This post is going to be about an article by Robert P. George, but it isn't about the subject that probably first springs to your mind (in July of 2015) when you hear that name.
The post in question by George is here, and I'm going to take issue with it. I respect Prof. George for all of his own courageous positions on a variety of crucial social issues, with which of course I agree. I admire him and wish him well. But in this article, I think he is wrong.
George disagrees with those who have argued that Peter Singer should be stigmatized and even fired for his heinous moral views--just for example, his recent statement that one should rescue a large herd of pigs from a fire rather than a single human baby. All of Singer's heinous views flow quite naturally from his utilitarian philosophy. He is nothing if not consistent, as G.K. Chesterton once said about a madman.
Prof. George argues for academic freedom above all differences of opinion on these matters:
My views on ethical matters could scarcely be more distant from Professor Singer’s....And yet, I must break ranks with many of my friends and allies in the movement to defend the dignity and basic rights of the unborn, the newly born, those with physical and cognitive disabilities, the frail elderly, and other vulnerable persons by standing up for Singer’s right to hold and express his opinions. Freedom of thought and expression and academic freedom are for everyone — not just those whose views others find congenial.
Here is my fundamental point: The right to academic freedom is held equally by all who are prepared to do business in the currency of academic discourse: a currency consisting of reasons and arguments. Singer does business in precisely that currency. He is not a demagogue, a shouter, a hater. He does not deploy abusive language or techniques of manipulation. He sets forth his positions with clarity and defends them with rational arguments.
Arguments are to be dealt with by meeting them, not by shutting down (or threatening, or intimidating, or even stigmatizing) the people who are making them. And meeting them requires thinking about them, even entertaining them in a serious way, however much we are scandalized by the positions for which they are adduced.
It is for the sake of the common good of the university as a knowledge-seeking institution that we must honor — fully and not merely formally — the academic freedom of all who are willing to do business in the currency of academic discourse. This is what I claim for myself and for those (scarcely a majority!) who share my moral, political, and religious convictions; and this is what I claim for Singer and everyone else who contributes reasons and arguments to campus and classroom discussions.
To my friends in the movement to defend persons with disabilities and other vulnerable members of the human family, I say this:
Please know that I understand your sense of outrage and insult. Please know, too, that my argument in defense of Singer is in no way a purely pragmatic one — defending him, lest those who are deeply offended by pro-life or pro-marriage reality convictions be fortified in their efforts to shut down my own freedom of speech. Freedom of thought and expression and academic freedom are genuine rights. They are not just conventions that we’ve agreed to respect as a kind of mutual nonaggression pact. There is a profound and important principle here, one that we must honor no matter the offense we take, or even hurt we may feel, at someone’s ideas or their public advocacy.
For Princeton to take action against a faculty member for the content of the views he holds or for the arguments he makes would be wrong — a violation of his rights and an undermining of the institution’s mission. No one who values that mission should demand that he be fired or resign. Indeed, even protesting a scholar’s presence on campus is, in my view, improper. Pressuring someone or trying to stigmatize him is not answering his arguments — and to the extent of its success, it detracts from, rather than supports, the cause of learning.
In saying that I disagree with this, I do not mean to say that there is no truth in the neighborhood of Prof. George's position. In fact, such a defense of the notion of the marketplace of ideas and open debate is rather refreshing in the current milieu of political correctness and snarling hatred from the left.
The problem is that George's statements are overstatements. And if they were sufficiently qualified, it would be difficult for him to maintain that Singer falls on the "inside" rather than the "outside" of such qualifications.
Again, I would not disagree so much if Prof. George made a purely pragmatic argument that, once someone has been given tenure, we should be extremely hesitant to try to pressure him to leave solely on the grounds of the content of his ideas. I actually do value academic freedom. I just don't think it (anymore than freedom of speech) is or can be an absolute, and I certainly don't think that a university is obligated to subsidize the teaching of any and all opinions to the young. It would also presumably be possible, without breaking Prof. Singer's tenure, either to take him entirely out of a teaching position and pay him his salary to go away and leave the minds of the young alone, or, alternatively, to assign him to teach large, boring, introductory classes under strict supervision with a pre-set curriculum until he decides to go away and peddle his heinous theories elsewhere.
I do not suggest these remedies lightly, and the fact that I suggest them at all shows that I actually do have an idea of what tenure is and of its legal obligations and the limitations of what can be done to a tenured professor.
But this isn't just about tenure, is it? Prof. George does not simply say, "For Princeton to rescind the tenure of a professor for the content of the views he holds would be unwise" or even "would be wrong."
He goes much farther than that. He says, without qualification, that arguments are not to be dealt with even by stigmatizing those who hold a particular view. He says,
The right to academic freedom is held equally by all who are prepared to do business in the currency of academic discourse: a currency consisting of reasons and arguments. Singer does business in precisely that currency. He is not a demagogue, a shouter, a hater. He does not deploy abusive language or techniques of manipulation.
He even says, and surely knows exactly what he is saying, that we must "seriously entertain" views, including Singer's, that are presented with arguments, no matter what their content.
These are incredibly sweeping claims. It places any idea whatsoever, at least in theory, "within the pale" philosophically and claims for the promulgator of that idea the mantle of academic freedom, indeed, of equal academic freedom with all others who "deal in the currency" of non-abusive language or techniques, of arguments and reasons.
By this argument, presumably, it would be wrong even to discriminate against a job candidate for the heinousness of his views, so long as he does not use abusive language and so long as he couches his presentation in terms of reasons and arguments. A young scholar applying for a position teaching ethics who is pro-infanticide should, on such a view, have no less chance of getting a job, all else being equal, than one who is anti-infanticide, if both deal in this currency.
Consider, then, a thought experiment.
Professor Shminger holds that it is morally acceptable for members of a racial group with a mean IQ of 100 or higher to enslave and even farm for food the members of any human racial group with a mean IQ of 85 or lower, provided that those enslaved and farmed are treated humanely.
He does not use abusive language or demagoguery. He presents his position clearly and offers lengthy, calm arguments for it. Indeed, he has a well-developed utilitarian philosophy, and he fits his race-farming views tightly into this overall utilitarianism.
Prof. Shminger is highly intelligent and has a degree from an Ivy League university. He has a lengthy and prestigious publication record, and his views are gaining wider acceptance in his discipline with every year that passes.
Your department (at a non-religious university) is hiring in Shminger's field and even in his specialty of ethics. Prof. Shminger applies.
Is it wrong for you to discriminate against Shminger on the basis of the content of his views?
What about if you are organizing a conference? Should you accept papers coming from a Shmingerian perspective and hold sessions in which such views are treated as serious candidates for acceptance and their advocates are invited to present? (Remember that conference presentations go on a curriculum vitae and will aid the careers of such presenters.)
What if you are a journal editor? Should you accept papers presenting the Shmingerian views? (Even more valuable for the careers of such philosophers, as well as for making their views more widely accepted and mainstream.)
Given Prof. George's extremely sweeping comments on the subject of not stigmatizing any view whatsoever, it would seem that in all of these cases, those in a position to give a platform are obligated to share that platform with Shminger and his followers and give their views space in the marketplace of ideas.
Note that I am not talking about arresting them. I'm not even talking about anything so "extreme" as revoking Shminger's tenure if he obtains it prior to coming out with this evil dreck disguised as philosophy. I'm talking about not hiring him in the first place, even if he's popular and his views are popular. I'm talking about not publishing his papers advocating these views, not inviting him to conferences to promulgate them. I'm talking about, yes, stigmatizing him. And, yes, I'd be happy to pressure him to leave a tenured position using some of the methods I mentioned above. I'm talking about treating his views as beyond the pale.
Now, I know full well that I will immediately and instantaneously be told that this is exactly what the left wants to do to people like me and to Prof. George. Yes, of course I know that. Prof. George knows it too. That's why he carefully assures his reader that he is not merely making his statements pragmatically but that he really believes that Singer the infanticidal should not be stigmatized. Because he makes arguments and because everybody who makes arguments and "deals in the currency" of the academy really does deserve equal academic freedom.
I give Prof. George the respect to take him at his word and consider him to be sincere, not merely pragmatic.
But, it might be asked, shouldn't I be more pragmatic? Is this a time to be praising stigma when I know full well that those I support are the ones against which stigma will in fact be used? Wouldn't it be more politic to adopt Prof. George's approach of defending absolute academic freedom, if only for pragmatic reasons?
A few answers to that: First, if some school claims to support academic freedom as a value without regard to ideological content and then starts hounding a professor for being a Christian, for opposing the homosexual agenda, for not being a feminist, or any other view that I support, then I'm perfectly happy to see them sued on procedural grounds and made to eat their words. If they're going to put in black and white that they are a Millian marketplace of ideas, then by golly, I have not the slightest objection to trying to make them apply that standard to views that I consider well within the pale of polite discourse (in fact, views I consider to be true). Why not? If that's their alleged commitment, then by all means, let's make them abide by it when it comes to the truth, at least. Otherwise we get the worst of both worlds--evil must be tolerated but good may be ostracized. To demand that truth-tellers be given the academic freedom that is promised to them is, literally, mere legal strategy and does not require anyone actually to endorse an absolute principle of academic license such as Prof. George has articulated.
So by no means would I tell, e.g., John McAdams, currently embattled at Marquette U., to leave legal stones unturned if Marquette tries to revoke his tenure while claiming the mantle of total academic freedom in its official documents.
But I refuse to endorse statements that I think are false. Attached to any statement about the vast importance of the free exchange of ideas there has always been (I believe) a tacit rider. Something like, "We'll just argue with you politely and won't shun and stigmatize you as long as you aren't endorsing something really insane like cannibalism for profit."
It should be obvious that there really needs to be such a rider and that, in fact, most of us have such a tacit rider. If Prof. Shminger's dossier showed up in the boxes of most philosophers today, they would rightly not take him seriously as a job candidate. Unless, of course, his views had become so popular that they were cowed and felt that they had to jump on the bandwagon. Or unless they had themselves been taken in and no longer considered Shminger's views to be as insane and heinous (whatever specious "arguments" he might bring in defense of them) as they really are.
But that would be a problem, then, wouldn't it?
I have difficulty believing that Prof. George would really say that there are no limits whatsoever, based on content, on his claims of academic freedom equality. Is there no reductio that he would recognize? If not Shminger, what? If we included torture for fun by the "higher humans," would that be over the line? What about pedophilia? What about pedophilia with torture? Does anything whatever get a free pass so long as it is put into the proper processor to crank it out in the "currency" of academic discourse, so long as it can be defended over a glass of wine, with a straight face, in nice clothes? So long as it can be made the conclusion of an argument, however questionable its premises? (Indeed, "Why Should the Baby Live?" was a perfect example of this sort of faux intellectual material.) Fitting heinous ideas into an overall philosophical system is no problem for anyone with a goodly amount of smarts and imagination. Heinous systems are something humanity is pretty good at cranking out.
That there must be a line should be obvious or else we are, in effect, saying that philosophical sophistry in defense of the vilest depths of human depravity must be treated with respect.
The real problem, I submit, is that philosophers, even otherwise good philosophers, are desensitized to Peter Singer in particular and to infanticide in particular. Nobody inside the guild really wants to admit that his views are heinous and vile, because he is accepted--nay, famous and feted--in the guild, and because (as the editor who published "Why Should the Baby Live" a year or so ago pointed out) infanticide has been ho-hum acceptable inside the guild for several decades now. The guild would be criticizing itself if it admitted that it has incorporated vileness into its very vitals--its journals, its high-paid, coveted, tenured positions.
So really, what it comes to is that nobody wants to admit that Singer's views are beyond the pale. It's not that there isn't a pale.
At least I hope not. There had better be a pale.
I think that what we have here is a dilemma for Prof. George. He will fall on one horn if he denies that there are any limits whatsoever to his principles and says that Prof. Shminger should receive "equal academic freedom" with anybody else who deals in the currency of calm and reasoned debate. He will fall on the other horn if he admits that there are limits, that there are such things as views that fall beyond the pale on the basis of their moral heinousness alone, but then admits that he doesn't think Singer's count. Because what then becomes of his earnest plea to his fellow pro-lifers and advocates for the disabled that he understands their sense of outrage? If he doesn't think Singer's views are beyond the pale, then I submit that he doesn't really understand their sense of outrage.
One more question might be asked: Suppose that even something as vile as Prof. Shminger's (or Prof. Singer's) positions has become, most unfortunately, accepted in the halls of power. Must we not fight it by showing its intellectual flaws? But if so, does that not involve debating it and giving it a certain space in which to state its case?
This is really the best question of all for an advocate of stigma, and here is my answer: It is possible to answer evil and heinous positions and their specious arguments without treating them with respect. Consider the difference between this:
"In the following article I will show why Prof. Shminger's vile views are based on poor arguments"
"My respected colleague, Prof. Shminger, deserves academic freedom. We should not stigmatize him but should respectfully debate him. I recommend that my students take his courses so that they can hear his arguments. We will also be having a respectful dialogue on Friday night in room 315."
Really, it couldn't be more stark. And in the former case, needless to say, Shminger doesn't have a named chair at Princeton. It is possible to respond to morally crazy views (if necessary) without treating them as respectable. To some degree, it is impossible to debate a proposition without "giving it oxygen." That is true and must always be taken into account, especially when a proposition is not only nuts (empirically, morally, or both) but is also, fortunately, a minority view. (This is why I wouldn't debate Jesus mythers, for example.) But when it becomes necessary to answer something, there are ways of doing so that involve giving it the least amount of oxygen possible and making sure there can be no mistake about whether one is treating it as a respectable or truly open or difficult question. Otherwise, one can indeed give the impression that, as I'm afraid all too many people think about Peter Singer, the view isn't really all that bad.
The views of academic freedom that Prof. George is advocating have a kind of likable simplicity about them precisely because they are unqualified and overstated, but that is their downfall. Like many slogans, the claim that we must not stigmatize anybody who deals in the coin of academic debate sounds great, and in fact applies in many real-life cases, but it can't stand up to scrutiny when one starts taking it literally.
Peter Singer, I submit, is already in his own person a reductio of such slogans, taken literally. It is therefore rather unfortunate that Prof. George should instead have tried to use him as an examplar of their truth.