Every few years, it seems, someone new will learn of the work of philosopher Stephen Kershnar (SUNY Fredonia), share their shock, amusement, or outrage about it on social media, and cause a brief spike in amazed, angry, or humorous commentary about it. Then people move on and tend to forget about it… until someone new learns of it and just has to share it. Call it the Kershnar Cycle.
Kershnar Cycles, like hurricanes, come in varying strengths. Typically they’re initiated by a philosopher and their reach does not extend much beyond other philosophers, and so they’re mild. This time, however, it’s more severe, as the cycle appears to have been initiated by a very popular social media account, @LibsofTikTok, which shared a selectively edited video of an interview with Kershnar, titles of some of his articles, and called for him to be fired.
This has led to a storm of stupid and uninformed condemnation that is now raining hate upon our colleague and putting SUNY Fredonia’s administration under a high degree of pressure to act. The president of the university, Stephen Kolison, has now issued a statement saying that “the views expressed by the professor are reprehensible and do not represent the values of SUNY Fredonia in any way, shape, or form.” But it’s not clear that Kolison knows what Kershnar’s views are.
Kershnar has made a career of being a Socratic gadfly, inquiring in a very traditional philosophical way about beliefs many tend to take for granted. He often focuses on beliefs the denial of which would be thought of as outrageous, and raises problems for their justification, or shows how rather unpopular beliefs might be justifiable. You can browse some of his works here.
The fuss this time concerns Kershnar’s writings about the basis of prohibitions regarding sex between adults and children. I have not read his book on the topic, but it appears that Kershnar raises problems for the justification of those prohibitions. He says, “The sex intuitively strikes many people, including myself, as sick, disgusting, and wrong. The problem is that it is not clear whether these judgments are justified and whether they are aesthetic or moral.” Kershnar appears to argue that prohibitions on adult-child sex cannot be justified on the basis of consent (or its absence). As it’s rather common to explain the wrongness of sex between adults and children in terms of the childrens’ lack of or inability to consent, Kershnar is indeed taking aim at a rather popular view. But the upshot of this is not that sex between adults and children is permissible. Rather, Kershnar seems to be saying, prohibitions against adult-child sex are better grounded on the harm such sex involves, or the harms that might be brought about by not prohibiting it. He also appears to withhold judgment on the question of whether all such instances of sexual activity are necessarily harmful.
Of course, regardless of what one may think of his conclusions, Professor Kershnar’s work is professional and protected by academic freedom and freedom of speech. He quite clearly ought not be fired.
Raising questions about sacred beliefs is one of the ways philosophy is especially valuable. That Kershnar has dedicated his career to this value (in ways that may have been personally or professionally costly to him) gives his fellow philosophers a further reason, apart from academic freedom, to defend him, even if they disagree with his conclusions or dislike his mode of argumentation.
UPDATE 1 (2/3/22): Fredonia President Stephen H. Kolison, Jr. this afternoon announced that “effective immediately,” Professor Kershnar “is being assigned to duties that do not include his physical presence on campus and will not have contact with students while the investigation is ongoing.” Professor Kershnar was informed of this via the university’s office of human resources, in a letter that says:
Effective immediately and until further notice, pursuant to Article 19.11(c) of the Agreement between the United University Professions and the State of New York, you are to perform an alternate work assignment from an alternate location. During your alternate assignment, you are directed not to be on college property, or have contact with the campus community, except for the following: Human Resources, Dean Karafa, Provost Starrett, University Police, and your union representative. If you need to interact with other members of the campus community, you must first contact the Director of Human Resources, in writing, with your request and wait for approval to proceed.
UPDATE 2 (2/3/22): For those curious, here is a summary of Kershnar’s views about the topic of the legality and morality of adult-child sex, based on materials he sent me (the material in quotes is directly from his book):
- There are good reasons to think that adult-child sex should be illegal.
- Consequentialist moral theories can provide an explanation for the wrongness of adult-child sex that is harmful, and while “when both participants are willing, the risk of long term harm is unclear,” at least “in some cases (for example, force, genital contact, and father figures) there is risk of significant harm.” “Child rape and incest both… are extremely harmful.”
- On non-consequentialist moral theories, the moral status of adult-child sex is unclear.
UPDATE 3 (2/4/22): The Academic Freedom Alliance, an organization that “will in appropriate circumstances aid in providing legal support to faculty members whose constitutionally, statutorily, contractually, or other legally protected rights to academic freedom have been violated or are under threat,” has written a letter to the administration of SUNY Fredonia in support of Professor Kershnar. An excerpt:
Professor Kershnar’s scholarly research and teaching on these topics is fully protected by principles of academic freedom and his public discussion of his ideas on these issues is protected by principles of freedom of speech. There is, quite simply, nothing for the university to review under these circumstances. The university’s obligation in the face of this controversy is to provide a forum in which ideas, however extreme or misguided they may be or seem to be, can be articulated, criticized, and fairly debated. A member of your faculty under such public scrutiny is likely to be targeted for abuse and threats, and the university’s responsibility is to shelter the faculty member from that harassment and not add to it.
The full letter is here.
UPDATE 4 (2/4/22): The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent a letter to the president of SUNY Fredonia, Stephen Kolison, in defense of Professor Kershnar. Some excerpts:
Kershnar’s statements are protected by the First Amendment, which prohibits SUNY Fredonia from taking adverse action against faculty members for protected speech, however provocative or offensive it may be to others. By banning Kershnar from campus and initiating disciplinary procedures, including an “interrogation” of Kershnar or “review” of his extramural statements, SUNY Fredonia is in violation of the First Amendment…
Some might charge that Kershnar’s views, if adopted, would be dangerous or lead to the erosion of laws criminalizing sexual abuse of minors. For his part, Kershnar’s writing on the subject has argued that sexual conduct with minors should be criminalized. His arguments generally concern why such conduct should be criminalized, with a critical evaluation of whether morality—as distinct from other reasons to prohibit it—is alone sufficient to impose criminal sanctions. Yet even if Kershnar’s critics are correct in their estimation of his argument, Kershnar’s speech would still be protected by the First Amendment…
We urge you to avoid effectuating a heckler’s veto by returning Kershnar to the classroom and publicly committing to protect the First Amendment rights of your faculty.
You can read the whole letter here.
UPDATE 5 (2/4/22): The SUNY Fredonia Faculty Senate will consider a resolution on Monday that “condemns Prof. Kershnar’s statements on sex with children in the strongest possible terms, finding them morally reprehensible and irresponsible.”
Further details here. [(subupdate 2/6/22): The following information was originally noted in a separate post, but I’ve moved it here, edited some of my editorializing about it, and deleted the other post.]
Here’s the text of the resolution:
It is understandable that in light of the viral spread, intitiated by a rightwing troll site, of the selectively edited video excerpts of the Kershnar interview, that some of his colleagues would wish to express their firm opposition to adult-child sex. One hopes that they take a moment to acquaint themselves with Kershnar’s views and understand the nature of his inquiries. One hopes that as professors, they understand and appreciate the importance of academic freedom and how it protects them all, and express support of their colleague’s academic freedom in any resolution they consider. One hopes that as academic researchers, they will refrain from committing themselves to unsubstantiated speculations about the effects of Kershnar’s writings and speech, and nonsensical claims about the implications of Kershnar’s work for people’s legal obligations.
UPDATE 6 (2/4/22): The hosts of Brain in a Vat, the philosophy program whose interview with Kershnar provided the material from which the viral clip of him talking was assembled, have posted a video statement about the episode. An excerpt:
He has published work saying that pedophilia should be illegal, and yet he is at the same time saying that we need to understand precisely why, and some of the common reasons that are given are not convincing enough. So Stephen is pushing us to understand why we hold such strong views on certain things, and that is really at the heart of analytic philosophy as it is applied to applied ethics and our values in our everyday lives.
While YouTube has removed the original interview with Kershnar from its site, you can listen to the whole interview here.
Sub-update 6: YouTube reversed its decision about the podcast and you can view it here.
UPDATE 7 (2/4/22): A letter from faculty at several institutions to SUNY Fredonia President Stephen Kolison, and which is open for others to sign, has been posted by FIRE here. An excerpt:
Although you have described the video podcast as “widely shared,” in fact the podcast in which Professor Kershnar discussed arguments on ethical issues relating to sexual contact with children has not been widely viewed. What has been widely shared is a brief clip from the podcast. Universities should be places where scholars can safely engage in the task of carefully thinking through the logic and implications of arguments about ethical human behavior, and that is what Professor Kershnar and his interlocutors do in this podcast. Society will be impoverished if such inquiries cannot take place and if ideas about morality are suppressed and censored because they are unpopular or offend the sensibilities of the broader public.
The whole letter is here.
UPDATE 8 (2/4/22): In response to some emails, I thought I would share some thoughts on what Kershnar says in the podcast.
For one thing, the summary that Professor Kershnar provided (in update 2, above) of his views (which, based on excerpts of his work he also provided, seem to represent what he has written on the subject) may not function especially well as a summary of what he says in the podcast. What he says in the podcast appears to be that adult-child sexual activity is wrong either when it is against the will of the child or when it involves harm to the child. However, he says, it is not necessarily or always the case that such activity is against the will of the child and it it is not necessarily or always the case that it is harmful. His view, then, is that a blanket claim that adult-child sex is wrong is mistaken. If it turns out that most incidences of adult-child sex are against the will of the children or harmful to the children, then most incidences of adult-child sex would be wrong, but ultimately, according to Kershnar, this depends on at least partially empirical facts about willingness and harm, and these facts may vary across cases and across cultures. Child rape is always wrong, he says. What about the legality of adult-child sex? While in his book he says that the balance of reasons favors “the criminalization of willing adult-child sex,” this view does not come through clearly in the podcast. In the podcast, he says that in cases in which the reasonability of a legal prohibition of some act depends on certain facts, and there is uncertainty about those facts, then the act ought not be legally prohibited. Since Kershnar seems to voice some skepticism about some facts regarding the harmfulness of some instances of adult-child sex, it would not be unreasonable for a listener to think that he is suggesting that not all adult-child sex should be illegal. Is he suggesting that? In the podcast, it just isn’t clear.
The foregoing is a charitable sorting through of various claims made during the podcast, which was a fast-paced discussion taking place against a fair amount of background knowledge about moral philosophy and in a style familiar to philosophers but likely rather strange sounding to others. Additionally, being a live unscripted conversation, not everyone is always saying exactly what they mean, yet being a conversation among philosophers, the discussants often nonetheless hear what is meant rather than what is said, which a listener less familiar with the conversational norms of philosophers might find confusing at times. Further, the podcast itself is rather choppily edited. So, while there has been a ton of “stupid and uninformed condemnation” (quoting myself there) of Kershnar, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that all such condemnation is stupid and uninformed. I ought to have been more careful in how I put that.
While the discussion in the podcast was interesting, it was also, in my view, philosophically unsatisfying. In part this is because it relied on a rather narrow and sociologically and psychologically impoverished account of the kinds of harms worth thinking about, and a very shallow and simplistic understanding of the ways that sex, and our thoughts about sex, might affect how well our lives go, and how they might structure society in ways that affect our well-being. In my view, the problem is not only that Kershnar underestimates the strength of certain reasons why we should think adult-child sex is immoral, some of those reasons he doesn’t consider at all. But I am not going to go into that further here.
I would like to thank Jean Kazez, who emailed me to complain about the accuracy of my description of Kershnar’s views. Her remarks prompted this update to the post. At the end of her message to me, she says, “I’d like to see a more accurate picture of what the guy said and then a defense of his right to say it!” Well, I’ve done the first part of that, and I don’t have much to add to the second beyond what has already been said by me and others about the protections that academic freedom and the First Amendment afford him—even if he thinks that not all adult-child sex is wrong.
That said, one might think Kershnar ought not get fired for his views and writings but still believe there are other relevant issues. For example, in an email to FIRE and the signatories of the letter it sent out this afternooon, Victoria Balfour, a sex abuse victim’s advocate, writes:
Because sexual abuse of children is so prevalent, it is a certainty that in his 23 years of college teaching… Mr. Kershnar has taught both male and female students who were sexually assaulted as children. There is a strong possibilty that some of his current students were sexually assaulted. Can you step into the shoes of these students for one minute to understand the impact of Mr. Kershnar’s remarks on their psyche? Did anyone in your organization take into consideration the fact that in all likelihood Kersnar has taught and is teaching students who were sexually abused? Where is your defense of these students?
UPDATE 9 (2/5/22): Some readers have asked why comments are closed on the posts about Kershnar. The short answer is that the volume and nature of the comments would make moderation of the discussion an extraordinarily onerous task.
UPDATE 10 (2/8/22) [corrected]: A version of the resolution mentioned previously (Update 5) passed in the Fredonia University Senate last night by a vote of 36-4. The Fredonia University Senate Executive Committee also released a statement which included language supporting Professor Kershnar’s academic freedom:
The Fredonia University Senate is committed to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech. These principles are the foundation for scholarly and creative activities, higher education, and democratic governance. Academic freedom also confers responsibilities, including fidelity to evidence, accuracy, and intellectual honesty… The Fredonia University Senate condemns Dr. Kershnar’s statements on adult sex with children, finding them morally reprehensible and irresponsible, even as we recognize his right to make these statements.
The resolution itself also includes a recognition of Professor Kershnar’s academic freedom:
while the Fredonia University Senate supports academic freedom and Prof. Kershnar’s right to research this topic as well as his first amendment rights to speak on this topic, the Fredonia University Senate condemns Prof. Kershnar’s statements on sex with children in the strongest possible terms, finding them morally reprehensible and irresponsible.
The full statement and the resolution are below:
[Note (2/9/22): the content of this update originally referred to and contained an image of a draft of the resolution. The update has now been corrected so that it contains the actual resolution passed and the “Executive Committee Statement,” which was endorsed separately from the resolution. Thanks to Mary Beth Sievens for the correction.]
UPDATE 11 (2/9/22): As of 12:30pm today, there are over 29,000 signatures on a student-created petition at Change.org to “fire Professor Stephen Kershnar from SUNY Fredonia.”