Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

One recommendation of the Report from the President’s Council at Saint Mary’s University is that Saint Mary’s develop a university-wide code of conduct, to be enforced with “meaningful consequences” for those who violate it, whether they be students, staff, administrators, or professors.

I can’t see anything in the report that shows Saint Mary’s to need a code of conduct. I think, moreover, that adopting a code will harm the university by weakening academic culture on campus.

The President’s Council, recall, was convened last September soon after three hundred in-coming students and student leaders performed a rape chant during orientation week. Saint Mary’s University president Colin Dodds directed the Council to find ways to prevent sexual violence on campus, inspire respectful behaviour, and create a safe learning environment.

To have any code of conduct at all is inconsistent with a university’s best values and its ideal of itself as a community of scholars, scientists, artists, and students. Yet, rough seas might require throwing precious cargo overboard, just to stay afloat. Whatever code of conduct a university adopts, though, should be only so wide or detailed as survival of the institutions requires.

How is that codes of conduct are inconsistent with university values and ideals? Well, at a university we seek to found our beliefs and values on our own good reasons. “On our own good reasons” means by way of evidence and argument, and evidence and argument only. If we are to found our beliefs and values on evidence and argument only, then we must be free of all extraneous pressures, whether fear of punishment or expectation of reward. But codes of conduct are, precisely, instruments of pressure. And so they are inconsistent with the university’s ideal of leaving people free to make up their own minds.

Notice also that universities are places of intellectual community, places in which people gather to discuss ideas, any ideas that occur to them. They discuss ideas, moreover, in order to evaluate them, to determine which ideas are weak and which are strong. In order to discuss ideas and evaluate them, people have to be willing to listen to others, and to take their arguments seriously, even as they criticise those arguments. That looks a lot like respectful treatment of each other—the very goal assigned the code of conduct.

University people, then, do not need to be held under a code of conduct, for treating each other respectfully, as our fellows in an inquiring, argumentative community, is internal to the project of intellectual community.

Those who recommend creating a code of conduct note that not everybody at university is a university person, in the sense I’ve given. Some members of the university community do not value critical discussion and, so, are not at Saint Mary’s in order to participate in intellectual community. They do not have an internal motivation for treating others respectfully, and, thus, need the incentives a code brings with it.

For the rest of us, we should be happy that a code is in place, for without one we won’t be able in confidence to go about our business of discussing and arguing with each other. At any moment our peace could be interrupted.

What is the evidence the President’s Council has that things at Saint Mary’s have got so bad? Well, there’s the rape chant. And recently we’ve been informed that some members of the football team had made obnoxious tweets.

As far as I can see, that’s no evidence at all. What would interrupt the peace of scholars and scientists is violence or cruelty. The chant and the tweets are disgusting, certainly, and those who engaged in them were clueless or callous. But they weren’t themselves assaults.

It is true that not everybody at university is a university person, but that’s surely most often because so many members of the university community are new to it. They don’t yet know what type of life we strive to live. It’s for the professors to initiate them into our way of life. We need to redouble our efforts.

If the code of conduct is meant to prevent people at Saint Mary’s from performing rape chants or texting ugly messages, then it really will make things worse. Rape chants and ugly tweets are expressions, expressions of ideas and values. If we are going to be the sort of place at which any idea or value can be engaged critically in discussion, then even rape chants and ugly tweets must go unpunished. That is required by our need to be candid with each other. And it is a requirement of respectful treatment—that we don’t interfere with what others might say, though we are keen to go on to evaluate it.

An academic wants to believe truly and to value soundly, but she also wants, even more, to believe and value for her own good reasons. We may well want to study and discuss on a campus unstained by rape chants and obnoxious tweets, but as soon as we outlaw such expression, those who would engage in them are no longer free to change their minds for their own good reasons, for we are applying pressure to them. That, in turn, means that we are not treating them with respect as members of our intellectual community.

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