Drawing the Line between Assigning and EndorsingRoundup
tags: imperialism, philosophy, ethics, free speech, teaching history, trolling
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
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.
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.
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