Ethicists, so the joke goes, use logic and reasoned judgment to undercut the public’s moral intuitions and to question religion’s ethical injunctions.
Ethicists, without a doubt, can be intellectually provocative (and sometimes obtuse). Ezekiel J. Emanuel, the oncologist and bioethicist, once published a widely circulated article entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” Princeton’s Peter Singer—who lost three grandparents to the Holocaust—has notoriously defended voluntary euthanasia and even infanticide in cases of severe disability.
At the height of the pandemic, you’ll recall, there were ethicists who argued that in event of a shortage of incubators, certain groups, such as the young, should be prioritized for care (on the grounds that they were likely to live longer than their elders) and that vaccinations should be distributed according to equity considerations.
Few ethicists, however, are as likely to provoke outrage as Nigel Biggar. Until recently the Regius Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, he takes positions that lie outside today’s secular liberal consensus.
To be sure, Biggar embraces the liberal tenet that all parties to public debate should affirm a commitment to human dignity and to conducting political and policy debates in a reasoned and civil manner. His scholarship is neither sectarian, intolerant, nor moralizing, and his edited volumes include major scholars with highly disparate points of view.
Still, his writings represent a far-reaching attack on the secular Rawlsian political liberalism that, I think it’s fair to say, remains dominant within the academy. In contrast, he argues that the devout need not sacrifice their theological integrity when they engage in the public sphere. Their responsibility is to bear witness and clarify public issues from a religious perspective.
Biggar’s writings nevertheless raise a question that has grown increasingly urgent: Where to draw the line between arguments that are provocative and those that are so extreme, so offensive or so hurtful that they should not be tolerated in the classroom, be published in scholarly journals or receive any government funding?
Here are a few of the arguments that he has made.
- His In Defence of War, which concludes with a qualified defense of the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, offers theological justification for military intervention and religious apologetics for armed retribution, arguing that belligerence and aggressive war “can be morally justified, even though tragic and morally flawed.”
- His What’s Wrong With Rights questions the current preoccupation with rights, arguing that rights talk subverts legitimate authority and needs to be replaced with “a richer public discourse about ethics, one that includes talk about the duty … of rights-holders” and the importance of fostering civic virtue.
- In Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice After Civil Conflict, he argues that justice requires some degree of forgetting and forgiveness—that it’s best to treat past atrocities and episodes of torture, violence and injustices as matters of history and that it’s most moral and constructive to reject any linkage between justice as retribution for past wrongs or as vindication for victims.
- His Between Kin and Cosmopolis offers a qualified defense of nationalism, border protection and restrictions on mass immigration, arguing that it’s important for nation-states to assert their cultural distinctiveness and to regard themselves as distinct moral communities.
- His Religious Voices in Public Places defends an active and assertive role for sectarian religion in formulating public and policy and argues that liberal polities should do more to accommodate religious belief and practice—ideas invoked by others to oppose abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia and gay marriage and to argue for businesses’ right to refuse service to same-sex couples and assert a subgroup’s right to practice their own legal approaches (such as Sharia or orthodox Jewish codes) within Western societies.
It’s Biggar’s latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, that has proven especially contentious. The book, which includes a qualified defense of the Cecil Rhodes, the late-19th-century imperialist, questions the indictment of British colonialism as a litany of racism, exploitation, land theft and genocidal violence driven by greed and a lust for domination.
While acknowledging “elements of injustice, sometimes appalling,” “dreadful tragedy” and instances of culpable incompetence, he argues that a more balanced and nuanced assessment would add that Britain eventually took steps to abolish the slave trade and “ended endemic inter-tribal warfare, opened local economies to the opportunities of global trade, moderated the impact of inescapable modernisation, established the rule of law and liberal institutions such as a free press and spent itself in defeating the murderously racist Nazi and Japanese empires in the Second World War.”
Biggar’s attempt to partially rehabilitate Britain’s imperial history is, not surprisingly, in serve of a contemporary cause: restoring British self-confidence in the face of the “guilt that cultural revolutionary ‘decolonisers’ would hoist upon us.” Biggar dismisses that guilt as “largely imaginary.” He fears that those who call for decolonizing the curriculum or museums are undercutting “the liberal international order at a time when illiberal powers are baring their teeth.”
Biggar is, of course, not the first to offer a qualified defense of the British empire. Niall Ferguson, who wrote one of the book’s blurbs, advanced somewhat similar claims in his 2008 bestseller, Empire. That book argued that Britain’s Age of Empire was the midwife of modernity, spreading “capitalism, telecommunications, the English language and institutions of representative government.” In the former Harvard historian’s words: “The question is not whether British imperialism was without blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity."
Needless to say, Ferguson’s “imperial boosterism” stands in stark contrast to the arguments made by his Harvard successors Caroline Elkins and Maya Jasanoff.
Are Biggar’s and Ferguson’s arguments about colonialism well-intentioned and necessary correctives to “the simplistic focus on racism, violence and exploitation,” as The Washington Post’s reviewer wrote about Ferguson’s Empire? Or are their treatments of imperialism and settler colonialism anathema—odious, abhorrent and morally repugnant attempts to excuse the indefensible: the subjugation of colonized peoples, the suppression of their cultures and the exploitation of their labor by corrupt and profoundly racist profiteers?
Views like Biggar’s and Ferguson’s inevitably invite protests and in today’s fraught media environment, controversy predictably occasions anxiety and fear among editors and publishers.
That’s apparently why Bloomsbury, Biggar’s original publisher (and the U.K. publisher of the Harry Potter books), which had previously scrubbed Douglas Murray’s Megyn Kelly– and Newt Gingrich–endorsed War on the West, got the willies and paid the author to take his book to another press. Biggar denounced this cancellation and a storm ensued, lifting his book to No. 19 on Amazon’s British bestseller list.
This is surely a striking example of a point that the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi has made in a recent article entitled “Woke-ism Is Winding Down”: “the period of unrest and activism that began post 2011 among knowledge economy professionals” is abating.
Still, ask yourself: Would you risk assigning Biggar’s or Ferguson’s books to your students or even broaching their arguments, if only to criticize them? If the answer is no, then you’ve drawn a line in the sand, distinguishing between the intellectual arguments that are and are not appropriate in a college classroom.
We need to reflect on when is it appropriate to deliberately provoke our students and when it isn’t. What range of arguments and controversies are legitimate to include in our classrooms?
My view is that in deciding whether an argument is appropriate in an academic or scholarly context, professionals shouldn’t consider whether the contention is offensive, divisive or harmful. Any decision should rest on the following four grounds:
- Intent. Biggar’s treatment of colonialism, however misguided or misleading, is without a doubt well intentioned. It is not a polemic or a diatribe. It doesn’t seek simply to annoy or anger. Its goal is to prod, to evoke an intellectual response, not an emotional reaction. Even if the argument is profoundly wrong and objectionable, it is a serious, well-meaning contribution to scholarly debate.
- Style of presentation. A provocation can be a harangue, a tirade or a rant, caustic, cutting, critical and cruel, or it can be its antonym: argumentative, contentious, disputatious and opinionated, to be sure, but nuanced and thoughtful, too, and resting on evidence, critical thinking and thoughtful analysis. It’s essential that arguments be presented in a civil and appropriately scholarly manner.
- Alignment with a course’s subject matter and learning objectives. So long as an argument lines up with a class’s topic and goals, it deserves to be discussed and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. We must make it clear that the hallmarks of a liberal education are intellectual tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for a diversity of reasoned opinions
- Respect. We need to show a due regard and a decent respect for other people’s feelings, opinions and traditions. That requires us to listen to others’ points of view, remain on topic and avoid inflammatory or sarcastic language and ad hominem attacks. Above all, it entails a willingness to accept disagreement. Respect doesn’t demand deference or obsequiousness.
In today’s polarized and highly diverse environment, it’s more important than ever to ensure that heterodox perspectives from all sides of the political, ideological and moral spectrum are welcomed into the humanities classroom. If the humanities are to be worthy of their name, their classrooms must serve as intellectual forums and arenas for debate and disagreement—as long as the contributions are well intended, grounded in evidence, presented rationally and respectfully, and aren’t a digression or deflection from the class’s learning objectives.
The goal of a humanistic education is not to provoke for provocation’s sake. Nor, however, is it to forge or cultivate a faux consensus. Indeed, in my view, the proper aim is the exact opposite: to follow Plato’s example and subject all ideas, texts, decisions, arguments, institutions, practices and works of creative expression to critical analysis, assessment and appraisal. Deconstruct, problematize, complicate and deepen. In Nietzsche’s words: great truths “want to be criticized, not worshipped.”
Critique is the essence of a humanistic education and that requires us to invite and engage with ideas outside of our comfort zone. Much as pearls are cultured by introducing an irritant, so it is with an education in the humanities. You can’t grow if you aren’t challenged.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.