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 safs.ca


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.

Mark Mercer

One thing we should do to increase our physical safety is repeal our remaining laws against hate speech.

Isn’t that claim outlandish? It might seem obvious that if we want protect ourselves, we should instead police expression even more vigorously than we do now, so that violent people will be less likely to see or hear something that sets them off.

Well, of course, we know that by giving in to the heckler’s veto, we simply create more hecklers, and more raucous hecklers, at that. So maybe stricter laws against expression isn’t the answer. But how could having no anti-hate laws help us?

I don’t mean to argue here for repealing our laws against the expression of hate on the grounds that they are anti-democratic, or that they deform public discourse, or that they are contrary to the ideal of the moral autonomy of the individual, though I think each of those arguments is sound. I mean to explain how the laws we currently live under, mild though some think them (though Arthur Topham or David Ahenakew would disagree), encourage the offended to take up violence.

Those who lash out physically against people who (they feel) have ridiculed or offended them are lashing out because they believe they have suffered an injustice. My argument is that laws against the expression of hate endanger us because they affirm and encourage that belief.

That is to say, countries that have laws against hate speech proclaim through their laws that some targets of expression are, indeed, victims of injustice. As victims of injustice, they are entitled to restitution through the punishment of their assailants.

The police and the courts don’t always get things right, of course. Someone has defamed you by attacking your religion, and so you complain to the officials, but the officials decide that the speech that offended you didn’t cross the line. But it did, you think; or the line wasn’t properly placed. You believe that you are a victim of injustice, an injustice, moreover, that the state refuses to rectify.

How many times was Charlie Hebdo investigated for violating France’s laws against the expression of hate? At least twice, and both times acquitted. What’s left to do but attack it yourself?

If, on the other hand, Canadians were truly to embrace freedom of expression, and get rid of our laws that censor or suppress expression, we would thereby say to the world that being mocked or ridiculed or subjected to expressions of hate is not to suffer an injustice. That you have been insulted, offended, or upset by something someone said does not make you a victim, and you are not entitled to restitution or compensation.

Repealing our laws against the expression of hate would make us safer by removing from our culture official affirmation of the thought that a person’s hurt feelings merit official concern. Removing that thought would weaken the desire to take the law into one’s own hands when the state refuses to come to one’s aid.

My argument is speculative in that it contains a premise about cause and effect for which I cannot cite adequate evidence. According to that premise, removing laws that imply that one who has been offended or demeaned can thereby be a victim of injustice will result in fewer people thinking they are victims of injustice. If that premise is true, then that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was committed in France by Frenchmen isn’t entirely a coincidence, for France has stronger laws against the expression of hate than most other European countries and enforces them regularly.

But why think that that premise is true? Empirical evidence would be needed to settle the question. All I can say in defence of it right now is that, generally, legal culture affects the mores and attitudes of the individuals who make up a society.

For reasons of safety, then (along with all the other reasons), let us not accommodate even in the slightest demands that people be silenced, no matter what they say or how hurt people are by what they say. That would take offence out of the realm of law and politics, and that would (probably, maybe) lessen the chance that the aggrieved will style themselves victims and their violence justice.

Mark Mercer is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University, mark.mercer@smu.ca

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald, 9 January 2015 (under the headline “Hate speech laws—repeal them”), http://princearthurherald.com/en/politics-2/hate-speech-laws-repeal-them-773

Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University

This article originally appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald, 8 January 2015


Should abortion be a legal option only for women who have good reasons for terminating their pregnancies?

Bad reasons for terminating a pregnancy might include that the fetus is female, that the fetus has a small deformity, that the fetus has genetic markers for retinitis pigmentosa or for homosexuality, or that the child will be deaf. These are bad reasons because girls and women, people with deformities or handicaps, blind people, lesbians and gays, and deaf people can all lead full and wonderful lives.

Bad reasons might include the inconvenience of being pregnant right now or of being responsible for a child in the near future.

Good reasons for terminating a pregnancy, then, might include that the fetus is anencephalic or has markers for Tay-Sachs disease. They might also include that the pregnancy occurred because of rape or that continuing the pregnancy endangers the physical or mental health of the woman.

These would be good reasons, it seems, either because they take abortion to be a form of mercy killing (the case of anencephalic fetuses) or because they tip the scales in the balance between the rights of the pregnant woman and the rights of the fetus (the case of the woman’s health).

Those who advocate restricting abortion to cases of good reasons say that they are moderates in the abortion debate, that theirs is a nuanced position. They would not ban abortion, just restrict it, and the restrictions they propose are needed to protect the dignity of human life. They note that wanting to abort a fetus because, for instance, it is female expresses sexist attitudes towards girls and women. Sex-selective abortion, they say, is discriminatory, and discrimination on the basis of sex is in Canada properly illegal.

There is at least one large confusion within the good-reasons-only position on abortion, though. While some of what I’ve listed as the bad reasons for having an abortion involves discrimination, none involves wrongful discrimination. Wrongful discrimination against an individual harms that individual by unfairly preventing her from fulfilling her interests. Fetuses, though, lack interests. A fetus killed because it is female is not thereby discriminated against wrongfully.

The point is the same with regard to any feature of a fetus that serves as a woman’s reason to seek an abortion. Aborting a fetus because it bears a deformity or a marker is not to discriminate against a person bearing that deformity or a person with the condition marked for.

Well, doesn’t abortion in these cases at least express the attitude that certain kinds of people (girls, the handicapped) are not as worthy as others (boys, the able)? It may, but it needn’t. It probably often does express such an attitude in sex-selective abortion. In aborting fetuses because the child would be handicapped, though, it need express no attitude toward the handicapped other than that a handicapped person would have been better off had he not been handicapped. That attitude is in no way inconsistent with insisting that all people be able to live free from wrongful discrimination. Nor is it inconsistent with cherishing one’s disabled friends.

In any case, once we move from the question whether a fetus suffers an indignity in being aborted (it doesn’t) to whether certain abortions express sexist or homophobic attitudes (they might), we have moved from restrictions on abortion meant to protect specific individuals from wrongful treatment to restrictions on abortion as part of a general social policy of fostering tolerance and acceptance. Most of us will agree, I suspect, that no pregnant woman’s condition should be used through law to further any social goal, not even tolerance.

Abortion laws indifferent to the reasons women have to terminate their pregnancies are certainly preferable to good-reasons-only laws on practical grounds. A good-reasons-only policy would require panels of doctors, prying interviews, and a lot of time and expense. But good-reasons-only policies also fail on principled grounds.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

The Roman Catholic Church is not likely to alter its teachings on sex, birth control, abortion, or homosexuality any time soon, despite the sincere efforts of Pope Francis to foster change. This fact saddens many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But why should it? Why, that is, should anyone care what the Church teaches?

Catholics who see nothing wrong with same-sex intimacy or intrauterine devices are free to leave the Church, if they want. If they don’t want to leave it—if, for instance, they wish to be present to the miracle of transubstantiation, or they don’t want to upset their parents—then they can simply ignore the teachings they think false.

Since the priests cannot put anyone in jail, or fine them, or get them fired from their jobs, Catholics who would reject Church teachings have no reason to fear that rejecting them will land them in hot water. This is true not only for those who merely disagree with the Church, but also for those who actually live in ways the Church condemns.

So let the Church teach what it will about sex and the rest. It’s up to us to sort out for ourselves what to believe and what to value.

An objection to taking a “who cares?” attitude toward Church teachings is that the Church does, in fact, have authority in many people’s lives. True, the Church cannot have sinners jailed, at least not in secular nations, but nonetheless being called a sinner hurts and humiliates. That’s why we should care that the Church alter its teachings: so that it no longer hurts or humiliates those who have sex outside marriage, or use birth control, or are homosexual, or seek an abortion.

The fault here, though, is not with the Church, but with those who would let what the Church says bother them. If one doesn’t think birth control wrong, then one shouldn’t feel that by wearing a condom one has sinned. If one doesn’t feel one has sinned, then accusations that one has shouldn’t hurt. (Unjust criticism shouldn’t hurt; and the just sort should be welcomed.) The task isn’t to change the Church, but to overcome one’s vulnerability.

Perhaps that’s easier said than done. Nonetheless, to be vulnerable to unjust criticism is to labour under a serious, and seriously debilitating, misapprehension. It’s to hold that there are authorities in matters of morals. Without that belief, a person called a sinner would recognize that whether she actually is one is simply another hypothesis to investigate (or ignore). Her own judgement on the matter should be the judgement that guides her behaviour and feelings.

There are no authorities on matters of morals. Authorities on Church doctrine exist, of course, just as authorities on snails and the Renaissance do; but whether Church doctrine on right and wrong is correct (whether snails are tasty; whether Renaissance art is moving) is not a matter on which any pronouncement is authoritative. We must always find our own good reasons for rejecting or accepting any contention about how to live.

Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University


What would be the point of punishing, by expelling or through other sanctions, the dentistry students involved in the misogynistic Facebook postings?

From what those who advocate punishment are saying, I count four different answers. First, the point of punishing them is retribution. The students acted wrongly and deserve official sanctions. Second, they have shown themselves by their actions to be unfit to join the profession of dentistry. Third, punishing them will serve to reduce the likelihood of other students making misogynistic remarks, and that will, in turn, make dentistry school more hospitable to women students. Fourth, the point of punishing them is to rehabilitate the school of dentistry, to help it to reclaim its reputation as a place that treats women students well.

1) About retribution: Not all wrongs we commit are wrongs we should be punished for. In a free society, we should not be punished for our opinions, emotions, or values, or for expressing our opinions, emotions, and values. Our opinions might be false and our values unsound, and our expressing them disturbing or hurtful, but respect for each other requires that we apply no pressures other than argument and evidence to try to change opinions or values.

Canadian society, though, as many commentators have pointed out, is not a free society. We have laws against the expression of hate, and our defamation laws are strong and punitive. Too bad for us, I say. But even those who don’t mind punishing people for the content of their public expression should be uneasy when it comes to going after posters in the relative privacy of Facebook, I would think. Or is it only behind the locked doors of our houses that we can say what we want without worry?

But the case we’re considering is not a matter of law, one might respond. The school of dentistry is not a government agency and should be free to settle matters in its own house as it wants. Well, we don’t live in a free society even if the government isn’t involved in censoring and suppressing opinion, so long as other powerful institutions are taking up the slack. Moreover, consider that the school of dentistry is part of Dalhousie University. A university is a place of intellectual community, or should be, and intellectual community is sustained only if members of that community are free from institutional pressures to believe and value this way or that. Of course we want that we and others believe truly and value soundly, but we also want that we believe truly and value soundly for our own good reasons, not out of fear or hope of reward.

That, I think, is the main reason why the students should not be punished or even face the threat of being punished. Since they are university students, they are members of an intellectual community, and such a community is destroyed when members are directed to have certain beliefs and values, rather than allowed, through investigation and critical discussion, to come to their own beliefs and values.

2) About gatekeeping: The school of dentistry is part of a university, yes, but, one might add, it is also a professional school, training students to assume a position within a profession. As such, the school of dentistry has a responsibility to ensure that only people fit to join that profession are invited to do so.

This is a strong argument for expelling the students. It would be even stronger were there some good reason for thinking students involved in misogynistic expression would put their patients at risk of harm were they ever to have patients. (Is there any evidence to support that worry?)

One response is, again, that powerful institutions, such as schools of dentistry, should in a free society have great regard for freedom of expression. Another response is that because it is part of a university, the school of dentistry is a place of education rather than training and, thereby, should not be playing any official gatekeeping role at all. That role should be left exclusively to professional societies.

Maybe schools of dentistry shouldn’t be part of universities. Maybe their associations with universities should be much looser than they are, and their ties to professional bodies tighter. In any case, they cannot be both academic institutions of education and training centres that keep watch on the gates. If a school of dentistry wants to be a gatekeeper, it shouldn’t be housed within a university.

3) About making the school friendly to women: The threat of sanctions for getting caught making misogynistic remarks might well reduce the number of misogynistic postings on Facebook, and that would make for a more pleasant environment. And, yet, that more pleasant environment would be a result not of changed attitudes but of enforced manners. Manners cannot be enforced at a university, I argued above, without compromising that university’s status as a place of education. Here, though, I want to make the additional point that we’re aiming much too low if our goal is merely to create the façade of respect and good will toward women. Let’s be more ambitious, and try to create the real thing.

To create a place in which all students respect and help each other, we need candidly to discuss the attitudes people have that demean others and that lead to hurtful behaviours such as misogynistic postings. Punishment doesn’t change attitudes, but discussion can and often does. If the school of dentistry is to become a place in fact friendly to women, then it has to uncover through critical discussion alone the basic attitudes that make the school hostile, and attempt to change those attitudes through showing them to be pinched, narrow, and debilitating.

4) About restoring the reputation of the school: If the school of dentistry wants to have the reputation of both being friendly to women and being a place of education, it cannot resort to punishment in service of the former, for then it loses the latter. And because threats of punishment create, at best, merely the appearance of friendliness, the school will not gain a reputation for being friendly to women by policing bad behaviours. Its reputation will, rather, be that of a school where misogyny lingers just under the surface.

A fifth reason I’ve heard for punishing the students is, with the first, retribution, but the wrong to be made right by punishment in this case isn’t the expressing of false or obnoxious beliefs or values. The wrong, rather, is the violent assault on the women who were mentioned in the postings.

Yet posting something on Facebook cannot be an act of violence, even if it hurts and even if it harms.