published on March 25, 2016
The Ethics of Trigger Warnings
Trigger warnings captured national attention in 2014 when students from several U.S. universities called for inclusion of the warnings on course syllabi and in classrooms. Opinions spread through news outlets across the spectrum, and those weighing in were quick to pronounce trigger warnings as either unnecessary coddling and an affront to free speech, or as a responsible pedagogical practice that treats students with respect and minimizes harm. Put simply, the debate about trigger warnings has followed the trajectory of many debates in the public sphere: The issue has largely been framed by highly committed opponents and proponents whose positions represent the extremes of the spectrum. Lost has been the nuance that an issue like trigger warnings necessarily requires. This article examines trigger warnings—particularly the call for trigger warnings on university campuses—from a pluralistic ethical perspective and addresses the question: When, if ever, are trigger warnings ethically appropriate?