Philosopher Stephen Kershnar of the State University of New York at Fredonia is barred from campus and teaching, pending an investigation into his recent comments about whether “adult-child sex” is always wrong.
A number of philosophers and free speech advocates have jumped to Kershnar’s defense, arguing that his words have been taken out of context and that academic freedom means nothing if it doesn’t protect even dangerous ideas. Yet other academics believe Kershnar’s comments are troubling enough to make his more than an open-and-shut academic freedom case.
Fredonia’s University Senate, for instance, is today considering a resolution condemning Kershnar’s “straightforward but factually erroneous oration” as “troublesome, offensive and dangerous, with the potential to normalize attitudes and behaviors that cause great, emotional, psychological and cognitive damage to survivors of child sexual abuse.”
News of the Senate resolution was first reported by philosopher Justin Weinberg, editor of the philosophy blog Daily Nous, who condemned the proposal itself. “One hopes that Prof. Kershnar’s colleagues will not be among those who have fallen for the manipulatively edited video interview footage whose viral spread was initiated by a right-wing social media account known for hit jobs,” Weinberg wrote. “One hopes that these professors will take a moment to actually acquaint themselves with his views or understand the nature of his inquiries before rushing to condemn their colleague.”
‘It’s Not Obvious to Me That This Is, In Fact, Wrong’
Kershnar, a distinguished teaching professor, has long studied controversial issues. But he made most of the statements now under scrutiny during a recent interview about “sexual taboos” on the philosophy podcast Brain in a Vat. Those statements were highlighted last week by the politically conservative Libs of TikTok social media account.
The TikTok was certainly designed to make Kershnar and, by extension, other liberal academics look bad. But the social media clip doesn’t really distort Kershnar’s views as he expressed them in the full podcast: ultimately, Kershnar is doubtful that adults having sex with minors is always wrong, and he employs a number of arguments to make this point. Those include reports that grandmothers in some cultures fellate baby boys to soothe colic, and that children participate in a number of activities besides sex that they don’t fully “understand” but which aren’t generally considered to be harmful. He also mentions highly contested data suggesting that society overestimates the harm to teenagers who engage in sex with adults.
“Imagine that an adult male wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl. Imagine that she’s willing participant,” Kershnar says on the podcast as part of a thought experiment. “It’s with a very standard, very widely held view that there’s something deeply wrong about this. And it’s wrong independent of it being criminalized. It’s not obvious to me that this is, in fact, wrong. I think this is a mistake. And I think that exploring why it’s a mistake will tell us not only things about adult child sex and statutory rape, but also about fundamental principles of morality.”
Kershnar’s supporters say his larger body of work supports the idea that sexual conduct with minors should be criminalized, but he never clarifies this in the podcast. He does eventually say that “unwilling sex with underage individuals,” or “out-and-out rape,” is a “severe wrong and should be severely punished.” Yet he also says that “if we’re in the area of legislation, rather than morality, here’s a rule of thumb: if you don’t know whether something has expected good or expected bad consequences, the thumb on the scale should go to liberty.”
Kershnar continues, “If we don’t know whether willing sex with a 15-year-olds is going to have net good or bad consequences, it’s like, ‘Yeah, well, go ahead and ban it.’ The idea is that people trying to criminalize something bear the burden. And even having harsh opinions on this, before we condemn people for engaging in this, on the basis of probabilistic utilitarianism, we should know that it does pose a risk for those and only those willing participants. I don’t think we know that.”
Weinberg, of the University of South Carolina, has updated his posts about Kershnar in ways that are more sympathetic to Kershnar’s critics, at least those introduced to his work through the controversy.
“Since Kershnar seems to voice some skepticism about some facts regarding the harmfulness of some instances of adult-child sex, it would not be unreasonable for a listener to think that he is suggesting that not all adult-child sex should be illegal. Is he suggesting that? In the podcast, it just isn’t clear,” Weinberg wrote.
In response to public concern about Kershnar’s treatment of such a serious subject, Fredonia first said it was investigating the philosopher’s “reprehensible” comments. It then quietly told him he’d been banned from campus due to “safety” concerns. Next, it announced that he’d been suspended until further notice. Kershnar has also had his teaching duties reassigned and has been banned from contacting students.
A student-led petition with some 14,000 signatures pushes Fredonia to take further action and fire Kershnar.
“A philosophy/ethics professor at Fredonia has expressed his support and encouragement of pedophilia and adult-child sexual relationships, in interviews, his own academic papers, and even class material,” the petition says. “While the university can and should foster a difference of opinions, these views are directly harmful to a community already dealing with instances of sexual assault and struggles with consent.”
In its own letter to Fredonia, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said that “Kershnar’s statements are protected by the First Amendment, which prohibits SUNY Fredonia from taking adverse action against faculty members for protected speech, however provocative or offensive it may be to others.” FIRE has also said that “Even if you accept Kershnar’s critics’ framing—that his statements could lead to erosion of laws criminalizing sexual abuse of minors—his views are still protected by the First Amendment.”
Writing on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance, Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, also told Fredonia that there’s nothing for it to review in Kershnar’s case and that he needs the university’s “shelter” from possible harassment.
“There is no doubt that questions of sexuality and sexual morality are important ones,” Whittington said. “Academia should be a place where such questions can be boldly and honestly investigated. If a scholar’s analysis is mistaken, then it should be rebutted or ignored. But the scholar should not be driven from campus for challenging widely held beliefs or for reaching the wrong or unpopular conclusions.”
FIRE helped organize a separate letter of support for Kershnar to Fredonia from individual academics, including Weinberg, Whittington and Brian Leiter, another philosophy blogger and Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago. That letter says, “The tradition of Western philosophy famously begins with the example of Socrates being silenced and put to death for asking questions and pursuing arguments that his fellow citizens found discomforting. The philosophical enterprise—and indeed the scholarly enterprise broadly—requires the freedom to ask uncomfortable questions and explore unpopular arguments. Universities forsake their central mission if they yield to popular demands that dissident scholars be driven from campus.”
Weinberg quoted a letter he and FIRE received from a victim’s advocate after signing this statement. The letter asks, “Did anyone in your organization take into consideration the fact that in all likelihood Kershnar has taught and is teaching students who were sexually abused? Where is your defense of these students?”
Weinberg responded, “These are reasonable questions to ask, and I do hope they are taken up in a productive way by Prof. Kershnar and his university after its investigation concludes.”
Steven DeLay, an independent scholar of philosophy who has publicly criticized academe’s response to sexual misconduct scandals such as the Jeffrey Epstein case, said that in rushing to defend Kershnar, his profession demonstrated its “very odd set of priorities.”
“Part of it, I think, is that many philosophy professors pride themselves on being clever” and making novel arguments, he said. “But I think it goes deeper.”