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Why Principles?

With Jaime Ahlberg

Carrie Welsh  00:00

You’re listening to Ethics and Education. This piece is about principles–you know, the philosophy kind.

Jaime Ahlberg  00:08

What’s the relationship between principles and decision-making? And why should we keep principles at all?

Carrie Welsh  00:15

At the NAAPE conference in 2019, Grace Gecewicz and Abby Beneke interviewed Professor Jaime Ahlberg.

Jaime Ahlberg  00:21

You know, it’s a nice quick way to say, Oh, this is the kind of thing that I think is happening, that’s going wrong here. And it might be that that’s not fully specifying everything we care about, but it is helping us to diagnose and pick out things that we care about.

Carrie Welsh  00:35

This is a great piece for understanding principles and decision-making, especially about education.

Jaime Ahlberg  00:50

So my name is Jaime Ahlberg, I’m a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I specialize in ethics and political philosophy. But I do a lot of thinking about applied philosophy as well in the areas of education, but also sometimes in bioethics, or feminist philosophy. So I’m really interested in this relationship between theory and principles, and also how those theories and principles come alive on the ground, how they’re relevant to the things we care about as we walk about in our lives. So that’s sort of a sort of meta-interest of mine that connects my theoretical interest and my applied interests.

Jaime Ahlberg  01:30

I think that when we’re thinking about cases on the ground, really textured examples or we ourselves are in situations where there are a lot of stakeholders making a lot of claims to a certain outcome and it’s not clear how to move forward, we have a tendency to reach in our back pockets for principles that are… principles that many people can agree to. So well, we all know, bullying is wrong. So we should follow that principle and take that to its logical conclusion in this case. Or, we all think that we should be inclusive. So we should, you know, take that to its logical conclusion in this case. The problem is when you get really into situations, it seems like principles like that are often under-describing the values. So yes, everyone can agree that inclusion–well, not everyone agrees–but a lot of times people can agree inclusion is a value we care about. The problem is, when you get into practice, it seems like people have different stakes to different outcomes with respect to inclusion. So that actually doesn’t help the the agreement process.

Jaime Ahlberg  02:40

So I was using these cases to think a lot about the relationship between the principles that we sort of carry around in our back pockets that that we often pull out to try to generate agreement in difficult cases. And the difficulty with doing that, which is that they don’t often resolve anything, because they’re a little bit too shallow, they’re under-describing the values and the agreement on them is a little bit hollow, it doesn’t fully answer what it is that we want. To say that we all agree about inclusion doesn’t actually help us in very particular cases.

Jaime Ahlberg  03:15

So what’s the relationship between principles and decision-making? And why should we keep principles at all? And I think that there are good reasons to keep principles. Principles are, you might think of them as very compact propositions that are the conclusions of long chains of reasoning and argument. So you have a principle that’s really a sort of short encapsulation of lots of theory, right? And so “bullying is wrong” is not perhaps a great example of this. But in the domain of political philosophy, there are principles regarding freedom or equality, and they’re fully specified. And there, you know, there are books written about why we should believe in this kind of equality or that kind of equality. And there’s a lot of theory that goes into the principle that we should be following.

Jaime Ahlberg  04:09

And so when you present a principle, in an attempt to answer a case–so for example, “we should prioritize the interests of the least advantaged,” you’re presenting that principle, as a sort of principle, but you’re also bringing with it lots of theoretical baggage that actually is helpful for resolving things in certain cases, because then you don’t just have the principle, you have all of the arguments that go behind that principle. So that’s one reason to think [about] principles. Even if in the context of a disagreement look shallow or the agreement upon them looks a little bit hollow, there’s actually more resources there, more thinking there that you can draw on when you’re giving a principle so I’m not ready to give up on principles.

Jaime Ahlberg  04:54

And principles are also quite useful for diagnosing problems. You know, it’s a nice quick way to say, Oh, this is the kind of thing that I think is happening, that’s going wrong here. And it might be that that’s not fully specifying everything we care about. But it is helping us to diagnose and pick out things that we care about. So I think that principles can have this diagnostic kind of function, and they carry with them a lot of hidden theoretical resources. But just giving a principle in response to a textured example is not often all you need to do in order to move forward.

Jaime Ahlberg  05:28

So if principles aren’t enough to responding to cases, what else do we need? Well, it is complex that answer to that question is complicated by a number of factors. Because often in cases where you really have to come up with a solution to a difficult, complicated problem, there are many stakeholders who are making many claims. And so often what you have to do is sort through sort of a host of claims and counterclaims, and try to figure out who might have the the best kind of claim or how to accommodate claims, even if you don’t think they’re the best ones, just because we care about people being involved and, and being taken seriously. So part of what makes proceeding in a case difficult is trying to assess all of the different stakeholder claims that are being made, and giving them priority and proper due. Also what’s difficult is that there are many values in play. So very often, it’s not that we have only two values in play, and they’re competing against each other; we have many of them that might overlap or pull in different directions. So we might care about inclusion, we might care about prioritizing the least advantaged, we might care about making sure everyone feels they’re in a safe learning environment so they’re able to learn. So there are many things that we want to achieve. And it’s not clear how to achieve all of them at once in one context or one case.

Jaime Ahlberg  07:02

We can use principles to help us make some progress in diagnosing and bringing some arguments to the table. But then we really have to think about… we have to use practical wisdom–to draw on Aristotle, right?–we have to use some good judgment in figuring out in a particular case who has a particularly strong claim or where the better arguments are. And that takes practice and judgment. And it also takes, I think, a kind of deference to the process of making judgments and not just being really eager to come to a certain outcome, but to follow a good process in reasoning, which also involves taking into account all the different stakeholders involved. I can’t give a kind of algorithm for coming to ethical answers to difficult contextual problems; it takes an understanding of the values in play, the constellation of values, but also, we have to have an understanding of good judgment in order to bring those to bear on the situation.

Jaime Ahlberg  08:10

The reason why I came to thinking about the use of cases is because of my interest in the relationship between ideal theorizing and non-ideal theorizing. And in ideal theory, we try to come up with the values that would describe the world when everything was going right, when people were acting well, when the structure of our institutions were set up in a way that was just, whatever you mean by justice, right, everything’s going well, what would it look like? What are the principles that would describe that world and those people? And then there’s this completely different theoretical enterprise of, well, what does that have to do with us? Right? How do we use the principles that describe the fully just world in this very unjust world when people are not doing as they ought to be doing, when institutions are not set up in a just way, when we have historical injustice we have to contend with? How do we bring those ideal principles to bear?

Jaime Ahlberg  09:11

That issue becomes very vivid when you’re looking at a particular kind of case, right? When you’re in the trenches dealing with different stakeholders who are subject to unjust circumstances, or insufficient resources or historical injustice. And you have to take all of those things into account and try to somehow marshal your aspirational principles about how things should be how to make the situation right for the people who are involved. So that’s really how I started thinking about the relationship between principles and cases. I think that sometimes really textured cases can help us see where our principles have fallen short, theoretically. So sometimes, we lack imagination, or we just don’t have the right kind of attunement, when we’re doing our ideal theory and getting into the world a bit helps refocus us, right. So there’s a kind of theoretical benefit, I think, for someone who’s doing ideal theory to get into the world a bit, right, and listen to what people say about their own lives, right. But also, I think, when you get into the world, there’s not just this…sometimes the ideal theorist has nothing to say.

Carrie Welsh  10:37

Here, Dr. Ahlberg is about to describe a case from the book, “Dilemmas of Educational Ethics,” edited by Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay.

Jaime Ahlberg  10:50

In Meira’s first book, there was a case regarding a student who had special needs in a class. And the student had a history of being taken out of the classroom in order to handle her special needs. But there had been a recent effort to keep her in the classroom. And the general education teacher was trying to figure out how to accommodate the student, while also thinking about the needs of all her other students. So there’s this event that happens in the class, where this student Kate, who has the special needs, has an incident where her special needs are prompting the teacher to either remove Kate from the class, or completely change the classroom to either accommodate Kate or somehow deal with what’s happening with her other students.

Jaime Ahlberg  11:42

Her other students have have multiple things going on as well. So there’s a student who’s kind of shy and getting engaged. And if he’s shut down, then he might retreat into himself. There’s another student who’s super high achieving and is is actually quite gifted, and is driving things. But if he’s shut down, you know, then what does that do to him? So how can she balance the needs of her students, as she’s trying to negotiate this one exercise of, I think it was identifying rocks. And so the question really, sort of the way it was posed in the example is, is sort of suggesting, Well, how do we balance needs? Or whose needs are more important than whose?

Jaime Ahlberg  12:28

And, you know, as a teacher dealing with it in the moment, there’s a sense in which you can draw on some principles there. Well, who’s my, my least advantaged kid who needs me the most in this case? And let me attend to that kid, right? There’s also the question of, well, what, what kind of needs are more important than others? Or how do we think about people’s needs in the context of a group? So how should the group be thinking about incorporating each of these students properly? So not just the teacher? But how do we foster a community that recognizes everyone’s needs appropriately? So thinking about inclusion there is the principle. We want an inclusive community. But what is the teacher supposed to do in this case?

Jaime Ahlberg  13:18

So I think the teacher has to draw on her understanding of her individual students that there were also pressures, in this case, from the principals and the parents to not have this disruptive student with special needs derailing the class, right, and the teacher really didn’t want to have to just remove the student from the class, but to balance the needs of everyone appropriately, but she’s getting that external pressure as well. So within the context of keeping her job, how does she really balance inclusion and prioritizing the least advantaged and giving also everyone what they need so that they get something out of the class? So bringing some principles to bear but then thinking about how they attach to individual students. So to Kate’s needs, how do we understand Kate’s needs with respect to the needs of the kid who’s really shy and just needs a little more support, to come forward and really feel good about his learning brain and come out of his shell a bit? How do we understand those needs against each other? The teacher actually has a lot of judgment to make that assessment on the ground in her class. And she has to bring her knowledge of her students and in order to make that work.

Jaime Ahlberg  14:37

And so my response to that one has, you know, the reason why I started thinking about this as my response to that case, lists some principles, but then sort of how do we use these principles in this case, and, and I also end on something in that piece that I keep thinking about, which is, even if she makes a mistake, right, it’s not like there’s just one instance in a classroom where we have our principles of ethics. And if we mess it up, we’re doing something wrong, right? Well, no, you know, classrooms have long trajectories, and there’s an environment, and you can always, if it doesn’t go quite right in this exercise, you know, next time around, you adjust, you do something a little different. So it’s also thinking about how you’re operationalizing your principles over the course of your, the length of your class, right? And not just sort of in a moment. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot, too, just to not be too hard on people, right? About how they’re how they’re doing this very difficult thing.

Grace Gecewicz  15:35

Can I ask one, I have like this burning question. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot throughout the weekend, based on the keynote on Friday. Where did you go to the keynote on Friday? Okay. So I think that with cases like these, there could be a tendency for people to be like, Whatever you do, like it’s fine, like, because of not seeing the nuance in the situation. And thinking that there is some like relative aspect to the moral judgments we make in these really complex cases, especially when we’re saying, like, we can’t just take a principle and apply it to this case. We have to use our judgment that other things are going on. How do we wrestle with relativism, but also, judging these cases as being really nuanced and not wanting to say like, this teacher is dealing with a lot. Yeah. And we might not want to say that teacher’s done something wrong. But we also don’t want to give up our commitments, too.

Jaime Ahlberg  16:48

Thank you. Yeah. I, there’s a lot of great material that I am still working through written on what it means to have good judgment. So it’s not like making judgments implies no responsibility for how you’re making those judgments. The mere fact that people make judgments is not enough, right? So yes, people are under pressure, their stress, if anything that might suggest that people are are in poor conditions for making good judgments, right. So we don’t perhaps want to blame people. But we wouldn’t want to say they’re making good judgments sometimes. So we can make that distinction between how we assess people in difficult situations, their characters, and the quality of the judgments they’re making. Those are two different things. So I think there’s a lot of good literature on how to make good judgments. And I think just to say one small thing about that, that there is a connection between our our ideal principles and the process of judgment, it’s just that the ideal principles are not sufficient for making a determination or for how to proceed in a case. So I think they’re necessary. That’s a controversial claim. But I do think they’re necessary because we need some standards for what we want to achieve in order to know whether we’re moving forward. And very simply, our ideal principles give us that. Yeah. So I think making this distinction between how we assess people or characters in a situation and the quality of their judgment, making that distinction is really important to being able to be sensitive to people and compassionate to the difficult circumstances they’re facing, and not blame them for making mistakes, but also recognize they’re making mistakes.

Carrie Welsh  18:54

Thanks for listening. If you want to hear more from the Center for Ethics and Education, we would love it if you subscribe to our podcast, and sign up for our mailing list. You can also now follow us on Twitter. Right now we’re working on making study guides about some of our current episodes, including this one. This episode was produced by Abby Beneke, Grace Gecewicz, and Carrie Welsh.