The Case of Trent Dougherty

I recently watched a lecture or two from the Plantinga Conference at Baylor University, which was held a couple of years ago. They are still available on Youtube. Trent Dougherty, who was then a professor of philosophy at Baylor, was the host of the conference. I watched lectures from the Plantinga Conference before shortly after they became available on Youtube. I also remember googling Trent’s name before and had found his work on skeptical theism. On seeing him on those Youtube videos, I thought I should google him again to see if he has done anything interesting since then and to refresh my memory. When I did google his name, I found among the top search results a story from the Daily Nous, which is a news resource and online community for professional philosophers, which said that Trent had resigned from Baylor following an investigation by Baylor into alleged violations of their “Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Interpersonal Violence Policy (Title IX).” The Daily Nous article goes into more detail about Trent’s response on social media, and his later press statement. It also quotes some people from Baylor about these events. All of this has happened in September of 2018, so quite a while ago.

I thought this would be interesting to comment on for two reasons. In the first place, it is an important question how the general public who know of the individual as a public figure should react to news like this. What should they believe going forward, if anything? Also, it provides me with an opportunity to address wrong attitudes to moral accusations that have been made public, especially cases which involve immoral and not illegal behaviour. I am thinking, in particular, of a “torches and pitchforks” mentality, where revelations of wrongdoing creates a moral panic and sensationalist conformism leading people to lose all sense of proportion or dispassionate fairness. I have written about this issue before in Culture of Scandal and the follow-up to that post: Recreational Scapegoating.

Conditions for “conviction” in the court of public opinion

Should the public’s attitude toward someone change in an event like this? This is not just a hypothetical question. Being fair to someone else in your mind is important and morally relevant even if you will never have dealings with that person. We will all be held accountable for how we think about others and how we think habitually about strangers will impact how we think about those close to us. If we are quick to think people guilty of wrong, that will impact our relationships. This is why I think some conditions have to be met before you should allow your opinion about someone to be changed. What are those conditions? At least four:

  • A court proceeding has taken place and the relevant party has been found to be guilty (if it is a criminal case) or they have been found liable ( if it is a civil case). This one will not always be applicable, since some countries have legal systems which are manifestly unjust in the way they treat those accused of crimes. However, if you live in North America, you can probably have confidence that if someone has been found guilty in court the facts of the case have been considered thoroughly and a decision was made in as rational and dispassionate a way as can be expected ( unless you have some compelling reason to doubt the judgment). This also applies if the judgment was “not guilty.”
  • You are part of a congregation where someone has been excommunicated and the Biblical rules on excommunication have been followed ( such as Matthew 18:15). This applies to your own church. If another church has excommunicated someone, you should not necessarily be influenced by that unless the other conditions here have been met. The excommunication practices in the Bible seem to assume that guilt has already been determined.
  • You are well-informed and have read the information that is publicly available. Making casual declarations about someone’s guilt or innocence after reading half a newspaper editorial is not morally acceptable.
  • The information that is publicly available is sufficient to establish guilt ( apart from a legal judgment). The testimony of the victims and witnesses will be available, along with the defenses of the accused. This one is still tricky as it requires someone who has not thoroughly investigated the facts of the case themselves ( a member of the general public), who has not questioned the victims and witnesses, and who is not a lawyer or judge, to make a decision about someone’s guilt or innocence. You might say that the members of the jury don’t have a legal education about due process. Sure, but the jury has to reach a unanimous decision and they are guided every step of the way by the lawyers and the judge. This is very different from an individual reading a few testimonies and coming to a conclusion. In general, I don’t think this should be done at all except where the accused has admitted guilt. I am treating the legal due process as the gold standard, because the reason these principles have been enshrined in law is because they were good fairness principles before they were good legal principles.

In any other circumstance, there is a moral obligation to give that person the benefit of the doubt. This includes cases where it is alleged that immoral, but not illegal, behaviour took place. Then the determination of guilt or innocence didn’t go through the court proceeding with well-known checks and balances. It is then very difficult for a third party to know who or what to believe. It becomes one person’s word against another. By all means, organizations should have internal investigations for complaints and accusations, but they cannot reasonably expect that the general public should believe or act on the results of such investigations. Those investigations do not follow the same rigorous standards of court proceedings and we are not privy to what exactly happened there.

Torches and Pitchforks Mentality

The torches and pitchforks mentality is an emotional attitude that is very quick to assign guilt, slow to listen to defenses and reviles the accused. It wants justice to be done to the accused, impatient with any rational deliberation about what should be done, and abandons a notion of proportionality.

  • Treats allegations as enough to establish guilt or almost enough ( i.e. the presumption of guilt instead of presumption of innocence). The presumption of innocence is a good legal principle, because it is first a good and rational fairness principle in general. So the objection that we don’t have to apply it other situations apart from official criminal proceedings is unreasonable. Giving people the benefit of the doubt unless it has been well established that they are guilty is a good and fair principle in general and is a good principle to apply in our personal lives and relationships.
  • Treats defenses by the accused with extreme and unreasonable suspicion. It also treats any character flaw or indiscretion by them as evidence of their guilt. For example, if they respond angrily or intemperately to the accusations, this is taken as evidence of their guilt. If it is ever established that they have lied about some detail, then this means they are guilty of everything they have been accused of. The torches and pitchforks mentality doesn’t understand anything other than moral perfection or utter villainy in the character of the accused. If they are guilty of one wrong thing, then they must be guilty of all wrong they have ever been accused of.
  • Tries to stir up anger and ill will against the accused or guilty in the general public (which is why it is important for it to be made public).
  • If someone is guilty, you can vent any malevolence, sadism or hatred you feel like on them, short of resorting to physical violence or other illegal behaviour. That person is now the socially appropriate punching bag for your worst impulses. No amount of reviling is too much. It doesn’t matter if they are already being held accountable in different contexts.
  • Treats defenses of the accused or calls for better treatment as complicity in their crimes or “enabling” them, and so more and more people become targets of this attitude.
  • Every conflict or disagreement is understood in terms of an oppressed/oppressor, victim/victimizer, or villain/hero binary archetypes.  Any information that does not fit these binary categories is dismissed or forced to fit. If the accused makes any comment about being treated unfairly, they are thought to make themselves out to be a victim ( because everything must be understood in the binary category of victim/victimizer). It is possible to be wrongdoer and wronged at the same time. In fact, to be both wrongdoer and wronged is part of the human condition, never mind possible.

I think the torches and pitchforks mentality is just an inversion of the mentality that wants to dismiss the claims of an accuser or complainant and may come from a similar set of motivations. Accusers or complainants should not be treated as automatically credible or automatically incredible. Accusations are not evidence, which is why they should prompt a search for evidence (investigation).

The Trent Dougherty Case

So now I’m going to apply these principles to Trent Dougherty’s case. The first thing to note is that very little information is publicly available ( which makes me wonder why they bothered to make it public in the first place, but more on this later). Baylor released a very vague statement about Dougherty’s resignation, which you can read here. The philosophy department only announces his resignation and then goes on to say that he was involved in a Title IX investigation, and was found responsible on some of the accusations against him, and that there were multiple complainants. They do not say what exactly he has done wrong, only that he did something wrong under the “Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Interpersonal Violence Policy (Title IX).” Many things are wrong under this policy, so we don’t know what Trent has done wrong. It is left to our imaginations.

Under Title IX, anybody can file a complaint, not just the victim and at Baylor this can be done anonymously. This means that anybody who says they saw something or somebody who heard someone else say they saw something, can file a complaint. Someone completely removed from the events can report gossip and hearsay. This is why the fact that there are “multiple complainants” means nothing. Since the complainants do not have to be victims themselves, these could in theory be different complaints about the same event from a collection of witnesses, the victim himself or herself, and some other people who heard about it.

In general, and for reasons like the above, Title IX, especially with regard to sexual harassment investigations, has had some highly publicized problems (see here, here, here, here and  here and for more information). It is easily abused as a complaint proceeding and it doesn’t protect the rights of the accused. In general, it seems that Title IX sexual assault investigations are a kangaroo court proceeding even though it operates in the name of federal US law. I say this just to indicate that these proceedings are just private internal investigations and not very good ones at that.

So, this wasn’t a real legal proceeding. Almost no information is publicly available about what Trent is supposed to have done wrong or who accused him, how many victims there were or whether there were any witnesses. We just have an unmentioned number of complainants who could literally be anyone, including people who have never met him. This isn’t a church and even if it was, the Biblical process for excommunication ( in Matthew 18:15) was not ( apparently) followed. In other words, none of the conditions above have been met. Given that we only have uncorroborated accusations of unknown origin, unless you know something beyond what is publicly available, we are morally obligated to suspend judgment and therefore to give Trent the benefit of the doubt. It is morally wrong to think him guilty based on what we do know.

Argument from Popularity and Authority

There are two statements from Dougherty available. One is a Facebook post which, according to Daily Nous, has since been deleted, but you can find it in the Daily Nous article. A second public statement from Dougherty is available here.

One of the professors at the Baylor Philosophy Department, Thomas Ward, made the following response to Dougherty in a Facebook post:

Trent Dougherty must know that the faculty members of the Baylor philosophy department believe and, as of today, have told our graduate students, that Trent resigned from Baylor, that the tenured members of the department were prepared to initiate a dismissal hearing against him in the event he did not resign, and that they believe the Title IX investigations were conducted thoroughly and objectively. I would be interested to know whether Trent thinks the faculty members of the philosophy department are lying, or whether he thinks they are misinformed, or whether he has some other explanation of their words in today’s public statement on the philosophy department’s website and or in today’s meeting with graduate students.

It is interesting how often philosophy professors engage in reasoning that involves basic logical fallacies. In this case, the argument seems to be: “His colleagues want him fired and clearly believe him guilty, therefore he must be guilty.” Neither Trent nor anybody else needs to refute or explain why his colleagues thinks he is guilty. No Western justice system operates like that. There could be any number of reasons why they think he’s guilty and we do not need to sift through their psyches to understand it. Guilt is not determined based on the number of a person’s acquaintances willing to condemn him.  We don’t know if those colleagues were witnesses or victims of his unknown wrong. For all we know, they are against him based on hearsay and gossip, or peer pressure. To say that someone is guilty because the people he works with thinks he is, is a really bad argument ( and is a version of the appeal-to-popularity fallacy). Also, was everyone of these philosophy colleagues present at the investigation proceedings? Probably not. How then is their opinion about its objectivity and thoroughness worth anything? (If they were all present, that would raise a different set of questions about those proceedings.) And if they were not present at those proceedings, their opinion about how objective and thorough it was could not be more worthless, because they have no basis on which to make a judgment about its objectivity or thoroughness.

If they were not present at the investigation proceedings and they were not all either victims or witnesses of his alleged wrong, it definitely raises the question why they want him fired (if what Thomas Ward says is true). Even if all of them were at the investigation proceedings, to say that a Baylor philosophy professor thinks the process was objective and thorough, is just an argument from testimony, not even an argument from authority, since they don’t have the relevant expertise to judge whether an investigation proceeding met basic standards of due process. This means I have to accept the word of a random stranger that a para-legal process was fair. But even more, this raises the question of why the other professors in the department were even aware of the investigation. Were details of the complaint against Dougherty broadcast or announced to the department? Were the rest of the faculty gossiping about it? Why did they all know about it? If the proceedings and the results of a harassment investigation are treated as things that accused’s colleagues can have access to, then that seems clearly unprofessional and inappropriate. Other than the accused and accuser, only the supervisor of the accused ( in this case, the department chair), the supervisor of the accuser(s) and the HR department should have access to it.

You may say that Baylor is a respected and reputable institution so I should trust the judgment of its representative that Trent is guilty of this unknown wrong. Established institutions, whether reputable or not, will always treat people unfairly. It is not a question of if, but only a question of when. So this is not a persuasive argument either.

Public, yet not Public

Something that always troubles me with events like these is when the organization or leadership of the organization in question makes public the person’s alleged wrongdoing without a clear reason to do so. In this case, the Baylor Philosophy Department could merely have had a statement on their website that Trent has resigned without any mention of the investigation. The results of the investigation could have been communicated privately to the complainants and that could have been the end of that. (If the investigation was leaked to the press by the complainants or their friends, then that can’t be avoided.) When people are fired for misconduct, companies do not typically have public walls of shame on their websites where they publish statements with details about harassment investigations, embezzlement, fraud, obnoxious behaviour and so on. This sort of thing rarely happens in the private sector (and rightly so). This also troubled me with the tarring and feathering of Mark Driscoll a few years ago. The Acts 29 Network not just removed him but made a public statement to that effect, according to Relevant Magazine. Also, like the statement from Baylor about Trent, it was vague about what Mark had actually done wrong or based on which actions specifically he was being ousted, and how many times those actions had been repeated, and whether he had repented for them. Why is it being made public if no concrete information is provided?

Another thing that troubles me is what they choose to include in their statement. The statement says just enough to tarnish Trent Dougherty’s reputation, but not anything specific; nothing that could lead to any scrutiny of the accusations against Trent or of the university’s process. They don’t say he is guilty of sexual harassment, but by lauding the courage of the complainants ( in a way reminiscent #MeToo feminism), and saying under which policy he was found to be responsible, they strongly imply that’s the case. The university later said that they cannot confirm Trent’s claims about who complained, because that would violate Title IX rules about confidentiality. If they knew they could not make public details of the case, then it stands to reason that they should not have made any of it public, and should have respected not just the confidentiality of the accusers but also of the accused. I think if you want to make the general public part of the accountability process ( and you have a good and clear reason to want to do that) then you should be ready to share the relevant information with the general public. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be making it public at all. This business of just sharing carefully selected tidbits of information with the general public, that is not enough to make any fair judgment, is unnecessary and makes it seem like the organization is playing politics and PR games. The appropriate authority should hold the accused accountable if its determined that they are guilty, like the organization. It should only be made public in addition to that if there is a good reason to do so. Another reason not to make the results of internal investigations public is because these are not real courts, so their reputation should not be ruined along with their termination. If you do that you are having utmost confidence in the results of a process in which you should not have a great deal of confidence. Therefore, keep the damage to the accused minimal. What I’m saying is, even if there’s been an internal investigation, as far as the public record is concerned, that person is still the “accused”, not “guilty.” An internal investigation by an organization is not enough to change that.

What are you trying to achieve in making it public?

Someone who makes  a deliberated statement like this public has a goal in mind with that. The question then becomes: what goal do they wish to achieve in making it public? What conclusion do they wish the general public to draw about Trent Dougherty? And what would they like the general public to do after that conclusion has been drawn? Send him angry emails? Stop buying his books? Stop and stare when they see him in the street? Refuse to hire him if he applies to other employers? It is important to be able to answer these questions clearly and honestly If you want to make something like this public. If the Baylor philosophy department wants the general public, or even just the Baylor community, to think that Trent Dougherty is guilty of sexual harassment, then they are being unreasonable. They do not themselves even explicitly accuse him of sexual harassment and they do not give us any information beyond their woolly, oracular accusation.

It is an unquestioned assumption in events like these that wrongdoing has to be made public. It is the idea that moral accountability requires some sort of public shaming. But why is that? I think this idea is uncritically accepted most of the time and is based on pro-journalism propaganda, where journalists insist that any attempt at discretion and secrecy is culpable. And clearly, journalists have no reason to want everything to be made public. They stand nothing to gain from that. But this doesn’t make sense for the following reason. Everybody has done immoral things. Do you think that the only way for those immoral things to be resolved morally is for it to be exposed publicly? Then, as I argued in Culture of Scandal, you are now obligated to write an email to the biggest and most influential media organization, or the one you think most likely to publish what you write, with your full name, position title, employer name along with your confession of every wrong thing you have ever done. You should also include all the wrong things your friends and family has ever done, and any other you may have seen. That’s absurd. But if that’s absurd then you need a good reason for thinking that a particular moral wrong of a particular person needs to be put in a place where everybody can see it. Why are you singling out that wrong of that person for public view? What is special about it that everybody who googles that person’s name needs to see it?

I have recently watched the movie, Shattered Glass, which is about a journalist at a prestigious magazine who fabricates news stories. In this case, it does make sense for the wrong to be made public, because the wrong was public. The magazine has no idea how many people or who might have read those stories or heard of them through different channels. There is no way to contact all these people in private. Even if they could contact all these people in private, it would have the same effect as making it available for the general public. So it makes sense that the only way to correct this wrong is to have a general announcement that everyone can see.

But in many other cases, including the one here under consideration, there is no clear reason why everybody who is interested in Trent Dougherty’s work or Baylor philosophy, needs to know about it. I’m sure many of the people whose books and writing I’ve read have done immoral things, things that would look quite bad if it were published on the website of the place they work. I don’t know what bad things they’ve done and I don’t need to know. If there are people who believe it should be held accountable in some way, they can take it to the relevant authority. I still don’t need to know. Why am I being involved? And by putting it in a place where someone like me can see, they are involving me, because now I have to make a decision about what to believe or not believe (which you will see below).

Conclusion

First, believing that someone is guilty of a wrong that is not even clearly formulated, because a group of people accuse him of that wrong, who may or may not be victims and witnesses of it, based on an investigation proceeding of unknown pedigree, is probably immoral. I’m not going to believe someone is a sex-offender or whatever harassment-related offense he is being accused of, based upon something as tenuous as this.

Second, if they don’t expect a third-party like me to believe their allegations, why did they put those allegations in a place where a third-party like me can see it? If they do expect a third-party like me to believe it, my question then is why do they want me to believe it? What do they want me to do about it?

2 thoughts

  1. Response to first concluding remark: the belief that hearsay is always unreliable is epistemically naive. If an entire community has a consistent set of beliefs about one if its members, why should this not count as a potentially reliable–even prima facie reliable–source of evidence? If we are to think that it isn’t, and in this case there is no reliable evidence to believe something about Dr. Dougherty, are we entitled to believe anything based on testimony?

    Response to second concluding remark: there’s a difference between what we expect of other’s and what we think others ought to do. In other words, the fact that no one expects you to believe the allegations does not mean that you should not believe them because it might be the case (and it does seem to be the case) that you are not the best at evaluating the evidence at hand.

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  2. Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

    1) First, we don’t know that everyone in that community has a consistent set of beliefs about what happened. Assuming we are trusting Thomas Ward’s Facebook post (and not Dougherty’s replies to it) we only know that the tenured members of the faculty wanted him terminated, not that they had consistent beliefs about what he did wrong, and not that “the entire community” is against him. (If you’re defining “the community” as only the tenured members of the faculty, then I guess you’re right that “the entire community” is against him). Second, I don’t think my argument requires that hearsay is always epistemically unreliable. I wouldn’t deny that the fact that a few people are against Dougherty is a source of evidence, but I would deny that it is decisive or conclusive evidence, especially in this case where there are so many unknowns ( as far as the general public is concerned). In a matter like this, where each side will testify in favour of itself, testimony on its own will not be decisive or conclusive in determining the truth, which is why hearsay is a reason to investigate further. If we take the principle of testimony as far as you seem to take it, we might as well convict criminals simply based on accusations. And if we give criminals who are accused of crimes the benefit of the doubt, should we not also give people accused of moral wrongdoing the benefit of the doubt, when we don’t know the people involved and have not seen anything ourselves? It is unjust to believe someone guilty unless you have good reason to believe that they are guilty. Therefore, it is unjust to decide that someone is guilty just based on hearsay testimony that they are. This is indistinguishable from allowing your opinion about someone else to be informed by gossip, which is immoral. Evidence can be too weak or insufficient to believe, but that doesn’t mean it is not evidence.

    Third, the fact that his colleagues turned against him can explained in more than one way ( not merely by the fact that he’s actually guilty or that he’s guilty of something serious), which is why it may not be evidence of his guilt. One point I make in the piece is that it is quite possible for groups of people to turn on one individual in that group for trivial provocations, or just based on the fact that they are difficult to work with etc. Fourth if you regard the testimony of Dougherty’s colleagues as evidence, then you must also take Dougherty’s own testimony about these matters as a source of evidence. Fifth, we don’t know the quality of the testimony of Dougherty’s colleagues and how far removed their hearsay testimony is from the events. Not all testimony is created equal. We don’t know if all or most of the colleagues saw something, and then communicated this to the relevant authority. Perhaps the original accuser communicated it to one faculty member, and then it gradually spread through the faculty. So we don’t really know how strong that testimonial evidence is. Sixth, this would make Dougherty’s own testimony more valuable as evidence, because his testimony is first-hand and we don’t know that the testimony of the faculty members who accuse him is first-hand. Given that he’s the accused, we know that his testimony is first-hand, because presumably he’s a first-hand witness of what he did (unless he’s a somnambulist harasser!)

    You might say that the fact that many of his colleagues believe (something bad about him) must outweigh the evidence of the testimony of just one person (Dougherty), but it is difficult to distinguish this from an appeal to popularity. You could avoid the charge if we knew the quality of their testimony, but we do not. We don’t know whether they were victims or first-hand witnesses of the wrong. An appeal to popularity is a fallacy because we recognize that what determines groups of people to believe something often has little to do with the truth, and more to do with power, influence, peer pressure and the like. Numbers only become evidentially relevant when there are more than one person that claims to be a victim or witness of the wrong (i.e. the number of people claiming to be victims or witnesses). Otherwise, we might as well say that the fact that most people believe any given celebrity is guilty of some wrong must mean that they are. This is also hearsay testimony. Unless they are closely related to the events in question, their testimony about it is evidentially very weak to completely worthless. In Dougherty’s case, we don’t know how close the original complainants or accusers were to the events in question ( given that the complaints can be filed anonymously by anyone as covered earlier in the piece), and we don’t know how close the colleagues who wanted him fired were to the events in question.

    In this particular case, Dougherty seems to have done something to set one or more of his colleagues against him. Whether he angered one colleague and this colleague then turned the others against him, or whether he angered more than one colleague is unknown. Whether they are correct in thinking what he did wrong or are correct in thinking it a serious wrong ( serious enough to be dismissed) is also unknown. Therefore, we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

    You seem to believe that Dougherty is guilty. How do you know that Dougherty is guilty when the statement on Baylor’s website doesn’t even tell us what Dougherty has done wrong? Needless to say, in order to believe that Dougherty is guilty we first need to know what he is guilty of. If we are not told exactly, we would have to settle on whichever wrong arises in our imaginations, which is clearly unjust.

    2) I addressed two questions in this piece: whether we should believe Dougherty is guilty and whether moral accusations of this nature should be made public. The second part of the conclusion was an argument that they had no good reason to make it public, because the information is useless to the general public ( especially because they don’t actually say what he has done wrong, only vaguely allude to some wrongdoing), and there is nothing constructive that the general public can do about it apart from engaging in immoral vigilantism and reviling. Everybody has done immoral things which means there must be good reason for thinking that (vague allusions to) someone’s bad deeds must be put in a place for everybody to see. I believe this is wrong. This is not standard practice for employers and it shouldn’t be. In fact, while thinking about your comment, I took a more in-depth look at the policy under which Dougherty was accused ( the Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy). There is a paragraph in that policy about safeguarding the confidentiality of both the complainants and respondents. I think posting the information on the web for everyone to see can plausibly be taken to be a violation of that clause, even if they do not specifically say what he has done wrong.

    But your response to the second part of the conclusion seems to me to make my first point stronger. The fact that the general public ( or myself as a member of the general public) is not in a good position to evaluate the evidence is precisely why we should suspend judgment and give the benefit of the doubt. This was one of the points I made toward the beginning. There is not nearly enough information publicly available regarding this matter for a just and rational decision to be made by a member of the general public.

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