The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
Mika LaVaque-Manty, LSA Honors Program director and associate professor of political science, addressed the ways in which rule-following affects one’s life during the LSA Student Honor Council speaker event titled “Your life, Your rules” Monday night.
LaVaque-Manty used his background in philosophy to examine the ideas of multiple philosophers including Mencius, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. In his presentation, LaVaque-Manty explained how the actions a student takes may have a major effect on their future and said students should consider the reasoning behind their decisions.
“My argument today is not going to be against instrumental reasons — that is, doing things because we get something out of it — but I’m going to suggest that there are other reasons beyond instrumental reasons, or that sometimes it’s actually helpful to not think in terms of instrumental reasons,” LaVaque-Manty said.
LaVaque-Manty discussed a famous ethical question most commonly known as the trolley problem. In the hypothetical situation, a trolley car is headed down a track that has five people tied to it. To save these individuals’ lives, a person is next to a lever that can switch the track of the trolley, but the new track has one person tied to it, meaning the person pulling the lever will be responsible for their death. LaVaque-Manty said he disagrees with the ideology behind the trolley problem along with other similar hypothetical situations because they do not take the human experience into account.
“The problem with the trolley problem is that it doesn’t really ask who you are,” LaVaque-Manty said. “It assumes that you just land here at this switch out of nowhere. Its other problem is that it asks you to think about the hypothetical, which is pretty hard to predict what we actually would do in that situation.”
LaVaque-Manty said his biggest issue with the trolley problem is that it does not discuss enough personal traits to make the situation more realistic.
“The problem I’m interested in is that it doesn’t assume that you have any kind of history,” LaVaque-Manty said. “It doesn’t assume anything about your motives, it doesn’t tell a story about how you got there, it doesn’t say anything about what makes you use that switch — it just assumes this.”
LaVaque-Manty continued his presentation by discussing questionnaires regarding character, such as the character and fitness test required to pass the bar exam or the FBI security clearance process. LaVaque-Manty said in his experience as a professor, he has been asked about the character of former students who were applying for security clearance. Because he believes many students at the University of Michigan will be in these possible situations in the future, LaVaque-Manty advised students to leave a good impression on their professors.
“It’s helpful to remember what actually matters down the line are aspects of what we consider features of your character more than your intelligence or your grades,” LaVaque-Manty said.
Additionally, LaVaque-Manty considered how a professor constructs a letter of recommendation. He broke down the structure he uses for writing his letters into four categories: an introduction, academic substances, personal attributes he has noticed and a summary. LaVaque-Manty emphasized the idea of building a relationship with your professors so they are able to write a substantial number of personal attributes.
“Showing those transcripts and talking about grades tells you all you should care about are grades,” LaVaque-Manty said. “It’s helpful to try to remember that every time you (focus on grades), you are actually sending a signal that either gives people an opportunity to say something beyond any merits or makes it impossible to do that.”
LaVaque-Manty said students should question whether their reasoning behind their behavior is ethical.
“I’m not suggesting that you should be so extreme as to think anything you do, you have to actually think, ‘What is my reason for doing that?’” LaVaque-Manty said. “But it’s worth our while to think about what our reasons are for our ethical behavior.”
To conclude his presentation, LaVaque-Manty asked students to focus on larger ideas when evaluating their decisions. He said the most important question students should ask themselves is who they want to be.
“What really matters more are the broader things in which we think about,” LaVaque-Manty said. “‘Why do I do this? For what reason, and how I might change the kinds of habits that I want to get rid of and promote the concepts and habits that I’m interested in and inquire?’”
LSA senior Miloni Shah, president of LSA Student Honor Council, chooses the speakers for the annual Honor Council speaker event. Shah said the Honor Council contacted faculty or individuals associated with the University who they believe will be a good representation of integrity and ethics. Shah said the council works with the speaker to decide the topic of the presentation.
“The reason we have an annual speaker event is to first put the name of Honor Council out there in the open, as well as talk about a topic that’s related to our mission and our core values,” Shah said. “We chose professor LaVaque-Manty because he’s someone who is very renowned in both LSA but also being in philosophy and political science could offer a perspective on ethics and integrity that’s been different from what we’ve had in the past.”
Though LSA junior Christiana Cromer is not a member of LSA Student Honor Council, she attended the presentation after hearing about it from a friend. Cromer said she thinks the conversations brought up by LaVaque-Manty are important and hopes to attend similar events in the future.
“It’s definitely interesting to hear somebody who’s in charge of one of the most rigorous academic programs here say something along the lines of, ‘Certain grading policies are arbitrary,’ or that these certain metrics are arbitrary,” Cromer said. “I think the importance of knowing who you are and ignoring the metrics that are more arbitrary to your life is empowering.”