Mark Mercer at X

January 2023

On Dec. 1st, Dr. Mark Mercer, professor in the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University and author of In Praise of Dangerous Universities, visited St. Francis Xavier University to present a public lecture entitled “Respect as an Academic Value.” Attended by about forty students and faculty, the event was followed by a reception in Mockler Hall, organized by the St. Francis Xavier undergraduate philosophy society, the Socratic Circle. Bringing in a knowledgeable speaker provided a good opportunity for all sorts of informal discussion among faculty and students circling attendant issues.

Professor Joseph Khoury from the English department began the event by reading from the official Policy Statement on Academic Freedom from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). It declares, in part, that universities serve “the common good of society, … through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students[;] ends [that] cannot be achieved without academic freedom. All academic staff members have the right to academic freedom.”

Professor Khoury went on to emphasize, as the CAUT statement stipulates, that universities “have a positive obligation to defend the academic freedom rights of members,” that “members must not suffer any institutional penalties because of the exercise of such rights,” that “academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual,” and finally, that “academic freedom is a right of members of the academic staff, not of the institution.”

Professor Khoury conceded that maintaining academic freedom is a constant struggle. If, however, the university is to be a place of dialogue between speakers and listeners, listeners have responsibilities as well as speakers. In a liberal university setting, which thrives on a fecund clash of ideas, we are not required to accept divergent ideas, but we are required to listen to them. It not solely a matter of speakers being obliged to follow whatever fair protocol is in place; it is also for listeners, as good university citizens, to accept, at times, to be made uncomfortable and vigorously challenged by opponents sincerely seeking the pursuit of knowledge from a different perspective. As Socrates the gadfly insisted, annoyance and irritation may be essential ingredients to education.

In his talk, Prof. Mercer introduced himself as a civil libertarian. Mercer defines a civil libertarian as someone who distinguishes between his or her personal beliefs and what agents in general should be required to do. You may be convinced, for example, that theism is correct (or incorrect) but the civil libertarian believer (or non-believer) does not maintain that others should be required to share in whichever belief because he or she believes it is true. It is important that agents decide for themselves. This is, he thinks, as important (or even more important?) as having true beliefs. If we come to hold true opinions through blind conformity to the force of social pressure, we have failed at the liberal project.

Prof. Mercer argued that moral and intellectual autonomy is a core academic value, that the pursuit of knowledge requires open debate and sometimes fierce disagreement, and that logic, argument, and evidence have to be the driving force in any institution dedicated to the reliable production of knowledge. He acknowledges, of course, importance of respectful behaviour but setting up “extracurricular” codes of conduct, policies, and restrictions that focus on personal feelings or on political agendas interferes with the knowledge project. When there is serious harm, the legal/judicial system should step in, but it is not for universities to set up an amateur quasi-judicial system that operates according to whether we hold the right opinions.

Professor Mercer distinguishes, again, between what I will call epistemological-respect and identity-respect. In the first case, a dedication to the epistemological project produces a sort of “discourse ethics.” Respect does not have to be imposed from the outside. Participants at the debating table respect one another because they want to get at the truth. In the second case, respect has to be imposed from the outside to protect the identity of participants allied with a school of thought and belief. One must refrain from criticism and accept the opinions of others even if one believes (after rational investigation) that they are false or incomplete. Because we all tend to self-identity with our own beliefs, this model of identity-respect makes open debate almost impossible. As Socrates discovered at his trial, the epistemological project cannot survive for very long if we focus on respect for identity instead of respect for truth. There may be arenas in society that operate differently, but Prof. Mercer believes that, inside the university, which is an institution (allegedly) dedicated to the epistemological project, we need to understand respect, primarily, in epistemological terms.

Two further comments about Prof. Mercer’s talk. As a speaker, he came across as a moderate, mild-mannered voice that focussed, mostly, on general principles. There is a distinct advantage to this approach because the consideration of high-profile cases in the news often requires the laborious unravelling of a tangled skein of misinformation. There is little time left to do the philosophy. This general-principle approach was also an effective way of dealing with questions and objections from a sometimes hostile student body. On the other hand, the talk lacked specifics, which could drive home the urgency of the situation. I wondered if this was a deliberate strategy designed to keep discussion within safe parameters or to introduce libertarian principles to a larger general audience.

Second, I would have expected Prof. Mercer to appeal somehow to Mill’s no-harm principle as the dividing line between what we can believe (or do) and what we are required to believe (or do). He insisted throughout that he was focusing on university life, not on political questions about what happens in the “real world” outside the university. But the two are closely intertwined. Even in an ideal university, where freedom of expression is utmost, there may be moments, occasions, instances of harm that have to be evaluated in terms of some larger social principle.

I am reminded of the old nursery rhyme my mother taught her children: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Of course, some would say that names—hostile names used over and over again—amount to real harm. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, seems to say this. Whether he is right or wrong, this raises vexed moral and political questions. It would be good to sketch out a larger framework that draws a line between what counts as mere nuisance and what is substantial harm that has to be forcibly corrected.

One final thought. Most of the philosophers in my department at X are moral realists. (I use the term loosely.) By that I mean that they believe that a value like autonomy needs to be grounded in some deeper and more fundamental account of reality. Whatever the root of this value is—God, human nature, epistemological realism, conscience, the cosmos, justice as a political ideal, the nature of the moral language (etc.)—realist philosophers will never be satisfied with an empty liberalism; that is, with an account of autonomy that values autonomy for the sake of autonomy (and that is all there is to it).

Professor Mercer believes (I think) that such “realist” demands are inoperative in modern philosophy. But, perhaps, in the present context, these epistemological disputes are not so important. Philosophers of diverse persuasions can all acknowledge, as a starting point in discussions about academic freedom, the value of moral and intellectual autonomy. Thanks to Prof. Mercer for an informative evening!