Last Saturday Professor Richard Swinburne, one of the world’s most eminent philosophers of religion, was the keynote speaker at a regional (Midwest) conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers. He had chosen the title‘Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family, and Life’. In his characteristically careful and dispassionate way, he suggested that, should anyone wish to defend Biblical sexual ethics, he should come up with some rationale for otherwise arbitrary divine commands. What could be the rationale for the prohibition on homosexual sexual acts? Well, homosexual couples sometimes express the desire for offspring, which cannot, in any straightforward way, be satisfied, and one may on that basis regard the homosexual orientation as a disability.If, again, there is truth in the idea that sexual orientation can be influenced by example, then forbidding homosexual sexual activity could in some measure reduce the number of homosexuals. Put the two ideas together and, if the empirical claims are true, then there’s the beginnings, at least, of a rationale for the command.
Cue outrage, vituperation, and an extraordinary attempt by the President of the Society of Christian Philosophers, Professor Michael Rea, to distance his organisation from views which are, apparently, entirely outside the range of the acceptable.
I should say at this point that the imperturbable RichardSwinburne does not need me, a former doctoral student of his, to defend him, and would probably regard such defence as unnecessary; nor am I primarily interested in the merits or demerits of Swinburne’s argument, which is rather different from the kind of argument I would be inclined to make on the subject myself. The case is of interest because of the wider issues it raises, and its effect on philosophers who have not already, like Swinburne, reached the pinnacle of the profession.
To continue, Rea took to Facebook to make a statement (typoin the original):
I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As Preisdent of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.
The contraditions within this statement have become so familiar, within the academic world, that it takes an effort to notice them. To start with, that the views of a speaker at a conference aren’t the views of the organisation under whose name the conference was organised, is such a statement of the obvious that it suggests that the organisation is far from a grouping of diverse opinions, but has substantive views which need to be segregated from the views of the speaker. Again, the implicit rebuke to a well-known philosopher for a sympathetic exploration of arguments in support of traditional moral restrictions on homosexual genital activity, whose intended as well as predictable effect is and will be stop people talking about the topic in an open-minded way, can only in the most Kafkaesque sense be called promoting the intellectual life of the philosophical community. Again, the exclusion of philosophers of certain pre-determined views from public debate is very odd way of excercising the values of diversity and inclusion.
But of course these are phrases are code. What Rea means by ‘diversity and inclusion’ is not a range of opinions, but the treatment of certain groups, attitudes, and lifestyles as beyond criticism. What he means by ‘intellectual life’ is a ritualulised dialogue of safe theses and counter-theses, such as would not raise the heart-rate of a Victorian maiden aunt.
Am I being unfair? Every profession, every institution and indeed every society, has a shared understanding of what is worth discussing, what is not worth discussing because it absurd, and what should not be discussed because it is unconscienable. The notion that we can avoid these restrictions by proclaiming our allegiance to free speech, whether ideologically or legally, is not merely too optimistic, it actually obscurs important issues. Many is the bright-eyed believer in freedom of expression who would rather be flayed alive than enter into an open-ended discussion of the racial justification of slavery, for example, and that kind of unwillingness to discuss a topic seriously is not only far more effective in stifling debate than much state censorship but is also, in this case, perfectly justified. Nor should we be too worried in philosophy seminars when lines of thought are brought to a halt by the observation that it ‘seems absurd’, is ‘incomprehensible’, or, best of all, by the artfully raised eyebrow, an objection far more devastating, and more frequently employed, than the phrase ‘inconveniens est’ in Scholastic disputations. Some such limits to free thinking are absolutely necessary if we are to use even a minority of our time usefully, and not just exploring intellectual dead ends, the grossly immoral, and the plain silly.
These are, however, restrictions on our thinking which we need to be aware of, and it is of critical importance where exactly they are placed. Perhaps, in the post-free-speech era which we are entering, we can be more honest about them, and perhaps even, more critical, than when we pretended that they did not exist. So, what is going to happen if Michael Rea has his way about sexual ethics?
To be clear, there are very few people in the Society of Christian Philosophers who believe in Platonic forms, and not that many more who accept the the Ontological Argument for the existence of God put forward by St Anselm of Canterbury. And yet these are interesting ideas, and as a classroom exercise we regularly dust them down and set them out, and our negative conclusions about their plausibility follow from intellectual objections, not pre-conceived ideas. Rea and his like want to bury Biblical sexual ethics far more deeply than this. They want it to be unmentionable. They want its supporters not to be eccentrics, but pariahs. Furthermore, this favoured state of affairs is a fair way to becoming reality.
How is this, particular, restriction on our thinking going to effect academic philosophy? For one thing, if the excluded ethical principles are correct, then ruling them out without argument would be a pity. Rea may feel confident in his convictions, but we will be seriously hampered in our abilityto test the case for their truth or falsity if no one who accepts them is allowed to speak in our discussions.
This implies something deeper as well. There is a world of difference between Biblical sexual ethics and white supremicism, which even someone who regards them as equally unacceptable should acknowledge, which is that the former, unlike the latter, dominated European culture and its American offshoots from the time of Constantine the Great, and in many cases long before, until the 1970s. A refusal to engage with Biblical sexual ethics is not just a refusal to talk a few of our own contemporaries, but a refusal to engage with vast swathes of our past. Such engagement is, however, absolutely central to the philosophical vocation, since it alone makes possible our understanding of our own intellectual tradition, and its continuing influence upon us, both good and bad.
The intellectual evasiveness of Michael Rea’s statement is not a great advertisement for philosophy, but the attitude lying behind it has the potential to wreck the entire enterprise of serious moral philosophy.