it was right after we’d had a pretty tough year regarding racial issues on campus. I know that after the Confederate Flag incident, and then again after the Natty Boh Hunt, lots of faculty took some time out of their classes to talk candidly about those things.

I don’t know about all of you but whenever I lead those conversations in class I worry that I’m going to mess things up – that the conversation won’t go well and that it’ll end up making things worse for students who feel like they don’t belong on campus or who are angry, hurt, or afraid.

In light of that, what I’d like to do today is to spend a bit of time talking through some concepts and distinctions that I think are particularly helpful for having those conversations – I think of them as conceptual scaffolding - and then spend the rest of the session exchanging ideas and suggestions for what works, or what hasn’t worked so well for all of us, in the past.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that I have the whole story about these concepts, nor do I claim that the ways I like to talk about these things are the only ways to do so. I know lots of you have been having really helpful conversations with students for a long time about some of this stuff. The idea is just to get some concepts on the table and then have a conversation together about how to talk about injustice in the classroom.


I think the single most important distinction that we can draw for today’s purpose is between interpersonal ethics and social justice or injustice. That distinction is pretty common, but I also think that, for a variety of reasons, maintaining that distinction in practice can be really tough.

When I say interpersonal ethics I’m referring to how we would go about evaluating the actions of individual actors. We have rules that say things like you should:

- keep your promises

- don’t lie

- don’t steal

Oppression, on the other hand, is fundamentally social and structural; it is not something that any individual actor can just do – I don’t think it’s very helpful to talk about people being “oppressors” in the sense that I’m using the term. Or maybe some actors can be oppressors, like heads of state, but most individuals can’t – they just don’t have the power to affect society broadly enough to structure the lives of groups of people.

That last part is important: when we are talking about structural injustice we are referring to the ways in which certain norms or social arrangements structure the lives of individual people in virtue of belonging to certain social groups.

This doesn’t happen arbitrarily. It happens because ideologies mark out particular bodies as being the appropriate targets for certain types of treatment. I’m here understanding ideologies to be the social stories we tell ourselves as a community that often operate in the background of social consciousness. Not only do ideologies mark out certain bodies for certain types of treatment, in virtue of doing so they help to make you who you are. You are a member of a social group in virtue of being the appropriate target for that type of treatment; it’s not a voluntary thing that you can easily sign up for.

Here’s an example: all black people in the United States in 2016 have reason to fear police violence.

I don’t know about you, but whenever police lights come on behind me I get pretty nervous. The sirens, the lights, worrying about traffic, just being around guns … but of course I’m a white guy and so I’m not afraid that the police officer is going to shoot me when I reach for my insurance card.

To be black in the U.S. today means lots of things, but one of the things that it means is that you have good reason to fear those types of encounters more than you do if you are white; that’s part of the meaning of blackness and whiteness.

First takeaway: ideologies work to structure and limit the life options of individual bodies. They do this by making exposure to certain types of treatment more or less likely.

I think all that’s true, but before moving on I want to add a bit more nuance to the concept of social group, by way of the concept of intersectionality. For our purposes I’m just taking that to mean that where you find yourself in the social world is always going to be at an intersection of various social group identities. So, you aren’t just your race, or your sex, or your gender, or your age, or your nationality, or your socioeconomic class; you find yourself at the center of each one of those axes of oppression or privilege. What that means is that you are likely to find yourself to be privileged in some contexts, oppressed in others. That nuance will be important when we come back to talking about what we should do in the classroom.

But, before we get to that, now that we have a quick story about social level injustice on the table, let’s go back to talking about interpersonal ethics. Again: it’s easy enough to come up with a list of hard and fast moral rules (on paper) for actions you should or shouldn’t commit: don’t lie, don’t steal, etc. Things get trickier when we are trying to evaluate actions in the real world. There is obviously an important difference between someone stealing your car merely because they like it and someone stealing medication from a pharmacy to treat their sick child.

One thing that’s missing from those unnuanced, hard and fast rules, is the possibility of reaching different judgments about moral responsibility; we probably want to be able to ask not just whether an action is right or wrong, but what an individual actor is morally responsible for, to what degree, and why.

Part of the reason why I’m focusing on this is that, in my experience, as soon as you start talking to privileged folks about oppression they tend to get really defensive and say things like:

- “That’s not my fault!”

- “I worked hard for what I’ve gotten!”

- “I didn’t cause slavery, or Jim Crow, so why should I be blamed for how things are going today?”

This is a place where I think philosophy can help us, by clarifying terms and concepts that we use all the time. For instance, each of those defensive claims relies on a background understanding of moral responsibility. Indeed, we all use the term ‘responsibility’ (or its cognates) out in the world all the time. The thing is, though, the term 'responsibility' can be used in lots of different ways and so if we want to make a conversation in the classroom about injustice as productive as it can be, it’s helpful to clarify what those ways are so we can all be on the same page about what is (and isn’t) being attributed to individual actors.

Ok, so, we should distinguish between causal and moral responsibility. Causal responsibility is just the recognition that causation is a real thing - that when I knock over one domino another domino falls. We are causally responsible for lots of stuff in a very thin, uninteresting way.

We are strongly causally responsible for lots of other stuff in a more robust, direct way (where one action follows from another directly, and as a result of my intentional exercise of agency, rather than off in the unforeseeable future).

It’s super easy to conflate the two types of responsibility and to talk about causal responsibility as if it is the same thing as moral responsibility. It’s really important that we resist that conflation; that someone is causally responsible for an outcome does not yet tell us that they are morally responsible for it, and vice versa. That further claim requires additional argumentation and support.

Lots of the time causal responsibility is necessary for moral responsibility; in many cases it doesn’t make sense to hold someone responsible for some outcome that they didn’t bring about. But, that’s not always true. What’s a case where you’d be morally responsible but not causally responsible?

Consider two:

1. I am a part of an organization that, without my knowledge, commits some crime. I might be sued as a result. I might be found responsible independent of whether I was directly causally responsible for it; so, in this case we seem to be talking about something like responsibility by association.

2. Or, more germane to our discussion, I’m a part of a social group that unjustly confers some benefits on me. Though I didn’t set up the rules, in virtue of having received benefits I didn’t deserve, I bear some significant moral responsibility.

Now, in both cases you might think I’m not blameworthy, nor am I causally responsible, but I do owe something. In the first case I am responsible for making up for the wrongs that my organization committed. In the second I am responsible for either repaying a benefit I didn’t earn or working to change the system so that it doesn’t confer such benefits to people arbitrarily (at the expense of others). I’ll come back to this.

But first, note that another thing that makes people defensive, and that can make conversations about things like the events on campus contentious, is that people often don’t even agree about what it is that happened. Consider, for instance, that sometimes people use racist epithets and then respond to others’ anger or hurt by asking, “Can’t you take a joke?” We need to unpack what’s going on here.

When we are doing interpersonal ethics and trying to assign moral responsibility to particular actors, one of the things we must do is try to figure out what the proper act description is – what it is that the actor has done. In trying to figure out what the proper act description is in any particular case, we have to take at least three things into account:

- intention

- context

- outcome

Let’s start with the first one. Of course there is something important about intention. If I harm you (make you worse off than you otherwise would have been) without intending to, that is importantly different (morally) than if I caused the same harm and was aiming to do so.

But, intention is also not the whole story; effect or outcome also helps to determine what action I have committed - what it is that I have done.

Here’s an example:

I see someone having a heart attack. I go through their bag and find a bottle labeled “heart medicine” so I give the person one of the pills it contains. Unbeknownst to me the bottle actually contains poison. Even though I was intending to save their life, what I actually did was kill them.

What that example demonstrates is that the context in which one is committing an action plays a crucial role in helping to determine what outcome they bring about. And, since outcome helps to determine proper act description, context is also going to play a crucial role in determining what it is that I do; what action I commit.

Now, all that helps to show that whether someone is blameworthy for having committed some action can be separated from whether they have in fact committed that action. I can acknowledge, in other words, that when I commit some action that unintentionally causes harm, I have caused that harm, without yet concluding that I ought to be blamed for having done so. How much blame should be assigned remains an open question, to be answered only once we have acknowledged that an action was harmful.

Ok, bringing the two parts of the discussion together: all this has been to say that in a background context of injustice, where oppressive ideologies structure the lives and limit the life chances of social groups, when I commit an action that contributes to that ideology, or when I enjoy privilege as a result of some other group’s oppression, I bear some responsibility for having done so.

There are other good reasons for thinking that I bear responsibility for injustice beyond having contributed to it or benefited from it; I might have a general duty to promote justice, for instance, or I might bear specific duties to other members of my community to ensure that social arrangements are set up in a way that enables them to flourish.

Regardless of the grounds for attributing moral responsibility to a particular person (either born from complicity, benefit, beneficence, community relations, or some other reason) how much responsibility, what the nature of that responsibility is, and how blameworthy they are, are all open questions.


Ok, in light of all that, let’s return to the classroom. We often have these conversations after there’s been some event, either on campus or off, when it seems important to give our students the chance to process what they’re thinking and feeling, and to express those things as members of an academic community.

It seems to me that it’s really important to remember, in guiding those conversations, that not everyone has the same experiences of the social world. This is where that bit about intersectionality comes in; where you find yourself in the social world can cause it to be more or less likely that certain aspect of the world will be knowable to you.

The way I like to put this is by way of a little slogan that says that your social location bears on but does not wholly determine your epistemic location. In less jargony terms: what you have experienced plays an important (though not decisive) role in what you are likely to believe and feel about the social world.

I think at least two main things follow from that.

1. If I occupy a social location that makes it unlikely I would have experienced certain types of treatment from others, I ought to be careful about dismissing others when they claim that they have. So, going back to the police example: imagine that I’m talking with a black friend who reports feeling scared of the police. I shouldn’t respond by saying, “Oh, you’re overreacting, there’s nothing to fear.” The reason why is that, given the epistemic position white folks (in general) are likely to occupy, I’m being dismissive of a claim based on insufficient evidence.

2. But, that slogan shouldn’t be used to swing too far in the other direction either. It’s become pretty trendy to say things like, “Given that I’m white, I could never know what it’s like to be black.” Whereas the first point was an example of overreaching, this is an example of underreaching. Whenever you invoke this claim you shield yourself in ignorance born from your social location and let yourself off the hook for all the stuff you don’t know about any injustice you haven’t experienced. You also undermine the opportunity to build coalitions across groups by hunkering down in social group solipsism.

So, that’s all a way of saying that when holding these conversations in the classroom I think it’s really important for us as facilitators to remember the limits and benefits of our epistemic locations, and to be especially mindful of helping students in the class to do the same. That serves the larger pedagogical goal I’m sure all of us share, which is to help all of our students feel included, as if they belong in the conversation, as if they belong at St. Mary’s, and as if they have something meaningful to contribute.

And, with that I’d like to open it up for discussion! I’d like to have this part of the conversation be really free form. I’ll suggest some big picture questions, in no particular order, and then we can just let things go where they will for the remaining time.

- What are you worried about when you have conversations like these?

- What has worked for you in the past?

- What hasn’t worked so well and why do you think that’s the case?

- Are there things that you find particularly frustrating or upsetting about having these types of conversations?

- Have students, colleagues, or friends said anything about these types of conversations that make you feel hopeful?