I have noticed personally a tendency toward hyperbole and dare I say anti-intellectualism within American society, along with of course a marked polarization along ideological fault lines.

Is it ethical for a professor, seeking to shape a more informed and open-minded citizenry, to dock points from students who argue a point overtly ideologically when it adds nothing to the point being addressed?

Examples I have in mind:

  • OK: As demonstrated by the retrospective study by Pooler, discourse in American society is beyond an unacceptably and unsustainably dangerous level of polarization along ideological, racial, and religious fault lines.
  • Not OK: As demonstrated by Pooler, or by turning on grandfather's favorite Fox News program, discourse...
  • Not OK: The progressives and their Alinksy-style tactics have succeeded in polarizing...

One more question: how do you handle edge cases, such as the following?

  1. A gifted student submits a quality paper written in an obviously sarcastic manner without any single instance of excessive sarcasm, like the copious use of understatement, implied hypocrisy and contradiction, etc. Is that just clever?

  2. A student submits a adequately-researched opinion paper that argues a position you find reprehensible using what appear to be sincerely-held value judgments about, say, war crimes or genocide. For instance: "When it comes to dealing with a barbaric and cruel enemy, one must have the courage and moral strength to do as the Romans did when dealing with the barbaric Carthaginians. If the women are spared, no man or boy should be found alive. In modern times, Henry Kissinger sums it up well: anything that flies on anything that moves. It may be ugly, but it is an ugliness that betrays an inner beauty."

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    Of course it's ethical, and your examples do a very good job of illustrating why such a guideline can be useful. Just in case I'm missing something obvious, perhaps you can clarify on what grounds you think anyone could possibly argue that it's unethical?
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 11, 2016 at 4:15
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    This needs to be done carefully, because of a natural tendency to view arguments opposed to one's own position as being more "overtly ideological" than arguments supporting one's own position. Deducting points for overtly ideological arguments can become (or can be an excuse for) deducting points for disagreeing with the professor. Jul 11, 2016 at 4:19
  • @DanRomik well because of what says, you don't want to necessarily be too heavyhanded about it. So... I would find it unethical to give a student a bad mark to give myself a psychological boost, and then you can have some edge cases where this happens all over the place but it is a good, well-argued paper, right? My philosophy is that grades should accurately reflect the quality of a student's work, nothing else, nothing more, but if you have a lot of these elbow jabs in your work, it does affect the quality Jul 11, 2016 at 4:28
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    Ad hominem attacks, sarcasm, and devaluating comments do not belong in academic discourse. The grade reflects the poor style, not ideological differences between the teacher and the student.
    – magnon2020
    Jul 11, 2016 at 8:23
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    One excellent example for disinterested presentation is Beyerchen's book on scientists under Hitler. Despite the infuriating subject matter, the book is very dryly and disinterestedly presented. This makes the book so fascinating to read and the effect even much stronger. Only in the very last sentences of the book you can clearly and undisguisedly see the authors' own opinion. A prime example of great academic writing. Jul 11, 2016 at 10:34

2 Answers 2


Not only is it ethical, I would even expect a thorough professor to penalise polemics (unless writing a polemic invective is specifically the purpose of the homework). Fact analysis should be separated and clearly delineated from own opinion. I think it is extremely bad style if academics present facts to make their opinion appear in a favourable light or to vilify the opponent's opinion; it's bad if it is openly so, it's worse if it is manipulative. Bad things happen when this style gets out of control in political discourse (see e.g. Weimar Republic).

It is perfectly fine to present facts in a disinterested form first and then to take sides, clearly and openly, with reference to pros and cons. But the rhetorical polemics that increasingly pervades discourse turns truth-finding (or rather -approaching) into a jousting contest where overwhelming the opponent, independently of the ground truth, is all that matters.

Sarcasm can have a place in achieving a critical distancing from the matter - but, again, it should not be mixed in into a fact-presenting section and it is very rarely appropriate in an academic text.

In short: yes, I believe that, not only is OP professor's action ethical, but it is the right thing to do. Facts should be presented clearly delineated from opinions.


At least based on the examples you gave, the rule you mention is clearly directed at teaching students to argue better and without resorting to various straw men, ad hominem attacks and other such rhetorical fallacies. Sure, there is some room for error or unfairness as with any policy, and depending on the precise way it is applied one can argue about whether this approach is effective in instilling good thinking habits among the students; but unethical it certainly isn't, as long as it is applied by the professor in good faith and out of a sincere belief that this serves the educational goals of the course.

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