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photo by Sally McCay

What does Professor Wertheimer think?

Try as they might, UVM’s first class of Honors College students
can’t always figure that one out — but in the process they learn new ways
to define and defend their own thoughts. Inside the honors ethics
seminar, where a college’s debut is also a venerable professor’s final act.

by Kevin Foley

Alan Wertheimer’s method is the question, and right now, as a high-wattage October sun pours in and illuminates the buttery walls of his Allen House honors college seminar room, the question is this: “Is Alan Wertheimer tall?”

Well, no, not in modern-day America. But in the 18th century? Among the diminutive Bayaka, a Central African pygmy tribe? Among political theorists, where Wertheimer cuts a large figure because of decades of work illuminating crucial concepts in ethics and law like coercion? Who is to say? Perhaps Wertheimer, who goes about five-seven in his shoes, really is tall.

But there’s no time for that now. The professor has posed another proposition, more questions.

Wertheimer, who is the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science to his colleagues and “Big Al” affectionately yet secretly to his honors students (offering another data point on the contingency of height), is ending his 37-year career at the University with a beginning: Wertheimer, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, developed a two-semester course in ethics along with philosopher Don Loeb that all 90 students enrolled in the new Honors College are taking. (See “Your Honor,” page 31.) The idea is to provide these talented first-year students, a diverse group of future environmental engineers, doctors, English teachers, and software developers, a shared intellectual experience that cuts across every academic discipline and profession.

But the universal applicability of ethics — we all, after all, have strong notions of right and wrong, fair and unfair, whether to hand back the overpriced grocery store’s miscounted change or keep it — is also a potential trap, at least if you’ve got a group of 15 very young, very bright, and very vocal students. Loeb puts it this way: “When you teach particle physics, nobody tries to come in with equally valid opinions on whether mesons have mass.” Ethics is different: we’re all “experts” on whether or not protestors should mass.

But in the Honors College, emoting is not thinking. Opinion is not analysis. Instructors need to spark a lively discussion (generally an easy task with this crowd, even when the subject is Plato’s Crito), but also to manage it, keeping the conversation aligned with the readings, and helping members of the class interrogate their classmates’ ideas, and their own. Voicing your thoughts is great; defending them well is something else entirely. Something better. And putting logic into opinions is where Wertheimer’s teaching excels.

The professor proffers another idea to the class, “It is not wrong to download music even if it violates the law.” The students are supposed to reply true, false, or don't know, but once again, a statement quickly morphs into an interrogatory and the discussion surges. Passions rise — was that a telltale flash of porcelain iPod earbuds in the messenger bag across the table? — as the first-years come to a somewhat sheepish consensus: when it comes to illegally downloading music, fine, true, cool. Wertheimer winces. It is early in the semester, after all. (Or was that a smile?) The seminar soon rumbles on to categorizing a statement about the existence of God. The group opinion here, just barely, is “don’t know.”

Questions, questions, questions. But few answers from Wertheimer: none today, in fact. At a different time, in the more relaxed confines of his corner office on the top floor of Old Mill, the professor sits under a Chicago Art Institute poster depicting a horseracing scene, and explains why.

“The job is not to answer the question,” he says. “It’s to get them to think about it more rigorously.”

The method is the question: Reading Consent to Sexual Relations, Wertheimer’s most recent book and a tome far less racy than its title might imply, illustrates the power of carefully chosen, interlocking queries. With a characteristic intellectual flip, Wertheimer’s discussion is not so much about the obvious “when does ‘no’ mean no?” — that’s morally clear, he thinks, or should be — but when does ‘yes’ really mean yes.

Think about that: when does yes really mean yes? It can make your skull vibrate, even before the professor launches into nearly 300 pages of tricky cases and complicated theories. Can a retarded person truly consent to sex? A coerced one? Someone deceived, egregiously or subtly? Someone drunk? And those scenarios are only the beginning.

Wertheimer doesn’t present a grand theory, an overarching vision, a huge program for social change. That’s not his style. Instead, he offers a lot of thorough discussion of complicated cases, and some focused theories for hashing through them. This is not to say that the book lacks moral vision, however. Wertheimer’s philosophical peregrinations leave him convinced that sexual deception, a matter largely ignored by the law, needs to be taken more seriously. Why should the law say so much about commercial deceits, when dollars are at stake, and so little about sexual lies, which cost so much emotionally?

Lawyers like to say that “hard cases make bad law,” and they well may, but Wertheimer’s gifts for sustained, precise and dispassionate analysis at least makes them into compelling theories. The books that Wertheimer built his intellectual reputation with, Coercion and Exploitation, take similarly knotty philosophical areas and methodically think through them in ways that are useful to political theorists, philosophers, and lawyers. More than useful: One reviewer said of Exploitation that “no one interested in the topic will be able to ignore this classic work.” Wertheimer’s scholarly appeal, says his colleague Robert Pepperman Taylor, a fellow political science professor and dean of the Honors College, comes down to his clarity and rigor.

“These are issues which people tend to wax rhetorical about, but Al brings his extremely clear analytical mind to bear on problems that can raise a lot of heat, a lot of passion, a lot of rhetoric,” Taylor says. “He insists that we speak clearly about these things and understand them clearly.”

Wertheimer’s career, unlike his writing and thinking, hasn’t always taken the clearest and most logical path from point A to B. The professor, in fact, attributes many of his breakthroughs to good fortune; a fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study supported his first book, and a workshop invitation from the University of San Diego law school started him on his latest work. Now, after stepping down from his full-time duties at UVM, Wertheimer will spend a year at the National Institutes of Health, working on issues of exploitation in medical research.

“Things happen,” he says. “Truth be told, that’s the story of a lot of my career — anybody’s career — things happen. Each opportunity led to new opportunities. I suppose it’s true that the rich get richer; and, while I’m not exactly rich, I have gotten intellectually richer.”

In casual conversation, Wertheimer is genial and amusing, fairly soft-spoken, prone to answer questions after one of the stretches of contemplation that make him a formidable bridge player. In the classroom, he’s loud and kinetic (“I think he shocks the kids a little,” Taylor says, “because he is passionate — very passionate — about things that maybe they never knew anyone cared about”) as he explores and tests his students’ logic.

“To make a class of the kind I teach go well, you need at least four or five articulate, bright students,” Wertheimer explains. “One or two isn’t enough: You need a critical mass. If you have that, you get the others going.”

In the honors seminar, Wertheimer has his requisite fluent five and then some, and while the discussions are lively, the conversation isn’t always totally satisfying for the students. As the class spent a fall semester wrestling with abortion, inheritance, Plato, and the war in Iraq, their frequent tendency was to try to gauge what the seer in the front of the room thought. But after nearly 40 years of teaching, Wertheimer is wily about concealing his views behind a Socratic screen when it suits him.

First-year honors student Kevin Ohashi, an electric-haired computer jock who spent his last two years of high school in Kathmandu, says that sphinx-like quality drove some of his classmates nuts. “Professor Wertheimer loves to play the devil’s advocate,” Ohashi says. “In class he would take the side that most people weren’t on and propose a hypothetical situation that started tilting things his way, and then he might switch again. I thought it was great.”

Ohashi says that the result of all those hours of discussion, at least for him, wasn’t a messenger bag full of new ideas or a changed sense of moral purpose. Instead, in conversations with friends from the honors floor and elsewhere, he has over time found himself defending his old ideas with more confidence and care.

Ohashi’s experience echoes a theme common in letters from Wertheimer’s former students: They often say things like “I never knew what it meant to think through a problem before.”

The professor got involved with creating the inaugural honors seminar (hardly a relaxed way to spend one’s last year before retirement) because his experiences on the UVM faculty and as a UVM parent left him convinced that the campus needed a more intellectual culture.

“If we’re successful, we’ll have created an intellectual environment,” he says. “We toyed with the idea of having some variation in content between sections of the first-year seminars, but we dropped that, precisely so that people can engage in a common experience.”

Honors students live together, study together, and play together. But the honors experience operates in quieter, more personal ways as well. Rahul Mudannayake, a first-year pre-med honors student from Sri Lanka, says that some of the class readings and discussions have haunted him, especially a particular essay by the famous Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. In the essay, “Rich and Poor,” Singer outlines the vast discrepancies between wealth and poverty in the world, and insists that the wealthy have an obligation to assist. (Singer also visited campus to speak and meet with students in the class.) After the end of the fall semester, Mudannayake went home to Sri Lanka, just before the tsunami struck and devastated the country’s coastal areas. The student did what he could, helping to ferry food and medicine to affected regions in the days after the tragedy, but the calamity made the ethical arguments he heard in the seminar, especially Singer’s, immediate.

“The class has stayed with me in my life,” Mudannayake says. “Spending a $1.50 here on a bottle of soda is difficult, considering what I read, what I saw in Sri Lanka. The way I spend my money now is totally different, and Wertheimer and Singer are part of that.”

And here is where Professor Wertheimer’s questions finally end with an answer: A student thinking through the issues and making a personal choice, arrived at with rigor.

On April 15, a daylong symposium on ethics in public life will celebrate Alan Wertheimer’s career as a teacher and scholar. For more information on this public event sponsored by the Mark Rosen Memorial Lecture Series, call the Department of Political Science, 802-656-3050. Web: <uvm.edu/~polisci>.