April 11, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Consent Is for Cornell Faculty, Too

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Is it ever morally permissible to risk the well-being of others for a higher purpose?

In a recent “Chat in the Stacks” talk at Olin Library, Prof. Andrew Moisey, history of art and visual studies, admitted that he had taken such a risk with the publication of The American Fraternity (2018). The American Fraternity is an art book of photographs taken by Moisey at a UC Berkeley fraternity. It includes images of women passed out, nude and in compromising positions, their faces at times obscured. In the Q&A session, Moisey recognized that these images pose a risk to the women depicted, should the women be identified. He said he believes the risk was worth taking, though he “didn’t feel like [he] had a clear moral way of seeing things.” I believe this lack of moral clarity led to the wrong decision. Moisey should not have published the photographs.

Here are some relevant facts of the case, as described by Moisey himself and by Alexis Schrader, a UC Berkeley graduate, who criticized Moisey’s book in Bust Magazine. First, Moisey received written consent from the fraternity members to publish the images, but not from all of the women. It is not clear that the women were even of age. Next, while he obscured the faces of some of the women to keep their identities private, at least 13 of the 18 women in the book are identifiable by someone who knows them but was not at the party, as per Schrader’s Bust piece. So, Moisey used images of women, without their consent, and the women are identifiable by those that know them. Why take this risk?

According to his Indiegogo campaign, Moisey felt that the book needed to be published in order to reveal “what really happens inside fraternities and the influence they wield in American power.” I don’t think this justification is adequate. To see why, let’s take a look at the three major ethical traditions: Kantianism, consequentialism and virtue ethics. Each has something to say about why Moisey’s choice to publish the photos was wrong.

Kantians believe that one has a duty to never use someone as a mere means to one’s own end, even if the end is noble. Moisey used the women in the photographs to criticize American fraternity culture, but disregarded the need for their consent. And the women would not have consented, as we now know: Upon learning about the photos, several women depicted were upset. Further, Moisey seems to believe that women are to blame for fraternity culture. At a recent talk at Kenyon College, he suggested that fraternity culture depends on the involvement of women; if women stopped going to fraternities, the culture would fall apart. This might be true, but men are still responsible for what they do, not women.

Not everyone is a Kantian. Consequentialists believe that ethics is a matter of weighing the projected costs and benefits of an action. This cost-benefit analysis, applied to Moisey’s book, does not work out in his favor. First, the benefits. The impact of these photographs is unclear. What new facts are revealed? There have been other exposés of fraternity culture (for example, Caitlin Flanagan’s 2014 Atlantic article and the 2016 film Goat), and thousands of students have experienced fraternities firsthand. Moisey might respond by appealing to the special power of the medium or of the particular photos. But I find it hard to imagine that either will have a profound effect. Does Moisey really believe that his book will be the coup de grâce to the American fraternity? In fact, looking at the book itself, it is not even clear that it is a critique. Instead, it strikes me as an ode to a now-shuttered fraternity. Why else give large prints of the photographs as perks in his Indiegogo campaign, but to memorialize something lost?

The potential benefits of publishing these photographs without consent seem minimal. What are the potential costs? The harm that the photographs could cause is dramatic and more likely than the potential benefits. As Alexis Schrader points out in her Bust article, the women in the book could suffer tremendously if these photographs were shared in their workplace or with their families. Imagine if an image surfaced of a young Elizabeth Warren at a fraternity party, her shirt open, drink in hand. Is it cynical, or only realistic, to think this would end her presidential bid?

Finally, it seems to matter that Moisey presents as a cis-gendered, hetereosexual, white man — and so is insulated from the worst aspects of fraternity culture — while the women whose well-being he gambled with are not. A final approach to ethics, virtue ethics, can help us capture this. Virtue ethicists believe that our actions should be aimed at developing virtues. One important virtue, I believe, is a sensitivity to the well-being of those more marginalized than oneself. This virtue seems especially relevant when one has a lot to gain. In his Olin talk, Moisey denied that he has any profits to share from the book. However, as academics, the real profit of publishing is career advancement. To gamble with the well-being of those who have far more to lose, in a way that advances his own career as a tenure-track professor, clearly does not foster virtue.

One might be tempted to defend Moisey’s choice as brave and generous, both virtues. But Moisey lacked the practical wisdom to see that publishing these photographs presented the greatest risk to women, already a primary target of fraternity violence. Moisey himself had little to lose. The act was neither brave nor generous.

The choice to publish these photographs without consent ignores the agency of the women depicted, fails a cost-benefit analysis and violates a morally important sensitivity to the well-being of those more marginalized. These lessons derive from the major ethical traditions, but also stand on their own. Moisey should have recognized that the choice to publish these photographs was wrong, even if it meant the end of the project. Consent is for Cornell faculty, too.

Augie Faller is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].