UT Austin Professor: Political Correctness Killed Moral Ethics Course

“Students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial."

Political correctness has conditioned college students to avoid discussion of controversial topics for fear of being labeled racist, misogynist, etc., according to a University of Texas at Austin professor.

In 2011 philosophy Professor Daniel Bonevac stopped teaching a course called “Contemporary Moral Problems” because today’s students are unwilling to debate controversial, politicized issues. The course was extremely popular, enrolling up to 600 students in a single class. Bonevac had offered the course for more than 20 years, but it was no longer worth the trouble and backlash, he said.

“Students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial and one side might be viewed as politically incorrect,” he told The College Fix. “The open exchange of ideas that used to make courses such as Contemporary Moral Problems exciting doesn’t happen. It’s not possible to teach the course the way I used to teach it.”

The class studied both ancient and contemporary sources of moral and political philosophy, and Bonevac connected the principles of liberty, first principles, rights and justice to contemporary moral issues such as drug legalization, sexual behavior, the environment, abortion, capital punishment, war, economic equality, affirmative action and immigration.

“Teaching the course successfully requires presenting a fair balance of arguments, treating each side respectfully but also critically, and exposing students to the best arguments I can find on each side,” said Bonevac, who is known as a conservative-leaning professor on campus.

“For decades the University of Texas at Austin has been an ideal place to do that. Students bring a wide range of opinions. They’re open-minded. They argue for their own views vigorously while listening carefully to the other side and treating its advocates respectfully,” he said.

But the rise of political correctness and fear of certain types of speech put a chill on the free inquiry necessary for a class like “Contemporary Moral Problems” to succeed.

“One or two students who don’t share those qualities mentioned above can shut down discussion and destroy such a course,” Bonevac told The Fix:

He recalls that in the early years of teaching the course, he had no problem presenting Sidney Callahan’s and Roger Scruton’s arguments in favor of traditional sexual morality, Don Marquis’s arguments against abortion, Justice Scalia’s and Thomas Sowell’s arguments against affirmative action, and Immanuel Kant’s, John Rawls’s, and George Borjas’s arguments for restricting immigration. He would also present counter arguments to those stances as well.

More recently, however, Bonevac noted that exploring conservative viewpoints on moral issues such as abortion, sexual morality, affirmative action and restrictive immigration has become prohibitively difficult in a classroom setting.

“Ninety-nine percent of the students might be excited to encounter arguments they had never heard before, whether they were inclined to agree with them or not. But the one percent who are not can poison the well. Indeed, they have poisoned the well, even if they say nothing in class,” Bonevac said.

The intellectual straight-jacket of political correctness makes students unwilling to “say anything that could get them denounced as racist, sexist, xenophobic” and the like.

“But there’s another, less-noticed dimension,” continued Bonevac:

“Students know there’s a politically correct view on a lot of issues. So, when anything connected to race, sex, etc., arises, I see a lot of students turn off. I think they see it this way: Either what comes next is politically correct and they’ve heard before, in which case it’s pointless and boring, or it presents a challenge to that perspective, in which case it’s dangerous.”