by Mary Harrington
Monday, 30
November 2020
Idea
15:07

Academics face a moral dilemma

by Mary Harrington
Berkeley. Credit: Max Whittaker / Getty

How much do academics care about what’s true, as opposed to what’s morally orthodox? This has become a much-debated question in recent years as the ‘campus wars’ have grown more heated.

To date there has been plenty of opinion on the subject, but little in the way of data. But in 2016, Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology, used an outbreak of ‘campus wars’ at his own university to conduct a study on the association between political outlook and academic values.

He interviewed 117 academics across the US about their sex, political affiliations, personalities, academic subject, and also the relative importance they ascribed to five values: academic freedom, academic rigour, the advancement of knowledge, student emotional wellbeing, and social justice.

The study revealed correlations between academic values and academics’ sex, political orientation, personality traits and subject area. Education academics de-emphasise academic rigour and the advancement of knowledge, for example, in favour of social justice and student wellbeing, as do female academics, while business studies academics prioritise rigour and the advancement of knowledge. The only value shared across all groups was the preference for academic freedom.

Geher argues, with Jonathan Haidt, that the heavy emphasis on social justice as a primary value inevitably comes into conflict with the academy’s ostensible purpose: the pursuit of knowledge. Many recent academic controversies have turned in essence on the question of whether, if something is true but appears to conflict with the aims of social justice, it’s even permissible as a topic of academic discussion. Geher’s study supports the general impression emerging from campus wars, that the academy overall answers ‘no’ to this question — but also that views on the subject aren’t evenly distributed. Women, humanities academics and those with more ‘agreeable’ personality traits are less likely to value the advancement of knowledge.

Tellingly, Geher reports that despite his having published more than 100 research papers and holding tenure since 2004, no peer-reviewed journal was willing to publish this study. The reasons given varied considerably but he wonders whether it simply fell foul of the phenomenon it describes — that is, of a preference for orthodoxy over the pursuit of knowledge. In the end he published the study himself online.

More generally, Geher’s story reveals an academic sector in deep internal disagreement about what it is for. Is its purpose the advancement of objective knowledge, or the promulgation of moral rectitude? Academia seems torn between the Good and the True.

When the ancient English universities were founded, these aspects of knowledge were understood to be fused in the ‘master science’ of theology. It’s only over time that sub-disciplines have spun off into their own domains, with truth eventually coming to seem something that could potentially conflict with morality. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example, was hotly contested on religious grounds even by thinkers who accepted the theory’s persuasiveness in the abstract.

Perhaps what we’re seeing now is the pendulum swinging back toward some kind of ‘master science’ that seeks to fuse the Good and the True. If this is so, then the question surely is less whether an abstract notion of ‘Truth’ can hold out against the return of the Good, as which religious framework we’re using to evaluate the point where they meet.

Join the discussion


  • December 31, 2020
    I define the left vs right debate as between, respectively, collectivism and individualism. On this basis conservatives, going by your definition which I agree with, certainly can be of the left, i.e. you can dislike change consistently with advocating collectivism over individualism. Read more

  • December 6, 2020
    The woke thugs have taken over our universities and need to be removed/purged. We do not need poorly educated graduates to further damage our society. Read more

  • December 4, 2020
    And I thought houses of worship were the places most concerned with moral rectitude. silly me. Universities are now the secular moral equivalent of churches, with all the same historic sense of self-righteousness and moral certitude that characterized churches, but armed with modern means of... Read more

To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up