Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Criticism

Massimo Pigliucci, on his Rationally Speaking blog, has started a discussion about what is academic freedom? The trigger for his concern was an article by law professor Stanley Fish in the New York Times. Fish has criticised what he calls "academic exceptionalism" by which he means that academics benefit in numerous ways from the institutions they are supported by, yet retain the "right to act in disregard of its interests". Ignoring Fish's main example which Pigliucci easily dismisses, Pigliucci purses the issue and asks what, exactly, is "academic freedom, and what are its reasonable boundaries?" Whilst Pigliucci is focused on academic freedom, there are broad parallels between this and freedom of expression in general and I wonder that confusions over freedom of expression as I discussed in my article on the paradox of tolerance also apply in the area of academic freedom and, indeed, understanding the parallels can benefit reasoning in both areas. A couple of other related issues are also raised in his post, which gives me an opportunity to state my views these too.

One thread Pigliucci explores are the legal protections or not of such freedoms and argues that these are not protected under the (U.S.A) constitution. A commenter responds quoting from the aforesaid constitution that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people". This is quite correct, as in a modern liberal democracy, citizens both grant a selection of rights in favour of the state, in return for benefits from the state but also constrain the rights of the state in a proscriptive fashion in favour of the citizens - which is what the above quote states. Here proscriptive is meant as in common law principles rather than prescriptive as meant in Napoleonic law principles. That is to be proscriptive means if it is not explicitly prohibited then it is legal, whereas prescriptive means if it is not explicitly permitted then it is illegal. It should be obvious that any notion of freedom would advocate proscriptive limits over prescriptive ones in the senses meant here. However my issue with constitutional arguments is that this becomes dependent upon such a constitution and constitutions have changed (e.g. France four times) and some are unwritten or codified (e.g. the U.K.) and so on. The issue of freedom, not just academic freedom, should not defined by constitutions whether explicitly protected or implicitly permitted. The question is not over the legal issues driving the ethical issues but vice versa, is the law in line with the ethical principles behnd the concepts of such freedoms?

Pigliucci acknowledges something like the above and after refuting Fish then pursues what academic freedom could really mean. Again the idea that any such freedom must be unconditional is absurd as Pigliucci correctly explores and then goes on to say
"But academics do have an ethical duty to pursue scholarship (largely) in whatever way they see fit, with minimal interference from the university’s administration. Moreover, they should be allowed to teach their specialities within very broad educational parameters, not the far too much business-like views of so many (but of course not all) administrators. And perhaps equally importantly they should be able to address the public, as intellectuals, in whatever way and through whatever medium they deem effective (including blogs in the New York Times). The reason for this large (but not infinite) latitude is because -- as even Fish grudgingly admits -- academia is a different type of job from most others. It’s not just that the product (“education”) is hard to measure by its very nature; it is that the “clients” are not even (only) the students, but their parents (who usually pay handsomely for said education) and, more importantly, society at large. It is in society’s broad interest that we produce not only competent specialists but, ideally, citizens capable of critical thinking.
Quite so. Again I draw a parallel with such freedom in general, namely freedom of expression but more specifically the key type of expression that causes most, if not all, debate over freedom of expression, namely that of freedom of criticism. As I have said before without such a freedom there is unlikely to be any issues over freedom of expression as there is no-one who could be upset, since no-one is or is being perceived to be criticised. There might be different dependencies with institutions in general but it is still in society's broad interest to have citizens capable of critical thinking and we all bear some responsibility, however small, as citizens to contribute to this. This means not just by aspiring improve our own capacity to do this, which as we are well aware is not that common a shared interest amongst all citizens, but by using freedom of expression as a means to criticise those who discourage this and specifically to the detriment of all citizens not just when aimed at me or you, where the absence of such critical thinking can lead to harm to anyone.

Pigliucci finishes by addressing my last mentioned point in the following way:
"Time to take reason back from all ranks of anti-intellectualists. Time to defend rights like that of academic freedom, regardless -- or in fact precisely because -- they are not enshrined in the Constitution. Time to recognize the value of what more than a thousand years of struggle against church and government have wrestled from the clutches of power to benefit us as a society of (ideally) freethinking individuals"
A commendable sentiment and we are clearly in broad agreement but Pigliucci misses or, rather, fails to properly emphasize a key issue which, inevitably, was brought up by another commenter:
"The problem is as follows: defence of rational thought and academic freedom, by definition, requires defending the right of ALL ideas to be aired and critically analysed—including anti-intellectual ideas and superstitions. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true, and in fact, defending an anti-intellectual/ superstitious idea requires defending only one narrow (often dogmatic) idea. Pragmatically, what can we, who wish to defend rational inquiry, do?"
This is a good question and I am sure the Pigliucci could adequately answer this and indeed it is implicit in some of what he already posted. Still this strikes strong chord with my argument over tolerating the intolerant (where I explicitly criticised moral relativists) and as long as people are troubled by such issues - as this question reaffirms - warrants restating my type of response, which has the same structure as my intolerance criticism. Indeed it is at the core of all such questions over freedom, academic and otherwise.

I emphasized two parts of the quote. Taking the second first:
1. As you say the reverse is not true and so academic freedom does not imply defending a single idea dogmatically (or single dogmatic idea).
2. One can critically analyse not only any idea but also the means to defend it.
On the basis of (2) the defence of a single idea dogmatically (1) can and should be criticised as part of the defence of academic freedom.

There really is not much more to say it seems, at least to me, a really simple point but one I repeatedly see that people miss. I do not know if I can blame this all on moral relativism, and even if I could show this it primarily originated with such types of philosophy (or Christianity) I could arguably be committing the genetic fallacy to harp on about that aspect. The principle remains, granted the initial parallels in that as academic freedom means the ability to fight words with words without threats to ones job or tenure, so does the freedom to criticise means the ability to respond to words with words and to be protected from violence. There is an exceptionalism to attack, over those who argue that their freedoms are immune from criticism and that to attack this specific immunity is to be against freedom in general and that such attacks warrant sanctions or censure, supposedly in defence of freedom. Not so, the principle is that in criticising any claimed threats to such freedoms, that any such criticism does not contradict supporting such freedoms, indeed it is one of means of encouraging and ensuring such freedoms for everyone, it is a means to help dismantle and prevent double standards, so that everyone operates under a single common standard of freedom.