This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on December 30, 2016
But, after spending the holiday rereading Francis Canavan’s Freedom of Expression: Purpose as Limit, I realize that, while Chicago is to be commended for its instincts, it could and should have provided a more robust defense of what Socrates deemed the highest human activity—the “examined life.”
What I mean is this: The only unfailing defense of freedom of inquiry in the Academy, as well as of freedom of speech and press in politics, is that such liberty is an indispensable means of discovering the Truth. Moreover, the best defense of academic freedom rests on the conviction that the quest for wisdom is the highest human activity. This is the basis on which Socrates proceeded.
But Chicago is trying to have it both ways: It wants to have its moral and cultural relativism and eat them too. Nowhere in its defense of academic freedom will you find the word, “truth,” either in upper- or lower-case. Instead, it grounds its well-intentioned defense of free speech in its unique “values,” “culture,” and “history.”
This appears immediately in the university committee’s report, which responds to the request for a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” To this end, we are told, the “Committee has carefully reviewed the University’s history . . . .” Thus, “this statement reflects the long-standing and distinctive values of the University of Chicago,” which from its “very founding,” has dedicated itself to the preservation and celebration of the freedom of expression as an essential element of the University’s culture” (emphases supplied).
To be sure, the statement is to be commended for trumpeting free, robust, and uninhibited debate. Yes, but why? Is it only or primarily because this has been Chicago’s “culture” for 125 years? The statement dares not mention such “elitist” notions as the “best” or “highest” life. The closest it allows itself to come to such an affirmation is to cite former Chicago president (from 1929-1951), Robert Maynard Hutchins, who argued that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities” (emphasis supplied).
We see the foothold relativism gained in the Academy over the past century when we compare Hutchins’s statement above, offered in 1935, with that of a later Chicago president, Edward H. Levi, who announced in 1968 that freedom of inquiry is “our inheritance.”
Somehow, the statement’s authors hope that what are ultimately idiosyncratic appeals—to the school’s culture, history, and inheritance—will stand, Horatius-like at the gate, protecting civilization. But, in truth, its appeal is barely distinguishable from the “identity politics” driving the tide of campus intolerance and censorship.
Relativism has rendered today’s Academy afraid to utter the untimely truth that some ways of life are superior to others. Instead, freedom itself is now presented as the highest good, and an end in itself. Once severed from the human excellence it was always in the past understood to serve—as means to end—freedom today somehow stands for us as both absolute and groundless. Why “groundless”? Because its former foundation—human goodness or excellence—has been driven from the temple in the name of the indiscriminate “celebration” of all “lifestyles.”
In sum, once freedom ceases to be deemed a means to human virtue, once it becomes an end in itself, it no longer has a basis on which to defend itself. This parallels the central contradiction of moral relativism. Relativism holds that, because all opinions regarding right and wrong are equally groundless, equally unknowable, society should tolerate them all. But this ill-constructed vessel soon breaks up on the reefs of the very tolerance it espouses. Why? Because tolerance is, according to relativism, also a “value,” which relativists hold cannot be known authoritatively through human reason. Therefore, today’s relativists preach tolerance, but they cannot provide a justification for why tolerance is superior to intolerance, because to do so would trap them in the “value judgments” they deem irrational. The best they can say is, “Tolerance is us.”
Chicago wants the world to know, “Freedom of inquiry is us.” It suffers the same problem, and for the same reason, as that faced by relativists’ attempts to defend tolerance. Both are saddled with this dilemma because, as Canavan demonstrates, to argue that academic and political freedom have a purpose above themselves is to limit freedom according to the end it is intended to serve.
To be generous, it may well be the case that the authors of the “Chicago Principles” know well the limitations of their defense of freedom, but are trying to make the best of a very trying situation. They may have judged relativism too big an opponent to face head-on at this time. They might be right. Thus, they may assume that, at the least, they can garner some support from history, culture, and past practices.
Instead, we need nothing less than to restore as our academic model the Socratic life—the primacy of the quest for wisdom as the highest human good.
In so doing, we need also to restore freedom to its rightful place as a means toward this life, rather than as an end in itself.
We need to restore the understanding that, without access to Truth with a capital “T,” there can be no defense of academic freedom, or tolerance, or civility, or anything else, for that matter. This position is and has been the truest bulwark of political and intellectual liberty since Socrates announced at his trial that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
It is only in the light of the simple superiority of truth-seeking and the indispensability of freedom for such seeking that the possibilities and limitations of our other freedoms—moral, political, and economic—come into proper focus.
Accordingly, the Chicago Principles do not do enough to defend the dignity of the human mind—the capacity that elevates us above the brutes. Let us build on Chicago’s courageous first draft and strive to craft a more thorough defense of the conditions of human dignity.