Oxford Students Launch Petition to Have John Finnis “Removed” (Updated)
Over 350 people have added their names to a petition calling for John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and philosophy at the University of Oxford, to be removed from his position teaching compulsory seminars in the law curricula at the university.
The petition states that Finnis “has a long record of extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people. He is known for being particularly homophobic and transphobic. He has even advised US state government not to provide legal protection for LGBTQ+ people who suffer discrimination.” The petition also provides examples of what they deem to be his “hateful statements.”
The petition also asks Oxford University to “to clarify its official position on professors who have expressed discriminatory views and behaved in discriminatory ways, especially those who have shown obvious hatred and intolerance.”
In an article in the Oxford Student, Finnis is quoted as saying:
The petition travesties my position, and my testimony in American constitutional litigation. Anyone who consults the Law Faculty website and follows the links in the petition can see the petition’s many errors. I stand by all these writings. There is not a ‘phobic’ sentence in them. The 1994 essay promotes a classical and strictly philosophical moral critique of all non-marital sex acts and has been republished many times, most recently by Oxford University Press in the third volume of my Collected Essays.
Neither the petition nor the article allege any discriminatory treatment of students by Finnis, and his work would appear to be protected by conceptions of academic freedom operative in the UK context.
* * * * *
Though as a matter of policy the demand to remove Finnis from his teaching responsibilities will go nowhere, there is no doubt an interesting question about whether students should have to fulfill their curricular requirements by taking courses from a professor who is on record stating that an important part of their identity is “evil.” We could ask: Should a Jewish student have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the Nazis were right in believing that there should be no Jews? Or, should an African-American have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it would be advisable for the U.S. to return to legalized slavery? Though most people would think it better if these students did not have to take courses from these professors, it is not clear that the institutional arrangements that would have to be in place to prohibit certain professors from teaching required courses on the basis of their expressed views would, on balance, be preferable, given the level of oversight of, interference in, and administrative power over, academic work that they would likely entail. None of this is to take a position on the matter, but rather to suggest some of the ways in which it is morally and practically complicated.
(Thanks to several readers for the pointer.)
UPDATE 1: This excerpt from a comment I contributed a couple of days ago to the discussion below may be clarifying:
My comments towards the end of my original post were intended to capture the moral remainder of the case; even if we think that as a matter of policy no action at all should be taken against Finnis, the students’ complaints aren’t based on nothing. It is not as if they were complaining about mere disagreement or being challenged by a professor. Being a gay student and having to take a course from someone who thinks the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist is importantly different from being a student who has to take a course with a professor who disagrees with her about the justifiability of the death penalty. The precise nature of that difference, and whether it has any policy implications, I’m not taking a stand on.
UPDATE 2 (1/11/19): I just looked at the petition website again and noticed that the language claiming that Professor Finnis teaches required courses has been removed. I interpret that as an admission by the petition’s authors that the original claims that he did teach required classes were mistaken. Since at least 350 people signed the petition while those claims were still in it, and since some of those signatories may have signed the petition only because they thought the courses taught by Finnis were required, the survey, which now was 540 signatories, should be withdrawn. I find it remarkable both that Change.org allows substantive changes to the texts of petitions which have already garnered signatures and that the petition authors apparently thought quietly changing the text in so important a way was acceptable.
IS removing him from his teaching duties the only way to ensure that students are not required to take his classes?Report
Good question. Perhaps someone who is at Oxford or who knows more about its operations can chime in on that.Report
As far as I know, Finnis only teaches on the BCL/MJur (Oxford LLM). The Jurisprudence course is one of the options, and even within that, Finnis’ seminars are not compulsory since each student can choose their own combination of seminars that interest them.Report
If that is indeed the case then the petition should be withdrawn, as it may have attracted signatories based on its claim that “Finnis teaches compulsory seminars.”Report
Seminars in other BCL subjects might be compulsory, but re: Jurisprudence we were explicitly told that we didn’t have to go to all seminars, since there are too many of them!Report
The petition should withdrawn for many reasons, including its misrepresentation of a number of facts. Seminar courses, for example, are not compulsory for the BCL, etc. More important, however, universities exist for the purpose of free and serious inquiry. A petition to silence any serious thinker should be withdrawn on grounds of principle.
Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S® 6.Report
This equivocates on two notions of “should”. Justin is saying (I take it) there is an obligation to withdraw the petition because it is factually inaccurate. The petition ‘should’ be withdrawn on grounds of principle, in the sense that the petition authors are wrong about academic freedom, but there’s no comparable obligation to withdraw it – they, too, have a right to freely express their opinion, whatever you and I might think of it.Report
Yes, you’re right that petitions should also be protected as free speech, so (at least in that broad sense) this petition is as fine as any other attempt at slander or irrational outburst and ought therefore to enjoy such broad prima facie protection. I only wish to suggest that this particular petition be withdrawn due to the multiple misrepresentations of fact as well as the principle that honest and open academic enquiry ought not be silenced.
Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S® 6.Report
Do the BCL students and other law grad students even tend towards supporting a dismissal here? Seems to me that most of the signatories for the petition aren’t from Oxford, or are in unrelated subjects, or are in undergrad law. What’s the actual public opinion like? (No names, of course).Report
Only someone with an exceedingly limited historical consciousness (and even more truncated moral sensibility) would believe that stating what virtually all societies since the time of Christ (yes, I wrote that word…) have believed, taught, and lived is now unwelcome *as one of many views* expressed. We’re not talking about *hating* anyone, unless calling a behavior “wrong” is hate. I believe theft, gossip, all sex outside of marriage, lying, cheating on taxes, and countless other items are wrong – even “evil” (sinful?) but do not hate people because they do them. Indeed, I’m tempted to these things myself.
Moreover, what of my children who go to university and must study with someone’s views whom *they* find immoral/evil? Should my children have to study with men and women who believe killing human beings in utero is not only permissible, but perhaps an act of virtue like those who believed killing Jews, lynching blacks, exterminating Croats, or whatever genocidal tyrant (or organization – Planned Parenthood)?
Sheesh. Grow-up, “lover of wisdom.”Report
“We’re not talking about *hating* anyone, unless calling a behavior “wrong” is hate.”
No, we are. This person clearly hates gays and is homophobic as hell. His views are beyond the pale. They are not up for reasonable debate. I would never include such views in a syllabus or recommended reading list. The immigration stuff is still within the pale since there are reasonable concerns around immigration, but the gay stuff is bigoted BS and any apologetics for it is also a form of homophobia, and completely unnecessary to defend free speech.Report
He clearly doesn’t. He places all non-procreative sex acts on the same (forbidden) moral plane. So unless you contend that Finnis hates wankers — which would make him phobic toward the vast majority of men — you’re putting forth a non sequitur. If one simply identifies a particular action as evil, this does not imply that one hates the subject who performs that action. For example, your comment is awful and stupid, but that does not imply that you are awful and stupid.
I do that hope the syllabuses you’re preparing are in some grievance-studies field rather than philosophy. Philosophers have a responsibility more than anybody to examine and argue about views that are beyond the pale. Finnis’s aren’t anywhere close to the pale in the first place, but the simple fact that they’re beyond the pale is no argument against teaching them. I mean, cripes, our field was practically founded by a Greek guy who denied that change is possible and that anything exists… and the process of arguing about why Parmenides was wrong blossomed into a whole world of metaphysics and beyond.Report
Also nice logical fallacy. ‘Loads of people believed it, so it’s reasonable and ought to be tolerated/taught/respected.’ Good job, “lover of wisdom”.Report
How on earth would having views on what is immoral or “unwelcome” have anything to do with one’s historical consciousness? Are you suggesting that it’s impossible for someone to be fully aware of what human societies have practiced and yet to condemn as immoral some or all of those practices? This is a moral matter, not a matter of who knows the most about history.Report
There is no requirement to attend lectures by Finnis in order to achieve their degree. If there was then there may be a case for highlighting it and adding analogies involving jewish students and Nazi supporters. But theres not.Report
‘The petition also asks Oxford University to “to clarify its official position on professors who have expressed discriminatory views and behaved in discriminatory ways, especially those who have shown obvious hatred and intolerance.”’
I would have thought Oxford University’s official position here is crystal clear. University Statute XII (the one that deals with disciplinary matters) starts like this:
This statute and any regulation made under this statute shall be construed in every case to give effect to the following guiding principles, that is to say:
(1) to ensure that members of the academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, including their opinions about the University, without institutional censorship and without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privilegesReport
This position supports the freedom to test and question and to put forward new ideas and opinions. The petition asks the university to clarify its position on professors who have *behaved in discriminatory ways and shown obvious hatred and intolerance*. Such behavior can go beyond testing, questioning, and putting forward ideas and opinions. The university’s position, as expressed in your comment, is not clear about professors whose behavior goes beyond testing, questioning, and putting forward new ideas and opinions. So there is some sense to be made of the request for clarification in the petition if there is any evidence of such behavior by John Finnis.Report
The petition gives no examples of discriminatory behavior, only of views expressed. That seems to be captured by “controversial or unpopular opinions”, and by “test[ing] received wisdom”.Report
I agree. My point was simply that the university’s position is not as you say, ie., not “crystal clear” on the point at which the request is focused if the request is understood literally. You apparently understand it non-literally, as requesting clarity on the university’s position on academic freedom. This is a plausible interpretation, but it’s not the only one. So again the university’s position can be plausibly understood not to be “crystal clear.”Report
Oh, I see. Yes, I agree there’s a reading of the petition that supports that. But I think it’s reasonably clear that what its authors mean by “discriminatory behavior” is just ” views expressed”. In the first part of the petition they declare that Finnis “also has a long record of other forms of discrimination, especially racism and xenophobia”, and they cite his academic research in support of this. In the second part (the one concerned with clarifying Oxford’s position, they say that “[the University]does not provide guidance on how to deal with professors who target disadvantaged people more generally (e.g. through their published work)”Report
Yes, I’m inclined to agree.Report
While I expect that the notion of “an important part of” a person’s “identity” is meant to do a lot of work in Justin’s way of putting the question, it still seems to worthwhile to reflect on whether:
A deeply religious student should have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that religious belief is irrational and evil.
A wealthy student should have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the rich should be violently deprived of their unjust gains.
A student with a number of children should have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it is seriously wrong to have children.
A student of Armenian heritage should have to take a course from a professor who has argued that there was no Armenian genocide.
A student with significant disabilities should have to take a course from a professor who has argued that the lives of those with significant disabilities are less worth living.
I could go on and on, but I would think the answer, so long as the professor is not reasonably thought to have engaged in unjust educational discrimination against students who are members of the relevant group, is often “Yes.”Report
What if, say, a political science professor repeatedly mentions during lectures that he believes jews are responsible for all of the wars and the world would be better off without them? Should we think this conduct is still protected by academic freedom, so long as “the professor is not reasonably thought to have engaged in unjust educational discrimination” against jewish students? This is not an idle question; the petition focuses on Finnis’s published work, but I would be surprised if he had never expressed any of his sentiments about gay people and immigrants in a classroom setting.Report
I am reasonably sure that Oxford University policy on academic freedom would not give absolute protection to someone who repeatedly made pedagogically-unjustified offensive comments about a given subgroup of students.
I am completely certain that the University would require a higher bar of evidence for disciplinary action in such a case than someone “being surprised” if a teacher had not done so, based on the content of their published research.Report
So do you think that the authors of the petition would have a legitimate complaint if they could dredge up several examples of Finnis suggesting that homosexuality is evil or defending conversion therapy in a classroom? (What if he is teaching his own, published work?) I had thought that this was just the sort of witch hunt that friends of academic freedom were trying to put a halt to, but perhaps I was mistaken.
What does it mean for an “offensive comment” to be “pedagogically-unjustified”? (Who is empowered to judge whether a comment counts as offensive, or pedagogically-unjustified?) Is there any way of cashing out whether a comment is pedagogically-justified or not which isn’t parasitic on whether on whether or not we take it to be true, or supported by the evidence? I doubt it — if it were true that jews were responsible for all of the wars, this is the sort of thing that would be perpetually relevant in a political science course. To whatever extent we think this claim is “pedagogically-unjustified”, this is because we also think it’s baseless and false. But the assertion that homosexuality is evil is also baseless and false, isn’t it? So is there any principled reason for prohibiting comments about how jews have started all of the wars that wouldn’t also extend to comments about the evils of homosexuality?Report
It’s pedagogically unjustified if it doesn’t do anything to advance the aims of the course. I can talk about what I had for dinner last night. What I say can be true and I can have extremely good evidence for it, maybe I even play a thirty minute video of me having dinner while holding a newspaper with yesterday’s headline. This, of course, would be utterly pedagogically unjustified. Likewise, David Wallace was obviously referring to instances where he brings up the supposed wrongness of homosexuality for no reason. If, however, it was part of the course to discuss the ethics of sex then him discussing his work would be perfectly pedagogically justified. What would be wrong would be for him to misrepresent the current state of the debate as if his is the only correct view. But as far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that he’s done this.
“But the assertion that homosexuality is evil is also baseless and false, isn’t it?”
I’m inclined to agree, but only because I think it’s exceptionally obvious that we live in a godless universe devoid of intrinsic meaning or value, and thus that the only basis for claims about good and evil are the human conventions that govern the use of the terms. Since the majority of English speakers would reject the claim that homosexuality is wrong the sentence is false in our mouths. (Though who cares?) Of course, I’m still willing to teach the different ethical theories (if only because they’re interesting and I need the cash). In fact, your demand that we not teach false offensive things would simply annihilate moral philosophy, since virtually every course must teach a variety of competing theories, the majority of which must be false.Report
Yes, that’s absolutely what I meant. It’s obviously pedagogically inappropriate to discuss the wrongness of homosexuality in a calculus class; it’s obviously legitimate to discuss it in a research seminar that’s working through a draft of Professor Finnis’s latest book; in between there will be grey areas.Report
YAAGS, David Wallace introduced the notion of “pedagogical justification” to explain why it would be unacceptable for a political science professor to repeatedly remark that jews start all the wars and the world would be better off without them. Your example, of forcing students to watch a video of you having dinner, is not at all like this — your culinary habits have no conceivable relevance to a political science course, while the claim about jews starting wars, if it were correct, would be an extremely valuable piece of information for poli sci students to know. Hence, your analogy fails.
What you and Mr. Wallace need is to come up with an account of “pedagogical justification” which makes (1) come out true but (2) come out false:
(1) Comments about how homosexuality is evil are “pedagogically justified” in an ethics class..
(2) Comments about how jews start all the wars are “pedagogically justified” in a political science course.
You haven’t succeeded in doing this. As before, if anti-semitic comments of the sort we’re discussing don’t “advance the aims of” a political science course, this is only because they are baseless and false. Since you agree that Finnis’s homophobic beliefs are also baseless and false, this could not give you the relevant difference you need to explain why we should arrive at differing verdicts about (1) and (2).Report
I don’t have a particularly well-worked-out theory of pedagogical justification in the grey cases – if I had one, it would have something to do with the extents to which (a) the course in question is supposed to be an account of the general state of the debate, rather than a research seminar focussed on the professor’s own views; (b) the course has a collectively-agreed syllabus from which the professor is deviating wildly, as opposed to being entirely under the professor’s control; (c) the views the professor is discussing are institutionally recognized, in the sense of being published in the peer-reviewed literature of the professor’s field and/or by respected academic presses; (d) the content was integrated into and relevant to the overall topic, rather than just added as a repeated and unjustified aside.
But the context in which I originally introduced this wasn’t the possibility that a professor might say things in their teaching that would be unprotected by academic freedom (indeed, my original comment is a concession on this part; it’s not committing to an absolute right to advance any view in a classroom). It was to the absurd idea that one could ever reasonably object to a person teaching on the grounds that one “would be surprised” if they hadn’t said inappropriate things in the classroom, and more generally that a case for removing an academic from teaching could be based on inferences about what their classroom might be like, rather than actual evidence.
Now, you did respond to my criticisms: you said,
“So do you think that the authors of the petition would have a legitimate complaint if they could dredge up several examples of Finnis suggesting that homosexuality is evil or defending conversion therapy in a classroom? (What if he is teaching his own, published work?) I had thought that this was just the sort of witch hunt that friends of academic freedom were trying to put a halt to, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
If you think that ‘defenders of academic freedom’ prefer a situation where teachers can be disciplined based on inferences about their teaching from their research, rather than based on actual facts about their teaching, then yes: you are very mistaken, at least as far as this ‘friend of academic freedom’ is concerned. To infer guilt based on extrapolations from other parts of someone’s behavior, rather than from direct evidence, is pretty much the definition of a witch hunt.Report
@Thrasymachus “As before, if anti-semitic comments of the sort we’re discussing don’t “advance the aims of” a political science course, this is only because they are baseless and false. Since you agree that Finnis’s homophobic beliefs are also baseless and false, this could not give you the relevant difference you need to explain why we should arrive at differing verdicts about (1) and (2)”
One of the aims of classes at university is to make students familiar with the positions defended and engaged with in the relevant literature. After all, one of the courses’ aim is to prepare students for an academic career, and in such a career they’ll be expected to engage with that literature. The view that homosexuality is evil is defended (if only by a minority) in serious philosophy journal, books published by reputable publishers and by faculty and PhD students
at respectable universities. Finnis, after all, had his view published. Therefore, it can be pedagogically justified to introduce it to students. They might (later) want to take part in that debate. If (like me) you think that the view that homosexuality is evil is baseless and false, you might decry this state of affairs and think it’d be better if the view faded away from discussion. But its reasonable to think that it first has to cease to be a live option for anybody engaging in research before it becomes impermissible to teach it. (Of course, this doesn’t mean one would be required to teach it. In any debate, there will be many marginal positions that you may or may not teach, depending on your preferences.)
The view that the Jews are behind all the wars is not only baseless and false, it is also not defended by anybody engaging in academic research in the political sciences. In fact, the consensus concerning it is (rightly) so strong that no scholar spends much effort on arguing against it. Bringing it up would be pedagogically unjustified not only because it is baseless and false, but because it wouldn’t prepare students in any way for research.Report
@David Jones Wallace
If you were hoping to demonstrate that anti-semitic comments we’ve been discussing could never be “pedagogically justified”, your criteria are too weak — I don’t think they would rule out a political science professor weaving the hypothesis that jews are responsible for all of the wars into a seminar focused on the nature and causes of war.
“It was to the absurd idea that one could ever reasonably object to a person teaching on the grounds that one “would be surprised” if they hadn’t said inappropriate things in the classroom, and more generally that a case for removing an academic from teaching could be based on inferences about what their classroom might be like, rather than actual evidence.”
You seem to have misinterpreted my comments rather badly; I never claimed that “one could… reasonably object to a person teaching on the grounds that one “would be surprised” if they hadn’t said inappropriate things in the classroom”, or anything of the sort. My suggestion was that Joel Pust also needed to address the case of a professor who makes homophobic/anti-semitic remarks in class without actively discriminating against any of his students, because there’s a decent chance that Finnis has, at some point in his career, done exactly that.
“The view that the Jews are behind all the wars is not only baseless and false, it is also not defended by anybody engaging in academic research in the political sciences.”
In point of fact, the notorious white nationalist Kevin MacDonald (now emeritus at Cal State Long Beach) managed to publish a series of books through Praeger — otherwise a reputable publishing house — promoting this type of conspiracy theory about jews. Now that you know this, does that mean you’re okay with political science professors pushing anti-semitic views onto their students, so long as they cite MacDonald’s work?Report
‘If you were hoping to demonstrate that anti-semitic comments we’ve been discussing could never be “pedagogically justified”, your criteria are too weak’
I’m not so hoping. Maybe they could, in sufficiently baroque circumstances.Report
“In point of fact, the notorious white nationalist Kevin MacDonald (now emeritus at Cal State Long Beach) managed to publish a series of books through Praeger — otherwise a reputable publishing house — promoting this type of conspiracy theory about jews. Now that you know this, does that mean you’re okay with political science professors pushing anti-semitic views onto their students, so long as they cite MacDonald’s work?”
The main criterion I proposed for whether it is permissible to teach some positions, was whether engaging with it would be a live option (not necessarily the easiest one, but a live one) for somebody wanting to do academic research in a field. If this is the case for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, this is very regrettable, but the way to change it would be to intervene in publishing and research, not in teaching. If MacDonald’s publishing success was something of a freak accident and it would not be a live option for, say, a grad student to attempt something similar (as I suspect is the case), then this means that his views should not be taught.Report
“your culinary habits have no conceivable relevance to a political science course, while the claim about Jews starting wars, if it were correct, would be an extremely valuable piece of information for poli sci students to know. Hence, your analogy fails.”
Saying that Jews started all the wars completely out of context is obviously pedagogically unjustified even if the class is in political science. Similarly, if you’re discussing environmental ethics and just suddenly blurt out that gay sex is depraved, you should probably get a talking to by HR. But, once again, as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence that the guy did any of this. If we are imagining a world in which there was strong enough empirical evidence that a vast Jewish conspiracy existed that historians and political scientists treated it seriously as an explanation for the origin of wars and this took place within a class discussion aimed at understanding the origin of war then a discussion of those theories would be justified. Similarly, we can imagine a possible world in which Jews really are lizard people and where there is extensive evidence for this, in which case discussion of the economic influence of lizard people would be appropriate in the right context. Of course, none of this is true here or in any nearby possible world and is thus irrelevant. That a few non-academics might have slipped things past an academic publisher isn’t interesting. Someone who taught a quack scientific paper as truth would also be incompetent.
The evidence for moral theories is exceedingly weak and thus many distasteful views cannot be ruled out. Creationism is ignored in the sciences because it simply is not a scientific theory–no creationist can offer an explanation of the mechanisms God uses to create the world or manipulate genes (does he move the molecules around with tiny hands?). Without such a proposal it simply *can’t* be a scientific theory. There just isn’t a theory to consider, just some vague passages from the bible. Scientists don’t need to claim that god doesn’t exist, just that god doesn’t play a role in explanation of natural phenomena. There is a clear asymmetry here with theological volunteerism, since we understand how commands work and a moral theory doesn’t need mechanistic explanations. Thus tv is not as easily dismissed by philosophers except under the assumption that there is no God whatsoever. Deontology and utilitarianism face the same sort of open questions (e.g., Why is pleasure good? and Why is universalization a constituent of practical rationality?) as the one that was supposedly fatal for theological volunteerism. The real reason why the latter is rejected is because most ethicists are atheists. This is a bit problematic, though many people are willing to do it. (Note what this means for Muslim students (an oppressed minority): that their religion isn’t worth considering, and has no place in the intellectual life of secular society.) But no one can really complain that an ethicist is *incompetent* for discussing tv as a viable moral theory without insisting that atheism be official academic dogma.Report
Idk whether Finnis appeals to theological volunteerism. It’s just an example of a defensible moral theory that will dictate that homosexuality is wrong when accompanied by Christianity or Islam and a pretty minimal commitment to the idea of scriptural revelation. Kant also argued for the wrongness of sex outside of marriage on the basis that it involves using people for their bodies and thereby treating them as a mere means. Seems silly to me, but such is Kantianism. No Kantian can really offer a completely clear criterion for universalizability that gives us only palatable results, so you can’t really dismiss those views without dismissing Kantianism out of hand. And if we’re dismissing Kantianism I’m just gonna go ahead and toss out hedonic and preference satisfaction based maximizing consequentialism along with it, as I find those theories gross. If our pretheoretic moral views demand we not even consider certain arguments against them then we should probably just stop doing ethics altogether.Report
Your talk of “live options” is equivocal. Do you mean that professors should refrain from teaching a view when *defending* that view is not a live option for graduate students, or when *discussing* that view is not a live option for graduate students? If it’s the former, I don’t think that will work as a defense of Finnis — publishing an article defending the view that homosexuality is evil and comparable to bestiality seems to me, at this point in time, an exceedingly unwise career move. Conversely, if the latter disambiguation is correct, I’m not sure that this would preclude a professor teaching MacDonald’s work in class. A grad student might be able to wrangle a publication or two attacking MacDonald into one of those against-racist-pseudoscience compilations that come out every year or two.
Additionally, this is a law school we’re talking about, so it’s hard to see why it would be important what is and isn’t a “live option… for somebody wanting to do research in a field” in the first place.
It sounds as though you now acknowledge that your judgments of “pedagogical justifiedness” are, as I suggested, parasitic on your beliefs about what the evidence supports. Unfortunately, many people do not agree with you that “the evidence for moral theories is exceedingly weak and thus many distasteful views cannot be ruled out” — indeed, I know many ethicists who hold that moral prohibitions against homosexuality are not the slightest bit plausible, and that the natural law theories which underwrite these proscriptions are flawed beyond repair. If these folks adopt your principle that academic freedom does not protect offensive comments with zero evidential support, doesn’t that mean it would be reasonable for them to object to Oxford allowing Finnis to teach, in the event that we find out that he has, in fact, shared his homophobic views in class?Report
Here’s what you said in the OP: “What if, say, a political science professor repeatedly mentions during lectures that he believes Jews are responsible for all of the wars and the world would be better off without them?”
Your statement obviously implied that the person was doing it randomly for reasons unrelated to the course material, which prompted David Wallace’s response: “I am reasonably sure that Oxford University policy on academic freedom would not give absolute protection to someone who repeatedly made pedagogically-unjustified offensive comments about a given subgroup of students.”
You’ve been moving the goalposts ever since, and are now feigning surprise that we think that evidence might be relevant. Of course it is. Context is also relevant.
“Unfortunately, many people do not agree with you that “the evidence for moral theories is exceedingly weak and thus many distasteful views cannot be ruled out” — indeed, I know many ethicists who hold that moral prohibitions against homosexuality are not the slightest bit plausible, and that the natural law theories which underwrite these proscriptions are flawed beyond repair.”
Lol. Yeah, most moral theorists, in fact. Unsurprisingly, consequentialists think deontology and virtue ethics are nuts and vice versa. That’s because of the heavy selection effects. You only go into moral philosophy if you’re a true believer and think that you have a direct intuitive insight into moral truth. In reality, their evidence is just “intuition”–a highfalutin term referring to the fact that they find it offensive. This is a crap form of evidence. Even the epistemologists who defend intuitions only argue that they get a belief off the ground when there are no defeaters present, and there are a huge number of defeaters for moral beliefs.* But let’s grant that intuitions are good evidence even though people have radically different moral intuitions. Then it would also be *reasonable* for sophisticated theological volunteerists who *think* that there is no evidence for the moral permissibility of abortion to object to the appointment of professors who think that it is. You probably should object to the hiring of someone who supports the murder of millions of children. Of course, the university might decide to ignore them while favoring the former, and ban Finnis from teaching. Since it’s Oxford, they might have the power to get away with that sort of thing, whereas a public university in a red American state would get its funding cut.
For that matter, libertarians have even more reason to try to get communists fired and vice versa. After all, both parties think the other’s ideology leads to the direct physical suffering and oppression of literally billions of people. If you’re proposing we abandon academic freedom in favor of an all-out culture war then my advice is (1) make sure you’re in a position to win, and (2) be prepared for some casualties.
*To cut off the inevitable “partner in the guilt” objection: (1) there are virtually no defeaters for the intuitions behind mathematical axioms, and (2) mathematicians don’t really rely on intuitions as evidence anyway. Mathematical intuitions are useful pedagogically and can help you see how to get a proof, but no mathematician I’ve talked to claims or knows anyone who claims that they know that, say, the continuum hypothesis is true by intuition. They just accept that it’s unprovable and say “oh well”. Nor will they just assert that the axioms of peano arithmetic are unquestionable because of intuition. They’ll tell you that you can construct all sorts of weird algebras.with weird properties, but that you’re better off sticking to classical arithmetic if you want to build a bridge. So, no, mathematical practice does pretty much nothing to legitimize moral philosophy.Report
”But the assertion that homosexuality is evil is also baseless and false, isn’t it?”
For Christians, Muslims and a number of believers of other religions, no, it isn’t. Actually, they’d say that the contrary statement (”Homosexuality is not evil”) is baseless and false.Report
Why does this matter? Many Christians and Muslims also hold hateful and bigoted attitudes towards jews. Does this mean it’s okay for political science professors to make anti-semitic comments in their classes?Report
I would have thought whether something is baseless and false is an objective matter, and as such has little or nothing to do with the opinions of this or that group of people.Report
Dave2, that’s the whole point. ‘Limit only those speech acts that are offensive and objectively baseless and false’ is an unenforceable rule that would immediately lead to a zero sum political battle between the conflicting groups in question. The left might win over control of universities, but the religious right often controls state legislatures and would cut their funding. You might think this is okay because it wouldn’t effect universities in liberal bastions like Berkeley, but this is myopic. Universities are already run like businesses. Having half of a field disappear would completely upend research and thereby standards of accreditation and rankings, giving the administrators the perfect excuse to slash funding for things they likely already see as useless.Report
YAAGS, I’m happy to grant that you’re right about enforceability. My point was that krell_154 seemed to be applying a sort of inane freshman relativism to truth and falsehood: “For X, p is false, but for Y, p is true”. If it’s false that homosexuality is evil (and that’s what had been asserted), then it’s false, regardless of what Christians and Muslims happen to think.Report
I’m inclined to agree concerning the falsehood of freshman relativism (some form of deflationism is preferable 😉 ). But I immediately read the OP as saying that Christians and Muslims will disagree in order to suggest that you’ll have a pretty big fight on your hands if you try to use that rationale, which I think is the more charitable reading.Report
Hi, Thrasymachus. I’ll take the bait. I’m an ethnic Jew whose recent ancestors fled their homeland to escape vicious anti-Semitism. I don’t think the case you present is quite parallel with the Finnis case — as far as I know (though I’m not familiar with his work), he hasn’t claimed that gay people are responsible for all the wars or that we should exterminate gay people. But should I, as an ethnic Jew, be expected to take a course taught by someone who holds that all Jews ought to be exterminated? Again, it’s an extreme case that I think is unlikely to come up. But I’ll swallow the bitter pill and say yes. I’m assuming, to be clear, that the instructor somehow manages to grade my work fairly, allow me to participate fully in the course, and doesn’t needlessly divert class time toward his hobby horse or pointlessly tell me that I and my ancestors should all have been killed in the death camps.
Yes, in that very extreme case, it would be disturbing to me to think that the person I see at the front of the classroom thinks these things about my ethnic group. But I’m deeply disturbed by views that are held by many people I encounter. And, if anything, such a professor might well come to a better view of Jews if he actually interacts with them as students. Do you think he’d be more likely to have positive views about Jews and maybe revise his ideology if he were barred from doing his job by Jews and their allies? Do you think he would gain his influence, or lose it, among others if this happened to him?
Perhaps you think I’ve just given a reductio argument against my own view. Okay, but what’s your alternative? Please articulate the principle you would have us follow in such cases, and show why it’s not arbitrary and doesn’t put us on a genuine slippery slope that would lead us to much worse things than the strained feelings I might have at having to take a course with a neo-Nazi who somehow manages to act professionally in class. Have you got one?Report
“Okay, but what’s your alternative?” Maybe not perfect, but one alternative would be that: For any compulsory, you allow a student to petition for a waiver. In a confidential statement (say, one page) they would describe why taking the class would be unbearable for them, say because of the values of the teacher. Such petitions could be made even after the course started. If the petition is approved, the student will not attend the class but would have to acquire the material, or equivalent material, in some other way, e.g. in guided or independent research with a final examination, or in some other class. If a compulsory class is taught by a different professor in another year the student might be allowed to take it later etc. This solution won’t make anybody happy, for example because it still places an extra burden on the offended student. However, I think it mostly avoids the slippery slope problem. After all, it is not a huge attack on a professor’s academic freedom if a few students less turn up to their class.Report
Hi, Kangrga. Thanks for responding with an attempt. A couple of thoughts:
1) I think it’s uncontroversially true that many professors make frequent remarks, even in their classes apparently, to the effect that the world would be a better place if there had never been any white people, or that men (individually or through the ‘patriarchy’) have been the source of all or most of the world’s woes, and that masculinity is toxic, and so on. Most people in those groups seem to just consider those comments par for the course, but a few find such statements and attitudes inappropriate. On your scheme, would such students be eligible for a waiver?
Perhaps your reply is that anyone could ask for a waiver, but it will be up to the department to make the call. But do you really think that the department members would be as likely to take such a petition seriously when it goes against the zeitgeist, as the ones I have suggested do, as when it accords with it, as a petition to be exempt from Finnis’s class would be? Also, don’t you think there would be considerable pressure on the faculty to vote one way or the other, depending on the case?
2) What if there are no available alternatives? It’s hard to think of a major department in which more than one professor is apt to have views like Finnis’s. But there seem to be many department in which most, if not all, professors hold that men, or white people, are the source of all or most of the world’s evils and that members of such groups today ought to feel ashamed and penitent for this. If a student goes to a department in which, he or she later discovers, everyone holds these views, what happens?
To take another example, I think most professors today hold (as I do) that God does not exist and that euthanasia and abortion should be legal and are sometimes even morally praiseworthy. It might be hard to find a professor in a department who doesn’t think those things, especially one who happens to be teaching a similar course.
3) You say, “[a]fter all, it is not a huge attack on a professor’s academic freedom if a few students less turn up to their class.” No, that would not be a huge attack on a professor’s academic freedom. But the following seems much more likely, given the current climate: one student takes offense at what the professor say, says. He or she loudly discusses it with other students. They all agree that something ought to be done. The first student writes a petition to the department and asks the others, “Am I the only one who has a problem with this? Or are the rest of you going to join me?” Now, failing to submit a petition is a sign of bad character and could spell trouble for the grad students, who are already freaked out about the competitive edge they need over everyone else. So they all submit petitions. Someone else has the bright idea of bundling them together, to give them more force. Now the department has a unanimous petition from the grad students saying that the professor’s views are so outrageous that they can’t even bear to take a course from him. The faculty might have doubts about this, but they also are freaked out about how bad it’ll look for them if these grad students publicize the faculty’s failure to jump on the issue with both feet, immediately. So they grant the students’ petition, and apologize to them that they were put in such a difficult position (because if you don’t apologize when you grant these things, it might look bad). And now the department is saddled with a professor they don’t want to assign to any more courses because the whole thing will happen again, and the grad students, elated at their victory, think to themselves, “Well, that was easy and felt pretty good. What other professors are problematic?” And the rest is not difficult to see.Report
You are talking about a pre-existent condition, not even a cultural thing, being jew is in no way comparable to be a sexually active homosexual, as being “responsible for all the wars”, as you put it, has no comparison with doing something “wrong” (that in terms of natural law philosophy can be put like “evil”, but there’s a long development from one term to another). In the other hand as someone put it in the upper part of the comments, being a sexually active homosexual can be compared, as something depending of will, with being an active catholic or muslim. Well I think it is good for students from all backgrounds, attitudes towards life or ideologies, to be pushed out of their comfort zones and having people with different opinions than yours towards any aspect of moral philosophy (because the topic gets much more interesting iif is something that affects your life). And if you can’t stand to doubt and change opinions or to see weaknesses in them, well, get out of the kitchen, because universities are there for making really heated food.Report
I wouldn’t want to see a student compelled to take a course with an instructor whose stated values are so diametrically at odds with the student’s own that it interferes with the student’s ability to learn. (In some cases I think haviing instructors with whom one disagrees on important values might be beneficial and productive.)
However it’s hard for me to see that this is the case here since there seem to be other options for students that do not diminish their educational access. At a smaller institution or under other circumstances that might not be the case, and it would be a challenge for me to try to work out a solution that respects both academic freedom and student access (ie a right to an appropriate learning environment).Report
On that line, presumably student John Finnis couldn’t be compelled to take a course that had an openly gay instructor.Report
”I wouldn’t want to see a student compelled to take a course with an instructor whose stated values are so diametrically at odds with the student’s own that it interferes with the student’s ability to learn.”
Why are instructor’s values being at odds with the student’s an impediment to their learning? Are students creatures unable of distinguishing persons from ideas? Or are they unable of forming their own ideas and having a disagreement with others?Report
I don’t think they necessarily are, and that’s an important point. If those values translate into prejudicial actions (and it’s important to point out, as has been done above that this ISN’T the case here) that could be a significant issue.
My point is that the instructor’s values *only* become an issue if it’s an impediment to learning; my goal was to set a very high standard.Report
“There is no doubt an interesting question about whether students should have to fulfill their curricular requirements by taking courses from a professor who is on record stating that an important part of their identity is “evil.””
Wouldn’t many Christian faculty (and not only them) believe that an important part of all of our identities (as humans) is inherently evil? This seems to be an implication of the doctrine of original sin, at least in some of its stronger forms. I reject this doctrine, by the way, along with Finnis’s views about homosexuality.Report
Justin, I wonder if you could say more about what you mean by “identity” in this context. Surely it isn’t personal identity of the kind Locke, Reid, Hume and Parfit investigated. It’s something more like practical identity, presumably. But then it seems unavoidable that some people will think important parts of other people’s identities are evil. We are going to have opinions about other people’s beliefs, especially political and religious ones. And many people would consider their deepest convictions as much a part of their identities as their sexual or racial identities. Some even more so. I think my most fundamental moral beliefs are more important to who I am than my race. I bet you feel the same way. I doubt there is any important sense in which sexual orientation and race are a part of people’s identities that doesn’t include these other things. If that’s so, then I don’t see how we can reasonably restrict the activities of professors who think some components of some of their students’ identities are evil. We’re all in that situation. Now you might say what’s different about the cases, but then I think you’d just be giving different grounds, e.g., we should restrict the activities of professors whose moral views are (we think) badly mistaken. Better to just say that and avoid the pretence of ideological neutrality in this confused language of identity.Report
Hi Spencer. The notion of identity I have in mind here is indeed something like practical identity, but the identity language isn’t really crucial. I used the phrase “part of their identity” to mean a certain kind of trait. What kind of trait? Roughly, the kind you’d include in a description of yourself that is relevant to how typical interactors with you in typical circumstances do or should treat you or think about you, besides in ways that are typical of the background class of which you’re a member.
In our social world, having a freckle on your left knee wouldn’t be that kind of trait (it fails the relevance condition), nor would being human (it’s typical of your background class). One’s sexual orientation or race would be those kinds of traits. What about one’s political views? Perhaps, if you’ve made a substantial part of your life about your political opinions—or if others have made your political opinions a substantial part of your life by how they treat you.
Note that this notion of identity (or whatever we’d like to call it) is different from the sense conveyed in statements such as your “I think my most fundamental moral beliefs are more important to who I am than my race.” The kinds of traits I’ve identified aren’t necesssarily the ones that inform my own view of “who I am.”
Nonetheless, I agree with what I take to be one of your underlying points: that demarcating which of a students’ traits are ones we should be concerned about a professor condemning is no easy task.
My comments towards the end of my original post were intended to capture the moral remainder of the case; even if we think that as a matter of policy no action at all should be taken against Finnis, the students’ complaints aren’t based on nothing. It is not as if they were complaining about mere disagreement or being challenged by a professor. Being a gay student and having to take a course from someone who thinks the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist is importantly different from being a student who has to take a course with a professor who disagrees with her about the justifiability of the death penalty. The precise nature of that difference, and whether it has any policy implications, I’m not taking a stand on.Report
Consider the statement “the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist.” That sounds ghastly. Genocidal even. But what really does that mean beyond that the world would be a better place if you didn’t have some of the traits you have– and others didn’t either? That’s a commonplace thought. A progressive professor could think the world would be a better place if people like me — conservatives– didn’t exist. I can live with that. In fact if we take his views as starting points, it might be unreasonable for him to think anything else! (Ditto for a conservative professor who thinks a progressive-free world sounds just grand). I still fail to see why sexual identity is importantly different than this.
Now I think I can see how there might be a way of carving up the territory so that sexual identity is part of my social identity in a way that isn’t true for *most* political convictions. I don’t think I have a handle on what the normative difference is supposed to be. It might be different from disagreement about the death penalty. But what about disagreement about the justice if the Iraq war? Couldn’t I take that as an affront to my veteran identity? Should it matter if I did?Report
Justin- I share your sense that these cases are different, but I think that it’s really hard to articulate what the difference is, and I don’t think that the fact that the actual case involves “having to take a course from someone who thinks the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist” is it. Suppose that someone were to write that it would be better if no transpeople existed, because that’s a tremendous burden to bear and would be even in a world with no transphobia. Believing this is entirely consistent with believing that transpeople should be treated with dignity, have their genders recognized, etc. While the cases are different, one might also believe that it would be better if no one existed who had certain disabilities, i.e., if no one was born with those disabilities or acquired them later in life. Again, someone could believe this while still believing that people with disabilities should be treated with the utmost dignity. Of course, both claims are controversial. But would we say that deaf students should not be required to take courses from a professor who has written that deaf children should, whenever possible, be given hearing? I don’t think so, at least not at most universities. I’m not saying that the Finnis case is just like these, but it’s hard to say what separates them. Maybe some combination of his apparently saying that homosexuality is evil, as opposed to its being a burden that one must bear, and the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a reason that homosexuality would be a burden in the absence of homophobia (although I can imagine why it might appear that way to someone with a certain pretty determinate view of the good life). For the record, by the way, I don’t mean to make any claims about the burdens inherent in being either trans or disabled.Report
Justin, I think that, in terms of natural law, there is a big difference between being homosexual, attracted to people of your same sex, and being gay, as this second contains in its usual semantic” being sexually active homosexual”. So your hipothetical Finnis’ statement “world would be a better place without people like you” must be modified to “world would be a better place without behavours as yours” that is what he would say and that have very different approaches sin a critic position as he is talking about nathing compared with race or ethnicity but about mere actions, as everybody does all the time.Report
Interesting case. I read Finnis a lot in my years working on the ethics of abortion and reproductive technology, as he is a world leading authority on moral theory in the Christian Catholic tradition and its application to practical issues. I disagreed deeply about almost everything he claimed with regard to substantial normative issues (not the technical exercises about what follows from Thomist or similar axioms), and was many times enraged about what I found to be dishonest or cynical adaptions for no better reason than saving balls for the Vatican. Yet, I learned immensely from this experience, and still profits from having kept on reading and engaging with the material. In the same way, I have learned greatly from engaging with advocates of radical – extreme even – political views, which most likely, had they been put into practice, would have had me incarcerated for holding the beliefs and saying the things I do.
Due to this experience, I wonder about this statement:
“Though most people would think it better if these students did not have to take courses from these professors ”
I interpret this as normative rather than sociological (a sociological statement would be irrelevant). Reading any normative theoretical subject (law, ethics, aesthetics or politics), it is rather likely that, as a beginner student, one will encounter someone who challenges one’s deeply entrenched views/ideals/values in a way that may easily be taken as a personal insult or an attack on who one believe oneself to be. It may be a teacher, or it may be a fellow student. I had several such experiences during my higher education, and is today grateful for them. Thanks to social media, on a daily basis I have discussions with colleagues or students who believe it would be a better society due to political or religious ideals where I would not have the room to propagate some of the views I do. Once again, I think it is a good thing to have these encounters, although they are often painful when they occur. In other words, without in any way discounting the pain expressed by the students who have made this complaint, is it really a reason of any sort of weight to try to “save them” from the experience?Report
Chris Patten, as Chancellor of the University, has sharply made known his views regarding such attacks on academic liberty and free speech–and, I hope, may weigh in again in this case. John Finnis is one of the finest minds in the world on questions of moral and legal philosophy. Oxford is rightly proud to have him. The petition demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how disagreements should be addressed in an academic setting or, indeed, in any free, liberal democracy.Report
The Chancellor of Oxford occupies a largely ceremonial role. (The Vice-Chancellor is the actual executive officer.) I think it’s highly unlikely the Chancellor will comment on a particular case like this – it would be seen as treading on the toes of the university administration.Report
In fact, by praising him in this way you are supporting and enabling his homophobia. Elevating homophobic individuals is itself homophobic.Report
The above remark was intended for Kevin Rossiter.Report
Complimenting them on their cooking is evil too.Report
“John Finnis is one of the finest minds in the world on questions of moral and legal philosophy.”
Clearly not, since he holds such stupid opinions on homosexuality and immigration. I’m all for free speech and don’t believe he should be fired merely for holding such opinions, but I cannot intellectually respect someone who is homophobic and racist.Report
He is neither a racist nor ‘phobic.’ Address what he writes rather than these fictions.
Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S® 6.Report
By many reasonable standards, almost everybody who lived more than about a hundred years ago, would count as racist, homophobic or as having some similarly obnoxious trait. The implication would be that the vast majority of humanity’s finest minds lived in the past century, which seems to be a terribly parochial and chauvinistic view.Report
If there’s such a thing as progress in the fineness of our minds (which seems to be implied by common-sense talk of intellectual progress and moral progress), then wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable to expect that the vast majority of the finest minds lived in the past century? Unless, of course, “the finest minds” are merely those with the most potential to develop into something fine, in which case I suppose they might well be evenly distributed across the centuries.Report
“The implication would be that the vast majority of humanity’s finest minds lived in the past century, which seems to be a terribly parochial and chauvinistic view.”
One could also hold that whether someone’s mind counts as ‘among humanity’s finest’ depends on what can be reasonably expected of them given the cultural and historical context. So perhaps Aristotle or whoever would still count as among humanity’s finest minds, because in his context holding stupid opinions about, for example, women, was relatively common and the expectation that he rise above what is prevalent in his context is an additional one, in addition to any intellectual expectations of him.
Finnis, OTOH, is hateful and deliberately obtuse, since he’s living in a context in which the truth about homosexuality (i.e. that it’s at least morally acceptable [I would go further and say it is a good thing, but that’s another issue]) is relatively established and in the zeitgeist, but he is obstinately expressing an earlier and less evolved perspective on the topic, which also happens to be a wrong and unintelligent perspective. So, he is definitely not among humanity’s finest minds, but I would say his mind is fairly dull and useless, and his moral compass basically broken, at least when it comes to sexuality issues.Report
It is really outrageous how intolerant Finnis is of people who have different beliefs than he does. The old fool lets these people say what they like and publish divergent opinions. The nerve!
He should be tolerant and accepting like us, and follow our enlightened approach where we silence anyone who challenges our worldview.Report
Finnis intolerant of beliefs? I thought the whole discussion was about Finnis being intolerant of sexuality, not beliefs.Report
Even if the courses he teaches are compulsory, he should not be fired simply for holding bigoted views. However, there should be disciplinary action taken against him (including potentially firing him) if he expresses such views in class or in interactions with students, or if there is evidence he is discriminating against students.Report
I don’t think anyone has suggested firing him. Rather, if I’m reading correctly, the goal is to move him to non-compulsory classes. Of course, whether the courses he currently teaches are really compulsory seems to be at issue.Report
“Petition for (1) John Finnis to be removed from his academic position at Oxford University because of his discriminatory conduct…”
I interpreted ‘removed from his academic position’ as ‘fired from his job’. I don’t agree even with removing him only from compulsory courses just for holding those views, though I do if he expresses them in class, requires students to read his articles where he has written such views, discriminates against students, etc.Report
A couple comments in reply to your shotgun of comments: (a) it isn’t “homophobic” to affirm that same-sex sex immoral. If Finnis berates his homosexual students, then maybe he’s homophobic, but not for holding the above described view. (I know it’s all the rage to suggest otherwise these days, but that isn’t good reason to think this is so), and (b) why in the world would it be impermissible for him to have his students read his papers? Should other profs not be allowed to have their students read his papers as well?Report
I’m not going to respond to ‘(a)’ because it’s not worthy of a response.
As far as ‘(b)’ goes: yes, it is impermissible for any instructor to assign readings to students that express bigoted positions where there is no room for rational debate. Instructors should not be allowed to assign articles arguing that women ought not to have the right to vote, for example. This is on the same level as that.Report
How does one get appointed to the panel that decides when there is no room for rational debate about a position? It sounds like an interesting job to have.Report
Siklander, here’ s a question. A few years ago, Nicholas Wolterstorff came out as viewing same-sex monogamous, married sexual relationships as being consistent with Christianity. He didn’t always hold this view – in the past, he held that same-sex sex was immoral. To my knowledge, he’s always treated practicing homosexuals the same. Nothing changed besides his belief about whether same-sex sex is immoral.
So, here’s my question (and this isn’t rhetorical): did Wolterstorff magically cease to be a homophobe (or “hateful”, or whatever other hyperbolic term you please) at the point when his belief about same-sex sex changed? Keep in mind that there is no significant change in the way he treated practicing homosexuals except that now he says something like “I don’t think the Bible teaches same-sex sex is immoral” if asked.Report
I’ll weigh in on this on Sikander’s behalf. The “-phobia” terms are of scientific or clinical origin, they concern the unacknowledged emotional-psychological sources for a person’s belief. I used to worry about the deployment of such terms, but I’m not so sure anymore. Consider this case: I think it’s obvious that white attitudes towards African-Americans in 1800 were profoundly regulated by disgust. Yet, this disgust was clearly cloaked in a myriad of post-hoc rationalization concerning sub-humanity or lesser innate intelligence or whatever. I have no problem calling this a widely shared “phobia”, even if the surface discourse displays no trace of it. That usage is not “hyperbolic” in any sense. Now, when people became less racist, were their beliefs less regulated by disgust? Absolutely. So, if we accept that a great deal of anti-gay moral belief is significantly related by disgust, then yes, a person who loses that belief is probably (though not necessarily) becoming less “phobic” in precisely the clinical sense that the term implies. And since there is evidence that this empirical hypothesis is true, it is not at all dialectically fair to ask people to stop using “-phobia” terms.Report
@David Jones Mark Wallace
Yeah it is. It’s not a job you can ever have though. Soz.Report
I, for one, welcome our anonymous overlords.Report
“… did Wolterstorff magically cease to be a homophobe (or “hateful”, or whatever other hyperbolic term you please) at the point when his belief about same-sex sex changed?”
Yes?? There’s nothing ~magic~ about it. You literally just asked me if a person who holds a homophobic opinion and then stops holding it goes from being homophobic to not. Yes, I think they do.
Also, stop saying ‘practicing homosexuals’ please. It’s a homophobic expression. And it’s not hyperbolic to correctly label hatred and homophobia as what it is. You’re obviously yourself homophobic, and I suggest working on that.Report
LOL. If Wolterstorff was (or I am) a homophobe, then “homophobe” cannot mean anything negative. If you want to be taken seriously, drop the hyperbole. I’ve not expressed anything hateful.
I say “practicing homosexuals” since I know many homosexuals (that is, people that are attracted to the same sex) who refrain from same-sex sex and either are in, are aim to be in, a heterosexual relationship. (Yes, people like this exist and they won’t be erased by people like you who want to call them “self-hating”, or, even more likely, “super duper self-hating delusional people.” Perhaps that’s not even enough hyperbole.) It’s a relevant distinction.
(I hope this comment isn’t deleted for matching Siklander’s snarkiness.)Report
A question, Sikander: Should Peter Singer be fired if he expresses his views about infanticide in a class he is teaching?Report
Nope, but that is not a correct analogy. Thinking infanticide is justified under some circumstances is not a bigoted opinion. There is room for rational disagreement over that as there is over abortion, but there is not over whether ‘homosexual conduct is evil’, etc. I’m even okay with him expression anti-immigration sentiment, as long as it isn’t racist.Report
If traditional Christianity, Judaism, or Islam is correct, then homosexual sex is wrong (along with lust, adultery, incest, rape, and other sexual sins, don’t forget. It’s not as though these religions pick out homosexuality as uniquely evil). But you think there is no room for rational disagreement about whether homosexual sex is wrong. Do you therefore think that there is no room for rational disagreement about whether traditional Christian, Jewish, or Islamic religious belief is correct? And do you also think that all traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims are bigots and therefore ought to be fired should they ever express their religious commitments in class? Just need to know if we traditional religious folk ought to clear out of academia and make way for those holding much more rational views like mereological nihilism, eliminative materailism, moral error theory, panpsychism, external world skepticism and so on.
And note that, in the U.S. at least, black and Latinx people hold traditional religious belief at a much higher rate than the general population. So, if we ought to exclude traditional religious believers from academic posts as you seem to suggest, then you are, right at the outset, disproportionately ruling out black and Latinx people from entering the philosophy profession. Thought this might interest you since you seem to be concerned with matters of inclusion.Report
Many traditional Christians and Muslims also believe that their religion licenses hateful attitudes towards jews (cf. Matthew 27:25 and Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies). Does this mean you think it’s okay for “traditional religious folk” to lecture a class full of jewish students about how jews are evil and should be forcibly converted to Christianity? Just need to know if our obligation to respect traditional religious views protects rabid anti-semites, or only rabid homophobes.Report
Does a person who thinks eating meat is wrong necessarily hate meat-eaters? If not, why conflate believing homosexual actions is wrong with hating gay people?
I can understand saying that ANY expressions of hate are verboten. What I can’t understand is not distinguishing between moral views and expressions of hate.Report
“He doesn’t hate jews, he just thinks that their religious rituals are evil and destructive, that they should all be forcibly converted to Christianity, and also that having sex with a jewish woman is comparable to raping an animal.”
It’s funny, if you just replace the word “homosexual” with the word “jew” in a few places, you could probably get it published in the Daily Stormer.Report
Nearly half of philosophers in the West think that Christian religious practices are evil and destructive and that traditional sexual norms between Christian husbands and wives are patriarchal, oppressive, and perhaps even constitutive of rape. Moreover, some of these people believe that the state is justified in forcibly removing children from the households of patriarchal Christians.
What do I think of philosophers who believe such things? I think they should state their views and defend them openly. People can call them bigots, sure, but they shouldn’t be able to silence their views.Report
“People can call them bigots, sure, but they shouldn’t be able to silence their views.”
You’ve not-so-subtly changed the subject here — previously we were discussing your claim that Finnis’s views aren’t hateful (they are), but now, as best as I can tell, you’ve backed off to the much weaker claim that he shouldn’t be silenced.
“Nearly half of philosophers in the West think that Christian religious practices are evil and destructive”
Where are you getting this from? I know quite a few philosophers, but I’ve never met one who thinks that confession, baptism, or the eucharist are “evil and destructive”. What makes you think that nearly half of philosophers hold this view?Report
Guilty as charged, on the topic change — it was not intentional. To the point, then, we could perhaps say that the philosophers who criticize Christianity “hate Christians” if most/all their views about Christianity are false or if these views are motivated by animus). But if their views are true and sincere, they are FAR from hateful: they are recognizing that Christianity is basically a cult that people need to be freed from.
The same example can be applied to views on Judaism or homosexual conduct. The views that you claim are anti-Semitic would — if true — not be bigoted or hateful at all. You and I both disagree with those views, and I think we have reason to. But I think that whether they are bigoted/hateful depends on the REASONS the people hold the views, which we cannot easily access.
All that applies to Finnis. If he’s wrong and he’s motivated by animus/distaste, then his attitudes are hateful and/or bigoted. You may have reason to believe that his views on homosexuality aren’t rooted in care for others or care for the truth, but rather animus. I don’t know the man, so I do not have any such reasons.
And for the record, I’m bisexual and I totally understand (from the inside) how it feels to have irrational animus directed at me because of my sexuality. I also understand how it feels to have my sincere beliefs misinterpreted as emotional judgments.Report
“But I think that whether they are bigoted/hateful depends on the REASONS the people hold the views, which we cannot easily access.”
If someone believes that jewish religious rituals are evil and destructive, that jews should be forcibly converted to Christianity, and that having sex with a jewish woman is comparable to raping an animal, it would be reasonable to infer that they hate jewish people, would it not? Since Finnis has expressed analogous sentiments about gay people, why shouldn’t we infer that he hates homosexuals?Report
“Does a person who thinks eating meat is wrong necessarily hate meat-eaters?”
If you can’t tell the difference between these two things, then that’s your problem and it’s not our job to educate you.Report
That’s a fallacy, Sikander. To claim that two actions are similar in one respect is not to claim that they are similar in all respects. Of course, I can tell the difference between those two things. I know what it’s like to be in love, and I know how central it is to a person’s life. However, whether the phenomenology of love corresponds to facts about human flourishing is an open question — though I don’t think it’s an open question whether states should be allowed to interfere in such decisions. They should not be allowed to interfere.Report
Sikander said: “Thinking infanticide is justified under some circumstances is not a bigoted opinion. There is room for rational disagreement over that as there is over abortion, but there is not over whether ‘homosexual conduct is evil’, etc. ”
How is this not an obvious double standard? There’s no room for rational disagreement over the morality of homosexual conduct? Really? On what basis do you say that?Report
Define bigotry, Sikander. Can one only be a bigot against adults? Couldn’t one be a bigot against 5-year-olds? If not, why not? If so, then you’re begging the question if you say that you cannot be bigoted against infants.Report
I’m not responding to some of these comments because they are examples of obstructive faux ignorance, which is a ploy used by people with bigoted views who have some training in philosophy. It’s a perverse misuse of Socratic dialogue, and I made a decision a long time ago not to bother indulging it. If you don’t know why the abortion or infanticide issue is genuinely controversial (i.e. has room for rational disagreement), but the issue of whether gay sex is immoral or gay masturbation comparable to supporting terrorism is not, then that is your problem and I suggest you educate yourself. Obviously you do actually know — you know all the answers to the questions you asked me –, but you like to pretend not to know in order to put me in a defensive position. It’s not going to work.Report
If I know all the answers to those questions, then I’m presuming you agree with me that one could be bigoted against any person. So whether Singer’s views are bigoted would depend on whether infants are people. That’s where the question-begging in your position seems to arise. Since — for the record — I’m not willing to admit that it is (or should be) uncontroversial that Finnis’s views are bigoted against gay people. You say that there is “no room for rational disagreement” on this issue, but that strikes me as a exclusionary speech act, not an argument. Perhaps that’s the approach you want to take, though.Report
”There is room for rational disagreement over that as there is over abortion, but there is not over whether ‘homosexual conduct is evil’,”
And who exactly are you to so confidently proclaim on what issues there can or can’t be rational disagreement?Report
Is holding infanticide to be permissible *not* bigoted just because infants can’t object on their own behalf, and therefore can’t constitute a minority vocalizing their own oppression? I can’t think of any other reason why it would get a free pass. Unlike the polemical caricatures of Finnis’ views, Singer actually thinks some category of human beings can be literally removed from existence if other people think it’s right.Report
“To claim that two actions are similar in one respect is not to claim that they are similar in all respects.”
No shit. I think you know perfectly well I meant ‘relevant difference’ or ‘disanalogy’.
Here you’ve exemplified both obstructive faux ignorance and being patronizing toward someone instead of engaging with them properly and as an equal.Report
But you didn’t explain what the relevant difference was. It strikes me as a difference in degree, not in kind. Having sex and eating meat are both actions. The difference, as I said above, is that one’s sexual choices are generally more personally central than one’s eating choices. Far from pretending I didn’t know what you meant, I said that explicitly.
I’d like to compliment you on your facility with rhetorical repartees, which has been evident in our conversation. It’s a great skill, and it becomes especially effective when you combine it with engaging the substance of what another person says.Report
“I’d like to compliment you on your facility with rhetorical repartees, which has been evident in our conversation.”
Assuming you are sincere and not being sarcastic: thank you. However, I have explained the reason I mostly haven’t engaged on the merits in an earlier comment. Do CTRL + F and type ‘obstructive faux ignorance’ and you’ll find it.Report
It was certainly meant sincerely. I do think, however, that some of your comments strike me as better performances (hence “rhetorical”) than intellectual engagements.
I don’t think I was ever demonstrating obstructive false ignorance. I genuinely do not think that everyone would answer those questions the same way, especially not considering the breadth of opinions held by random people on the internets. I wanted to build common ground from which to make an argument. That’s generally what I try to do, though, yes, I’m prone to performance too. Performance is fun, but argument is far more productive.Report
I may well have misread.Report
As a gay man myself, I think I profoundly disagree with Finnis. Unlike some who commented here, I did not find engaging with his writings very fruitful either– they seem rather inaccessible and dull (perhaps because Finnis tend to sneak in religious assumptions that I do not share). But his right to academic freedom should not be curtailed in virtue of profound disagreement, nor should it be contingent on the fact that people find engaging with his writings potentially beneficial. Of course, there is a separate and open question as to who should enjoy academic freedom in the first place, which is the question about academic employmentReport
I have also found Finnis’s work rather dull. Perhaps he should be required to drink a couple beers before sitting down to write a paper.Report
“We could ask: Should a Jewish student have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the Nazis were right in believing that there should be no Jews? Or, should an African-American have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it would be advisable for the U.S. to return to legalized slavery?”
Finnis: Homosexual sex is morally wrong.
Justin: This is basically the same as saying “Jews should die” and “Black people should be enslaved”.Report
“Justin: This is basically the same as…”
No. It’s just similar in a relevant respect: grossly degrading to certain students.Report
Is it “grossly degrading” to a pro-life student when her pro-choice professor says, or implies, in class that the world would be better if pro-lifers didn’t exist? Is it “grossly degrading” to libertarians when their Marxist professors tell them that capitalists and their sympathizers are evil and ruining the world? What about conservative Christians when their professors pour scorn on them in lectures, calling their views “irrational”, “dangerous”, “benighted”, and so on? Does Peter Singer “grossly degrade” those students who eat meat every day or regularly play golf (very expensive) rather than give to charity when he says that the world would be better without people like them? Are Trump supporters “grossly degraded” daily by their professors who call them racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. and wish they didn’t exist. Most of the “identities” mentioned above would, often enough, figure into a student’s description of herself to a casual acquaintance (this was roughly your test, mentioned above, for an identity worthy of special protection). Do you think professors who are enthusiastic pro-choicers, Marxists, atheists, effective altruists, anti-Trumpers, and so on “grossly degrade” their students when they express their views in class? Either they do or they don’t. If they do, then you’re committed to the view that these professors are on a par with Finnis (and Finnis is apparently really bad). If, however, they do not grossly degrade their students, then neither does Finnis.Report
My reply to Spencer, here, takes up this line of questioning to some extent. (“Being a gay student and having to take a course from someone who thinks the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist is importantly different from being a student who has to take a course with a professor who disagrees with her about the justifiability of the death penalty.”)Report
Justin, as Spencer correctly notes above, framing Finnis’s views in terms of ‘the world’s being a better place if people like you didn’t exist’ is a grossly misleading way to describe his views. He’s not a consequentialist telling us that the existence of gay people makes the world worse. He’s claiming that their sexual choices, and the sort of life that they are living, are less than fully reasonable. This is the same thing he says about heterosexual sex outside marriage, masturbation, and use of birth control. You should stop describing his views in this way; it is really egregious.Report
There’s a problem of closeness here between “gay people” and “their sexual choices and the sort of life they are living”—hashed out in many other contexts—that makes it the case that to say that “it would be better if homosexual behavior did not exist” has much the same significance as “it would be better if homosexuals did not exist.”
That Finnis also condemns other sexual choices has no bearing on this.Report
So, on any plausible view of practical identity, one’s religious standpoint can be absolutely central to one’s practical identity. Suppose that there were a professor who outspokenly declares that, and argues for the view that, Christian belief and practice is irrational, stupid, and immoral. Suppose that this professor had argued in published work that there should be no special protection given by law to persons on account of their religious commitments. And suppose also that this professor were not shy about repeating and reaffirming these views in the classroom. I suppose that one might, by stretching words, describe this professor’s views as “it would be better if Christians didn’t exist.” But one would be really strangely and misleadingly describing that professor’s position. And if one said that there is some problem of closeness whereby saying that Christian belief and practice is unreasonable has much the same significance as “it would be better that Christians didn’t exist,” I would find that view risible.
I would also wonder why one would insist on characterizing this in some third-personal way, from the point of view of the universe, about ‘what it would be better if,’ rather than characterizing it as Finnis does, which is as norms for decision and action for the people who have to make the relevant decisions. They aren’t equivalent and this isn’t a picky point. Finnis doesn’t have to have, and probably doesn’t have, any such view about how things would be better overall. If you need to ascribe a view to him that he would reject in order to score points, then that’a a problem with your view. If you don’t need to ascribe that view to him, why would you do that?Report
I’m not trying to score points. I’m trying to see things from the students’ point of view. I don’t dispute that there are nontrivial subtle distinctions to be made between different approaches to moral philosophy. But the relevance of subtleties that philosophers appreciate will vary from context to context. When it comes to understanding what things are going to be like for the students, I suspect that the distinction you are drawing attention to does not make a difference. I don’t see “Well, gay student, strictly speaking it’s not my view that it would be better if there were no homosexuals; it’s my view that no one should choose to engage in homosexual behavior” being an improvement in this context.Report
”There’s a problem of closeness here between “gay people” and “their sexual choices and the sort of life they are living”—hashed out in many other contexts—that makes it the case that to say that “it would be better if homosexual behavior did not exist” has much the same significance as “it would be better if homosexuals did not exist.””
But isn’t this a cheap shot? Wouldn’t every instance of a person not approving conduct X become an instance of that person thinking that it would be better if people doing X didn’t exist? That interpretation would make a genocidal maniac out of practically everyone, since practically everyone does not approve some behavior that someone else does, and for every natural* behavior, there is someone, somewhere, who holds it a part of their identity.
* Let’s consider a natural behavior something that is not described purely for the purpose of replying to my argument; a reasonably coarse-grained description of behavior, that most people would be able to understand what it isReport
Two quick points:
(1) You write, “That interpretation would make a genocidal maniac out of practically everyone.” No. Thinking that it would be better if some group of people did not exist may be in some ways bad for those people, but it is not thereby to advocate killing them (think of David Benatar’s anti-natalist, anti-extinction view, for example).
(2) You write, “Wouldn’t every instance of a person not approving conduct X become an instance of that person thinking that it would be better if people doing X didn’t exist.” No, not every instance; only in those instances in which conduct X is an integral part of the lives of people who X. (Yes, “integral” needs unpacking, and I’m not sure it’s the best way to put things, but it will have to do for now.)Report
I actually think there’s a decent argument that we should eventually eliminate sexual dimorphism altogether through genetic engineering (only in future generations, of course). Even assuming that one could maintain it while completely eliminating it as a basis of discrimination (which I think is highly doubtful without extreme behavioral interventions that would end up being more oppressive than the biological intervention), it inherently imposes arbitrary limitations on people’s futures. If I’m right then it is true to say that the world would not only be better without gay people and trans people, but without any men or women whatsoever. By Justin’s reasoning, this would give virtually all of my students a good reason to avoid taking my courses. Seems like the wrong result to me, but obviously I’m a bit biased.Report
This conflation of a human being’s characteristic with their existence proceeds on some assumption that is mysterious to me, but it hard to see how it can be other than highly controversial. Do persons exist only ‘under a description’? And is that description self-ascribed? Is it an essential property in some kind of Aristotelian sense?
And whatever the answer is, why should such a controversial thesis about identity’s relationship to existence, and about which characteristics are characteristic of identity for human beings, be so taken for granted as to be beyond discussion, or beyond the realm of professionally acceptable disagreement? That seems to me highly, highly anti-intellectual, or to proceed from a state of denial about how one is policing a line of public decency based a highly contestible metaphysical thesis.Report
Justin, you claim:
”Thinking that it would be better if some group of people did not exist may be in some ways bad for those people, but it is not thereby to advocate killing them”
I agree. But then I fail to see what’s so disturbing about it. Because, again, no matter how you describe it, if disapproving of X is equivalent to thinking the world would be a better place if people doing X didn’t exist, then a lot of people would have the belief that the world would be a better place if people doing some X didn’t exist. For example, I’m pretty sure that it would turn out that the students filing this petition think that it would be better if homophobes didn’t exist. And so on.
Secondly, you write:
”You write, “Wouldn’t every instance of a person not approving conduct X become an instance of that person thinking that it would be better if people doing X didn’t exist.” No, not every instance; only in those instances in which conduct X is an integral part of the lives of people who X. (Yes, “integral” needs unpacking, and I’m not sure it’s the best way to put things, but it will have to do for now.)”
But that’s not all I said, I also added this part:
”and for every natural* behavior, there is someone, somewhere, who holds it a part of their identity.
* Let’s consider a natural behavior something that is not described purely for the purpose of replying to my argument; a reasonably coarse-grained description of behavior, that most people would be able to understand what it is”
which I believe accounts for this point of yours.Report
if if you want to reduce it just as a degrading fact, (I think that because you are coming to a “non-regretting anything that I’ve said”) then someone who talks against smoking saying that it harms not only to the smoker but also to other people, and then is selfish maybe also narcissistic and superficial (which I agree with in case of cigarettes) is in the same situation as Finnis: would be complicated to say that the students who propose him (the hypothetic one) to be removed are acting as bigots who doesn’t want anyone who may have a different opinion than themselves to be around? And if they are smokers wouldn’t you say that they are acting as intelectual infants who don’t want anyone who make them doubt about their position in life to exist? What about if they’re talking about Brexit or Tories-laborists or moral obligations in a relationship or about sex out of marriage or about robbery or about a moral obligation to charity?
Well I think that I’ve proved my point: once accepted there’s not comparison with a anti-semitic (at an ethnic level) or racist discourse, then there’s not problem with a person having a well based opinion about life and being a theacher in Oxford.Report
“Finnis: Homosexual sex is morally wrong.”
This is a grossly dishonest presentation of Finnis’s views. Finnis has not only claimed that homosexual sex is wrong, he has also called it evil, likened it to raping an animal, and argued that we should deny equal rights to gay people. The petition alleges that he has also defended conversion therapy, which has often, in practice, amounted to placing underage gay people in miniature concentration camps and torturing them in the vain hopes of altering their sexual orientation. In Finnis’s defense, this last charge is not clearly supported by the citations included in the petition, but if he has ever defended conversion therapy, the man is legitimately a monster.Report
If Tyson’s presentation of Finnis’s views was dishonest (and I think it may have been), your presentation of conversion therapy is similarly dishonest, Thrasymachus. Methods vary wildly. I’ve experienced something that Finnis would probably call conversion therapy, and I think it was dumb, misguided, and unhelpful. (I kept thinking, “What the hell does it matter if I’m bisexual, people?”) But it wasn’t violent or abusive.
To act like the endorsement of “conversion therapy” as a concept amounts to the endorsement of rounding up gay children and torturing them is intellectually dishonest. It’s much the same as saying that those who support capital punishment support the most violent and barbaric forms of it (e.g. drawing and quartering people).Report
I happen to agree with most of what you said on this thread, but I think you downplayed the harm of ‘conversion therapy’. Of course there exist huge differences between ‘conversion therapy’ programs and I’m glad to that you did not find your experience ‘violent or abusive’. But I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that most of these programs do in fact cause incredibly severe damage. Also, I don’t think Thrasymachus’ point is that those who endorse ‘conversion therapy’ intentionally want to torture and abuse people; the point is rather that what they do amount to torture and abuse.Report
You may be right, KL, but I haven’t seen the evidence. There’s a ton of strong evidence that conversion therapy doesn’t work, and a ton of evidence that extreme versions of conversion therapy are barbaric and (usually unintentionally) cruel. But I haven’t seen scientific evidence that gentler forms of conversion therapy are harmful in a serious way — or rather, I’ve seen mixed scientific reports. There’s anecdotal evidence, but most of the men I’ve personally spoken to who have gone through conversion therapy don’t say that it seriously harmed them.
I’m open to more information on this. I know that Exodus International was a train wreck, and I certainly think that giving false hope and wasting years of a person’s life are very bad things. But I think those negative outcomes apply to ANY unconventional medical treatment, and I don’t see people claiming that (say) acupuncture is gravely harmful to people.Report
A monster!! Jesus Christ sakes alive!!! They have a monster teaching classes at Oxford!!! A fucking monster!!!!! Why is this being allowed???!!! Do we seriously need to protect the freedom of monsters, for crying out loud??!! Why not jump right into their gaping maws of our own accord?
Well, at least they don’t have Peter Singer. Or any other utilitarians. Or anyone who defended the Iraq War. Or any Zionists. Or any other traditionally religious people. Especially Muslims, am I right? Or anyone who is profoundly mistaken about ethical or spiritual matters and voices these profound mistakes.
I mean, how are We Good People to survive if not only Bad People, but downright Monsters are not only allowed in our midst, but to teach at Oxford?
And of course the worst thing about these monsters is that they do not even know they are monsters. They think they are righteous, just like We do. The worst of them go so far as to think that some of Us are monsters!! This is the single most monstrous thing about them. How could anyone deny that the world would be a better place without monsters of the sort who not only don’t recognize that they are monsters, but who think that those who call them monsters are evil or supporters of evil? Come on. This isn’t brain surgery. Say it with me. “The world would be a better place without monsters of the sort who refuse to see that they are monsters, but instead call good people evil or monstrous.”Report
For over two years, I sat on a couch and endured emotionally painful sessions with a counselor. I was told that my faith community rejected my sexuality; that I was the abomination we had heard about in Sunday school; that I was the only gay person in the world; that it was inevitable I would get H.I.V. and AIDS.
But it didn’t stop with these hurtful talk-therapy sessions. The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.
The first step ― which usually lasted six months ― [is] where they “deconstruct us as a person.” Their tactics still haunt me. Aversion therapy, shock therapy, harassment and occasional physical abuse. Their goal was to get us to hate ourselves for being LGBTQ (most of us were gay, but the entire spectrum was represented), and they knew what they were doing…. The second step of the program, they “rebuilt us in their image.” They removed us of everything that made us a unique person, and instead made us a walking, talking, robot for Jesus. They retaught us everything we knew. How to eat, talk, walk, dress, believe, even breathe. We were no longer people at the end of the program.
“They … put a wiring on my private parts that measured temperature changes, and showed me about a thousand pictures of men and a thousand pictures of women over about a 10-day period,” Mr Smith recalls.
“When my body temperature rose when I saw the guys, which is natural for me, they delivered high voltages of electricity through wires that were attached to punish me for being gay and try to make me straight.”
“It was horrific.”Report
That is truly horrific, and before I saw it, I had already regretted my mocking tone. But I stand by the underlying objection to characterizing him as a monster, and in fact your characterization of gay conversion therapy, if anything, reinforces that sentiment. That is because, as horrible as what you describe is, I do not think it worse than what hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and indeed millions of people in the Middle East and elsewhere have endured because of the American-led invasion of Iraq. I do not think it worse than what Palestinians have endured for decades as a consequence of Zionism and American support for it. It is not worse than what millions of Vietnamese endured as a result of the American invasion of Vietnam (I don’t mean to discount others’ actions, but as an American, my main concern is with those done by America, and with their American supporters). I could go on and on and on, as I expect you realize. Even if you don’t agree with my particular examples, they are limitless.
Nevertheless, supporting gay conversion therapy is not the same as supporting some particular kinds of ‘therapy’, and supporting it is not the same as performing it, and even performing it does not make one a monster any more than torturing Iraqi prisoners, or bombing Vietnamese peasants, or burning their villages does (much less does supporting these things make one a monster). We might not be able to imagine doing those things to people, or supporting doing them. To a large extent, that is just what it sounds like–a failure of imagination. Given different circumstances, environment, upbringing, we likely would.
At any rate, it just won’t do to think of all the people who support all the absurd wars, or hideously destructive religious or political ideologies, or even gay conversion therapies, as monsters. They are human beings, and that is what most human beings are and have been like–profoundly susceptible to horrific and absurd ideologies, often including demonizing or otherwise denigrating those who do not adhere to the ideology.
Calling those who are susceptible to such ideologies monsters also inhibits the recognition that we and our friends, family, and allies, are likewise susceptible. But we are susceptible, you and me both. And the best inoculation against being invaded by such ideologies, or other forms of mindlessness, is the awareness that we are susceptible. Thus to think or say that only monsters are susceptible to profound, sustained ethical and spiritual mistakes weakens our best defense against these mistakes. It makes it that much harder for us to see our own shadows–a concept that is sorely missing in contemporary ethical discussion.
I say all this as someone who has been frustrated, enraged, depressed, and sometimes overwhelmed, throughout my entire teenage and adult life, by the apparent imbecility, willful ignorance, and mindless sadism or indifference to others’ well-being, especially as this stems from religion, but also nationalism, racism, classicism, homophobia, etc. My regrettable mocking tone comes from frustration and pre-emptive defensiveness, from a place of wanting to see things get better in this regard, and being convinced that calling people monsters inhibits this project.
In fact, I think a great deal of moral discourse, which is largely grounded in punitive reactivity and virtue signaling–punitive reactivity is actually a means of virtue signaling–inhibits this project. And to be clear, virtue signaling is a basic feature of socio-moral life, and has nothing to do with lefties or even modern life in particular. That fact is itself something of which we would do well to be aware, but against which awareness very powerful and persistent forces are arrayed.Report
A revealing fallacy motivates this petition. From the linked article:
“Alex Benn, a BCL student and one of the authors of the petition, told ‘The Oxford Student’ … “I started this campaign not only to address the specific issue of Finnis’ role at Oxford, but to get Oxford to make up its mind—either it’s in support of equality or it’s not.””Report
Bigot or not, I think John Finnis is a poor philosopher. His arguments about homosexuality are uninteresting, and read like bad theology masquerading as philosophy. While I am sympathetic to defending freedom of thought, I don’t see much thought in his work.Report
I agree. I would go further and say that part of what makes someone a good philosopher is repudiating bigoted views, regardless of whether those views are supported by religious texts or a religious tradition. Bigotry is a form of stupidity.Report
In what sense do you mean “bigot”, Sikander? On the dictionary definition, a bigot is a person who is intolerant of people with views that differ from their own. It seems to me that the petitioners and their supporters fall under this dictionary definition of “bigot” because the petition calls for, and is an expression of, intolerance of a person on account of their views. Even if it’s true that Finnis is a bigot, treating a bigot with bigotry is not only no less bigoted, but also hypocritical.
However, it’s not clear Finnis is a bigot (on this dictionary definition of “bigot”). He and his supporters claim he is tolerant of those with whom he disagrees, and petitioners have not sought to provide evidence to the contrary. Petitioners and supporters of the petition might argue that the expression of Finnis’ views exacerbates the likelihood of intolerance being directed toward vulnerable targets of his moral disagreement (such as gay people and single unmarried mothers), however, it doesn’t follow from this that Finnis is a bigot, or that views that potentially exacerbate intolerance are intrinsically bigoted.
Perhaps it could be argued that the presupposition related to the pejorative nature of the term “bigot” (namely, that intolerance of people on account of their views is bad) is misguided. In this case, we might want to give up usage of the term “bigot” in the same kind of way I think we should give up usage of the terms “sinner” or “bastard”. However, I have a tentative hypothesis: perhaps what’s actually going on is that the meaning of “bigot” is being engineered (I don’t mean deliberately) in such a way that its pejorative force is being appropriated by those who fall under its dictionary definition, in order to prosecute people with views considered to be intolerable. The meaning of “bigot” is thus turned on its head to become a useful tool in the bigot’s rhetorical toolbox, implicitly challenging the presupposition that intolerance of people of account of their views is bad.Report
Finis is most interesting in his discussion of the views of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – and his allegations of Martha Nussbaum’s misuse of scholarship. See section IV, pp. 18-25 of his 1994 paper,linked above as “evil”
John Finnis is 78, and so ten years past the mandatory retirement age in Oxford. The question is not whether a professor should be allowed to teach – the statutes are clear – but whether the Faculty of Law should assign teaching to an emeritus professor. These decisions are presumably made case by case for each academic year. If the Faculty of Law could use regular staff to teach these courses, it would not be a violation of academic freedom if they didn’t invite Finnis to lecture post retirement.Report
Thank you for this point, Professor Nielsen. This seems to me an essential point which has been missed in the coverage of this (both here and elsewhere).
I could be wrong, but the following questions seem very different to me: (i) whether the Faculty of Law should choose to invite an emeritus professor to teach classes on a piecemeal basis (ii) whether the Faculty of Law should fire a professor; and it is the former question which is at issue here.
For my part, I would think that believing that homosexuals’ masturbating ruins (other peoples’) Christian marriages would be sufficient evidence of stupidity to be disqualifying in this regard; but that is a decision for the Law Faculty to make, and doesn’t really have anything to do with academic freedom. What does seem clear to me is that the Law Faculty is under no obligation for any reason to re-hire retired professors to teach their courses.Report
No, the Law faculty is under no obligation to allow Professor Finnis to teach, just as they would be under no obligation to renew the contract of, say, a fixed-term lecturer. But it still seems to be a violation of academic freedom to stop asking Professor Finnis to teach *because of his expressed views*, just as it would be a violation of academic freedom to choose not to renew that lecturer’s contract because of her stated views on (say) Israel/Palestine (assuming, in either case, that there was no evidence of those views being inappropriately expressed during teaching).
(As a matter of Oxford statutes, I *suspect* Statute XII applies to Professor Finnis: emeritus Professors probably count as Professors (and so statute XII applies to them), and his emeritus teaching probably counts as one of his “privileges”, especially as it’s probably paid. But I’m not at all sure on that; I’m mostly making a point based on the general concept of academic freedom, not on Oxford’s statutes specifically.)Report
There’s no presumption that a retired staff member who has been asked to teach in the past should be asked to teach again, and so the Faculty of Law wouldn’t need a reason to stop asking. If there is such a general presumption, then I’m sure many retired academics in Oxford would like to know – and also current staff, since it would affect the range of courses they can expect to be allowed to teach.Report
I don’t think that can quite be right. If the incoming chair of the Law faculty board decides to stop asking any and all emeritus women to stop teaching on the grounds that he thinks women are bad teachers, that’s pretty clearly improper even though none of those women have any entitlement to teach. A decision can be made for improper reasons even if that same decision would be permissible for different reasons.Report
Yes, that would be a bad reason. My point was that they do not need a reason not to ask Finnis to teach. That’s different from citing a bad reason.
(If there were a pattern to who does and does not get asked to teach post retirement (they are all conservatives, all men, all gay etc), that *may* be cause for concern. My impression is that there’s no evidence of bias against men in Finnis’ demographic in this regard in the Faculty of Law at Oxford).Report
No, agreed: but if one were to call upon the Law faculty to stop asking Finnis to teach *because of this controversy*, one would be inviting them to act for a improper reason; and if Law were now to stop him from teaching, there would be at least a presumptive case that their reasons were improper. (After all, they don’t *need* a reason, but they’re always going to *have* a reason – they’re not going to make teaching decisions out of pure whim – and one can always consider what it is and whether it’s proper.)Report
You are free to scrutinise hearts and minds. My sense is that Finnis has had lots of opportunities to teach post retirement, and that independently of the petition, he wouldn’t have reason to complain if these opportunities were now passed on to others, for instance permanent postholders (all of this against the background of current retirement policy in Oxford).Report
I agree, he wouldn’t have had reason to complain if he’d been asked to stop teaching prior to this petition; but ironically, now that the petition has circulated and gained publicity, he probably would have reason to complain if he in particular were stopped from teaching in the near future (and reason to make a FOIA request for the relevant committee minutes; we’re not just talking about private reasons, after all).Report
Surely, the Faculty of Law could make this decision on independent grounds. Why would they need to invoke the petition or its arguments? Furthermore, if a permanent postholder were to request to teach the course that Finnis now teaches, it is hard to see the Faculty could decide to assign it to him if the permanent postholder were qualified to teach it and not absolutely needed elsewhere..Report
Maybe we’re at cross purposes. Yes, the Law Faculty could, by pure coincidence, happen to make that decision on independent grounds. But what has that got to do with the current discussion? This thread isn’t about the minutiae of how one Oxford faculty assigns its teaching (thankfully for 99% of DN readers). It’s about the call for Professor Finnis to be removed from teaching on grounds which (I and others are claiming) violate academic freedom. So I took your original post on this thread to be offering a reason why the Law faculty could legitimately *respond to that call* by removing Professor Finnis, not simply offering the observation that (as it happens) Professor Finnis might be asked to stop teaching for other reasons.
Perhaps changing the political valence will clarify my point. Suppose some emeritus member of the faculty is outspoken on the Israel/Palestine debate; suppose that person has long done some piece of teaching for the faculty; and suppose that a major donor to the university has recently condemned that faculty member’s views, called for the university to stop getting them to teach, and refused to make any more donations until that happens. Yes, the faculty could at any time independently have asked that person to stop teaching (say, because they wanted to give the opportunity to someone else, or because teaching feedback was poor). But to stop their teaching *because of the donor’s objections* is a pretty clear academic-freedom violation even so. And if, by coincidence, the faculty had been planning to stop their teaching anyway, they might well be advised to postpone that decision, so as to be *seen* to be defending academic freedom.Report
Those on the left ought to be really worried about the precedent you’re setting if you defend this. I find it really hard to find any consistent rationale for pushing Finnis into retirement that wouldn’t also be a good rationale for say cashiering Peter Singer. In fact, anyone who defends using quality adjusted life years as an approach for deciding how to allocate healthcare is probably vulnerable. After all, if you say that someone who is paralyzed or blind is by virtue of that fact less deserving of medical resources than others you are in some very real sense making a full on comment about the value of disabled people’s lives. And while I certainly don’t agree with Singer and I don’t like the QALY approach if taken to its extreme conclusion, we couldn’t have a sensible debate about allocation of medical resources if no one were allowed to defend those views. Now of course you might respond that Singer’s work is intellectually serious and Finnis’s isn’t, but it’s hard to argue that judgments of quality like that are objective. I’m not saying that they’re just opinion mind you, but I think it’s clear that it’s really hard to have an objective judgment about the merits of each side while the debates are ongoing, especially if we are participants in some way. For a university to function we need rules that don’t necessarily involve value judgments about the value of controversial work or claims when deciding whether to sanction people for that work or those claims. (Personally I’m not terribly impressed by Singer’s brand of utilitarianism or natural law theory but there are good reasons it’s not up to me as an individual).
I’m also terrified of the idea of putting too much weight on how students might feel about what a professor says as opposed to the nuances of what they are actually saying. Not only would sanctioning anything that anyone might take as an attack on their identity just completely shut down debates in any number of areas, but it just really opens up a huge door to abuse by the less principled and lazier students. I’ll give an example only slightly fictionalized from actual experience. Suppose that on an exam question on Rawls’s original position a student just says that as a Christian he believes in free enterprise and that Rawls’s arguments are an attack on his identity. (I once had a student who kept trying that move.) I mean yes that’s a pretty dumb reading of the Christian tradition but how exactly am I supposed to respond to that if mere perceived attacks on identity are enough for students to legitimately complain? And yes I do think there’s a huge difference between this nonsense and a gay student dealing with something like Finnis’s work. But how are you going to codify that difference in any way that doesn’t make judgments about the value of various identities? That’s a really really dangerous road to go down.Report
I’m not sure if the “you” in “if you defend this” is me, but just to be clear, I’m not defending it. In fact, in the original post I express some concerns that overlap with yours: “it is not clear that the institutional arrangements that would have to be in place to prohibit certain professors from teaching required courses on the basis of their expressed views would, on balance, be preferable, given the level of oversight of, interference in, and administrative power over, academic work that they would likely entail.” And as I said in my response to Spencer, “demarcating which of a students’ traits are ones we should be concerned about a professor condemning is no easy task.”
To express concerns and ask questions about gay students having to take courses from professors who argue that homosexuality is evil is not thereby to endorse any institutional action in regard to the professors.Report
Justin, I take your point that it’s not an entirely fair presentation of your view, which is the reason I didn’t use your name. But I do think people are pushing views like that and I am super worried that when they do they establish precedents that can and will be used against us. The “you” was just mildly sloppy writing and I should have probably used “one.” (Don’t tell my students!)Report
John Finnis does not ‘berate’ anyone for being homosexual or an immigrate. These are complete fictions! He is a gentleman and very kind toward all students and faculty. Anyone who has known him can attest to that. In fact, he could certainly be described as soft-spoken, extremely careful in his choice of words, somewhat reserved, never rude or considerate to anyone, either in courses or in private. He has reasoned arguments, especially appropriate in courses on ethics and law, on topics that put him in mere disagreement with others. The suggestion that is is hateful or unkind is complete garbage.
Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S® 6.Report
A soft-spoken bigot is still a bigot.Report
I find the following comment of the author of this article very offensive: “Should a Jewish student have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the Nazis were right in believing that there should be no Jews? ” How can this author equate the genocidal intentions of the Nazis against innocent people with the exercise of moral judgment concerning a kind of behaviour, which is all John Finnis has done? I wonder if the Jewish community of the UK should do an effective protest against this kind of downplaying of their suffering.Report
This is in response to David Wallace above (sorry, the reply button doesn’t seem to work). I am tickled to be accused by David Wallace of peddling Oxford minutiae – I’ll take that as a compliment. My aim was to correct certain false assumptions that seemed to inform the debate about Finnis’ employment. In general, I’m in favour of basing moral judgments about particular cases on facts rather than false assumptions. I further share your reservations about the way the argument is made in the petition, but I also don’t think the Faculty of Law is under any obligation, legal or moral, to keep assigning courses to Finnis. You seem to disagree.Report
‘I am tickled to be accused by David Wallace of peddling Oxford minutiae’
Touche! (Doubly so in a thread where I’ve been quoting the University statutes.)
“I further share your reservations about the way the argument is made in the petition, but I also don’t think the Faculty of Law is under any obligation, legal or moral, to keep assigning courses to Finnis. You seem to disagree.”
I don’t think they are under a legal and moral obligation to keep assigning him courses, but they *are* under an obligation (moral, possibly legal depending on the construal of the statutes) not to stop assigning him courses for improper reasons.
(FWIW that distinction doesn’t come up much in the UK, because *most* people have employment protection that means they can’t be dismissed without established cause. I’m sensitized to it partly by exposure to how job protection (or lack thereof) works in the USA – with rare exceptions (e.g. tenured faculty, some union members) employers don’t have any obligation to keep employing you, and can perfectly well fire you because it’s Tuesday and they feel like firing someone. But there can still be improper and even illegal *reasons* to fire someone, e.g. on race- or sex-discrimination grounds.)Report
Just to briefly and belatedly chip in here as a UCU caseworker of (too) many years standing, *if* the Faculty of Law were now to cancel Prof. Finnis’ teaching and *if* he were a member of UCU and were to seek union support as a result, I am confident we would have a strong case for unfair dismissal. I am also entirely confident that the case would garner national UCU support not least for the worrying precedent such dismissal would set.Report
So should atheists who have published their views on atheism (including, let’s say, the evils of religion or religious belief) be prevented from lecturing students for whom their religion is an important part of their identity?Report
I hit “report” upthread on a comment by Thrasymachus by mistake; meant to hit “reply”. But on second thought have decided not to write a reply.Report
Well, I’m certainly encouraged that Oxford aren’t taking this complaint any further. You can believe that things that people do are wrong – even when they are your students! – and still be a good person, a brilliant academic, and a respectful and edifying teacher. And fortunately, Finnis is all three!Report
I clicked on the “evil” link and searched for “evil” … i don’t see how anyone with university-level reading comprehension would think he’s saying that homosexuality is evil. For example, to say (paraphrasing) that the state makes judgments about the evil of homosexuality means “makes judgments about whether or not homosexuality should be considered an evil.” Someone who read that as “homosexuality is evil” should not be taught by Professor Finnis because they should not be attending Oxford.Report