Justifying academic freedom

January 2015

Is academic freedom best justified on the basis of the Millian view, the view, due largely to John Stuart Mill, that academic freedom is necessary for the advancement of knowledge? Or is academic freedom best justified on the basis of the Dworkin-Mercer view, the view, due largely to Ronald Dworkin and Mark Mercer, that academic freedom is necessary for the advancement of intellectual autonomy? How we choose to answer these questions turns out to be of more than theoretical interest.

Academic freedom is the freedom scholars, researchers, artists, librarians, archivists and students have to go about their work unencumbered by non-academic interference. It protects professors, students, staff and alumni from having to accept any form of ‘party line.’ It gives universities the independence they need to establish academic programs as they see fit. It gives people within universities the right to advance popular and unpopular ideas, free from the threat of discrimination or reprisal, whether from government officials or from their own university administrators. Academic freedom gives people the right to have their work evaluated according to academic, rather than non-academic, criteria. It is what gives academics and academic institutions the independence they need to carry out their work.

Academic freedom is thus an instrumental rather than a non-instrumental good. It exists to help academics do what is expected of them. In this sense, it is more like a civil right than a human right. Human rights, such as the right to life, are often best thought of as intrinsic goods. They are not conditional on any particular goal or purpose. They protect things that are good in and of themselves. Civil rights, in contrast, are the rights we need qua citizen. They are the rights people need for citizens and governments to stand in the proper relationship to one another. In the absence of the institution of government, there would be little need for the right to vote.

This distinction can sometimes become muddled if we fail to notice that some rights have more than one underlying justification. Free speech, for example, turns out to be a human right since it is an intrinsic good, a good in and of itself. It also turns out to be a civil right, since it is essential, practically speaking, for the selection of democratic governments. But in addition, it also turns out to be an academic right, since it is also essential, practically speaking, for the advancement of academic goals and objectives.

It follows that if academic freedom is an instrumental good, we need to become clear about which academic goals and objectives we are hoping to advance. Put another way, we need to become clear about the university’s main mission. We need to know why taxpayers, granting agencies, students and parents all fund universities as they do. Or at least why they should do so.

The advantages of the Millian line – that the main mission of the university is to advance knowledge – are twofold. First, knowledge is largely accepted as an uncontroversial good. Whether in medicine, engineering or the humanities, advances in knowledge are widely understood to be of benefit to all humankind. The second advantage is that knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – is largely understood to be something objective, something that governments and other paymasters can measure and quantify, at least to some modest degree. If so, the only point of controversy will be over how much knowledge we can afford. The only questions of public policy will be about budgets.

In contrast, the advantages of the Dworkin-Mercer line – that the main mission of the university is to encourage intellectual autonomy – may be less familiar to many of us. Increased intellectual autonomy often leads to a greater diversity of ideas. Sometimes this diversity of ideas leads to new intellectual discoveries. But just as often, it is this diversity of viewpoints that seems to lead to entrenched social differences. Reasonable people, after considering complex social or religious issues, often simply end up agreeing to disagree.

Advances in genuine intellectual autonomy are also harder to measure. While the Millian view focuses on measurable increases in knowledge, the Dworkin-Mercer view focuses on the scholar or student as agent. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have believed this leads, in the long run, not only to increased knowledge, but also to better, more fulfilling lives. Democrats from Socrates to Locke have believed that this also leads to more stable, peaceful societies. But who among us is willing to wait for the long run? Quite reasonably, the taxpayer may ask, how are we to know whether we are getting our money’s worth?

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is for these reasons that it has been the Millian view that has captured most often the attention of the scholar and the taxpayer alike. It has also been the Millian view that has motivated the huge shift in resources away from the humanities and towards the sciences over the past century.

Even so, for those of us who want to assert that both goals are worth pursuing, there may be some good that results from tragic events such as the recent shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Such events may motivate us to seek a greater balance between these two aspects of the university’s mission, between the advancing of objective, mostly scientific, knowledge on the one hand, and the kind of individual, intellectual autonomy most often associated with the study of the humanities on the other.

As citizens and governments around the world begin to ask themselves what it is that distinguishes the West from other, less peaceful and less tolerant parts of the world, we should remind ourselves of the importance of those aspects of Western society that are most often associated with the goal of promoting individual intellectual autonomy in our students and in our citizens. These include a universal franchise, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, free markets and, something not unrelated to each of these, academic freedom within the university.