Kenneth Howell’s Complete E-Mail to University of Illinois Class and My Comments

I was reluctant to post this because having endured persecution for an e-mail that opposed war and American war crimes in particular, I felt to do so would be rank hypocrisy. However, my e-mail was intended as private communication. A professor’s e-mail to an undergraduate class does not merit that implicit assumption. I would not have posted Adjunct Associate Professor Ken Howell’s e-mail had I not seen it elsewhere online, had it been sent to a single student or unless I knew without doubt that it was authentic. This is also presented in a different context than my own case in which the cadet wing of the Air Force Academcy tried to “get me” by sending my e-mail throughout the world. I have already repeatedly criticised the university, the Religion Department and in particular its chair, Robert McKim, for firing Mr Howell for this e-mail. Note he was a full-time professor at the university and yet due to his non-tenure track status, was fired for a single e-mail to his class on Roman Catholic theology.

Specific Critique of the Howell e-mail:

Preambular Assessment:

The tone is professional and non hectoring. It is not threatening or haranguing or engaging in vile argumentation. There are no hints of sanctions or degrading and abusive language directed toward a student or “class” of students. The professor is clearly on a mission to convert a class to his point of view but that is hardly unusual in academia. His argumentation at times is superficial, careless and anti-intellectual. He is not a deep thinker and is governed by simplistic analysis and narrow-minded bias. Yet this is academia and he has the right to his views even if reactionary and a rejection of modernism:

1) “One is that to judge the best outcome can be very subjective. What may be judged good for the pregnant woman may not be good for the baby.” I think a professor should indicate that a baby is not a fetus or at least that is the opinion of many: That to merely equate pre-birth with post-birth status is not universally shared. The use of the term “baby” is very loaded and frankly intellectually shallow. Yet he has the right to equate without even a hint of another view that a fetus in the uterus is a “baby.” The man is obviously pro-life and does not even intend to demonstrate another viewpoint. His right and certainly well within academic freedom protection.

2) Mr Howell’s equating consensual sex between a 10-year old male and 40-year old male as possibly legal but not moral is madness. No one in his or her right mind would conclude that consent between any two individuals regardless of gender is acceptable. Adult status is almost universally assumed to be a requirement for consent, both morally AND legally. I think Mr Howell is also gratuitously using male-homosexual activity to make his points when heterosexual intimacy would have made the same point. Utilitarianism is not without morality. Mr Howell superficially sees it as anything goes. He is building a fake philosophic foundation in which to attack consensual, adult, private sex between two individuals of the same gender. Mr Howell ignores lesbian sex probably because organic penetration is not as evident.

3) Mr Howell is wrong. Natural Moral Law does not exclude considerations such as consent. Consent is at the heart of morality when two people are engaged in sexual activity. It does not supersede such a concept as far as I know. The issue of what is NATURAL is hardly restricted to heterosexuality. Homosexuality I understand is NATURAL for many homo sapiens and has been probably since the evolution of man and woman from their aquatic ancestors that bellied up on land. Homosexuality is too ingrained in our DNA, if that is scientifically accurate, too common across cultures and civilisations, too ancient in its manifestations not to be considered NATURAL. The so-called anatomical fit between men and women that Howell eulogises does not mean that alternative acts of sex are not natural. His call for only sex for purposes of procreation presumably means he opposes Griswold v. Connecticut or Eisenstadt v Baird that decriminalised contraception in the 1960s and 1970s.

4) While I am not a physician and neither is Mr Howell, I do think he is rather unsophisticated and frankly anti-intellectual in alleging that gay sex between men is unhealthy and that one serves as a woman and the other as a man. Yeah I know what he means but to rely on “a physician” as his source that male homosexuality is unhealthy is just stupid, very anecdotal and without rigour.  His sources are superficial as is his analysis. “I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men.” Maybe Mr Howell might have opened the floor IN class to a discussion of this. If he wants to talk about HIV, then do so but avoid these prejudicial and unsubstantiated claims. I realise most gay students would not want to come out but at least allow all students the opportunity, regardless of their oreintation, IN class to rebut this e-mail statement that is frankly unsubstantiated by medical or clinical research. Maybe he did but the e-mail seems to have come at or very near the end of the semester and it seems it was more of a closing argument than a vehicle for discourse. Again, his right, his freedom, in this country to do this.

5) Equating sex between a dog and its “master” to homosexual acts on the continuum of utilitarianism v. natural moral law is a bit absurd. I don’t think Mr Howell that a dog can consent as you suggest. Dogs are sentient and have rights and are nice pets but are not at the level of development where their consent to having sexual intercourse is recognisable. It is instinctual not consensual. Goodness!! Yet his tone is not hectoring or sardonic but at a level of discourse that I find rather elementary and unsophisticated.

6) Mr Howell is somewhat dictatorial at the end of his e-mail: “Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage (sic) is to make informed decisions.” I don’t think a professor, who himself is hardly an expert on homosexuality or at least I am unaware of any research or scholarship on the topic that emanates from his authorship, should discourage student inquiry at any level of knowledge. We want to empower students to learn through debate, discussion and of course by research. Yet to tell them in an e-mail they are not really informed enough to make moral judgments about gays and lesbians is unfortunate and I think demeaning. An instructor by the end of the semester that feels strongly about an issue should have indeed provided the pedagogical and heuristic materials so that students COULD discuss a topic based on knowledge. To merely say in so many words that “you do not possess the knowledge as I do to make an informed opinion so you might as well agree with me,” is not the way I would induce student discussion of controversial issues. Mr Howell should empower not lord over his students. Yet this e-mail does not rise to the level of hate-speech or unprofessional misconduct that might have triggered a dismissal. It does not even come close to that standard.

Read the e-mail. Draw your own conclusions. Debate the points. Yet according to the seminal 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, an instructor has the right to teach her material in her own name and should not be sanctioned or censored for it. I would defend Mr Howell’s right to send this e-mail despite my reservations about the content and its ending tone of arrogance. I am not hedging. I would do anything in my power to restore this man’s position even though I have significant concerns about his approach to learning and his capacity to engage in sophisticated argumentation.

From: Kenneth J. Howell

Date: Tue, May 4, 2010 at 9:45 PM

Subject: Utilitarianism and Sexuality (for those in 447 FYI)

Dear Students:

Since there is a question on the final exam about utilitarianism (see the review sheet), I thought I would help with an example. I realized after my lectures on moral theory that even though I talked about the substance of utilitarianism, I did not identify it as such and so you may not have been able to see it.

It turns out that our discussion of homosexuality brings up the issue of utilitarianism. In class, our discussion of the morality of homosexual acts was very incomplete because any moral issue about which people disagree ALWAYS raises a more fundamental issue about criteria. In other words, by what criteria should we judge whether a given act is right or wrong?

Before looking at the issue of criteria, however, we have to remind ourselves of the ever-present tendency in all of us to judge morality by emotion. The most frequent reason I hear people supporting same-sex marriage is that they know some gay couples or individuals. Empathy is a noble human quality but right or wrong does not depend on who is doing the action or on how I feel about those people, just as judging an action wrong should not depend on disliking someone. This might seem obvious to a right thinking person but I have encountered many well-educated people who do not (or cannot?) make the distinction between persons and acts when engaging moral reasoning. I encourage you to read the final essay editorial I sent earlier to reflect on this. In short, to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person. A person and his/her acts can be distinguished for the purposes of morality.

So, then, by what criterion should we judge whether sexual acts are right or wrong? This is where utilitarianism comes in. Utilitarianism in the popular sense is fundamentally a moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes. It is somewhat akin to a cost/benefit analysis. So, when a woman is deciding whether it’s right to have an abortion, the utilitarian says it’s right or wrong based on what the best outcome is. Similarly, a man who is trying to decide whether he should cheat on his wife, if he is a utilitarian, will weigh the various consequences. If the cheating side of the ledger is better, he will conclude that it’s okay to cheat. If the faithful side is better, he will refrain from cheating.

I think it’s fair to say that many, maybe most Americans employ some type of utilitarianism in their moral decision making. But there are at least two problems. One is that to judge the best outcome can be very subjective. What may be judged good for the pregnant woman may not be good for the baby. What may be judged good for the about-to-cheat-husband may not good for his wife or his children. This problem of subjectivity is inherent in utilitarianism for a second reason. Utilitarianism counsels that moral decisions should NOT be based on the inherent meaning of acts. Acts are only good or bad relative to outcomes. The natural law theory that I expounded in class assumes that human acts have an inherent meaning (remember my fist vs. extended hand of friendship example).

One of the most common applications of utilitarianism to sexual morality is the criterion of mutual consent. It is said that any sexual act is okay if the two or more people involved agree. Now no one can (or should) deny that for a sexual act to be moral there must be consent. Certainly, this is one reason why rape is morally wrong. But the question is whether this is enough.

If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a ten year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of. The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like “informed consent.” Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that “informed consent” might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don’t think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion.

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

Now recall that I mentioned in class the importance of gaining wisdom from the past. One part of wisdom we gain from such knowledge is how people today came to think of their bodies. I won’t go into details here but a survey of the last few centuries reveals that we have gradually been separating our sexual natures (reality) from our moral decisions. Thus, people tend to think that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning. This is also what lies behind the idea of sex change operations. We can manipulate our bodies to be whatever we want them to be.

If what I just said is true, then this disassociation of morality and sexual reality did not begin with homosexuality. It began long ago. But it took a huge leap forward in the wide spread use of artificial contraceptives. What this use allowed was for people to disassociate procreation and children from sexual activity. So, for people who have grown up only in a time when there is no inherent connection between procreation and sex –- notice not natural but manipulated by humans –- it follows “logically” that sex can mean anything we want it to mean.

Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.

I know this doesn’t answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.


Kenneth J. Howell Ph.D.

Director, St. John’s Institute of Catholic Thought

Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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