Response to Mercer's "Two ways"

January 2015

Mark Mercer argues that academic freedom is valuable because it promotes the generation of new knowledge through academic research and assists with spreading knowledge through educating students. Because academic freedom is essential to both the production and dissemination of knowledge, universities have a strong obligation to protect and promote it. So far we are in complete agreement. But Mercer goes further to argue for the intrinsic value of academic freedom and that such value provides universities with a stronger obligation to protect it. On this point, we disagree.

Mercer argues for a conception of the university as one comprised of people who value free inquiry not just for its good effects, but for its own sake. Intellectual autonomy, he argues, has value over and above how it contributes to the production and dissemination of knowledge. There are two problems with this perspective, however. Firstly, I see no reason to think that all or even most academics do value academic freedom for intrinsic reasons. If most or even just many academics only value academic freedom because they value creating and spreading knowledge, then it is hard to see why a university should have an obligation to protect that freedom for reasons of intrinsic value.

Secondly, even if he is right that all academics value freedom because they regard it as having intrinsic value it still provides the university no compelling reason to protect it. There are a lot of things that academics might regard as having intrinsic value. Participating in sports and listening to good music might be two such things. But the fact that members of the university community value those things intrinsically gives the institution no obligation to provide opportunities to participate in sports or to listen to music. It is not the job of the university as an institution to provide academics with things they enjoy. The university has a specific mandate to create knowledge and to educate students and so it is only the instrumental value of academic freedom that gives it an obligation to protect it.

Mercer has one additional worry about only valuing academic freedom for instrumental reasons. He argues that in cases where we might judge that by limiting academic freedom we will actually help the production and spread of knowledge (say, by stopping research or teaching that seems to promote bigotry) viewing academic freedom only instrumentally provides a basis for limiting it in some cases. While I agree that arguments like this are sometimes made, I disagree with the idea that they are ever sound arguments.

History teaches us well that ideas that were once regarded as obviously false and even pernicious have come to be viewed as true today. The earth does in fact revolve around the sun. Homosexuals are not in fact morally depraved and mentally ill. History teaches us that the ideas it might seem obviously beneficial to suppress today could well turn out to be found to be true tomorrow. Just as in the judicial system we believe it better that ten guilty people go free than one innocent person be convicted, in the pursuit of knowledge it is better that some pernicious ideas be allowed to be defended than to silence some truths we have yet to discover.

If some academics value the academic life for intrinsic reasons, then that is good for them. But it gives the university no additional reason to promote academic freedom. The instrumental value that such freedom provides is more than enough justification for a complete defense of full academic freedom without exception.