There are ethical implications to much of what we say and do. From human rights to social justice, questions about what’s right or wrong abound in our everyday lives—at home, at work and around the world. Where do we go for guidance or perspective on some of those tricky aspects of how we ought to live?

Because we believe strongly that how we live matters, we are committed to enhancing the relationship between scholars with their academic research and the public with its appetite for accessible information.

How We Live Matters allows scholars to engage the public over things that matter to us all. You have an opportunity to submit thorny, challenging questions about the ethical aspects of daily life by emailing

Periodically, one such question will be selected, and a scholar will, in turn, respond in a short column. We will seek scholars who are not afraid to think imaginatively and who will deliver insightful responses. (One small caveat: It is CCEPA’s role to provide the forum for these sorts of critical examinations, but since we are a non-advocacy organization, the views expressed are not CCEPA’s.)

No question is too big or too small. You can ask your question anonymously or put your name to it. It doesn’t matter. How we live matters.


Q. Is “political correctness” destroying Canadians’ right to free speech?

A. Yes, political correctness is destroying Canadians’ right to free speech, but only insofar as it silences those who suffer harm from the words of others and labels them irrationally sensitive.

In an Angus Reid poll this past summer, 76% of Canadians agreed with the statement “Political correctness has gone too far.” That is a surprisingly high number, and speaks to an increasing sense that people feel they need to watch what they say lest someone take offense. But it is also a rather glib portrayal of a complex ethical and linguistic question, and one I think we should take some time to untangle. Let’s think about the two concepts raised in the question above: political correctness and free speech. As a linguistic anthropologist, I am interested in what we mean when talk about these concepts, rather than their legal definitions. And it isn’t always clear that we really do know what we are talking about when we use them: after all, in that same poll, 78% of Canadians also agreed that we should not express certain opinions in public!

So what is free speech? The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” subject to “reasonable limits prescribed by law.” Essentially, speech is legally protected from criminal prosecution except in certain circumstances. You can oppose a government policy without fear of arrest, but you cannot threaten to kill someone.

We have taken this legal protection and transformed it into a social ideology: the idea that we should be free to speak our minds without hindrance or consequence. This is an entirely separate idea and one not often well thought out. When the American broadcaster Don Imus had his radio show cancelled after making racist comments, many claimed his freedom of speech was violated. But neither the Charter nor the American first amendment protect Imus’ job: a network can cancel a show for almost any reason, not least of which is the host saying something offensive. Freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of speech.

What about political correctness? This is a recent term. Until the 1980s the phrase was often used literally to refer to policies that were correct politically. But in the 1990s the phrase quickly took on a pejorative sense in reference to language that is policed for conformity to a particular, usually radically leftist, agenda.

The Strathy Corpus of Canadian English, a collection of fifty million words from Canadian print sources, records fifty-four instances of “politically correct” and fifty-eight of “political correctness” beginning in 1985. What is interesting in looking over these collected examples is that, first, political correctness is always attributed to others, never to oneself (although many people proudly claim to be “politically incorrect”). Second, political correctness usually lacks a discrete agent—people are wary of the “forces of political correctness” or the politically correct demands of “feminists,” “protesters,” and “activists,” but it is rarely attributed to specific individuals in specific circumstances.

This suggests that political correctness as a concept is less a movement or an agenda than a way to account for the negative consequences of speech after the fact: any criticism of what I said is just due to others being too politically correct.

And speech does have consequences, even if they are unintended. Linguists have long paid attention to the hidden meanings that are embedded in our words. A man asking his female colleague, “While you’re up, can you get me a coffee?” could be understood as both requesting coffee and as implying that a woman’s proper role in the workplace is to fetch coffee.

Jokes are a key area where language can carry secondary meanings. The linguist Jane Hill uses the example of a gag coffee mug featuring the text “I’ll take care of it mañana,” which means “tomorrow” in Spanish. What do we need to know, she asks, to get the joke? Well, we have to be aware of negative stereotypes of Spanish speakers as lazy. And even if we don’t subscribe to such stereotypes personally, they survive and are passed on to others. Hill calls this “covert racist discourse,” because it is not overtly bigoted but works to sustain our prejudices while appearing entirely innocent; it is, after all, just a joke. That kind of dismissive rejoinder silences the people who may suffer real harm.

Political correctness is another form of silencing, not of the person using some bit of offensive speech, but of the person who might be harmed by it. It puts the onus back on the people offended to explain themselves—why are you getting upset?

We should think about our words, and we should think about the effects our words have on others. If someone is offended by them, perhaps it would make sense to at least listen to their reasoning, rather than merely dismiss them as “politically correct.” They might have a point.

There are ethical implications to much of what we say and do. From human rights to social justice, questions about what’s right or wrong abound in our everyday lives—at home, at work and around the world. Where do we go for guidance or perspective on some of those tricky aspects of how we ought to live?

Because we believe strongly that how we live matters, we are committed to enhancing the relationship between scholars with their academic research and the public with its appetite for accessible information.

How We Live Matters allows scholars to engage the public over things that matter to us all. You have an opportunity to submit thorny, challenging questions about the ethical aspects of daily life by emailing

Periodically, one such question will be selected, and a scholar will, in turn, respond in a short column. We will seek scholars who are not afraid to think imaginatively and who will deliver insightful responses. (One small caveat: It is CCEPA’s role to provide the forum for these sorts of critical examinations, but since we are a non-advocacy organization, the views expressed are not CCEPA’s.)

No question is too big or too small. You can ask your question anonymously or put your name to it. It doesn’t matter. How we live matters.


Q.  Is it right that academic freedom protects the teaching, research, and promotion of pseudo-science? Should it do so even at the cost of harm to public health or social justice?

A.  Approved vaccination against childhood diseases is safe and effective, or so the Public Health Agency of Canada tells us. The scientific evidence, the Agency says, is overwhelming. Were Canadian parents to stop having their children vaccinated routinely, rates of morbidity, disability, and death among children would increase dramatically.

Now if it’s true that childhood vaccination saves lives and doesn’t damage children, then anyone who creates opposition to vaccination is putting children at risk of harm. That’s especially the case for anyone speaking from a position of authority.

And yet, now and then, a university professor will raise critical questions about routine vaccination. Three examples in just the past couple years are Melody Torcolacci, an instructor in kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University, Christopher Shaw, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, and Beth Landau-Halpern, a health studies instructor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Each of these professors has at least left the impression that the jury is still out on the question of vaccine safety.

Should professors be free to speak against routine childhood vaccination? Professors who enjoy robust academic freedom certainly are. They are free to draw from research whatever conclusions they wish, to speak those conclusions publicly, to advocate for policy in light of them, and to teach them to their students. They are free to do so even when their conclusions are false.

Nonetheless, since sowing doubt about vaccination puts children at risk of harm, should we consider it best that professors didn’t enjoy robust academic freedom?

The alternative to robust academic freedom isn’t no academic freedom at all, but rather, limited academic freedom. Claims within the boundaries of limited freedom may be taught and publicly promoted, but those beyond it may not. These boundaries are created by the scientific consensus on a matter. Issues the consensus says are alive are within these boundaries, and researchers may say and teach what they want with regard to them. Where science has settled an issue, though, to speak in opposition is to step out of bounds. Professional organizations, deans of science, and university departments of science must be granted the means to enforce these boundaries and sanction those who cross them.

Since, then, the science regarding childhood vaccination is settled, professors who enjoy only limited academic freedom may not question vaccination publicly. The same goes for climate change, intelligent design, racialist views of intelligence or ability, and many others. Universities have no responsibility to protect those who would disseminate views that science says are false. On the contrary—especially when the false views are also pernicious.

How realistic is this limited academic freedom in practice, though? Establishing boundaries and policing them will consume time and energy, and the authoritarianism implied by the idea of these limits will drive many of the best scientists out of the university and demoralize those who remain. But it could be done. Taking a page from the book of apartheid-era South African censorship, science authorities could not only ban unacceptable discussion, but also the discussion of proceedings against those alleged to have wandered out of bounds.

Robust academic freedom might not result in the kind of authoritarian heavy-handedness of limited academic freedom, but the charge that robust freedom puts children’s lives at risk still needs to be answered. Can robust academic freedom say anything in its defence?

Robust academic freedom is necessary if a university is to be a place of intellectual community. Intellectual community is why even those professors whose views are false and pernicious deserve protection.

Members of an intellectual community prize believing truly and valuing soundly, but they prize even more believing and valuing according to their own reasons. The reasons you have for believing that vaccines are safe are not your own reasons if you hold them only out of fear that you could be dismissed from the community for asking critical questions. They are not your own if you hold them in order to be favoured by your peers. Restrictions on what conclusions you may draw, teach, or speak—indeed, even the construction of limits to respectable opinion—detract from your ability to use evidence and argument to make up your mind for yourself.

When a teacher at an institution that fosters intellectual community instructs her students, she does not instruct them on what is true and false, or good and bad. That would be to engage in indoctrination, not teaching. Her task, rather, is to help her students to become intellectually competent and autonomous agents—people able to think, and to think well, for themselves. Whether she teaches views that are false is of no matter; whether she imparts to her charges the skills of critical engagement with the subject is all that matters.

Our wider Canadian society has an interest in universities being places of intellectual community and, thus, in their being places marked by robust academic freedom. A culture in which intellectual autonomy predominates and is valued will be a wiser and more prosperous culture than one in which authorities set limits to discussion and criticism. Robust academic freedom isn’t merely for the benefit of professors, but also for their students and for all of us.

That is why, in the end, even though the academic freedom professors have to criticize childhood vaccination can put children at risk of harm, professors should nonetheless enjoy robust academic freedom. Moreover, whatever that risk currently is, robust academic freedom can work to lower it. One of the great missions of the university is to help people to blossom as autonomous thinkers. If professors succeed in this mission, Canadians will be less likely to follow those who speak falsely.

On what grounds should academic decisions be made? I mean decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion, as well as decisions about curricula and standards, about styles of teaching, about admitting students to university?

On academic grounds alone is one answer, the answer I favour. Another answer is on grounds also of diversity, equity, or inclusiveness.

So why not when making academic decisions try to increase diversity in the classroom and in the curriculum or try to bring more women and more people of colour into the professoriate? Because when we turn away from academic criteria, we’re less likely to make the right academic decisions, and when we make the wrong academic decisions, we make it harder to serve our academic mission.

But doesn’t having more women or people of colour around as students and professors make for a better university, academically speaking? Isn’t a commitment to represent, in the content of our courses and our research, the experiences of many different people an academically sound commitment?

Our concern as academics is with developing an understanding of the ways of the world, or that aspect of them that is our focus. In that purely academic concern is already a desire for comprehensiveness, for including in our thought all that we need to understand the ways of the world is essential to our academic mission. A concern for comprehensiveness might lead us to bring the experiences of women and people from historically marginalized groups into our work and thinking, but it will do so simply because we are attempting to understand things.

On the other hand, should we change or expand our focus out of an interest in diversity or inclusiveness, we might find ourselves compromising the quality of our research and teaching, for we would be answering to social or political interests rather than academic ones.

Demands for diversity, equity, and inclusiveness almost always take the form of demands for policies and regulations, and policies and regulations come with the threat of oversight and enforcement. At Saint Mary’s, the university where I teach, Section 10.4 of the Collective Agreement, our positive action clause, requires departments to make reports to deans, and gives deans a measure of oversight and control regarding what should, from an academic perspective, be department business. I doubt Saint Mary’s is alone in allowing administrators to intervene in academic business to promote non-academic goals.

Hiring, curricula, and the rest, though, must be left to departments and their individual members, if the professors are to be able to exercise their judgement with regards to their academic goals and needs.

Perhaps a case can be made that by paying attention to diversity or inclusiveness, our universities would improve academically. One argument is that students from historically marginalized groups feel more at home in university and are inspired to do well when their professors are also from historically marginalized groups. Another argument is that many or most of us already in the academy hold preferences regarding teaching styles or subject matters that make it difficult for us to appreciate the research and teaching accomplishments of minority and women academics. A third is that unconscious bias still plays a factor in the hiring process, as shown in a research study from Yale University published in 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

These arguments might well be sound. If they are, they teach us important facts about our students and about the range of academic endeavour, facts of which we should be mindful when we exercise our professional judgement. Those who think these arguments are sound must certainly be encouraged to try to educate their colleagues through discussions and criticism. They can explain the value of non-traditional subjects, approaches, and styles, and the importance to a diverse student body of a diverse professoriate. They can make us aware of biases so that we might rid ourselves of them (my preference is to hire from dossiers in which names and sex-identifying pronouns have been redacted). Professors who have learned from these arguments would do a better job when making decisions about hiring or curricula, for they will possess a greater awareness of academically relevant factors.

They would do a better job, though, not because they are thinking about diversity or inclusiveness, but because they are considering particular curricular suggestions or job candidates in light of a greater number of academically salient factors. Members of a department who expand their courses to include East-Asian history, say, or continental feminist philosophy, wouldn’t be doing so for the sake of inclusion or respect, but because they believe that they and their students will benefit as scholars.

Decisions made on academic grounds serve the ends of teaching, research, and intellectual community. Since these are the only ends we, as academics, should be committed to serving, we should not bring concerns about diversity, equity, or inclusiveness into our academic decisions. We should certainly not invite our administrators to bind us to the pursuit of non-academic ends.

Mark Mercer, Saint Mary’s University,

Originally published in University Affairs, 20 April 2015,

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Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

He wanted to prove a point about double standards. Jerry Reddick, also known as the Dawgfather (he operates a hot-dog van), wanted to show that hate-filled nonsense about Muslims gets a pass while such nonsense about Jews doesn’t. And so he tweeted a set of anti-Semitic calumnies.

A day later, around 15 January of this year, the police showed up at Mr Reddick’s Halifax home. Someone had filed a complaint of hate speech against Mr Reddick. The police investigated and, last week, said that the tweets “do not constitute a hate-related offence and the investigation into this matter has been concluded” (“Dawgfather won’t be charged for anti-Semitic tweets,” Halifax Chronicle Herald, 30 March).

Mr Reddick supports the law under which he was investigated for a crime. He just thinks that the law should be applied uniformly. If questioning or mocking the Holocaust constitutes criminal hate speech, then so, too, he said in a recent interview, should displaying a cartoon portraying the prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

I would have hoped his experience had led Mr Reddick to change his mind about the law to which he fell victim. The problem with laws against the expression of hate is not their uneven application, if, in fact, they are applied unevenly. The problem, rather, is that such laws affront our dignity and deform public discussion.

Mr Reddick’s experience should signal to all of us the dangers of allowing the state to regulate, let alone criminalize, the peaceful expression of opinion or emotion.

The best argument against hate-speech laws is that such laws prevent us from expressing ourselves as we wish. They run counter, that is, to the value of moral autonomy, to our desire to be the sort of person who has her own views for her own reasons and is happy to let the world know what’s on her mind.

This argument doesn’t impress many people as conclusive, though, for they note that what we say can affect the well-being of others. Our freedom, they say, must be balanced against people’s interest in not being targets of bigotry or discrimination.

So the matter, then, is to find the balance. Do laws against the expression of hate create more good than harm? Pretty clearly, I think, the evidence is that they create more harm than good, much more harm than good.

First of all, notice how tone deaf the police were in the Reddick case. Mr Reddick wasn’t expressing anti-Semitism. He was using anti-Semitic tropes to draw attention to what he believes is a double standard.

Should we expect the police to be alert to quotation and irony? How would a demand for such alertness get written into laws and procedures? And, if it were to be written in, wouldn’t actual hate mongers simply make air quotes before speaking?

If Mr Reddick can be investigated for quoting anti-Semitic nonsense to make a point, what about a teacher in a classroom? A caller to a radio show? Any serious discussion is now at risk of attracting a complaint and the police.

One might respond that the investigation of Mr Reddick has ended without charges, indicating that the system worked as it should, with the innocent vindicated. Is that true? Mr Reddick, note, is still, according to what the police said, an anti-Semite. His tweets were “distasteful, shocking, and offensive,” the police tell us. They just don’t rise to the level of criminality. The investigation over, Mr Reddick continues to find himself falsely marked an anti-Semite.

And, of course, for two months Mr Reddick lived daily under the threat of being charged and prosecuted.

Now think of the effect Mr Reddick’s having been investigated will have on candour in public discussion. Who will want to say what is on their mind if they fear their speech might be interpreted, even willfully misinterpreted, as hate-filled?

Think of the effect it will have on those who want to control what people say. They now have a terrific tool at their disposal—threats of complaining to the police. Those who complained about Mr Reddick should, of course, have tried to engage in discussion with him, perhaps to enlighten him, if he actually was anti-Semitic. At least they should have answered him. Much easier, and effective, though, to summon the police.

Suppose that Mr Reddick really did speak hatefully. What good would have come from prosecuting and convicting him? How would such an ending have promoted good will among people?

Canada is no better a place in which to live as a result of our many hate-speech prosecutions and convictions than it would have been otherwise. That actual hate-speakers have been fined and jailed in this country has not improved the condition of marginalized Canadians one iota.

Canada should be free of laws against the expression of hate just because these laws are inconsistent with the value of moral autonomy. But if that is not enough, look at what these laws do. They put serious discussion of important matters at risk. They encourage people to hide their meaning. They are enemies of candour and openness. They are used by people to shut people up. And they do all that without bringing any benefit to the people they are intended to protect.

It is way past time for us to repeal our laws against the expression of hate.

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald, 7 April 2015

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald, 18 February 2015

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

Melody Torcolacci teaches a first-year course at Queen’s University, in Kingston, on the physical determinants of health. One of the things Professor Torcolacci tells her students is that some vaccines cause more harm than they prevent—or, at least, that the research doesn’t clearly indicate that they don’t.

Students have complained, and now Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf has directed the provost, Alan Harrison, to gather information about Professor Torcolacci’s course.

But what is the provost seeking to discover? What does the principal expect to do with the provost’s findings?

(Perhaps the quest is now on hold. Prof Torcolacci requested and was granted leave from that course for the rest of the semester.)

The provost cannot be seeking to discover whether Prof Torcolacci has endorsed false claims in her classroom. Who hasn’t? Professors speak falsely quite often. Indeed, our freedom to teach falsehoods to our students is protected by the collective agreements under which we work. Whether Prof Torcolacci has falsely taught her students that the jury is still out on the safety or effectiveness of vaccination should be a matter of indifference to the administration of Queen’s University.

As well, Provost Harrison cannot be seeking to discover whether Prof Torcolacci’s teaching instilled in her students the false belief that some vaccines cause more harm than they prevent, or whether, by believing that they do, her students put themselves or others at risk of harm. That students might come to believe falsely because of a teacher’s teaching and that they might put themselves or others at risk because of their false beliefs are risks inherent in any educational endeavour.

Remarks Principal Woolf has made suggest that Provost Harrison is to discover whether the evidence Prof Torcolacci presented in class was scientific and reliable, whether that evidence was presented objectively, and whether in communicating her opinions to her students, she let them know that they were her opinions.

So it appears that Principal Woolf’s interest is in how Prof Torcolacci teaches rather than in what she teaches. But that’s none of the university administration’s business, either. Professors are free to determine for themselves what counts as scientific or reliable evidence and what counts as an objective presentation. And they’re free to abandon science, reliability, and objectivity themselves, if they wish to.

Presumably, Principal Woolf thinks that if Provost Harrison uncovers that Prof Torcolacci didn’t teach her course in the right way, the university can intervene to require that Prof Torcolacci change her ways. But it cannot intervene no matter what Provost Harrison finds, at least not if Prof Torcolacci enjoys academic freedom.

Well, then, if academic freedom protects professors who teach noxious falsehoods or fail to uphold the standards of their disciplines, then too bad for academic freedom—or so at least runs a popular rejoinder. So why academic freedom?

It’s a mistake to think that the goal of university education is to amass a collection of true beliefs: that gravitational pulls cause the tides, that Jane Austen wrote Emma, that vaccines today are safe and reliable. No, the goal of university is to help students to come to be able to reason well and to think for themselves. A university has succeeded when, but only when, students graduate as competent intellectuals, able to inquire into the world and to participate in intellectual community. But that goal is attainable only in an institution that allows (and encourages) the professors to think for themselves and to participate in intellectual community. And that is why professors should enjoy wide academic freedom with regard to teaching.

The problems caused by incompetent professors cannot, then, be solved by administrative decrees, not without corrupting the university. If they are to be solved, they must be solved using the resources of the university community itself. The resources to be used in this case are discussion and criticism.

If a professor has been teaching her students poorly, it is because she has failed to help them to become intellectuals—morally autonomous individuals able to inquire into the ways of the world. If she’s failed, there’s a set of reasons why she failed. What these reasons are is a matter that should interest the other professors, and through inquiry and discussion they can be discovered. Professors can talk to the bad professor, offering their views and suggestions. With luck, bad professors can be helped to become better professors.

On the other hand, when a professor is directed by administrators not to teach certain things or not to teach in a certain manner, classroom interactions between teacher and student and among students become manipulative and insincere. Since moral autonomy cannot be served in a situation that implies disdain for it, students will fare much worse in such a classroom than in one led by a factually ignorant but sincere teacher. The lesson, of course, is that no bad professor can be turned into a good one by administrative decree.

The worst thing that could happen in the Torcolacci affair would be for the administration of Queen’s to require professors, including Prof Torcolacci, to teach certain views, or not to teach certain other views, or to teach in a certain way. What should happen is that Prof Torcolacci’s colleagues explain to her that she is teaching poorly, if that is their view, and to help her to teach well.

The four articles below originally appeared in the newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (number 69, January 2015).  The SAFS website is at


Two ways of thinking about academic freedom

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

Academic freedom protects researchers so that they might discover the truth and tell it to the world. It protects teachers so that they might find and use effective ways of instructing their students. And it protects professors critical of goings on at their universities so that they might help their universities to remain sound institutions of higher learning.

The discovery of truth, the dissemination of knowledge, and the care of the university are the central elements in what appears currently to be the most widespread understanding of academic freedom. According to this understanding, because we value truth, knowledge, and the university’s mission to promote both, we should value academic freedom.

For my part, though, I prefer a different understanding of the nature and value of academic freedom, one that begins from a particular conception of the nature and value of the university itself. Although, on this other understanding, academic freedom continues to protect truth, knowledge, and the care of the university, none of the three is the root value that academic freedom serves.

The understanding I favour conceives of the university as a community in which individuals enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, full intellectual autonomy. They enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, intellectual autonomy for themselves, but they are also committed to ensuring that the other members of the community can enjoy it along with them. The purpose of academic freedom, then, is to promote and maintain a community in which people enjoy full intellectual autonomy.

We enjoy intellectual autonomy when we believe what we believe and value what we value for our own considered reasons. We are less than fully autonomous intellectually when our reasons for believing and valuing are opaque to us or are merely the causes of our mental states. The reasons why we believe or value as we do are merely causes when they consist in the pressures of punishment or reward. Suppose, for instance, that we believe that species evolve by means of natural selection. If we believe that they do because we don’t wish to appear ignorant or stupid, or because we crave acceptance by our peers, then we believe they do in indifference to whether in fact they do; we don’t actually care to understand the origin of species; we care, rather, not to appear ignorant or stupid. To believe something in indifference to its truth is to lack intellectual autonomy.

Academic freedom prevents those who think or value differently from us from shutting us up or denying us resources. Academic freedom, then, functions to limit the pressures on our believing and valuing minds, save the pressures of evidence and argument. Since evidence and argument bear on the truth of belief and the soundness of values, those who value intellectual autonomy are keen to collect evidence and to follow the arguments. But they wish to allow only evidence and argument to influence their cognitive and affective minds.

A university, one might hope, is a place at which people who value intellectual autonomy congregate so that they may pursue enquiry and study together. They wish to pursue enquiry and study together first of all because it’s pleasant and stimulating to enquire into the world alongside others, especially others who share one’s love of intellectual autonomy. But people congregate in universities also because they appreciate the benefits of constructive criticism. They recognize that by expressing one’s thoughts to others, one comes to understand those thoughts better, both their weaknesses and their strengths. They desire to believe truly and to value soundly, and see criticism as useful in attaining what they desire.

A university in which academic freedom is valued as essential for intellectual autonomy will be a freer place, certainly, than a university in which academic freedom is valued solely for its role in discovering truth, disseminating knowledge, and caring for the university. This is because while academic freedom is essential to intellectual autonomy, it is merely useful to discovery, dissemination, and care. Indeed, as many have argued, the interests of discovery, dissemination, and care can sometimes best be furthered by limiting the freedom of members of the university community. Fruitless research, they note, does not help in the discovery of truth, while error and falsehood impede the dissemination of knowledge. Bad teaching wastes students’ time and money. As for the care of the university, when professors say stupid things or reveal to the world the woes besetting their institutions, they do more harm than good to their universities.

Those who would limit the freedom of members of the university community in the interests of truth, knowledge, and the university think there is a sound principle by which they can draw limits around freedom without violating it. Academics, they say, are experts and professionals; the principle is that as experts and professionals, academics may properly be held accountable to the expert and professional standards relevant to their endeavours. They propose that the state of each discipline implies norms that one cannot violate without ceasing to be an expert in that discipline. A biologist committed to intelligent design, then, has given up real biology and, thereby, the academic freedom university biologists enjoy to pursue truth and to disseminate knowledge. Likewise, a teacher who violates in his classroom what his peers recognize as best practices should face sanctions if he doesn’t reform his ways. An engineering professor who says publicly that few women study engineering because women are not as good as men in math is not speaking as an engineer but as an unaccredited cognitive psychologist; because she is not speaking about engineering, she may be directed by her dean to speak only the explanation approved by the faculty of engineering or keep quiet.

If, though, we value academic freedom as essential to a university community centred on intellectual autonomy, we cannot cite expert or professional standards or norms in responding to the ID biologists, unconventional graders, and offending engineers in our midst. At a university given to promoting intellectual autonomy, all these types and more would be enabled by academic freedom to continue as they wish.

Of course, a university is a sort of business, trading in money, power, and status. It collects money from students, governments, industry, and alumni, and pays professors to pursue research and to teach. It rewards students with degrees and professors with acknowledgements and promotions. How can it do all that properly when wide academic freedom would remove accountability from professors? How in a university marked by wide academic freedom is order and discipline to be maintained?

The answer is: through open critical discussion. If we keep alive at our institutions critical discussion of research, teaching, and the university, we will offer our colleagues all the care and stimulation they need to correct themselves should they go off track. If intelligent design is nonsense, that it is nonsense can be made known to the biology professor. If the unorthodox grading system is flawed, then its flaws can be made known to the professor who uses it. Of course, there’s no guarantee that attitudes and practices will be changed by mere discussion, but among people concerned to understand the world and to teach others to understand the world, there’s reason to believe that often enough they will. (We should at least be suspicious of the idea that requiring a professor to act against her better judgement will make her a better professor.)

I’ve compared and contrasted two accounts of the nature and purpose of academic freedom, and I declared that I prefer the one according to which academic freedom removes the pressures that can prevent us from believing and valuing for our own good reasons. I’ve expressed my contention that in a university organized around intellectual autonomy, critical discussion rather than oversight and control will do all that’s needed to be done to ensure good research and teaching. I’ve said nothing, though, that might answer the question whether our culture is one in which universities dedicated to fostering intellectual autonomy might find public support.


Response to Mercer’s “Two ways”

David White
Department of Philosophy
Dalhousie University

Mark Mercer argues that academic freedom is valuable because it promotes the generation of new knowledge through academic research and assists with spreading knowledge through educating students. Because academic freedom is essential to both the production and dissemination of knowledge, universities have a strong obligation to protect and promote it. So far we are in complete agreement. But Mercer goes further to argue for the intrinsic value of academic freedom and that such value provides universities with a stronger obligation to protect it. On this point, we disagree.

Mercer argues for a conception of the university as one comprised of people who value free inquiry not just for its good effects, but for its own sake. Intellectual autonomy, he argues, has value over and above how it contributes to the production and dissemination of knowledge. There are two problems with this perspective, however. Firstly, I see no reason to think that all or even most academics do value academic freedom for intrinsic reasons. If most or even just many academics only value academic freedom because they value creating and spreading knowledge, then it is hard to see why a university should have an obligation to protect that freedom for reasons of intrinsic value.

Secondly, even if he is right that all academics value freedom because they regard it as having intrinsic value it still provides the university no compelling reason to protect it. There are a lot of things that academics might regard as having intrinsic value. Participating in sports and listening to good music might be two such things. But the fact that members of the university community value those things intrinsically gives the institution no obligation to provide opportunities to participate in sports or to listen to music. It is not the job of the university as an institution to provide academics with things they enjoy. The university has a specific mandate to create knowledge and to educate students and so it is only the instrumental value of academic freedom that gives it an obligation to protect it.

Mercer has one additional worry about only valuing academic freedom for instrumental reasons. He argues that in cases where we might judge that by limiting academic freedom we will actually help the production and spread of knowledge (say, by stopping research or teaching that seems to promote bigotry) viewing academic freedom only instrumentally provides a basis for limiting it in some cases. While I agree that arguments like this are sometimes made, I disagree with the idea that they are ever sound arguments.

History teaches us well that ideas that were once regarded as obviously false and even pernicious have come to be viewed as true today. The earth does in fact revolve around the sun. Homosexuals are not in fact morally depraved and mentally ill. History teaches us that the ideas it might seem obviously beneficial to suppress today could well turn out to be found to be true tomorrow. Just as in the judicial system we believe it better that ten guilty people go free than one innocent person be convicted, in the pursuit of knowledge it is better that some pernicious ideas be allowed to be defended than to silence some truths we have yet to discover.

If some academics value the academic life for intrinsic reasons, then that is good for them. But it gives the university no reason additional reason to promote academic freedom. The instrumental value that such freedom provides is more than enough justification for a complete defense of full academic freedom without exception.


Comments on Mark Mercer’s “Two ways of thinking about academic freedom”

Marc Ramsay
Philosophy Department
Acadia University

Mark Mercer holds that an instrumental model treats academic freedom as a tool for the “discovery of truth, the dissemination of knowledge, and the care of the university.” In contrast, his intrinsic model “conceives of the university as a community in which individuals enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, full intellectual autonomy.” Mercer sees the instrumental model’s commitment to academic freedom as unduly contingent—because one can argue that knowledge production might be enhanced by some limits on freedom, the instrumental view seems open, at least in principle, to extensive administrative regulation of teaching and research. His intrinsic model, on the other hand, recommends a community in which all members think and work by their own intellectual lights. It does not value freedom for the sake of some other good.

Not surprisingly, this contrast is mirrored in debates about the more general value of freedom of expression. J.S. Mill’s faith that an unregulated marketplace of ideas provides the most efficient means of pursuing truth is questioned even by those sympathetic to his political conclusions about speech. Does absolute free speech for all persons really provide the most effective means of pursuing the truth? Another approach holds that free expression makes a crucial intrinsic contribution to the life of each person—free expression is necessary if we are to live authentic lives. On this model, we are less inclined to ask empirical questions about the “pay off’ of free speech, and it is easier to see why (assuming a commitment to human equality) each person should enjoy the same freedom to express him/herself.

In my view, a problem emerges if we attempt to extend the intrinsic argument for general free expression to academic freedom. Even if we achieve a society in which all persons have the opportunity to attend university, the gold-standard of academic freedom, tenured professorships, will never be widely available. Academic freedom might support so-called fully autonomous lives, but only for a select group of persons. Access to these lives is not determined by lottery; candidates compete for coveted tenure-stream positions. Moreover, even successful candidates do not avoid the pressures of external evaluation—they must prove themselves in order to achieve tenure, promotion, research funding, and professional prestige. I am not denying that professors do (and should) enjoy a particularly satisfying form of freedom, but I doubt that the intrinsic model can account for traditional elements of that freedom’s distribution and regulation.

What seems crucial to academic freedom is that university administrators should, in comparison to other workplace supervisors, wield very limited managerial control. They should not be permitted to supervise our research (certainly not on anything like a daily basis) and their own assessments of our research (its quality and direction) should have very limited, if any, weight. Instead, we should be given large spans of discretionary time to prove ourselves to broader communities of assessment that are supported by, but independent of, our workplace supervisors. Likewise, these communities of assessment are supposed to enjoy a powerful role in determining who is selected for academic positions. But why should this institution of additional freedom for a few be socially maintained and supported through taxation? It seems to me that the justification must be instrumental—we must defend the idea that academic freedom produces and maintains knowledge that would be lost or under-produced in its absence. The fact that academic life is intrinsically rewarding for its participants is not enough.


Justifying Academic Freedom

Andrew David Irvine
Economics, Philosophy, and Political Science
University of British Columbia, Okanagan

Is academic freedom best justified on the basis of the Millian view, the view, due largely to John Stuart Mill, that academic freedom is necessary for the advancement of knowledge? Or is academic freedom best justified on the basis of the Dworkin-Mercer view, the view, due largely to Ronald Dworkin and Mark Mercer, that academic freedom is necessary for the advancement of intellectual autonomy? How we choose to answer these questions turns out to be of more than theoretical interest.

Academic freedom is the freedom scholars, researchers, artists, librarians, archivists and students have to go about their work unencumbered by non-academic interference. It protects professors, students, staff and alumni from having to accept any form of ‘party line.’ It gives universities the independence they need to establish academic programs as they see fit. It gives people within universities the right to advance popular and unpopular ideas, free from the threat of discrimination or reprisal, whether from government officials or from their own university administrators. Academic freedom gives people the right to have their work evaluated according to academic, rather than non-academic, criteria. It is what gives academics and academic institutions the independence they need to carry out their work.

Academic freedom is thus an instrumental rather than a non-instrumental good. It exists to help academics do what is expected of them. In this sense, it is more like a civil right than a human right. Human rights, such as the right to life, are often best thought of as intrinsic goods. They are not conditional on any particular goal or purpose. They protect things that are good in and of themselves. Civil rights, in contrast, are the rights we need qua citizen. They are the rights people need for citizens and governments to stand in the proper relationship to one another. In the absence of the institution of government, there would be little need for the right to vote.

This distinction can sometimes become muddled if we fail to notice that some rights have more than one underlying justification. Free speech, for example, turns out to be a human right since it is an intrinsic good, a good in and of itself. It also turns out to be a civil right, since it is essential, practically speaking, for the selection of democratic governments. But in addition, it also turns out to be an academic right, since it is also essential, practically speaking, for the advancement of academic goals and objectives.

It follows that if academic freedom is an instrumental good, we need to become clear about which academic goals and objectives we are hoping to advance. Put another way, we need to become clear about the university’s main mission. We need to know why taxpayers, granting agencies, students and parents all fund universities as they do. Or at least why they should do so.

The advantages of the Millian line – that the main mission of the university is to advance knowledge – are twofold. First, knowledge is largely accepted as an uncontroversial good. Whether in medicine, engineering or the humanities, advances in knowledge are widely understood to be of benefit to all humankind. The second advantage is that knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – is largely understood to be something objective, something that governments and other paymasters can measure and quantify, at least to some modest degree. If so, the only point of controversy will be over how much knowledge we can afford. The only questions of public policy will be about budgets.

In contrast, the advantages of the Dworkin-Mercer line – that the main mission of the university is to encourage intellectual autonomy – may be less familiar to many of us. Increased intellectual autonomy often leads to a greater diversity of ideas. Sometimes this diversity of ideas leads to new intellectual discoveries. But just as often, it is this diversity of viewpoints that seems to lead to entrenched social differences. Reasonable people, after considering complex social or religious issues, often simply end up agreeing to disagree.

Advances in genuine intellectual autonomy are also harder to measure. While the Millian view focuses on measurable increases in knowledge, the Dworkin-Mercer view focuses on the scholar or student as agent. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have believed this leads, in the long run, not only to increased knowledge, but also to better, more fulfilling lives. Democrats from Socrates to Locke have believed that this also leads to more stable, peaceful societies. But who among us is willing to wait for the long run? Quite reasonably, the taxpayer may ask, how are we to know whether we are getting our money’s worth?

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is for these reasons that it has been the Millian view that has captured most often the attention of the scholar and the taxpayer alike. It has also been the Millian view that has motivated the huge shift in resources away from the humanities and towards the sciences over the past century.

Even so, for those of us who want to assert that both goals are worth pursuing, there may be some good that results from tragic events such as the recent shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Such events may motivate us to seek a greater balance between these two aspects of the university’s mission, between the advancing of objective, mostly scientific, knowledge on the one hand, and the kind of individual, intellectual autonomy most often associated with the study of the humanities on the other.

As citizens and governments around the world begin to ask themselves what it is that distinguishes the West from other, less peaceful and less tolerant parts of the world, we should remind ourselves of the importance of those aspects of Western society that are most often associated with the goal of promoting individual intellectual autonomy in our students and in our citizens. These include a universal franchise, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, free markets and, something not unrelated to each of these, academic freedom within the university.

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