It’s Complicated


I’ve been criticized for saying that the issue behind the attempt of some students at Oxford to stop having John Finnis teach required courses* is “morally and practically complicated.” How strong a criticism is this?

The criticism is in the form of an anonymous note posted at Leiter Reports. I usually don’t respond to Professor Leiter’s remarks about me but I thought it would be useful to say a little in response to this.

One of the central tasks of philosophy, in general, is to ask questions that reveal that things are more complicated than they might appear. So I don’t take someone’s pointing out that I’m doing this to be much of a criticism at all.

When it comes to approaching matters of ethics and policy, I think our default mindset should be that they’re complicated. Even after we sort through the myriad empirical and normative considerations that could be relevant to any such matter—itself not always an easy task—we are left with assorted intersecting values and variables to take into account, and we often lack the relevant expertise on some of those items to be entitled to declare the matter simple.

What makes the Finnis matter, in particular, complicated? To help answer this, we can imagine different versions of it that would be relatively uncomplicated.

For example, if there was evidence that Finnis was discriminating against openly gay students in his seminars (to my knowledge there is no such evidence), that would make calls for his dismissal less complicated. People might disagree over whether dismissal was the appropriate solution, but few would disagree that the discriminatory treatment should be stopped.

If, instead of the complaint being about Finnis’ view that homosexual behavior is evil, it was about his view of the appropriate income tax rate, that would also make calls for his dismissal less complicated. That a professor’s view of the appropriate income tax rate differs from those of his students is no basis at all for concerns about them having to take courses with him.

The actual case is different from both of the above alternatives in ways that seem morally important. How do we get clearer on the nature of that difference?

One way is by thinking of other cases that fall between the two less complicated alternatives and see how they compare to the actual one, and so as part of that I offered up in the previous post my examples of Jewish students who have to take a course from someone who has publicly argued that it would be better if there were no Jews, and of African-American students who have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that a return to legalized slavery would be good for the U.S. You are of course welcome to develop other examples you think would be helpful in understanding the matter and the various positions one could take on it.

Let’s assume that the professors in these examples engage in no discriminatory behavior towards their students. Could the students nonetheless have some complaints about being required to take courses with them? Are any of these complaints worth taking seriously? If so, do they speak conclusively in favor of any actions? If so, are any of those actions ones that the university should take? If so, do any of those actions involve changing the employment status or responsibilities of the professor? And do our answers to these questions tell us anything helpful about the actual case?

These are not outrageous questions, by which I mean it isn’t obvious that the answers to most or all of them are “no.” I won’t attempt to answer these questions, but I will take their non-outrageousness to be evidence in favor of my view that the matter is indeed morally and practically complicated.

The vigorous disagreement voiced and difficult questions asked by several of the contributors to the 100+ comment thread on the original post also speak in favor of the matter being more complicated than it might at first seem (see comments from Joel Pust, Spencer Case, and Dale Miller, for example, among others).

For what it’s worth, my own view, which I will not present in any detail here, is that the students probably do have complaints that are worth taking seriously, but that the best way to address them does not involve changing Finnis’ employment status or responsibilities.

In general, the question “Should we X?” can be complicated by factors that we ultimately determine don’t themselves make a difference to whether to X. But we shouldn’t ignore those factors, nor should we think these factors are irrelevant to other questions in the vicinity of the original one that we may come to think are worth asking.

When potentially relevant factors are brought to my attention from people with lives relevantly different from mine, I think the epistemically responsible thing to do is take them seriously. If doing so leads me to conclude that things are more complicated than they might have at first appeared, so be it.

Springbok Editions Puzzle of “Convergence” by Jackson Pollock (detail, w/box)

*Note that it is not clear that Finnis is, in fact, teaching any required courses. If he isn’t, that’s a sufficient reason for the students to withdraw their petition, as people may have signed it only because they believed he was teaching required courses.

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Paul
Paul
2 years ago

Your analogical arguments were flawed. Tyson pointed this out, and you seemed to equivocate without retracting your original comparisons:
http://dailynous.com/2019/01/08/oxford-students-launch-petition-finnis-removed/#comment-168186Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

Tyson’s criticism was uncharitable. Justin’s point was not as Tyson claims, ie., was not that the Finnis situation is *basically the same as* one in which a professor claims “Jews should die” or claims “Black people should be enslaved.” A charitable interpretation is that his point was that there are important similarities between the Finnis issue and the others. The next step is to ask which similarities those are. Justin has clarified in the current post which similarities he had in mind.Report

San
San
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

(This is for Justin, sorry I don’t know how to comment directly the article)

Justin again, is not similar being sexually active homosexual and being african-american or jew because being sexually active homosexual depends on th will or the person, so you can not compare ir. Stop using an argument that is not lagically correct. By the natural law it caan not be defended that an homosexual is evil because if being homosexual but by acting sexually as an homosexual. There’s a huuuuge difference and you keep using a fake argument that doesn’t correspond with the issue here.

Personally the most alarming thing that I see is that they are students of the University of Oxford, home of the Movement of Oxford that included the two most brilliant students os the last centuries, that were, both, catholic priests.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
2 years ago

I continue to be willing to swallow the bitter pill on this one. Again, I’m an ethnic Jew whose recent ancestors fled anti-Semetic persecution in other countries. Would I take a course with a professor who had claimed in print that Jews are responsible for all of the world’s ills, or even (as in this new example) that Jews should die, but who somehow doesn’t give any sign of bias against me in class? Yes, I would. Do I feel it would be right for the department to _compel_ me to take a course with him or her, if the course is required and (s)he’s the only one teaching it? Again, yes.

I’m still not sure why the other answers to these questions wouldn’t lead to far worse results than the ones I gave.

Does that mean that, for me, the issue is legitimately non-complicated?Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

If the issue were one that affects only you, then that issue would be less complicated now that we know how you feel about it. And if we could be certain that all students were like you, then the issue would likely be less complicated. One of the things that complicates the actual issue is that we can be confident that not all students will be like you. So the actual issue is importantly different from the issue (if there were one) that affects only you.

If a student would not be willing to take a course from such a person, the question (of whether it is right for a university to compel students to take the course from this person) becomes more interesting. Then we could ask whether such a student might be justified in their unwillingness to take the course. It seems to me obvious that some student or another who is unwilling might be justified. If we can agree about all of this, then perhaps the discussion should proceed from here. The first step (if we can agree about the above) is to inquire into the possible justifications.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Thanks, Jen. But I didn’t mean my comment to be about my idiosyncracies at all (as a matter of fact, I would find it unpleasant to take a course with someone who thinks that my family and I are responsible for most of the world’s ills just by race, or that we should all be killed!).

What I mean to say is that I think it would be reasonable for the department to compel me to take a course with such a person, whether I feel like it or not. And, similarly, the department would be reasonable in compelling others to, whether they feel like it or not.

Maybe it helps to think of a specific case of this. Suppose I’m in a graduate program that has a logic requirement. Only one person in the department teaches graduate-level logic, and I know that he’s an admirer of Adolf Hitler. Nobody else on the faculty is qualified to teach the course, and for various reasons I can’t go elsewhere to take it. But the person really is an expert in logic, and he’s good at teaching it, and he’s also meticulously impartial in assigning grades. He’s also very helpful to me when I go to office hours. Perhaps we have three options:

1) I have to take the course, even though I really hate the guy for what he’s said about my ethnicity. I have to put all that I know about him aside and just see him as the logic teacher that he is. This requires some self-mastery, and at times I find it difficult.

2) I get a waiver and don’t have to take logic at all. But I graduate with the same degree of all the other students in my program, all of whom had to take logic.

3) The department removes him from teaching and begins an open precedent of requiring its faculty to hold views the department morally approves of, or anticipates that all its graduate students will morally approve of.

It really seems to me that 1) is the best of these options.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
2 years ago

I see. You seem to think that there are only a few options for a university to take in such a situation. If you are thinking of only these few options, I can understand why you think it is reasonable for the university to compel the student. The problem is that there are many other reasonable options that can accommodate a student who is justifiably unwilling to take the class.

First, let’s be clear. There are many more than three options. One that you did not mention, for example, is that you learn logic on your own and then have an examination. This way, you learn logic and get the degree all the other students get. This is a reasonable option, and there are likely other options that are better than this one.

It is also important to point remember that students who graduate from a program are not all of the same quality. So if a person who graduates with the degree doesn’t know logic, it isn’t all that different from lots of other programs where students take a logic course but don’t learn much more than they would’ve learned if they had taught themselves. Keeping this in mind, the option I mentioned in the preceding paragraph is the best of all of the options mentioned (if the person is justified in being unwilling to take a the course).Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Jen
2 years ago

Thanks, Jen. I agree that there are many other options, though I’m not sure about your second one. If the program has a rule that everyone has to take a logic course, then exceptions shouldn’t be made, it seems to me. If it seems fine to have someone go out with a degree from that department without satisfaction of the logic requirement, then it seems there wasn’t a good reason for requiring that.

Your idea of having the student study the material independently and then take an exam makes sense to me. But in that case, I don’t see the basis for introducing a petition to prevent the instructor from teaching the course.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
2 years ago

Begging your pardon Justin, but I

What makes the Finnis matter, in particular, complicated? To help answer this, we can imagine different versions of it that would be relatively uncomplicated.

For example, if there was evidence that Finnis was discriminating against openly gay students in his seminars (to my knowledge there is no such evidence), that would make calls for his dismissal less complicated. People might disagree over whether dismissal was the appropriate solution, but few would disagree that the discriminatory treatment should be stopped.

If, instead of the complaint being about Finnis’ view that homosexual behavior is evil, it was about his view of the appropriate income tax rate, that would also make calls for his dismissal less complicated. That a professor’s view of the appropriate income tax rate differs from those of his students is no basis at all for concerns about them having to take courses with him.

The actual case is different from both of the above alternatives in ways that seem morally important. How do we get clearer on the nature of that difference?

Begging your pardon Justin, but here’s another way the case might look uncomplicated to some people. There was no evidence that Finnis was “discriminating against openly gay students” and Finnis wrote what he did. To the extent that I have a view about the matter, I think I lean in that direction at this point.

As to the question of whether there’s a more general principle to investigate, concerning whether students should be able to opt out of taking Finnis’ courses, one need not deny merit to that investigation to think that the raising of it in this way, at this time, is a bit off balance.

Consider the following change to the “it’s complicated” defense. Suppose students had put together a petition and called for Peter Singer to be run out of a job, or allow students to avoid his classes, with no evidence that he discriminated against, e.g., anyone from the differently-abled student body population. Suppose he’s also the only ethicist at the university at which he’s employed, which means that student’s would otherwise be required to take his courses and, as a result of his inability to fulfill his role for the university, he loses his job anyway.

Or suppose another philosopher was put under similar durress after having argued that the world would be a better place without theists. Does the community that frequents this blog really think that the bare concern warrants responding to this petition in this way? And at what point does the collective agonizing over complication, or the unchecked professional and social condemnation, start to look like an effort to find a reason to censure the philosopher?

To be clear, I’m not denying that an investigation into the ethics of student petitions of this sort merits attention. But I don’t think it should be too hard to see why someone like Leiter’s correspondent (with whom I am non-identical, by the way) might look at that other discussion thread and think that the moral compass of the profession was being tugged around by a lodestone.

And I don’t have a settled view about most of this. But honestly, I’m primarily flagging that fact because I’ve come to expect that a vocal contingent will publicly condemn WrongThink in this vicinity and I don’t want to be on the receiving end of it. Well, I might be willilng to take a little if I thought the principle was sound.

Anyway, I share the view that the discussion on the other thread isn’t reassuring as an emblem of the profession’s ability to talk openly about socially and politically contentious issues today. And that’s because of my impression of the overall character of the contributions from one side of the aisle. Not that I think everyone on that side was part of the problem. Concerning that discussion, however, I’d locate the problem almost entirely in the dialogical shortcomings of one side.

Of course, the profession skews to the left so some tendency in that direction is to be expected. I used to consider myself a progressive, and around friends and family back home I still am in some sense. But there seems to be a coterie (or collection of coteries bearing a political family resemblance relation) whose principles of ‘progressivism’ are riven with tendencies toward illiberal collective political agency. I’m glad to see there appear to be more people who aren’t on board with the full shenanigans.Report

Tired
Tired
2 years ago

Justin, you said elsewhere that what makes the statement that “homosexuality is evil” relevantly similarly to saying “blacks should be enslaved” or “Jews should die” is that they are all “grossly degrading to certain students.” Why not just bit the bullet and say that Peter Singer’s view are (or are a candidate for being) “grossly degrading to certain students” and therefore of possible concern along the lines you present here?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Tired
2 years ago

I definitely think the views of Singer and others on the disabled are quite as offensive as any views professors hold about gay people.Report

Carl
Carl
Reply to  Tired
2 years ago

What of Singer’s views are “grossly degrading to certain students”? If you have enough personhood to sign on to a philosophy course, then surely a lecturer with Singer’s opinions would count you among those beings worthy of moral respect? Not so if you’re a gay student and your lecturer has Finnis’s views (at least that’s the claim, I think). Being degraded isn’t about disagreement or offensiveness, it’s about blanket attributions of moral value and/or quality that literally degrade (as in down-grade) you insofar as they are taken seriously. The worry is that someone in a position of authority over you takes them seriously, and I can see why submitting oneself to such authority (in any capacity) would be extremely problematic for some people, for a number of reasons. The question is how to respond to that.
Again, the issue is more specific than disagreeableness, offensiveness, or discomfort with what is being said. It’s about what is being said about you.Report

Tired
Tired
Reply to  Carl
2 years ago

Carl – Thank you for this thoughtful reply. First, I agree that being degraded isn’t about offensiveness. Second, I see the force of your point that severely disabled can’t be part of the class — but I don’t think that’s the end of the question. Less severely disabled people, who could be members of his class, might object to his instrumental reasoning that led his conclusion, a calculus that they hold degrades them as well. Here’s a possible analogy: Consider a professor who thinks that blacks are on average less smart biologically but that there are some exceptions. A black student in that class could feel degraded nonetheless.

A not severely disabled person has an article which they had a skype conversation with Singer about his views (interesting given this context) but in which he also said: “Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.”
https://aeon.co/ideas/what-i-learned-about-disability-and-infanticide-from-peter-singerReport

Tired
Tired
Reply to  Tired
2 years ago

Also, Carl: Singer makes claims about rationing health care and disability that groups like Not Dead Yet object to. Those are a group of disabled people (or many of them) who could take his classes. So your point may apply on one of Singer’s claims, but not others. Someone with expertise on Singer can fill in the gaps better than I.Report

Carl
Carl
Reply to  Tired
2 years ago

Thanks, my memories of Singer’s views here had somewhat faded so the context here is useful, I’m not equipped to argue about them though so I’ll refrain from doing so any further. I’m still not 100% convinced of the analogy, but I do agree that his vagueness problem is worrying, and see why that might be relevant. Good points; would have to think more about them.
I’ve just posted below a revision in response to Arthur’s comment that might help figure out the extent to which we disagree in the abstract (not much, I suspect), but I won’t repeat it here. It’s probably drifted off-topic from the Singer points though, my apologies.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Carl
2 years ago

I don’t see why it must be said about you personally in order for it to be deeply and profoundly offensive. Eva Kittay’s has severe cognitive limitations, and some philosophers’ views on these issues clearly affect her emotionally. As a parent of a child with autism, I totally empathize with her experience. If you are a good and loving parent, any affront to your child is an affront to you.

That said, of course I think that encountering views like Singer’s is just part of going to a university. Would that we could all respond to offensive ideas in the way Kittay has: with grace, compassion, and intellectual rigor.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

There’s a stupid typo in the above post. It should say “Eva Kittay’s DAUGHTER” in the second sentence.Report

Carl
Carl
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

Point well made. I agree that deep and profound offensiveness can be ‘transmitted’ e.g. the bonds of parenthood. I’d add to that other relations as well: other familial connections, friendships, and just plain human/person solidarity. My comment was brief and (on reading back) a bit under-explained so let me just try again:
The point I was trying to make is that there is an additional ‘degradation’-based reason for protest *above and beyond* offensiveness. I.e. we can concede to the classical liberal that offensiveness is either a) nothing of concern or b) the price to pay for a free society/academe, and still make this additional point about being required to submit to an authority that (immorally, by your lights) degrades you by extension of moral opinion and (by implication) holds you in contempt because of what you are. I have no insight into the facts of the case, but it seems (at least to me) that there’s a distinct point of principle that should be acknowledged, which isn’t easily wrapped up in the ‘crime’ of offensiveness.
Here’s an imperfect analogy (they’re all imperfect). You’re a black man taking a lawsuit to trial, and you’ve learned that the white judge who will oversee it is famous for publicly espousing anti-black racism and publishing arguments that black culture is morally corrupt and inferior, and that so are black people unless they strive to be as culturally ‘white’ as possible. You have no evidence that this will prejudice them against you in this case, in fact you’ve heard that they’re generally fair-minded on the facts, and professional during trial: you have no independent evidence that things to go worse for you because of their views, or that they will say or do something offensive in this regard. All this bracketed away, something still feels wrong here: to get justice you have to submit yourself to the authority of someone who holds you in contempt. Seems reasonable to say that you, as a black person, might have a particular moral reason to object to imposition of this judge as a matter of principle, over and above any offensiveness considerations with regard to their past remarks (that close non-black friends or anti-racists might share).
It might be possible to better cash this out in terms of authenticity or moral reciprocity, but my intuition that what mattered here was a) the subordinate nature of the professional relationship, b) the mismatched presupposition set with regard to the comparative moral standing of the parties, and c) not having free choice about whether to enter into that relationship with that person.
To some extent, that was the sort of moral principle I was reading into the petition and other protests like this, something that even a stanch classical liberal/free speech defender might be able to agree with. Though obviously a lot of people are also protesting on offensiveness grounds, against the hard-nosed classical liberal.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Carl
2 years ago

If Finnis is a Catholic indeed, he certainly shouldn’t think that sinners (such as active gay people) are not worthy of moral respect. So I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think that. And I would bet that he doesn’t think gay people are evil – a true Catholic position would be that they do evil things, just as every sinner in the world.Report

Christy Mag Uidhir
Christy Mag Uidhir
2 years ago

Just an interesting point of reference: a similar situation happened stateside as well. In the 90s, Philosopher Michael Levin ran into trouble with CCNY/CUNY for the unabashedly racist views he had published. When CCNY tried to punish him and effectively bar him from teaching (at the time, CCNY was 17% white), Levin sued and won. Interestingly, part of Levin’s defense seemed to be the fact that his racist views were never brought up during class.

https://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/05/nyregion/cuny-barred-from-punishing-white-professor.htmlReport

melh.
melh.
2 years ago

“This is madness, and it is making a joke of the profession I’ve given my life to.”

I am confused — it is “madness” to suggest that a moral issue is complicated, within the context of a profession that believes that whether or not we exist is a complicated issue? Ironically enough, I would suggest that the interlocutors that have attempted to shut down any further discussion of this issue by labeling it ‘uncomplicated’ are the ones that are doing the real disservice to the profession.

(At very least, this sheds light on some complicated meta-ethical issues, most notably whether there are some moral issues so clear cut that to even suggest that they might not be so clear cut after all is to ‘make a joke’ of the entire profession. If so, what are the N&S conditions an issue must meet to be considered of this class?)Report

KL
KL
2 years ago

It’s cliche to talk about polarisation, but that seems to be the issue. Those who think the profession has become too hostile to free speech (of which I count myself as one) draw conclusions radically different from those who consider the profession too hostile to minorities (of which I also count myself as one)Report

Jared Michaelson
Jared Michaelson
2 years ago

One reason it’s complicated as that there was recently a case in which a professor’s employment status was adversely affected in the way Finnis’s detractors are advocating, and most academics who weighed in – including, I suspect, many Finnis detractors – vehemently opposed the outcome on academic freedom grounds.

I refer here to UI’s revocation of a job offer to Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American academic who tweeted about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Among his more controversial tweets was one euphemistically expressing his wish that all Jewish West Bank settlers be killed, and another stating that he cannot distinguish between the Israeli government and “the Israeli people” (and consequently that his public critiques of the government as blood-lusting child-killers applies to Israelis generally).

Whatever the merits of these views, their expressed hostility toward communities of people – independently of his remarks about policy – might have licensed some apprehension, on the part of students from those communities, about having him as a professor.

Of course Salaita also expressed controversial anti-Israel and anti-Zionist political positions, in less than diplomatic language, and of course firing him for THAT is obviously inappropriate, no matter how much offense it caused. But, just as obviously, I’m not talking about that here. Rather, I’m referring to his OTHER tweets – the ones expressing hostility towards certain tribes or communities of PEOPLE – and asking whether THAT licensed firing, or at least un-hiring, him as UI did.

My own view is that it’s a real question, though I’d probably answer on the side of Salaita; he should NOT have been fired or un-hired, even as those tweets weren’t merely political. But I think they could have been grounds not to hire him in the first place. Same for Finnis? Not sure: one disanalogy is that Finnis may have been talking about gay sex, not gay people; I haven’t checked, but that difference seems important here. Anyway, complicated…Report

AnObserver
AnObserver
Reply to  Jared Michaelson
2 years ago

Suppose I said, “people who go to Evangelical Churches are objectively disordered”. Have I just uttered a claim about Evangelicals, or only about Evangelical-church-goers? Would you expect Evangelicals to care much about that distinction? To treat it as anything more than a fig-leaf?Report

Dale E Miller
Reply to  Jared Michaelson
2 years ago

You might also have mentioned George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel, although no two cases raise exactly the same issues.Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
2 years ago

Finnis’ presence in the classroom is at issue, but not assigning his work (e.g., Natural Law and Natural Rights)?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  J. Bogart
2 years ago

That is indeed interesting, J. Bogart. And on the surface, it doesn’t make sense. I also used to find it perplexing that the remedies for seemingly minute transgressions by the non-‘woke’ have been so severe: even if it’s just a matter of an at-best-borderline comment, or even a matter of purely innocently stumbling over one’s words (as in the case of that meteorologist who just got fired), the remedy many of these agitators push for is almost always the removal of the undesired person from his or her position, either immediately or (when more expedient) through stages. It really is extraordinary to think that anyone would deserve such treatment, right out of the box, when there are so many ways of dealing with the issue, if it is an issue at all. But I now think there’s a perfectly sensible social explanation for the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon you identify.

Much evidence suggests that the percentage of people committed to these more radical agendas, even in a profession like ours, is very small. The fact that that small group has been so successful in shaping the direction of the discipline, the universities, and so many other fields beyond the university is not due to popular support. It’s due to the fact that the most zealous occupy positions of power and influence and to the fact that the great majority are kept silent about their doubts. If these two factors ever slipped out of the control of the small minority who are successfully pushing this agenda, their grasp would be broken.

Campaigns to get rid of the non-zealous achieve both these goals. Most obviously, they serve the goal of silencing the majority by showing us what could happen to us even if we commit tiny or unintentional infractions, like that of the meteorologist who was fired. The threat is not just against our livelihood and reputation, but against all those who depend on us. Only a few people will be bold enough to openly challenge the agenda of the small but powerful minority if the benefits of a single act of defiance seem negligible (which they are: it takes many such acts to get us anywhere) and the cost of a single act can be so devastating.

But the second function of these petitions and campaigns, which it took me at least longer to see, is to ensure that the positions of power and influence are stocked with those few people who can be trusted to zealously further the agenda. If someone who doesn’t belong to the gang is forced to step down, his or her spot will be filled by someone else. And who will that someone else be? That’s where the public outrage is so useful. If the dismissal of the alleged violator of social norms is accompanied by public outrage, the organization will be put on the back foot. Its surest path to recover moral credibility will, apparently, be to issue an apology and commit to doing things better. And what better way to do that than to replace the disgraced person with a zealot approved by the people who pushed the campaign in the first place?

I’m not saying, by the way, that all this is thought through consciously. Perhaps only a few people involved in these outrage campaigns understand their social function, or perhaps nobody does and it’s just a sort of evolutionary adaptation. But seeing things this way makes these otherwise strange social phenomena perfectly intelligible, I think.

For instance, as you suggest, this campaign makes little sense if we take it at face value. The number of gay people who feel deep offense at sitting through required courses taught by Finnis has to be vanishingly small; but the number of gay people who feel deep offense at reading what he has written surely dwarfs that number. So why not campaign against his writing rather than his teaching? I think there are a couple of reasons. The first is, as I suggested above, that a general policy of seeking to remove the non-committed from positions of influence under a scandal (and they often are so removed to let the organization save face whether the petitioners call for it or not) is generally a strategic one. But there’s also the fact that trying to limit acceptable readings still leads to resistance in a way that firing people and destroying their reputations no longer seems to. Skillful public relations therefore suggests that a wiser policy is to first ensure a stronger hold on power and influence by focusing on replacing as many people as possible with those who will unhesitatingly further the agenda, and only then using that power to limit what can be read.

Just speculation, of course!Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  J. Bogart
2 years ago

If Finnis wrote work worth teaching before this petition – and many Philosophy of Law anthologies include his essays as a standard representative of natural law theory – then the petition has changed nothing concerning whether his work should be taught. Reflection on the principles of academic freedom should suffice to resolve most questions raised by this petition, but in case it does not, I would implore my Philosophy colleagues to consider that many of their fellow philosophers work in places where similar complaints more often issue from a very different political perspective, and have been more effective at reaching their targets than this petition will be. Who benefits most from this morning’s media coverage of the petition? Those who wrongly believe that an equal and opposite reaction from a different ideological perspective is well-justified these days. Is that a desirable effect? What was purchased at that cost?Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

When someone who threatens to sue people whenever they say anything that threatens his incredibly fragile ego casts himself as a tireless crusader for free speech and free thought, then I think we ought to just laugh. And I very much sympathize with where Justin and others are coming from. If possible we ought to create environments where students are treated with respect and where they’ll feel comfortable expressing their views and engaging with the view of others. I get the impression that many of the people who bemoan the current climate of academia take it as an imposition that they might be called on to treat others, whether students or colleagues, with some basic modicum of respect, and this lot often does seem to cast flat out cruelty to others as some sort of virtue (they’ll call it rigor I suppose).
However, even though I very much sympathize with where people are coming from here, we really ought to avoid this idea that students are justified in complaining whenever professors say anything that threatens their identity. As a number of other commenters have noted, those on the right can and will use this against those on the left if the precedent is set. Beyond that, where does this stop exactly? What is this claim likely to do to teaching at the college level? What if a history professor tries to explain the rise of Islam in economic and social terms and flat out denies divine inspiration as the reason, would all Muslim students have grounds to complain? Or what if a history prof denied that the Bishop of Rome had all that much clout in the early church, would Catholic students have grounds to complain? Anyone who wants to start down this road really ought to read Diane Ravitch’s “The Language Police.” Ravitch makes an excellent case that the reason high school classes, especially history classes, are so utterly boring is that teachers and administrators are terrified of saying anything that might garner complaints. Is that really what we want in higher education? And these discussions really need to take account of the facts on the ground, especially adjunctification. Adjuncts are already terrified of losing their jobs and have little recourse if they do. How do you think they will react if we establish that threats to identity are justified grounds for complaint? John Finnis and high powered philosophers like him will be fine no matter what, and that isn’t the issue here. The issue is how this plays out elsewhere. Imagine that some youngish philosopher of Finnis’s views and prominence gets canned at Oxford. Well then there are plenty of conservative and conservative-ish Catholic universities that would jump at the chance to hire him. The same can’t be said of an adjunct eking out a living. As is often the case this whole discussion seems to assume that all of academia is like R1s and elite SLACs and that everyone in academia is a tenured prof. That’s just not true.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
2 years ago

I don’t think there’s any real question when it comes to whether Finnis’ teaching status should be affected given that there’s no evidence that he even brings up his views in class, much less harasses his students. Saying that it should and you still believe in academic freedom is a bit like Stalinists saying that people had the freedom of speech, so long as it wasn’t politically dangerous speech.

However, there do seem to be some complicated questions regarding whether students should be able to opt out of courses. For instance, should religious students be able to opt out of classes from outspoken militant atheists? One could try to exclude them by following the common line that it is only relatively immutable physical characteristics such as gender, sex, orientation, and ethnicity that can be the object of oppressive practices. Of course, this would have absurd political consequences. Turns out that there’s no such thing as religious persecution: Christians and atheists in Iran and Pakistan should just convert to Islam. But once you admit that students can be persecuted for their religion the religious students seem to be in the same position as the gay students. But, again, Finnis doesn’t actually have power to do anything to them, and as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence that he pushes his own views in his class.

Maybe the way out is to argue that gay people are oppressed in broader American society while Christians are not (this won’t help you if the students are Muslim). Men aren’t persecuted in society at large. Does that make it okay for a female professor to make repeated disparaging remarks about a male student’s genitals for no reason, e.g. just out of the blue and in a serious tone: “the world would be so much better off if I castrated you. But don’t worry, it’s still illegal… for now”? Maybe that sort of behavior is morally permissible because of the patriarchy, though I don’t think the legal system would smile on it. As a male, if I were in the class with the castration-happy female professor I would transfer asap, as I would have sincere and reasonable doubts concerning whether she would be an impartial grader. At any rate, it seems irrelevant because there’s no evidence that Finnis has done that sort of thing.

The question is whether taking Finnis’ class harms or places undue burdens on the students simply in virtue of his published research. If you’re worried about how Finnis’ work might be used to justify homophobia in society at large you should be arguing that it should be banned or burned and that he should be fired. His work has no bearing upon the students unless it creates a reasonable expectation that they will not be treated fairly in the class. Once again, the case seems to be exactly parallel for Christians and the outspoken militant atheist professor. Personally, if I were a Christian I would definitely try to avoid militant atheist professors, just as I would now avoid taking a religion course from a militant theist. They might turn out to be impartial and charitable if you disagree with them, but why take the chance? Maybe you can try to break the symmetry by arguing that it’s easier for Christians to hide their religion from the professor than it is for gay students to hide their sexuality. This seems prejudiced, assuming that gay men are effeminate and lesbians are masculine, but even setting that aside ‘just hide your religious status’ isn’t much more convincing a justification for ignoring the religious than ‘just convert’. So it seems to me that if the gay students should be able to opt out then so should the religious students.

But then I worry that things are far more complicated than even Justin makes them out to be. If a professor’s research constitutes a valid reason to think that they won’t be impartial and it is this that serves as the justification for opting out of a course then why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply in economics and political science courses? I wouldn’t expect an outspoken Marxist or libertarian to be impartial, either. I guess the response there is that it isn’t an undue burden to pretend to be a Marxist or libertarian in order to ensure that you get a decent grade? I suppose that works, though ‘just suck it up and suck up’ seems like a rather awkward line of reasoning for a university to explicitly endorse. Seems like their preferred answer would be that their professors are impartial and that they would penalize them if they weren’t, thus students’ expectations that they are sectarian because of their research is not a valid reason to opt out of a course.Report