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Academic Freedom and the Kershnar Case: A Partial Dissent

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American appellate court opinions often include one or more concurrences, where judges register their agreement with the majority or plurality’s decision but disagree in part or in whole with its reasoning. Judges are also free to concur with parts of the majority or plurality’s decision, but dissent to other parts. When this happens, it can be pretty unclear where the judge stands with respect to the majority or plurality opinion. As I read Rachel Robison-Greene’s excellent column about the Stephen Kershnar controversy, I felt something like this complicated patchwork of concurrence and dissent thread together in my mind. The following is an attempt to articulate these thoughts.

To quickly recap the controversy, late last month Kershnar, a philosophy professor at SUNY Fredonia, was interviewed for “Brain in a Vat,” a philosophy-themed podcast. In the interview, Kershnar claimed that adults having sex with children is not morally wrong. The argument he offered for this startling claim was fairly weak, as Robison-Greene shows in her column. Unfortunately, the interview has been removed from YouTube, which makes it difficult for people who haven’t watched it to evaluate the argument for themselves. In any case, clips of the interview went viral, and in response to the controversy, SUNY Fredonia barred Kershnar from campus or from contacting students pending the results of a formal investigation. Free speech advocacy organizations and not a few prominent academics have since protested SUNY Fredonia’s move on the grounds that it violates its own commitment to academic freedom, as well as First Amendment protections that apply to Kershnar as a state government employee.

Robison-Greene provides a clear summary of the academic freedom argument against sanctioning Kershnar, but I want to draw out a few strands that deserve closer attention. If society is actually committed to free inquiry in universities, it must be willing to tolerate academics questioning even its firmest convictions. Indeed, the case for academic freedom is arguably strongest with respect to those areas in which one viewpoint is overwhelmingly dominant, if not universal. It is here that a particular viewpoint comes to seem like the only possible viewpoint — where belief, claiming the mantle of self-evidence, petrifies into dogma. Examples from history are legion: the belief in the unsuitability of women for public life, or in the immorality of homosexuality.

It might be replied that surely, we know that pedophilic sex is wrong, just as we know that slavery is wrong. And even if we don’t know that these claims are true — and especially if, as some philosophers argue, these claims are not knowable, strictly speaking —why allow them to be publicly questioned given all of the deleterious effects that could result, as Robison-Greene plausibly argues? Here, I think, we come to the nub of the issue. The question is this: are the net benefits of allowing academics to freely inquire into the merits of any socially dominant opinion greater than the net benefits of requiring that someone — perhaps the academic herself, her academic department, or school administration officials — weigh up the costs and benefits of each line of inquiry ex ante before allowing it to proceed?

This is not an easy question to answer. Complicating matters is that some of the goods that can be obtained by free inquiry are arguably different in kind from those that can be obtained through censorship. But we can make a few general observations. First, it is very hard to know, ex ante, what the value of a line of inquiry is. It seems probable to me that questioning the moral wrongness of adult sex with children is, on net, a valueless or disvaluable line of inquiry. But my confidence that this is the case is too low to warrant quashing it ex ante. There are simply too many past examples of lines of inquiry that have seemed valueless or disvaluable ex ante to most people, but that have turned out to be enormously beneficial both epistemically and in terms of human welfare. Where the future is concerned, experience always seems to counsel humility.

Even if we were perfectly rational, the limitations on our knowledge would furnish a reason not to attempt to evaluate lines of inquiry ex ante. But we are not perfectly rational — far from it. In general, the more firmly held a belief is, the less disposed the believer is to entertain evidence that points to its falsity. This means that we are likely to systematically underrate the value of lines of inquiry that could threaten our deepest convictions. Thus, our knowledge of our own biases should make us even more skeptical of the possibility of accurately evaluating lines of inquiry ex ante. 

The argument so far assumes that academic censors would act in good faith — that they would not use their authority to advance their own political agendas by, for example, interpreting the rules in such a way that lines of inquiry they disfavor for political reasons would be proscribed. This is far from clear. Moreover, given the inherent unknowability of the future value of lines of inquiry, empowering people to make decisions about which ones ought to be allowed based on a prospective cost-benefit analysis seems particularly likely to lead to abuses.

There is also the problem of the so-called “Streisand Effect”: in liberal democracies with robust civil societies, attempts to censor opinions actually tend to amplify them. The vast majority of “Brain in a Vat” episodes have view counts in the hundreds. Now, thanks in part to SUNY Fredonia’s attempt to punish Kershnar, his ideas have been discussed in dozens of news articles and blog posts, and a far larger number of tweets. It is likely that had the podcast dropped without comment, thousands who now know about Kershnar’s views would have never heard of him. Authoritarian governments with much greater control over the production and distribution of information might be able to censor successfully, but it is doubtful that in the United States, depriving someone like Kershnar of his platform will make his ideas disappear. Censorship via de-platforming might not even be a viable strategy for quashing objectionable claims.

Robison-Greene writes that “the existence of so much support for [Kershnar’s] case by so many (mostly powerful male) [academics] is likely to make victims of childhood sexual assault feel unsupported and potentially unsafe.” This might be true, but I think it’s worth interrogating why. If victims feel less supported when other academics support Kershnar, it must be either because they think (a) that such support is tantamount to approval for Kershnar’s ideas or (b) that pedophiles view such support as tantamount to approval for Kershnar’s ideas, and the consequence of their viewing it this way is that they will be emboldened to satisfy their sexual desires. Either way, the key idea here is that opposition to punishing Kershnar for his ideas implies support for his ideas. There is, indeed, something highly counterintuitive about the idea of hating what Kershnar says but fighting for his right to say it; it produces the same dissonant sensation as hating the sin and loving the sinner, or appreciating the artistic genius of a moral monster. Human beings have a well-documented aversion to ambivalence; academic freedom and similar rights require us to be ambivalent. If society had a stronger commitment to free thought and free speech, it might be easier for people to accept that supporting a speaker’s right to speak does not imply approval of his ideas.

Robison-Greene reminds us that speech can do real harm, in this case by potentially “empower[ing] [pedophiles] in their conviction that their behavior isn’t actually morally wrong, it’s just commonly viewed that way by society.” Too often, free speech advocates seem to deny that speech harms at all. Given that most of them also point to the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence as a model for how to draw the boundaries of free speech rights, this is somewhat ironic. Even as it strengthened protections for speakers over the course of the last century, the Supreme Court never denied that speech can do serious harm. For example, if a state makes speakers potentially liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress because of what they say, that is fully compatible with the First Amendment. The Court has also held that the First Amendment does not bar liability for defamation. In carving out these exceptions from First Amendment protection, the Court tacitly acknowledged that speech can cause profound emotional and reputational damage.

At the same time, however, it’s important to recognize that when people exercise any of their important individual rights, harm to others frequently results. For example, criminal defendants have constitutional rights that, by making it harder for prosecutors to secure convictions, often harm crime victims. Unlike the citizens of some authoritarian states, Americans are free to move about the country and travel abroad. But this freedom comes at a cost: tens of thousands die on the roads every year, and travel produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Parents have extensive rights over their children, and this can cause enormous harm even when parents do not transgress the bounds of law.

Thus, a successful argument for constraining the right to freely inquire — incidentally, the right that SUNY Fredonia guarantees for all of its professors — must do more than show that exercising that right can cause harm. It must show, at minimum, that a policy of constraint both (a) is practically feasible and (b) would produce outcomes that are, on net, better than those that issue from permitting truly free inquiry. I think there are serious reasons to doubt both. That is why, although I agree in some sense with Robison-Greene that this is an “unfortunate case,” at the same time, the fact that our society supports someone who questions its deepest moral convictions is a profound collective achievement. And in the end, I do not think that cases like this pose a serious ethical challenge to our society’s commitment to academic freedom.

Testing the Limits of Academic Freedom

photograph of SUNY Fredonia sign at dusk

On January 30th, 2022, SUNY Fredonia professor Stephen Kershnar was interviewed for the podcast “Brain in a Vat” in an episode titled “Sexual Taboos.” In the interview, Kershnar claimed that adult sex with children is not morally wrong. When asked about the cutoff point for when adult sex with a child becomes impermissible, Kershnar did not concede that such activity was wrong even with a child as young as one year old. He responded to the question by saying, “The notion that it’s wrong, even with a one-year-old, is not quite obvious to me.” The argument that he articulated in the interview is that we let children make all sorts of decisions for themselves: they decide what to wear in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, etc. We don’t challenge their ability to give free and informed consent to those things. He argues that sex is no different and claims that there isn’t anything significant about sex that changes the standards for what counts as giving consent. Therefore, if a child seems to be a willing participant to a sex act with an adult, it is not morally wrong for the adult to engage in a sex act with the child.

A short clip from the video circulated on social media and the content of the interview soon got back to administrators at SUNY Fredonia. Kershnar was reassigned pending an investigation of the case. As part of an official statement, the President of SUNY Fredonia said the following,

SUNY Fredonia is aware of a video posted online involving one of its professors. The views expressed by the professor are reprehensible and do not represent the values of SUNY Fredonia in any way, shape or form. They are solely the professor’s views. The matter is being reviewed.

In response to the news that action might be taken against Kershnar, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) crafted an open letter in defense of Kershnar’s academic freedom. At the time of this writing, the letter has 115 signatories. A significant majority of the signatories are male and include such powerful and prominent figures as Peter Singer, Alex Byrne, and Brian Leiter.

The main argument in support of Kershnar is that the tenure system protects academic freedom, and such freedom is crucial to the functioning of democracy as well as to the give-and-take of reasons and evidence that knowledge attainment requires. The system depends on the broadly liberal idea that bad arguments and ideas are best addressed in open conflict with the articulation of other, more compelling arguments and ideas. It is only when people are free to express all ideas openly and without fear of reprisal that we can understand, as individuals and as communities of knowers, which conclusions the evidence or argument supports.

Those defending Kershnar’s speech may well find it repugnant, but may defend it as a matter of procedure, not of substance. We have a history of harshly punishing people with ideas that diverge from the mainstream. On many occasions, those ideas have turned out to be accurate (or at least more accurate than the views that preceded them). Once we start picking and choosing the thought expressions that will be cause for punishment, the domain of the exchange of ideas falls under the control of whoever is in charge of the punishment. Everything may seem fine when one is in agreement with punishment norms, but winds shift, and one day it is likely that the norms will be controlled by very different people with very different values.

The current political context only makes defense of academic freedom more urgent. For example, seven states currently have laws on the books banning teaching Critical Race Theory in local schools. In an additional sixteen states, similar laws are working their way through the legislature. New waves of book bans are surging through the country. Many states are considering legislation designed to hold public school teachers and their lesson plans up to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, up to and including laws that require video cameras in the classroom and laws that allow for parents to sue teachers if they dislike the material teachers are presenting in their classrooms. At a time when education is under attack and the country is grappling with rampant anti-intellectualism, we can’t afford to whittle academic freedom away. Academic freedom is a bulwark against fascism.

Regardless of whether one finds the arguments for academic freedom compelling, it is clear that there are also strong arguments on the other side of the case. The first argument acknowledges the fact that academic freedom is under attack but raises a concern for how protecting Kershnar in this case might potentially make things much worse. Many states have significantly weakened the tenure system by making it easier to fire tenured professors and giving the power to do so to entities outside of the academic community. Some states are pursuing getting rid of tenure altogether. The tenure system is supposed to protect the free exchange of ideas, which sounds like a lofty goal until it is used as a justification to argue for the permissibility of child rape. When administrators defend even a case such as this on the grounds of academic freedom, it might weaken support for the whole concept among the population in general and may make getting rid of tenure politically easier for lawmakers who were already inclined in that direction. Contributing to the firepower in this regard is the fact that Kershnar seems to have made his career as a sophist, engaging in the kinds of pursuits — attempting to make the weaker argument the stronger — against which Socrates frequently and famously argued. People may simply fail to see the value of a system that protects such activity.

Second, the arguments that Kershnar is making in the podcast aren’t just bad arguments, they’re bad arguments in support of a repugnant and potentially dangerous conclusion. If people accept the conclusion on the basis of the arguments and were already inclined toward pedophilia to begin with, Kershnar’s claims may serve to empower them in their conviction that their behavior isn’t actually morally wrong, it’s just commonly viewed that way by society. This could potentially increase the number of children who are victims of sexual abuse.

Third, Kershnar’s argument, and the existence of so much support for his case by so many (mostly powerful male) signatories, is likely to make victims of childhood sexual assault feel unsupported and potentially unsafe. Beyond a doubt, some people who feel this way will be students and colleagues of Kershnar. The situation may create a toxic work environment for colleagues and a distracting and challenging learning environment for students. A significant number of people who feel uncomfortable in this environment will be women, since 1 in 9 women are victims of sexual abuse as children. The number of men who report being victims of sexual abuse as children is 1 in 53. There are reporting challenges here, but there is a legitimate concern that the circumstances created by Kershnar’s comments will be extremely uncomfortable for many female students and faculty members in particular. In the podcast, Kershnar explicitly challenges the idea that the risk of doing serious long term psychological harm is significant enough to make sex with children wrong. Students and colleagues will both feel misunderstood and be misunderstood, since Kershnar undermines the significant damage sexual abuse can do to a person’s life and well-being. All this is occurring in an environment which gave rise to the MeToo movement in response to concerns that sexual misconduct was not being taken seriously.

There are other cases with a similar distasteful flavor. In 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor David Rasmussen was subjected to similar scrutiny for publicly arguing that women are destroying academia both in the capacity of students and professors. He argued that geniuses are overwhelmingly male, and that the production of geniuses is stifled as a result of women on campus. Some argue that cases like Kershnar’s and Rasmussen’s are ripe for critique as demonstrations of the shortcomings of Enlightenment Liberalism. A society that highly prizes individualistic values such as free speech and academic freedom above all others often does so at the expense of the well-being of traditionally oppressed groups like women and people of color. People frequently use their freedom of expression not only to make unconscionable generalizations about members of such groups, but also to advocate for policies that do active and substantive harm. The most vulnerable are left unprotected.

In the end, this is an unfortunate case with no easy answers.

Sex in the Age of Sex Robots

Editor’s note: sources linked in this article contain images and videos that some readers may find disturbing.

From self-driving cars to smartphones, artificial intelligence has certainly made its way into our everyday lives. So have questions of robotic ethics. Shows like Westworld and Black Mirror have depicted some of the more controversial and abstract dangers of artificial intelligence. Human sex dolls have always been taboo, but a new development in the technology of these sex dolls, specifically their upgrade to robot status, is especially controversial. The whole notion of buying a robot to have sex with is taboo to say the least, but can these sexual acts become unethical, even if they are perpetrated upon a nonliving thing? Is using a sex robot to simulate rape or pedophilia morally permissible? And to what extent should sex robots be regulated?

Continue reading “Sex in the Age of Sex Robots”

A New Approach to Pedophilia

Few crimes are as stigmatized as those that stem from pedophilia. Pervasive tropes of the pedophile as the serial child abuser, shadily lurking in public parks, have worked to demonize the mindset to a degree rarely seen with other crimes. This stigma is so strong that, in states like California, therapists must report clients who admitted that they viewed child pornography, regardless of their attempt to seek treatment. Such measures may seem like a strong stand against pedophilia, a mindset that contributes to the abuse and exploitation of thousands of children. But is criminalizing pedophilia in this manner effective?

Continue reading “A New Approach to Pedophilia”