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To be sure, as with past protest movements, students have sometimes expressed themselves in ways that are reductive or offensive. But we, as professors of moral philosophy, believe we need to think twice about communicating to students — either deliberately or inadvertently — that there is “no place” at the university for their protests. Campus protests have long been sites where students learn about justice. The blanket portrayal of student protesters as morally bankrupt obscures real ethical issues, stifles dialogue, and creates further polarization. How, instead, can we help our students navigate deep disagreement in this moment with compassion, care, and epistemic humility?
First, rather than dismissing them, we need to acknowledge that our students, by protesting, are exhibiting moral courage. At the heart of the protests on campuses nationwide are students questioning whether the violence they are witnessing — both the initial massacre of over 1,200 Israelis by Hamas, and Israel’s military response, which has left an estimated 17,000 Palestinians killed in the war — ought to be normalized or treated as inevitable. We might criticize their expressions, and even disagree with their aims, but we should acknowledge that they are being brave by taking a stand. Students are asking us, as educators, to reimagine what is possible. If our response is to shut down conversation or to criticize their sincere concern with injustice, we should not be surprised if they see us as cynically invested in reproducing the status quo.
Second, we should be wary of demanding that our students show more moral clarity, when such demands might seem like attempts to inhibit them from grappling with the context necessary to understand the conflict. Think about the widespread calls since October 7 to condemn Hamas. It is undoubtedly important to acknowledge the horror of the massacre, to speak against the targeting of civilians, and to continue to denounce antisemitism. But treating the condemnation of Hamas as a requisite moral starting point risks implying that any presentation of context — decades of occupation, and the systematic undermining or criminalization of nonviolent protest by Palestinians — is merely an attempt to justify the attacks, and therefore morally inadmissible.
We need to acknowledge that our students, by protesting, are exhibiting moral courage.
Many students, like the general public, have become increasingly aware in the last several weeks of the conditions that preceded the attacks, including the occupation and blockade of Gaza, and what human-rights organizations call “crimes of apartheid and persecution” against Palestinians. Given this, it will seem disingenuous to some of our students to treat the October 7 attacks as simply an evil aberration, and naïve to suggest that Hamas can be eliminated through force. We need to make space for context in understanding the root of Palestinian grievances that, arguably, make violent resistance unsurprising. By the same token, we should encourage students to question simplistic narratives of decolonization or white supremacy.
Third, we need to encourage students to expand the range of moral questions they are exploring, including the question of what justice might look like in the future. For example, the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to equal treatment need not depend on how we evaluate Hamas and its tactics. Nor must we think we need to settle the question of whether the creation of Israel was just, in order to ask what would allow lasting peace. We also should not ignore urgent concerns, such as those about what constitutes a proportionate response to an attack, the ethics of targeting places like hospitals and refugee camps supposed to harbor combatants, and the responsibilities of the U.S. government in resolving the conflict.
Moral philosophy is valuable not because it teaches students what, or who, is right or wrong, but because it urges us to try to understand our most basic starting points, never taking for granted that what is reflected in our laws, practices, and institutions is, in fact, just. This is an enormously difficult task in a moment where people’s deepest fears and identities are being activated. But if we cannot have these conversations in our classrooms, they will not happen anywhere. There is no greater way we can fail our students than to tell them that their moral questions have no place on our campuses.