E Pluribus Mores

Ad hominem

In The Classics on May 11, 2013 at 8:01 am

I work in a philosophy department and share an office with another instructor, Fred.  As white, middle aged, underemployed PhD’s we have a lot in common.  So it is not surprising that we frequently find ourselves in deep philosophical conversation.  Most often we debate classic chestnuts such as, “What are the practical differences between Gangnam Style and Gingham Style?”  or “What is it that HR actually does?”  But last week we got into it when Fred proposed that it was not possible to praise or denounce the person, only their actions.  I wasn’t going to let that stand, so I countered with, “Nuh-uh!”,  and brought up Hitler.  Then he was all like, “blah, blah, blah, Kant…blah, blah, deontology,” and I was, like, “But what about Hitler?”  Well, eventually Fred had to teach, and feeling like I hadn’t expressed my position to its greatest advantage, I decided to prove my point by writing Fred a letter of recommendation in which I avoided declaring him competent, knowledgeable, or moral, but  limited myself to only praising his actions.  The  result is as follows:

Dear august members of the Search Committee,

Please accept my recommendation for Fred for the position of Professor of Philosophy at Midwest College.  While I cannot say that he is a good teacher, knowledgeable in ethics or other branches of philosophy, or even that he is a moral person, I have observed many actions he has performed that would fit these categories.

Fred is currently employed teaching ethics and critical thinking at Midwest College.  As his office mate I have been in a position to observe his interactions with students many times.  Given that Fred on at least one occasion indicated that he prefers to meet privately with students, I leave the office when students arrive.  He meets with students regularly, and these encounters often last 20 minutes or more.  While I cannot speak to what goes on in these meetings, I have viewed Fred with any number of students through the glass door.  On these occasions both Fred and the student were making eye contact, speaking animatedly, and smiling—all of which are consistent with a favorable interaction.  Certainly, I have never once heard a student complain after a visit to Fred’s office.

From personal conversations—and the fact that a diploma with Fred’s name hangs in the office–I can say with certainty that Fred holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin.  On this basis, I can infer that he has met at least the minimum requirements for a doctorate, including but not limited to passing preliminary exams and writing a dissertation.  He has spoken to me about conferences he has attended and articles that he has written or intends to write.  I have no independent verification of these actions, but were they proven true, it would further support the committee choosing Fred over the other, no doubt, qualified applicants.  In conversations and friendly arguments Fred has mentioned several philosophers, referred to at least one ethical theory, and generally supported his claims with examples drawn from everyday life, or even more often his interactions with students.  What I cannot say is whether Fred learned anything in graduate school, or whether any fact he might have retained from the experience would be applicable to his teaching or in performing any useful service to the college.

I have noticed that Midwest College events are often accompanied by banners with the words, Truth, Justice, and Community.  I conclude from the prominent placement of the banners that the search committee would look upon Fred more favorably if he were truthful, just, and a valuable member of the community.  It is with great regret that I cannot say any of these things about Fred.  I can, however, say that while in my presence Fred has never once told a lie, not even a fib!  Fred has indicated that many of the actions of Hitler were deplorable, has supported at least some of the motivations often associated with Gandhi, and when asked to take a position regarding college sports Fred predictably favors the Buckeyes.  Furthermore, I have never once witnessed nor even heard rumors of Fred flipping the bird to other drivers on the belt line, eating his own children (admittedly, Fred has no children), or beating puppies and barnyard animals with sticks.  In fact, he recently related to me that he has worked with the boy scouts, as a life guard, and at clubs where young men and women congregate.

To conclude, I would like without reservation to recommend Fred for the position of Professor of Philosophy on the basis of his teaching ability, knowledge of philosophy, and moral fiber.  Unfortunately, this is not possible.  His many instances of sound pedagogy, his extremely probable scholarly accomplishments, and his frequent moral actions–not to mention the utter lack of immoral action–suggest that Fred  may act similarly in the future.  There is overwhelming evidence that his students will be well pleased.  All of this suggests in my opinion that Fred would be an effective teacher and reliable colleague.  But, then, who’s to say?


Daniel Mortensen, Ph.D.

  1. Why did I not know until now that you had these writings? This could have been entertaining me for 5 years!!!! I will just have to catch up now.

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