The Contradictions of Absolute Academic Freedom

Published on October 13, 2021

Public Discourse

Universities should not hire professors who support infanticide, racism, or bestiality.

This commonsense view was challenged during a recent panel discussion in which Princeton professor Robert George gave a stirring defense of the liberal ideals of academic freedom and robust free speech as the best, albeit still imperfect, means of determining truth (around the forty-five-minute mark of the video). Ten minutes later, he returned unbidden to the subject to defend Princeton’s employment of the pro-infanticide philosopher Peter Singer.

Pressed on the point, as well as the hypothetical hiring of a bestiality advocate or racist, George said that although he found such views abhorrent, such scholars should not be exiled from the academy if their work is sufficiently rigorous. Though confessional schools may restrict academic freedom, those who promise full academic freedom should judge scholarship not on its moral implications, but only on reason, rigor, and evidence. George added that hiring advocates for evil may thereby be turned to good, as students will benefit from hearing the best of all sides. If there are good arguments for bad things such as racism, infanticide, and bestiality, then it is best to hash them out in the open forum of higher education. That is, after all, what the university is there for.

Or is it?

The flaw in George’s case is revealed by examining the prerequisites for a community of moral instruction and inquiry. As Alasdair MacIntyre has noted, certain conditions must be met if people are to inquire about the good together. They must, for instance, be able to trust the other members of the community to be honest. They must be able to trust that their fellow inquirers will not inflict harm on them by theft, assault, and so on. For the university to function as the community of truth-seekers that George envisions, its members must be practically committed to uphold certain norms. What, then, are we to make of the inclusion of those who are ideologically committed to rejecting the norms that are necessary for shared inquiry and discourse regarding the true, good, and beautiful?

In considering this, we need not rely on an example as exotic as an apologist for bestiality, baby-killing, or racism. We might instead take the case of an ordinary Marxist academic of the sort all too common during the Cold War—professors who supported communist dictators and excused their atrocities. How are those of us opposed to Marxism to sustain a community of inquiry after truth and goodness with such a man? His doctrines, if implemented, would ban our ideas, confiscate our property, punish our families, and consign us to prison, torture, and execution. As Bertie Wooster put it, “as far as I can make out, the whole hub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don’t mind owning that I’m not frightfully keen on the idea.” Even having tea with such people is likely to be a scaly affair.

Marxist ideology explicitly disavows abiding by the conditions that would allow Marxists to sustain a community of inquiry with non-Marxists. Consequently, we cannot trust a Marxist professor to be truthful with us, nor be confident that he will refrain from harming us. Thus, it would only be possible for us to participate in philosophical inquiry with him if he were inconsistent or impotent—if he either did not mean to act on his ideas or could not. For instance, he might have internalized moral norms against theft, and therefore, even though he preach the redistribution of property, he would refuse to embezzle from the department to fund a socialist newspaper. Or he might be so constrained by external powers that his ideas remain as academic playthings within the university, rather than practical imperatives. Or perhaps both.

Indeed, advocates for the liberal case for absolute academic freedom might even boast of the success of these factors in restraining advocates of violent theories from acting on them. They might argue that liberalism is strong and confident enough to tolerate direct ideological opposition, especially in higher education, because the practice of liberalism often inculcates liberal norms even in those who claim to reject them. Indeed, the champions of illiberal ideologies may be particularly dependent on liberal norms of academic freedom, as they argue for unpopular views. The difficulty in trying to overthrow the system from within is that one tends to become dependent on the system.

But systems change, and the trajectory of the academy over recent decades does not inspire confidence in the sustainability of the liberal ideal of absolute academic freedom. Bolshevik professors may not be massacring their bourgeois counterparts, but an illiberal chill has enveloped higher education. Scholars are attacked and careers are ruined over minute deviations from the new orthodoxies. The faltering norms of academic freedom protect Robert George more than Peter Singer. Religious conservatives and other academic nonconformists thus have a pragmatic reason to support expansive academic freedom, even if we intellectually doubt the value of a renewed commitment to ideological liberalism and absolute academic freedom.

Academic freedom may provide us a little shelter for now. But, as we have witnessed, this sort of liberal theory is unsustainable, and people know it—especially the students whose primary role in the university community is to receive instruction.

As MacIntyre has also observed, before one is competent to engage in moral inquiry, one must be instructed in a tradition of such inquiry. Liberalism’s absolute academic freedom ostentatiously disdains this instruction, only to covertly smuggle it back in through myriad intellectual loopholes. Students are thus subjected to both official relativism and official liberalism. The university with absolute academic freedom pretends to be agnostic regarding the merits of infanticide or bestiality or racism, even while enforcing liberal moral norms on everything from academic misconduct to sex.

Such norms are necessary because the university is not just an academic debating society, but a community of instruction. This is what George sidesteps in his insistence that the university be an anything-goes intellectual arena. It is true that having such an arena need not inhibit our acting on the good in law and custom; that it is possible, as George wishes, to outlaw infanticide yet still leave Peter Singer free to promote it at Princeton. But this requires the university to surrender its claim to instruct students, who are instead treated as intellectual consumers selecting from a variety of options laid before them.

The official moral relativism of absolute academic freedom thereby makes universities self-negating institutions. No wonder many student activists are eager to fashion and enforce new norms and taboos: they realize, however inchoately, that a community of inquiry and instruction must also be one of practice, and that the liberal university fails to integrate these elements. The activists themselves are not very good at norm-building, and many of their beliefs and practices are wrong, but they are more honest about what they are doing than those who pretend to have no moral standards for academic life. The activists sense that the absolute academic freedom of liberalism is less an important but unrealizable ideal than an ignoble lie. There is, and never will be, real neutrality. Everyone knows that there is flexibility in the use of academic rigor as a screening mechanism, and that those with disfavored views will be subject to extra scrutiny.

Thus, despite theoretical promises of academic freedom, religious conservatives will continue to be pushed to the margins of most secular universities. Meanwhile, faithful confessional institutions will rightly limit academic freedom in order to advance their religious missions. This makes it difficult for conservatives to model what academic freedom should look like in a broader, non-sectarian context. We should not waste the little influence we have in support of an absolutist position on academic freedom that is philosophically and practically incoherent. Rather, we should recognize that, in their joint tasks as communities of inquiry and instruction, universities may practice broad tolerance and robust academic freedom without absolutizing it. And though current prospects for a proper academic freedom in a healthy university culture seem bleak, there is still some value in considering what it would look like.

A flourishing academic culture would require virtues that George has often modeled, such as charity and generosity even in disagreement. These would be informed by the recognition that the conditions necessary for shared moral inquiry are rarely reducible to a simple dichotomy. Discourse tends to take place in an in-between—not as stark as a debate in which some participants advocate killing or enslaving others, but not without potential for some ill consequences.

Nonetheless, to fulfill their tasks as communities of inquiry and instruction, healthy universities would sometimes need to limit direct academic attacks on what George would call basic human goods. That limits on academic freedom may be wrong, abused, and misapplied does not mean that there should not be any. Proper limits on academic freedom would focus on protecting the prerequisites for the university’s mission. Recognizing this would provide a point of convergence between George’s “new natural law” approach and MacIntyre’s observation that the norms necessary for a community of moral inquiry and instruction are in fact those of the natural law.

Unlikely though it may be, such a revitalization of the academy would also renew liberalism, understood as a set of practices that protect human dignity against both human malice and human fallibility. This makes questions about the foundations of liberalism less urgent, for right action may be its own foundation, and a community of inquiry and instruction may be its own justification. But for this to be the case, professors must, at the least, be able to agree on not killing babies or molesting sheep.

Nathanael Blake is a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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