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Why aren’t illiberal universities challenged?

Credit: Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

February 1, 2019   7 mins

We need to talk about ‘discrimination’, ‘homophobia’, and ‘identity’. In fact, we need to rethink them. Daily, these words are trotted out as if their sense were as good as it is common. But it really isn’t.

At the beginning of the new year, the young Thought Police who guard our own egalitarian Cultural Revolution targeted their latest victim. John Finnis is an eminent legal philosopher, whose trademark is precise, relentlessly logical reasoning, and who is best known for pioneering a novel and sophisticated theory of natural law. He is also a conservative Roman Catholic, whose moral arguments tend to support the official teaching of his church. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he holds unfashionably critical views about homosexual practice.

In the second week of January, two postgraduate students of law at Oxford University, Alex Benn and Daniel Taylor, launched a petition to have Finnis banned from teaching. Their case against him is his long record of “extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people”. He is known, they say, for being “particularly homophobic and transphobic”, and his “hateful statements” include the assertion that “being gay is ‘evil’”. By allowing Finnis to teach, they claim, Oxford University permits the promotion of hatred towards LGBTQ+ students.

Shortly after the petition’s launch, Messrs Benn and Taylor asserted in a Guardian article that, through his stated views, Finnis “dehumanises” disadvantaged groups and implies that LGBTQ+ individuals are “morally bad or inferior”. A few days later, the Guardian itself weighed in with an editorial that declared that “by reason of his religious commitments, [Finnis’s] language, and indeed his beliefs, are profoundly homophobic… [His] repugnant views … violate our moral sensibilities.” While it conceded, not very generously, that “freedom of religion implies the freedom to be wrong, and to argue in absurd and morally disgusting ways”, it nevertheless called upon Oxford’s law faculty to “reconsider his invitations to its seminars” (sic). By 22 January, Benn and Taylor’s petition had attracted 626 signatures.

Let me make clear, before I go any further, that I disagree with John Finnis about the immorality of gay sex. I am more appreciative than the Guardian of the deeper reasons for his position, not being content to dismiss it, incuriously, as “weird” and “absurd”. Many – perhaps most – societies throughout history have taken against homosexual practice, as have luminaries such as Plato and Kant. To dismiss all these as ‘homophobic’ is not only intellectually lazy, but, worse, it doesn’t explain very much.

If one takes the trouble to scrutinise the ancient Hebrew or Christian traditions, for example, it becomes clear that the driving concern is the survival of human society through the generation of children. In times and places where human societies are vulnerable to sudden destruction by famine, disease, and war – that is, in every part of the globe throughout most of human history – a strong emphasis on the vital social duty of reproduction isn’t hard to understand. And so long as there is reason to fear that homosexual practice, once allowed, might become so popular as to predominate, a strong social bias against it is really not absurd.

Now, however, in our Western societies, which have enjoyed the privileges of peace, food security, modern medicine, and the development of artificial reproduction for several generations, and which have discovered that tolerating gay sex doesn’t in fact result in a societal pandemic, the arguments against homosexual practice just don’t stack up.

So I don’t agree with Finnis. But nor do I agree with Benn, Taylor, and the Guardian that he should be banned from the classroom. To start with, there is an obvious and entirely innocent sense in which Finnis’s view of homosexual practice is discriminatory: he thinks it immoral. He thinks it “evil”, just as Benn and Taylor and the Guardian think his view is morally “repugnant”. By definition, a judgement discriminates, and a moral judgement discriminates between right and wrong. Unless we’re going to banish the public expression of moral judgements, we have to recognise that at least one kind of discrimination is perfectly legitimate.

What the law rightly forbids, is the unequal treatment of people – that is, discrimination against them – on the ground of such things as race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. This is because those features are morally indifferent: the mere fact of being, say, ethnically African, Muslim, female, or homosexually oriented does not make anybody guilty of moral wrong-doing. Insofar as ‘being gay’ means simply ‘being a homosexually oriented person’, someone as characteristically precise as Finnis would never have called that ‘evil’. One cannot usually be held responsible for the orientation of one’s sexual desire; one can only be held responsible for the practical expression one chooses to give it. Therefore, to say that engaging in homosexual acts is morally wrong is not to say that being a gay person is evil.

I imagine that Finnis’s critics would protest that sexual expression is essential to gay identity, and, since gay identity is essential to the humanity of gay people, any criticism of gay practice is dehumanising. But this isn’t true. Sexual expression is a choice, for which the chooser is responsible; and all responsible choices are susceptible of moral assessment and criticism. Powerful though sexual desire is, and painful though it may be to control it, it doesn’t have to find expression in sexual relations. Some people choose to be celibate; others, lacking alternatives, must be.

Identity is also a choice. We all inherit identities, but we’re not fated to adhere to them: I was born British, but, married to an American, I could have chosen to identify myself with the US. I deliberately opted not to. What’s more, we usually inherit or have the opportunity to adopt several identities, and it’s not determined which ones we’ll choose to make a song and dance about. Identities are not fates; they involve choices, for which we are morally accountable.

So to criticise homosexual practice, or the choice to identify oneself with it, is not to assault the very humanity of homosexually oriented people, claiming that they should be treated like animals or worse. By the same token, nor is it to express hatred against practising homosexuals. There is a common and insidious tendency on the part of our Revolutionary Guards to dismiss any criticism of their assumptions as ‘phobic’ – as Zionists too often rubbish criticisms of the Israeli government as ‘anti-Semitic’.

Last August, after I’d published an article in the Times entitled Obsession with gender identity goes too far, in which I expressed doubts about the current ideology of transgenderism, I was immediately labelled ‘transphobic’. However, as I had explained, in order to fear or hate something, I’d first have to have some idea of what it is I’m fearing or hating; and my problem with claims to transgender identity is that I find myself unable to understand their content. After all, what does it mean to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, now that feminists have rightly taught us to jettison sexist stereotypes? Before I am able to be phobic, I first need to get past being baffled.

So bafflement explains my delinquency far better than phobia. In Finnis’s case, charity obliges that, before we attribute his (faulty) reasoning to irrational hatred, we first consider kinder and equally plausible alternatives. One obvious candidate is his absolute faith in the veracity of the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church – which shouldn’t be so very strange to ardent True Believers in Revolutionary Dogma. A sense of irony, self-awareness, and charity, however, don’t feature prominently in the conduct of the young thought-police, who are far too busy venting aggressive, illiberal self-righteousness.

Disturbingly, this illiberality is not confined to students. In December 2017 I became the target of three online denunciations, one by students, but two others by several hundred academics worldwide. My crime? That I had argued in an article in the Times that Britons have reasons for pride, as well as shame, in the British Empire; and that I’d launched a collaborative research project, “Ethics and Empire”, which is designed to assess moral critiques of empire from ancient China to the modern period.

My consistent experience of these professional academics is that they do not trouble themselves to understand what they are criticising, nor to pay attention to any replies that they receive. Last autumn, a Kings College London organiser of one of the denunciations, speaking at a London think-tank, cavalierly attributed to me a stupid view that I have never held and made plain that he hadn’t bothered to read any of the responses that I’d published almost 12 months previously.

This was nothing compared with the abuse earlier sprayed out by the Cambridge academic, who tweeted that I was ‘racist’, a ‘white supremacist’, the ‘Rev Bigot’, and anything that came out of my mouth was ‘vomit’. When I complained about her behaviour to the heads of her college and faculty – not least, that if she treated me in that fashion, how on earth would she treat dissident students? – they responded that her conduct was legal and that therefore they would do nothing about it. Shortly afterwards two other academics published an article positively condoning her abuse in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

The problem is not primarily intellectual; it’s moral. It seems that many professional academics have not been taught to develop the basic virtues of emotional self-restraint, justice, charity, and humility. They feel no need to hold in check their feelings of irritation, indignation, hatred – and fear. They recognise no obligation to be scrupulously fair to their opponents. They don’t understand that the most cogent critique is one that charitably construes the opposing case in the strongest possible terms, and only then sets about dismantling it.

And most of all, they seem to lack any sense that they might be mistaken, or that they might have something to learn. In my theological moments, I have wondered whether we are now witnessing the fruits of a post-Christian culture that remembers everything about social justice, but nothing at all about the universal spread of human sin. If that’s so, then we’re going to have to get used to a whole lot more unhearing, unintelligent, unforgiving, ugly self-righteousness.

So there’s the deeper problem. What can be done about it? The first, basic step is to call it out and expose it. Beyond that, university leaders should be pressed to start taking some responsibility for it. They will take some persuading, however, because for generations now, they have complacently behaved as if moral formation and the maintenance of civil norms are either unnecessary (because everyone knows, don’t they, what decent behaviour is?) or someone else’s responsibility (surely, parents or schools?).

Now, however, the chickens of neglect are coming home to roost. Some professional academics are spitting out vile abuse at politically incorrect colleagues, while others condone it. Other academics and postgraduates are organising online denunciations designed to shut down heretical projects or ban heretical colleagues from the classroom.

Meanwhile, applicants, students, and untenured junior scholars are watching and observe the passivity of college and faculty heads and the prevailing silence of their classroom colleagues. So, mindful of their careers, they resolve to censor themselves or at least keep their mouths prudently shut. The result is that, notwithstanding Vice-Chancellors’ reassuring affirmations of freedom of speech from on high, a climate of illiberality and mistrust is quietly spreading down below.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford


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Scott Norman Rosenthal
Scott Norman Rosenthal
2 years ago

Seriously? Plato was known for advancing the sexual coupling of men with men.