The Morality of the Boycott

Over 500 philosophers have signed on to the boycott of University of Illinois, initiated after it rescinded Steven Salaita’s job offer. Already, the boycott has affected the university’s department of philosophy. David Blacker (Delaware), cancelled a talk he was to give there that was co-sponsored by the philosophy department. Eric Schwitzgebel (Riverside) reports that he has withdrawn from presenting a talk and a keynote address at a mini-conference on experimental philosophy there in December. And Mark Van Roojen (Nebraska) has let me know that he, too, has pulled out of talk he was scheduled to give there this term.

One of the moral difficulties with boycotts is that they sometimes involve the attempt by one party to get a “guilty” second party to do something by harming or imposing a cost on an “innocent” third party. In this case, hundreds of philosophers, along with thousands of other academics, are attempting to get the administration at the University of Illinois to respect the free speech rights of Steven Salaita, and are doing so by imposing costs on faculty and students there. These faculty and students are being deprived of interaction and opportunities for the development of intellectual community at their institution with visiting scholars. Plans are disrupted, and presumably the attractiveness of the department to prospective students and employees suffers as the boycott goes on.

A question to ask in light of this is whether we ought to do something to make up for the undeserved harm we are visiting upon University of Illinois philosophy students and faculty. (For example, we could make special efforts to include them in events held elsewhere.) Yet, a concern is that to do so would be to make the boycott less painful, and so, less effective. What, if anything, should we do? I welcome discussion of these and related issues.

UPDATE: UIUC Philosophy Department votes no confidence in Chancellor Wise and Board of Trustees (via John Protevi). The statement:

Whereas the recent words and actions of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, and the Board of Trustees in connection with the revocation of an offer of employment to Dr. Steven Salaita betray a culpable disregard not only for academic freedom and free speech generally but also for the principles of shared governance and established protocols for hiring, tenure, and promotion, the faculty of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign declares its lack of confidence in the leadership of the current Chancellor, President, and Board of Trustees.

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