On Not Letting Sleeping Dogmatists Lie

September 2018

“As everyone knows it’s best to let sleeping dogmatists lie.” - J. L. Austin

“Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.” - Bertrand Russell

Ludwig Wittgenstein was critical of philosophers for generally failing to appreciate the complexity of the world. Although this claim is ironic for those who accuse philosophers of overcomplicating things, the struggle to say something useful is a challenge for academics.

Wittgenstein’s own struggles in this regard are legendary; reading his Philosophical Investigations is among other things an experience of vicarious torment. A complex man who led a fascinating life, Wittgenstein was a moral exemplar of integrity grounded in an almost other-worldly commitment to honest intellectual toil. This opinion stands somewhat in contrast with the popular view of him as an eccentric genius (how insulting is it to label someone a “genius”?). Regardless, his is an example worth remembering in debates about the value and proper functioning of academic freedom.

This past winter, I sat on a panel entitled “Freedom of Expression and Making the Campus a Safe Space: Where Should the Line be Drawn?”, organized by my colleague Frances Widdowson. As for the titular question, my answer echoes the response one typically receives when one asks a scientist about some matter: “It’s complicated.” As those who attended the event or viewed it online can attest, this answer is not the stuff of riveting drama. Nonetheless I would like to take this opportunity to explore it further.

If we start from the rough assumption that universities are justified social institutions insofar as agents operating within them justly advance the welfare of sentient and potentially sentient beings, then we can assess the interests we have both in freedom of expression and in being safe. One obvious challenge is to justly balance these interests when they conflict. And one risky option here is to choose one or the other on the basis of what most people want us to do. To illustrate this, consider a brief anecdote. Approximately three years ago, the administration at my university successfully implemented a new code of conduct that met with support from many of my colleagues but strong resistance from others. I was among those who argued that the proposed code was riddled with flaws, including potentially posing a substantive threat to academic freedom. I believe that we have a duty to protect and promote our rights and responsibilities in this area, and I have tried to so act in a number of ways including via my role as the author of my faculty association’s Code of Ethics, in which I argue that truth, the advancement of knowledge, and the promotion of academic freedom should be fundamental values of a faculty association and a university.

Having publicly criticized the proposed code, I was elected by my faculty council to discuss the matter with our then academic vice president and provost. At the public forum the following week, I mainly took issue with one provision which required that all employees have a responsibility to uphold “the reputation of the University”. This provision fails to distinguish between description and evaluation. Whereas the question of a university’s reputation is an empirical matter determined on the basis of simply collecting people’s views of it, a university’s responsibility demands that agents within it should act by meeting just evaluative standards. For example, when the dominant public view reflects dangerous ignorance, pernicious nonsense, or wrongfully harmful bigotry, then agents within the university have a responsibility to challenge this despite the possible negative impact on the university’s reputation.

An interesting side note: following the original forum I was invited to give a talk on the same topic at a department colloquium. This talk, “MRU’s Code of Conduct and You: Why Harming the University’s Reputation Should Be a Goal of General Education”, was scheduled just after the new code had been implemented and so appeared to be both a deliberate violation of it and a call to colleagues to likewise so act, which in fact it was. I was informed afterwards that two somber individuals taking extensive notes throughout were university lawyers but fortunately nothing came of this as the seriously flawed code was eventually abandoned.

This distinction between description and evaluation can be usefully applied to the question of how we should balance our interests in freedom of expression and campus safety. At issue here is not whether someone was offended or even harmed by someone else’s expressive acts but whether the offense or harm was wrongful. What constitutes wrongful offense or harm? This is another issue too complex to settle here, but we can appeal to a reasonable-person standard for some guidance. One (obvious) dimension of this standard concerns matters of reason: a reasonable person’s assessment of wrongful offense or harm should be grounded in sound reasoning. Since the principles of sound reasoning are for practical purposes based on publicly accessible and objective standards, there is little room for serious controversy here.

It is worth pausing over this last qualifier. To forestall objections, I should explain that my interest in the question under discussion is with some of the deeper issues it raises and not so much with defending freedom of expression, as well as academic freedom, against obviously poor criticisms. One initially promising objection holds that debates about freedom of expression and academic freedom can be settled by following a simple principle: accept and advocate truthful claims and reject false ones. Call this the Simple Principle (SP). If we adhere to the SP, and are guided by sound principles of reasoning, then one might think that we can ground the right to freedom of expression and academic freedom in the value of the truth. Considering how our knowledge of facts and the truth can advance our well-being, we could justify freedom of expression and academic freedom on the basis of its instrumental value in promoting our welfare. What could be wrong with this?

By considering some reasons for thinking that this approach to academic freedom is not just simple but simplistic, we can perhaps deepen our understanding of some of Mill’s arguments in On Liberty in support of our fundamental freedoms. Here are just three points to consider:

1. Our interests in our fundamental freedoms extend beyond matters believed to be grounded in facts. The notion that we can simply be guided by accepting only true claims understates the extent to which we operate on the basis of faith. Whereas many think that faith-based belief systems are the exclusive common feature of religious world views their scope is much greater than this. I believe as a matter of faith that we have free will but there is no possible evidence that can disconfirm this belief and thus I cannot claim on the basis of any convincing evidence that it is true. Yet a belief in free will arguably grounds a number of our fundamental commitments including to the notions of agency, responsibility, ethics, and the possibility of living a meaningful life. In order to examine and explore these areas we must exercise a number of fundamental freedoms, including academic freedom. For instance, a belief in free will provides the subject areas that fall with the domain of the humanities with their guiding focus. For those who prefer a supposedly more “scientific” perspective, things are no better since a belief in science, at least as this is commonly conceived, is also faith based.

2. “If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” – J.S. Mill

Those who would have us ground our fundamental freedoms in something like the SP might want to reflect on the wonderful irony in this passage from Mill. For as he argued, we should cultivate a healthy skepticism toward the claims that we believe are true, along with the claims most people believe are true. And in order to do this we need to exercise our rights to freedom of expression and academic freedom. There are many examples from the past in which people rejected opposing views on the grounds that they were obviously false or wrong-headed where these convictions were themselves mistaken. Such cases persist in our own day.

For example, many of the views that people widely accept pertaining to human animality and sexuality are plagued by error and subject to group think. It is illegal in Canada to masturbate in public and it seems that such conduct is still widely perceived as offensive and even harmful. The question though is: why think that such conduct is wrongfully offensive or wrongfully harmful? Although we can conceive of cases in which someone masturbating in public might reasonably put someone else in the apprehension of harm, why think that all cases must be like this? It seems that the reason many are opposed to this practice is that they regard it as indecent and disgusting, and since those who share these views are in the majority, the law opposing a restricted freedom to masturbate in public remains in full force with wide acceptance. But how is this opposition unlike the case in which the bigot deems disgusting and indecent the sight of two men holding hands or kissing in public? Although the bigot may indeed be offended, what we should say is that the bigot needs to get over this and not that the men should change their behaviour. Furthermore, if we cannot identify a relevant difference between the two cases (and I don’t believe there is one but I invite you to try to prove me wrong), then it seems that in the interests of justice we should change our attitude toward this widespread and supposedly simple “truth”, not to mention our laws.

3. A related set of cases brings us back to our brief examination of the reasonable person standard. In addition to employing principles of sound reasoning, a reasonable person also has good sense and cares about values that should matter to us. A reasonable person should be a moral person. One important dimension to this is the feeling that we should care about all sentient and potentially sentient beings. This affective dimension to being a reasonable person has a number of implications. It underlies the conviction that discriminating against someone for an arbitrary reason is wrong and this in turn helps ground the view that the recognition of equality rights constitutes moral progress over systems in which one or more groups of morally considerable individuals are denied various basic goods for irrelevant reasons. However, despite this there is also real indeterminacy in this position, which leaves us at a loss how to proceed on the basis of the simple “truth”.

Within the academic study of ethics, although reasonable people agree that we should care about sentient and potentially sentient beings, there is a longstanding controversy over how much we should care. Again simplifying somewhat, some have argued that we should care equally about everyone whereas others argue that we are justified in differentially caring for others. For example, a defender of the latter view might agree that brutality is wrong and that in fulfilling a public role one should act fairly and impartially, but they might also claim that one is ethically justified in favoring one’s loved ones differentially over strangers in one’s private life. Again simplifying somewhat, one problem here is that there is no basis for ultimately justifying one perspective over the other. You might appeal to my sense of compassion to elicit greater concern for someone or some group of people, but if I persist in differentially favoring my loved ones over them there is no basis for showing that I am wrong. You might think me morally deficient (as I might think the same of you for some different reasons), obtuse, or wicked, but on what basis can you justify your belief? What is the simple truth that we should all simply accept with respect to this matter? Arguably there is none.

Where reasonable people disagree about what having good sense entails, we might try to bridge the gaps between us but we might also ultimately simply and respectfully agree to disagree. Just as it is wise to adopt a skeptical and critical attitude toward one’s own convictions, it is likewise wise to adopt the same attitude with respect to the strength with which one holds one’s convictions. Contrasted with this sort of perspective, at least with respect to moral matters, are the self-righteous. These individuals threaten such fundamental freedoms as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and academic freedom with their dogmatic insistence that they and others who share their views have taken the one moral and true path and that those who do not follow are deficient and even dangerous. In its extreme form this leads to claims that those with opposing views should not be heard and should not be free to inquire into their alternative beliefs.

This returns us to Austin’s witticism regarding letting sleeping dogmatists lie. As amusing as this is, it is not a serious piece of advice for those who are concerned about justice. Whereas those who maintain a healthy skepticism toward their own convictions recognize other people’s rights to hold different beliefs, the self-righteous insist that all should follow them. It is this latter insistence that threatens freedom of thought and expression that many find so concerning, reminiscent as it is of having failed to learn arguably the most important lesson of 20th century social “science” - the dangers of group-think. The antidote to this danger is education, and especially an education in the liberal arts, supported by a robust set of fundamental freedoms, including academic freedom.