“What are you doing this summer?”
“What?” I asked, somewhat confused by the question.
“What are you doing this summer?,” my advisor asked again, as he opened the door to the room. We didn’t have time to finish the conversation because we were late. He led me into a small chamber in Connecticut Hall, which was empty except for a long table. He sat me down on one side. The chair of the Yale philosophy department sat on the other. My advisor settled into a seat next to her.
I’d received an urgent message from him the day before saying that we had to meet about my senior essay. I figured he needed an extra copy or something. I was relaxed as I headed over to the philosophy department that spring morning.
The presence of the department chair, whom I’d never met, made me a little nervous. She didn’t say hello, just looked down at some papers stacked on the table. My advisor hurriedly thanked me for coming on such late notice. He said they just wanted to spend some time asking me about my senior essay.
That was odd. While quite an undertaking - my paper was 50 or 60 pages - the Yale senior essay was just that: an essay. It did not require a verbal defense they way a PhD thesis does. I was confused.
Very carefully, the department chair began to ask me questions about the essay: where did I come up with the idea; what sources did I consult; how did I develop certain premises; etc. I tried to maintain an air of confidence and answered as eloquently as I could. This was proving difficult, because I was increasingly becoming discomfited by the rank hatred that seemed to be emanating from the chair’s demeanor. While there wasn’t anything overtly accusatory in her questions, she spoke with such passive aggression that I felt like any moment she was going to bring out a club and start striking me with it.
Then it dawned on me what the question about summer meant. They were going to fail me. I started to sweat profusely, and I became quite upset. Well, yes - yes, I had plans for this summer! I planned to party! The thought of hanging around New Haven all summer, alone, rewriting a philosophy essay was simply too much to bear. Furthermore, my parents were scheduled to show up in a few days for parties and commencement. Was I supposed to call them and say don’t come, I’m not graduating?
In essence, my paper was about the very foundations of morality. In it, I questioned whether a tendency to engage in moral behavior is not innate. Indeed, I proposed that perhaps this tendency is so innate that it could be better described as genetic and heritable.
It was 1990, only 15 years after E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. I was enthralled by Wilson and his colleagues in the burgeoning field of sociobiology. They were subjecting all manner of odd behavior from the animal world to a series of tests based on fitness for a species, and coming up with all sorts of satisfactory answers about why creatures do various things.
For me, as a philosophy major, it was just a short step from the behaviors studied by biologists and sociologists to the moral behaviors studied by philosophers. If one of Wilson’s examples of quirky behavior could be explained as being beneficial to a species, then why not empathy, or even better, altruism - that behavior which has confounded philosophers for millennia? Both, it seemed to me, could be argued to be beneficial to the human species. So I set out to argue.
I tried to read up on the subject, but there really was no subject yet. I found an odd, little-published philosopher at a small school in Minnesota who’d written a few things on similar topics, and I found lots of biologists and sociologists who were making sweeping claims about their field’s ability to expound upon the human condition. But I found no moral philosophers who had previously trod this ground.
Undeterred, I set out to create the thesis on my own. I argued from Hobbes’s state of nature that there were indeed uncountable ways that empathy, altruism and the other moral guideposts could be beneficial to the human species. From that, I made the perhaps lofty leap to propose that such proclivities could be present in lesser or greater degrees within each human’s composition. Tying these doctrines all together, I proposed that a moral sensibility is now the birthright of every human being, as the rightful heir to millions of years of selection amongst these degrees.
I had an early indication that the topic was controversial. I’d completed a first draft before Christmas and submitted it to my advisor for commentary. We met for lunch early in January. Up until that point, I’d considered this professor to be both a friend and a trusted advisor. He sat down, looked over at me and said in a most unfriendly manner, “Well, you have two options: either you can pick a new topic, or you can get a new advisor.” I was a little stunned. I asked him if I could refer him to some material that might help make my case and he said “Umm….. no.” I was even more stunned.
But I wasn’t listening. The alternatives were too much work. I’d already poured my soul into this paper and I certainly wasn’t going to start over. I assured him that, whatever was causing him to dislike my paper, I’d fix it. I’d make it hum and shine. He needn’t worry.
I never called him again. I was fully engaged in senior spring. I spent the remaining five months trying to spruce up the essay, but at the end of the semester I turned it in looking a fair bit like the first draft.
The inquisition lasted about twenty minutes. At one point, the department chair turned to my advisor and sort of nodded her head. My advisor said that would be enough, please wait outside, they’d like some time alone to discuss.
I sat hyperventilating in the chamber’s entryway. I started to practice what I would say to my parents. I thought of my grandfather, oldest living progenitor of our Yale legacy, and how disappointed he would be. It felt like someone had opened up my stomach and placed a thirty pound hunk of iron in there.
The door opened and my advisor asked me to enter and sit. The table between the three of us was empty. He said “We’d like to give you an opportunity to summarize your paper. Do you have any final words you’d like to offer?” I did my best to summarize. Instinctually, I softened the thrust of my arguments, saying simply that humans had an innate tendency toward moral behavior. When I finished, they asked me to leave the room once again.
The next five minutes in the entryway felt like an hour. When I finally returned, the department chair was gone, presumably having left through another door. My paper sat on the table between me and my advisor. My heart thumped.
We sat in silence for a moment. Finally, he pushed the paper across the table and said “Congratulations, you passed.” I picked up the paper and saw a big, red C+ scratched on the title page.
“It was your closing statement that saved you. The department was going to fail you. When you said that humans tend toward moral behavior, that really helped,” he said. He thanked me again for coming to the meeting and said he was sorry it had to work out like this. We shook hands and I left.
I thumbed through the paper as I walked back to my room in Saybrook. It was curiously devoid of any red markings, as if the readers hadn’t really paid any attention to it. I got back to my room and tucked it away until after graduation. Some weeks later, late at night in a fit of pique, I burned it. I haven’t seen it since.
I think about the affair often. Age and wisdom have given me a number of insights into the process. At the time, the whole thing seemed unfair. Rather than analyze my paper on its merits, judging whether my arguments made sense and whether one followed from another, it seemed like my paper’s graders objected to it on principle. It might have been the finest philosophy paper the department had ever seen (unlikely), but since it didn’t comport with the professors’ views of the world, it never even merited consideration. That’s why there weren’t any markings on the paper.
Now, knowing more about the likely orientation of the Yale philosophy department of the time, I can see why such a paper might have been received so derisively. Those professors had probably spent entire careers constructing towers of moral theory based on first principles akin to Rawlsian Justice. If there was any truth to it, the thesis outlined in my paper would have utterly destroyed the foundation of all of those towers. They had every reason to be wary at least.
Still, they should have judged the paper on its merits. And the fervor of the department chair’s inquisition was also unfounded. Who was I? Just a lowly undergraduate... Surely I wasn’t any threat to anyone. Why treat me so harshly?
It is no secret that the Yale philosophy department of the late 80’s and early 90’s was a mess. It had been devastated by professional disagreements and there were rumors of infighting and mudslinging. There had been a raft of high-profile departures, and the department chair was relatively new. It’s possible that her claws had been sharpened over the prior few years and she’d learned to be aggressive if ever cornered, no matter how serious the threat. Still, I was an ignorant and naive 21 year old. The treatment was mean-spirited at best.
Now It is all a distant, hazy memory. I think of it whenever I see anyone present a link, however tenuous, between morality and biology, an increasingly frequent occurrence.
Imagine my surprise and delight last week when I received the following invitation from the Yale Club of Central New Jersey:
You are cordially invited to our Annual Meeting and Dinner to be held on
Thursday, May 15, 2014
6:15 pm cash bar - 7:00 pm dinner & speaker
Speaker: Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University
Topic: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
“A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.”
Admittedly, this is a psychology professor, not a philosophy professor. And certainly they have not passed judgment on my actual senior essay. But here, Yale itself is explicitly confirming at least the legitimacy of my thesis. It’s just 24 years too late.
And so, I have only a single comment: Redemption! Let the parties begin!