Defend academic freedom -- even when you disagree

My colleague Peter Singer of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton is under attack.

Recently dozens of persons with disabilities came to campus to protest his being on our faculty. Some demanded that he resign — others called for revocation of his tenure — for comments he made regarding people with handicaps and the limits of our obligations to them. Similar demands are being made by others, especially because of his commitment to the moral permissibility of infanticide and for his response to a question about whether we should rescue a baby or a herd of 200 pigs if a raging fire should force us to make a choice.

“At a certain point, the animals’ suffering becomes so great that one should choose to save the animals over the child,” Singer said in an interview with a Swiss newspaper. “Whether this point occurs at 200 or two million animals, I don’t know. But one cannot let an infinite number of animals burn to save the life of one child.”

My views on ethical matters could scarcely be more distant from Professor Singer’s. I believe in the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family, irrespective of age, size, stage of development, handicap, or condition of dependency. That is why I oppose what Singer defends: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and all forms of direct killing of human beings. Although I do not countenance cruelty to animals, I do not consider them to be equal, much less superior in some cases, to human beings in fundamental worth and dignity.

And yet, I must break ranks with many of my friends and allies in the movement to defend the dignity and basic rights of the unborn, the newly born, those with physical and cognitive disabilities, the frail elderly, and other vulnerable persons by standing up for Singer’s right to hold and express his opinions. Freedom of thought and expression and academic freedom are for everyone — not just those whose views others find congenial.

Here is my fundamental point: The right to academic freedom is held equally by all who are prepared to do business in the currency of academic discourse: a currency consisting of reasons and arguments. Singer does business in precisely that currency. He is not a demagogue, a shouter, a hater. He does not deploy abusive language or techniques of manipulation. He sets forth his positions with clarity and defends them with rational arguments.

Arguments are to be dealt with by meeting them, not by shutting down (or threatening, or intimidating, or even stigmatizing) the people who are making them. And meeting them requires thinking about them, even entertaining them in a serious way, however much we are scandalized by the positions for which they are adduced.

I have made something of a career of criticizing the form of liberalism in political theory represented by John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty.” But there are some important points on which Mill is right and, I believe, very much to be heeded. With academic freedom (and freedom of thought and expression more generally) under broad attack in our culture today, there is much to be learned from Mill’s defense of freedom of speech in the second chapter of that work. There Mill reminds us that none of us are infallible. To recognize one’s fallibility is to acknowledge that I could be wrong — even when it comes to my most cherished beliefs. So I need to be open to argument, willing to listen to others in a serious way.

Mill points out that when one’s views are challenged there are a couple of possibilities. Our critic might be right, and we might be wrong. If, by presenting reasons and compelling arguments he moves us from error to (or closer to) truth, then we have gained, and should be grateful to the critic who corrected our mistaken beliefs. The other possibility, of course, is that our critic, though a reasonable person, is wrong and we are right. In that case, by listening to his arguments and engaging them in a serious way, we will have deepened our understanding of the truth and appropriated it more fully and securely. Again, we have gained.

Academic freedom,  and the rights of freedom of thought and expression, are not properly understood as “abstract rights.” Mill was right to decline to embrace the idea that they are unconnected to the human goods they protect and the virtues whose cultivation supports the upright pursuit of those goods. In particular, the right of freedom of thought and expression on campus protects the good of truth and the enterprise of truth- and knowledge-seeking, and the virtues of intellectual humility, dispassion, and fair-mindedness that serve the pursuit of knowledge of truth.

It is for the sake of the common good of the university as a knowledge-seeking institution that we must honor — fully and not merely formally — the academic freedom of all who are willing to do business in the currency of academic discourse. This is what I claim for myself and for those (scarcely a majority!) who share my moral, political, and religious convictions; and this is what I claim for Singer and everyone else who contributes reasons and arguments to campus and classroom discussions.

My duty is to consider Singer’s arguments and respond to them with reasoned arguments of my own. His duty is to consider and respond to mine and those of people like me. It goes without saying that we owe each other and our colleagues civility and respectful treatment — but these virtues are entirely consistent with vigorous disagreement.

To my friends in the movement to defend persons with disabilities and other vulnerable members of the human family, I say this:

Please know that I understand your sense of outrage and insult. Please know, too, that my argument in defense of Singer is in no way a purely pragmatic one — defending him, lest those who are deeply offended by pro-life or pro-marriage reality convictions be fortified in their efforts to shut down my own freedom of speech. Freedom of thought and expression and academic freedom are genuine rights. They are not just conventions that we’ve agreed to respect as a kind of mutual nonaggression pact. There is a profound and important principle here, one that we must honor no matter the offense we take, or even hurt we may feel, at someone’s ideas or their public advocacy.

For Princeton to take action against a faculty member for the content of the views he holds or for the arguments he makes would be wrong — a violation of his rights and an undermining of the institution’s mission. No one who values that mission should demand that he be fired or resign. Indeed, even protesting a scholar’s presence on campus is, in my view, improper. Pressuring someone or trying to stigmatize him is not answering his arguments — and to the extent of its success, it detracts from, rather than supports, the cause of learning.

I encourage students who take my courses to take Singer’s as well. I would not do that if he did not do business in the currency of academic discourse, by offering reasons and arguments. But since he does, he has something important to offer them.

By encountering Peter Singer and myself in sustained and intellectually serious ways (and not merely in some staged gladiatorial spectacle), and by encountering professors who represent other perspectives as well, students can only benefit. Although I admit that the norms are legitimately somewhat (though not completely) different for theological seminaries and religiously affiliated colleges and universities, our job as faculty members at a place like Princeton is not to tell our students what to think; rather it is to teach them how to think — more deeply, more critically, and for themselves.

Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions ( at Princeton University.

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