Research, Scholarship, and Curating

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For the first time in ages, I did some research.  I do not mean I did whatever it is that, when added to my teaching and administrative duties, sums to 100% of my contractual obligations as a university professor.  I mean I researched something—I found out something I didn’t know, but which was there to be known. (‘What authority do Scottish courts now accord the 17th century ‘institutional’ writers, such as Erskine and Stair?’ There is a [vague] answer to this question, and I found out what it is.)

I also often try to find out what others are saying about things I’m interested in: so I do look at periodical databases, SSRN, Westlaw, and so forth.  But that’s not really ‘doing research’.  What’s more, that once-common activity of ‘keeping up with the literature’ has become, like visiting parish churches, the pastime of a certain class only.  An influential philosopher told me he never reads the journals anymore:  he has his own work to get on with.  It takes a certain kind of person to assume that everyone else is waiting for your next, while you have nothing to gain from their last.  (A kind of person now well represented in my subjects, and I suspect in the humanities more generally.)

But if I’m not doing research in jurisprudence, what exactly, or even roughly, have I been doing all these years?  For a long time, I thought that it should be classified as scholarship.  I arrived at that conclusion by applying this rough test:

R=df:  If your failure, or delay, in writing something means someone else might do it first, then you’re doing research.

 S=df:  If your failure in writing something means that no one else will ever do it, then you’re doing scholarship.

I think you get the drift.  But the definition of scholarship proves over-inclusive. No one else is going to write your poems either, and not just because of the metaphysical necessity of origins.  It’s just that, if you don’t write them, they are not going to get written by anyone. There weren’t competing crews working on a Toy Boat, then Ocean Vuong’s crew crossed the line first.  But that doesn’t make Toy Boat a piece of scholarship.

My definition also struggles with historical studies.  In principle, someone else might be working on A History of Freemasonry in Kilbarchan, and might publish before you; but his will not be your history.  Indeed, if your history is any good, it is unlikely to be just like his.  He will approach your shared subject with different preoccupations, background, and maybe even methods.  Still, both of your histories are likely to include, or produce, research.

I’ve now come to think that, not just my definitions, but my dichotomy of research and scholarship is too crude.  I am now wondering whether we might think of some of our work in jurisprudence, or in philosophy more generally, as more like curating. (I wanted to write ‘curacy’, but OED tells me the word has been taken.)   Like research, curating can find out things; like scholarship it can communicate things in a way unique to, or bearing the indelible imprint of, the creator.  But curating also does something else.

A curator attempts to care for knowledge and culture we already have.  Not by freezing it or ensuring no others can touch it, but by conserving it while placing it in a new context, or displaying it from a new angle, or in the company of new ideas, so as to make it intelligible and perhaps useful to those who follow us.  A curator protects what we already know (and value), not only against forgetting, but also against the disintegrating forces of self-importance (including national self-importance) and against the blaring noise of the news cycle.

At the end of his play, The History Boys, Alan Bennet gives the closing words to Hector, the childlike schoolmaster whose career is ruined by his fumbling and fondling affection for the boys.  But it is Hector, not the smarmy if effective Irwin (another, even more tragic, closet-case) who actually gives the boys an education.  Irwin merely teaches them how to game the system and win places at Oxford.  Yet Hector does neither research nor scholarship: he recites, assembles, displays and, especially, places in the context of their world some truths the boys need to know.  Mostly, they are things everyone already knows, but which cannot be counted on to survive without care.  Some truths are fragile:

“Irwin He was a good man but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching any more.

Scripps No. Love apart, it is the only education worth having.

Hector Pass the parcel.

            That’s sometimes all you can do.

            Take it, feel it and pass it on.

            Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.

            Pass it on, boys.

            That’s the game I wanted you to learn.

            Pass it on.”

The thought is put more sentimentally than we should in jurisprudence or philosophy.  But Hector’s core idea now seems true to me—some of what we do, and some of what we should be doing—is neither research nor scholarship, but ‘passing the parcel’, in the hope that it will be of value to someone, somewhere, one day.  It’s a decent, and honest, ambition.

 

 

A new direction, and permissive sources of law

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I took a longish break from blogging, owing to ill-health on my part, and then to the death of a dear friend.  As my (few) readers know, I use this space to think aloud about things I am not writing about.  I’ve always needed somewhere I can misbehave, even if only a little. So it was fun to attract comments of the form, ‘You should read X’s reply to Y in the Intergalactic Journal of Z studies, if you ever plan to (=pragmatically-implicates=df: if ever I will allow you to) discuss this topic seriously.’  I deleted those.  Also, when someone claimed a right to comments from me, I told them they first needed to apply to Oxford University law school and get admitted.  I don’t think anyone did.

Then I took a permanent break (contradictio in adjecto?) from social media.  I do miss Twitter for news and links, but I don’t miss seeing philosophers (and others) I admire being bullied and defamed by people who, as the Buddha puts it, ‘have poor self-control’. Very occasionally, I wrote to such people—but only if they were in statu pupillari—just to point out that they were making themselves unemployable, and not only in universities. (Possibly also un-dateable, but who knows, these days?)   I miss Facebook for different reasons.  It was the only place I could find out what was going on with my family—including, odd as this must sound, find out who had been born or died.  Facebook was also the place my brethren ‘on the square’ would let me know what’s up, and where.  I found work-arounds.  But I am still on Candide: the most useful social media site ever invented (Grindr not excepted).  It’s for gardeners.  We talk about how to keep things alive, we admire or criticize each other’s plantings, we complain about the weather—we wail about the climate—we try to solve other problems, too.  But how long will Candide last, before someone wrecks (monetizes) it as well?  Probably someone who has never read Voltaire.

So, (linking non-sequitur) I think I’m now going to use this space to talk more about things I am writing about, or about things I’ve been reading.  And here is a start:

I worked for a long time in Canada and in the US where many people teaching substantive (‘legal’) subjects in law schools are what I call ‘casual legal realists’.  I mean they take it for granted that the ‘law on the books’ isn’t much help in court, and that what counts is to be able to spin a story—perhaps decorated with cases—that will appeal to the judge.  Some casual realists acknowledged that such stories are not, strictly speaking, the law; but too many also had philosophical ambitions, and went on to tell students that this is what law really is.  The law is what the judges say it is; or whatever the judge’s mood or politics is; or whatever strikes them as fair.

Of course, there is something in casual realism—certainly when compared to the fantasies of economists and so-called ‘Kantians’ in law schools. But I never thought casual realism was correct (legally or philosophically).  I thought, and still think, that if a sexist judge regularly finds against female claimants, it does not follow that the law itself is against women.  That might not be the law even if it would be economically efficient to find against women, or even if  pure Recht ‘constitutes’ the freedom and equality of women via sexual complementarity–separate, but oh-so-equal.  (Shockingly, Ronald Dworkin once mooted that possibility.)  But: maybe the judge is just breaking the law?  Or is stupid, or hateful, or….  After all, we know law professors who are egotists, sexists, racists, homophobes, and xenophobes.  Why expect more of judges?

BUT:  I also think that all law is positive:  law is constituted wholly by facts about what actual people believe, want, intend, and decide.   The fact that something would be fair, efficient, or reasonable—or even entailed by other true legal propositions—does not suffice to make it law.  So what to say about the embarrassing facts I mentioned above?

It is tricky to square these thoughts: that only actual facts determine the law, but that the law is also in some sense a system of norms telling us (or at least telling judges) what we ought to do.

I’ve tried to tackle this problem before, but  colleagues persuaded me that I had handled the ‘realists’ too roughly.  Here is another attempt.  While SSRN is misbehaving, it should also be accessible here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Law, Norms, Hate, Porn, Progress, Gender

Some thoughts on these things: in an interview with Richard Marshall.

Marshall has had to migrate his interviews with philosophers to this new site, owing to a hecklers’ veto of 3:AM magazine (as it then was). I’m glad to see he is keeping up his work, and not grovelling to the Twitter mobs.

‘[W]henever you see someone groveling to another person or flattering him insincerely, you can confidently say that this man also is not free, and not only if he is doing it for the sake of a meager meal but even if he is hoping for a governorship or a consulship. Call people who act like this for small things petty slaves, and call the others, as they deserve, slaves on the grand scale.’

Epictetus, Discourses, 3 (trans A.A. Long)

What Constitutional Crisis?

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Even the middle-brow British press are now havering about a supposed ‘constitutional crisis’ in the UK.  The Speaker of the Commons has given notice that, if Theresa May attempts to bring her twice-rejected Brexit deal back for a third (or fourth…) vote, he will be forced to rule on whether that violates the established convention that Parliament may not be asked, in the same session, to vote again on a proposal it has already rejected.

This may be a crisis, but it is not a crisis in or caused by the constitutional order.  It is a political crisis of the government’s making.

How do these differ?  Almost any constitutional crisis brings a political crisis, but not every political crisis flows from a constitutional crisis.  It would be a constitutional crisis in the UK if the Queen refused to give royal assent to a bill that had passed Parliament, or if Scotland unilaterally declared independence, or if owing to austerity cuts the courts ceased to function.

It would be a political crisis if we left the EU without any deal providing for an orderly exit, or if border checkpoints were to be set up again in Northern Ireland, or if the National Health Service collapsed owing to immigration quotas.

In a non-constitutional crisis there can be profound social and economic dislocation, but if the constitution remains broadly effective and regulates the major political organs there is no constitutional crisis.   In the present case, the integrity of the UK constitution is not in doubt.  Just the opposite: a pre-existing political crisis—a failure of government—has been heightened by the Speaker signalling that he will, if needed, enforce one of the basic rules of the constitution.  Moreover, the government acknowledges that Parliament may not evade or abrogate his ruling except by lawful measures provided by the constitution itself.

Of course, no law or convention is black-or-white; they all have vague margins.   But there is no doubt that the government may not ram a rejected and unmodified bill through Parliament by bringing it back, week after week, hoping that intervening threats or bribes will eventually bend the house to its will.   In that scenario, votes in Parliament would not amount to decisions at all.  The rule exists precisely to ensure that does not happen, and it is one of the functions of the Speaker to apply the rule.

However, even in its core, one constitutional rule may conflict with another.  Sir Stephen Laws emphasizes such a conflict when he argues, for the conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, that the right of a government to get its way over money bills is also of great constitutional importance.  As indeed it is.  But that rule presupposes a government that can command a majority in Parliament.  To give absolute control over Parliament to a minority whose very survival is in doubt from week to week would be a grave constitutional error.

(Incidentally,  Policy Exchange has one of Britain’s very worst records for financial transparency, and it also funds the Judicial Power Project—a parliamentarist’s answer to the far-right Federalist Society in the US.  Actually, since Policy Exchange keeps its funders out of public view,  it may simply be a branch of the Federalist Society.  Or worse.  Charity Commissioners, please?)

Behind all this posturing about a ‘constitutional crisis’ is, of course, the fear that Brexit will be lost through delay.   There is rank hypocrisy here.  Those who say the referendum on leaving the EU must never be revisited, now say that a Parliamentary vote rejecting the Brexit plan—by the largest margin in modern history—must be revisited, and revisited, and revisited, until Parliament gives the answer that a weak and divided government wants to impose on an unwilling country.  To allow that really would be a constitutional crisis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Professor Finnis and Academic Freedom

My distinguished former colleague, brilliant jurist, reactionary Catholic ideologue, and career homophobe, John Finnis, is once again attracting the attention of Oxford’s law students.  This comes in waves.  In the past, it was triggered by things like John’s attempts to defend frightening moral views, or by his legal interventions on the side of prejudice and superstition, or by his disowning Oxford’s standards of academic integrity (when breached by students who share his views).  What could have triggered the ludicrous new petition to have him ‘removed’ from Oxford?

I’ve been away on sick leave, so I may have missed something.  But reliable sources tell me there has been no fresh controversy.   Of course, each year there is a fresh group of students to be shocked by Finnis-type views.  That encounter can be like reading Hastings Rashdall for the first time. (Rashdall argued that the well-being of the ‘higher races’ matters more than the well-being of the ‘lower races’. I was first made to read Rashdall in a tutorial at Oxford.)  Actually, it is more like reading Rashdall and then, just when you stop trembling, walking into your seminar and there is Professor Rashdall! And now it’s your turn to engage in ‘more speech’.

Still, the petition to ‘remove’ Finnis from Oxford is seriously wrong in principle and mistaken in fact.  Principle: To fire someone from an academic post solely on the basis that he defends false or repugnant views is a clear violation of academic freedom.  As my friend Brian Leiter rightly says, it is pretty embarrassing to see Oxford Law students signing up for this.  (I’m hoping none of the signatories was in my classes on freedom of speech.)  Fact: one cannot ‘remove’ someone from a post he does not hold.  John Finnis is long retired from Oxford Law, though it is true that he is still occasionally invited to teach seminars, and also to participate in hiring decisions.  (At Oxford, ‘compulsory retirement’ is fully compulsory only for those who lack friends.)

But is academic freedom the only thing at stake here?  Consider whether, when Hastings Rashdall retired from New College, Oxford, they should have gone looking for a replacement to defend his articulate, philosophical form of racism, or whether they should have kept Rashdall on an occasional basis, to ensure that students of the ‘lower races’ would have some controversial views to take on.  (It was 1910—philosophical racism was still a thing.)  If such a case could be made, it would have to appeal to something like intellectual diversity or pluralism. (‘We need someone to stand up for racism around here!’) But it couldn’t be advanced on grounds of academic freedom:  that protects those who have an academic role, it doesn’t tell us who should have an academic role in the first place.  If there is an objection to not replacing (or re-hiring) racists or sexists or homophobes, it is not an objection from academic freedom.

Now, back to the future:  Oxford’s official response to the Finnis petition was as distressing as the petition itself, though for different reasons.  (I have never understood why, but this particular issue is something our administration gets wrong, time after time.)   The University says, ‘We are clear we do not tolerate any form of harassment of individuals on any grounds, including sexual orientation. Equally, the University’s harassment policy also protects academic freedom of speech and is clear that vigorous academic debate does not amount to harassment when conducted respectfully and without violating the dignity of others.’

Fair enough.  But the petition does not allege that John Finnis engaged in ‘harassment of individuals’ and, myself, I would consider any such allegation incredible. John is a kind teacher, a generous colleague, and a gracious man. However, our student lawyers do understand the University’s obligations under the Equality Act better than the University does.  The University has an obligation not only to eliminate individual discrimination against, and victimisation or harassment of, gay students, but also a positive duty to advance their equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between gay people and straight people at the University.  In its garbled (and partly unlawful) proposals, the petition fairly demands that the University take more seriously its positive equality duties, at least by clarifying how it sees those as relating to academic freedom.

We never run out of opportunities not to discriminate or not to harass, but serious opportunities to advance equality or foster good relations come up only now and then, and only in certain contexts.  In a University, retirements are among those contexts.  Every retirement frees up resources to do new and, if we can, better things.  Instead of replying in its familiar, defensive, way, Oxford should have explained to the petitioners all the ways it has used things like Professor Finnis’s retirement to advance the equality of gay students.  But perhaps that list was too short to merit mention?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Will of the People

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In the previous post, I suggested that there is some truth in populism.   I proposed that it specifies a certain end for government, namely, that the well being of the people ought to be the ‘supreme law’ (as Cicero put it).  A number of correspondents remind me–correctly–that Cicero was not all that keen on the populists of his day.   Others write to ask how a liberal like me could possibly endorse such a view (forgetting, I suppose, that Locke chose Cicero’s tag as the epigraph for the Two Treatises).

It is unlikely that any general purpose or aim will suffice to pin down a specific political theory or, if you prefer, ideology.   Utilitarians can subscribe to the populist aim, under a certain interpretation of ‘well being’.   So can rights-based liberals, under a certain theory about rights and a theory about the division of labour among states.   Is this worrying?

I think that when we are trying to understand populism as a possible–and possibly attractive–political view we need to add to its characteristic end at least one other feature, a claim not about proper ends but about legitimate means.   Populists think (or should think) that the most fundamental political choices facing a state ought to be subject to the will of the people, in the sense that they should be responsible to the people.  Again, this is an ideal, not a description of our current mess.  (And that’s another reason that the journalists’ pejorative ‘populism’ is a such poor guide for constitutional theory.  The pejorative use just sweeps the messes into one big heap, then tells us to bin the lot.)

But now populism is starting to sound a lot like democracy.   Well, it is something like democracy;  we might say, populism is democracy for les jusqu’au-boutistes.  The point about the proper ends of government applies also to its proper means.   A democrat, regardless of how much popular input he favours, is bound to stand firm at one  point.  It is not for the people to undo or restrict democracy (in the specified form).  If, in a free and fair referendum, the people vote by a clear majority to establish a theocracy, then the populist I have in mind will hold that that is how the constitution should run.  It is not for the losing minority, or the economic elite, or powerful secular states, to prevent that people from living under the sort of constitution they chose.  Of course, opponents of theocracy are still entitled to denounce what the people have chosen, to argue against it, and so forth.  Nonetheless, at the end of the day the people are to be sovereign.  A people can be sovereign without governing, and they can govern without being sovereign.  That is why a commitment to popular sovereignty sits uneasily with a commitment to democracy.  Only under certain conditions are they mutually supporting, and those conditions are not guaranteed (and, historically, are not all that common).

I have said that a populist thinks that the most fundamental political choices should be made by means responsible to the people.  This allows for bolt-ons.  We need to have a separate argument about whether choices that are morally fundamental –say, policies about abortion or punishment–ought to be subject to popular control, or whether popular sovereignty applies only to choices that are procedurally or institutionally ‘fundamental’ (e.g., voting systems, constitutions and their amendment procedures, etc.).  But the need for bolt-ons is not an objection to a theory.  Just the contrary: we should be wary of anyone who purports to ‘derive’ everything in political morality–from the ends of government, to the limits of private property, right down to the role of judicial review– from a couple of diaphanous ideas like ‘reason’ or ‘freedom’.  We should expect to see different sorts of populism, just as we see different sorts of conservatism, and different sorts of libertarianism.  And should expect to come to different views about their cogency, according to our views about the bolt-ons.  That is how serious political philosophy works.

The idea that fundamental political choices ought to be subject to the control of people–the very same people whose well being figures in specifying the aim of a populist government–is thus flexible.  But it is far from empty.   Plato would have hated it for the same reason he hated democracy:  what do the untrained ‘people’ know about anything?   Bad enough that, say, a bricklayer should get to vote on which experts should determine monetary policy; but a populist is willing to let him vote also on the voting system, and even on constitutional rules!  Some liberals will hate it, for they will see that by letting the people shape the constitution we will inevitably be letting them shape, not only what rights we have, but how we determine and enforce what rights we have.   And some conservatives will hate it.   Like Dicey, they will say that the only ‘will of the people’ the courts can recognize are Acts of Parliament; or that populist politics are likely to be turbulent, and nothing frightens a million pounds as much as uncertainty.

That so many find so much to object to in populism as I’ve defined it is good evidence that is far from being an empty doctrine.   How it measures up against its competitors is a matter for later posts.

The Truth in Populism

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The Guardian is doing terrific work on the spread of far-right, xenophobic, racist, and mercantilist politics in Europe and the US.   It is doing it, however, under the misleading label of ‘the new populism’.  That is lazy.   If we explored the nature and sources of the grotesque inequality and greed in capitalist societies under the heading of a ‘new’ (or even ‘classical’) ‘liberalism’, examining only the ideas and followers of Herbert Spencer, Milton Friedman or (for a laugh) Ayn Rand, we would quickly sense that something had gone awry.  Sure, those writers do  mention ‘liberty’.  But that is no better reason for thinking they are ‘liberals’ than it is to think that, because they mention ‘conservation,’ the Friends of the Earth are conservatives.   It is long past time for people who can read and write to ‘use their words’.  Let’s call things what they are.

This isn’t just a quibble.  ‘Populism’ sanitizes what is, in much of Eastern Europe, neo-fascism, and, in large swathes the the US, anti-black and anti-Latino racism.  It homogenizes phenomena that differ, historically and morally.  Yet it isn’t hard to find serious paradigms of populist thought and politics:  Rousseau, Marx, the Chartists, the People’s Party, and so forth.  Admittedly, they expressed other ideologies as well:  romanticism, determinism, democracy, agrarianism etc.  But if you want to know what populism is, or what its appeal it might be–or for that matter, what its risks are–then this is where you need to look.

Actually, you could start earlier.  One reasonable definition of populism is Cicero’s: ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’: The well-being of the people ought to be the supreme law.  Here is how I think we should best understand that:

(1)  Populism is a claim about what ought to be supreme law.  We can think of ‘supreme law’ as something like the constitution, or –better– the fundamental order underlying the constitution.  It is not a claim about tariffs, trade, or immigration except to the extent that these bear on the supreme principle.   Populism casts doubt on the idea that our supreme law ought to be the will of our ancestors, or our technocratic rulers, or our TV stars.  Populism respects democracy–but only to the extent that democracy is a system that serves the well being of the people.  (If everyone votes for a theocracy, the democrat is bound to reject their unanimous view; the populist may try to live with it.)

(2)  Populism is a political doctrine that has at its centre well-beingThis idea is capacious.  It means human welfare, flourishing;  perhaps even the perfection of human capacities and capabilities.  Maybe that sounds banal.  Doesn’t everyone think politics is about human welfare?  Readers of contemporary political philosophy know that it is not banal.  Some think the leading ideal for law and government shouldn’t be human well being, but something more pure and abstract, something that may or may not make anyone better off, for example: respecting the will of the gods, realizing ‘the right’, embodying ‘legality’ and so on.  So many words.   Yet they share one destructive idea:  the actual well being of actual people is of significance only to the extent that it serves some other ideal.  Do people have safe homes? A job?  Decent health care? Education?  A private place to shit or piss?  The anti-populist thinks of such things as of ‘merely contingent’, ‘conditional’, value.  What matters to him is something higher–or anyway different—than the plain reality of ordinary people’s lives.

(3)  Populism takes as its ‘supreme’ law the well being of the people.  It is at this point that the radical edge of populism is often dulled by lazy theorists or motivated ideologues.  Here, I can only be dogmatic : (3a)  ‘The people’ means all the people in a political jurisdiction, or at any rate all the people who normally make their lives there.  It is thus an anti-racist and anti-nationalist doctrine.  (3b) ‘The people’ does not itself explain or justify the boundaries of a political jurisdiction.  Nor it does not pretend to.  (3c) To affirm the supremacy of the well being of the people is not to disallow or negate the idea that the well being of people in other jurisdictions–foreigners–is morally important.  Just the contrary: a government should serve the well being of foreigners at least when doing so will (indirectly) serve the interests of its people.  In a complex, interconnected world, governments concerned to advance the well being of their (own) people ought to be very anxiously concerned about the well being of other peoples.  Moreover, the existence of a supreme principle (eg ‘parents ought to secure the welfare of their own children’) is compatible with, and may require, the existence of other, demanding, subordinate principles (eg ‘when the interests of your own children aren’t at stake, you should work strenuously to secure the interests of other people’s children’).

These remarks are nothing like an adequate defense of populism.  They are hardly a beginning  (I will offer some more later. ) But, unlike much of the journalistic and academic chatter in which we are drowning, it identifies populism with an intelligible ideal rather than an abusive epithet.   Moreover, it is an ideal that has serious antecedents in political philosophy and is not obviously, or absurdly, wrong.   In fact, I think that the sort of populism I have in mind  here is is not only defensible; I think it is more attractive than many of its competitors, including democracy.  But more on that later.

 

Self-help and Free Speech

It is important that speech (along with written communication and artistic expression) be fairly free.  By ‘free’ I mean at least from governmental and other quasi-official constraint, and by ‘fairly’ I mean at least to the extent that it does not constitute fraud, defamation, incitement, group hatred, and the like.  Why? For a number of overlapping reasons that do not add up to anything worth calling a ‘theory’ of free speech.  Speech should be free because: it helps in the quest for reliable knowledge, because it  supports good government, and because it serves individual development and autonomy.   Also (marginally) relevant is the fact that speech that is forced, whether a confession extorted by threat, or a teleprompted lie bought with bribes, tends not to be very interesting as speech.   Together, such considerations support the ‘free speech principle’, a principle that we invoke and contest as such, as a principle of political morality.

Most of the fair and feasible means of protecting speech are already well known.   But once again, there is nothing here worth calling  a ‘theory’.  In one society, a judicially enforced bill of rights may prove vital, in another plural and competing media may be more important, in a third, the willingness of intermediary institutions (professions, churches, universities etc.) to silence the silencers may be key.  And always and everywhere political culture is hugely important.  As we see now in the US, in Poland, and in Hungary, when important political actors, including  senior judges, will not or cannot make good faith efforts to protect speech,  and instead use the principle merely for ideological money-laundering, set to whatever spin cycle their masters demand, no institutional remedies can be counted on to improve things.

But what about self-help?  Two versions of this idea are worth considering.  The first is a matter of hardening one’s defenses.  Along with the Stoics and Jesus, the Buddha says that, even when subject to abuse, we should often turn the other cheek.  We read in the Dhammapada, ‘As an elephant in battle bears the arrow shot from a bow; I will endure insult; For many people have poor self-control.’  Getting angry will often make you unhappy; trying to get even will keep you very busy.   Of course, none of these texts or teachers intend that we should put up with anything and everything.   But before returning fire, it is worth at least considering whether something is an offense against us or is merely offensive to us; it is worth learning the difference between something that is genuinely harmful to individuals or groups, and something that is hurtful to them.  When silencers learn that the elephant can bear the arrow, perhaps they will aim elsewhere or, if we get lucky, lay down arms and proceed by other means.

The other aspect of self-help is more complex.   To silence speakers one needs to find the target.  So it is tempting to think that speech must be more free when speakers are harder to find, for instance, when they are anonymous.   Especially in social media and the rest of the online world, anonymous comment is the norm.   Perhaps some people think of Twitter as the acme of free expression.   But Twitter should give us pause.  What better example of the Buddha’s glum warning, that ‘Many people have poor self-control’?   The availability, and scalability, of  anonymous comment does allow people otherwise at risk of being silenced to get their message out.  But anonymity also weaponizes poor self-control: fraud, incitement, hatred, and defamation–to say nothing of brutality, self-importance, and prideful ignorance– are everywhere that anonymous comment is standard, and it is not clear that what we innocently call the online ‘platforms’ have the means, let alone the will, to cure this.

I’m of two minds, then, when I read that my distinguished colleague Jeff McMahan plans to establish an online Journal of Controversial Ideas where anonymous authors can boldly set out their conjectures and refutations without fear (and, for that matter, also without favour–I can’t see the UK government rewarding anonymous research.)   What then is to stop the JCI becoming a high-brow, polite, version of Twitter: poor self-control expressed in sentential calculus, or blind hatreds ‘proved’ by transcendental arguments or pseudo-Darwinian fairy-tales?  The answer seems to be: peer review, up to the usual scholarly standards.   But we’ve  seen reason to worry about those standards.   Moreover, if the authors are anonymous, how can we know whether the editors are publishing only their students, colleagues, or cronies?  What if they are silencing  people they think we’ve all heard enough of?   And if that is what they are doing, the editors may be engaged in local, mini-, violations of free speech. Of course this is not comparable to governments prohibiting sex-education, or requesting teachers to report on whether and how they are teaching about Brexit.  But it is the kind of thing that the government thinks is wrong with universities.  In my own field, one of the best journals mostly publishes work by: those who have already published in that journal, those who were taught by those who have already published in that journal, those who have slept with anyone in the first two groups, and by members of the editorial board.  (Some of this work is excellent, by the way.)  Moreover, if someone wants to present in academic dress an ‘argument’ that homosexuality is an ‘intrinsic moral disorder’, or that the gender pay-gap expresses women’s ‘choices’, I think it would be decent of them to actually own the argument.

So I’m left with reservations.   I also confess to wondering what the problem in universities actually is that it calls for anonymous journals.  Unlike Jeff  (and unlike our current government), I do not see a general, serious threat to free speech in our universities, though I agree that it is the case in some departments and perhaps in a few institutions.  Nor do I accept his observation that, ‘The threats from outside the university tend to be more from the right. The threats to free speech and academic freedom that come from within the university tend to be more from the left.’  The serious risks to free speech in universities are nearly all from the right.  Since Jeff and I teach at the same University, and since I know we share roughly the same concepts of ‘right’ and ‘left’, Jeff must have a different idea than I do of threats ‘from within the university.’  He must be thinking of the fairly powerless, if noisy, student groups, and of invitations denied people who have no right to our platforms in the first place.   I am thinking of senior administrators, of fundraisers, and of those who manage the university’s real property.  These people have real power, and everywhere I have worked some of them have not been afraid to use it, even if doing so leads to clear violations of free speech (and of academic freedom).

 

 

 

Oxford needs quotas

I’m on sick leave, and so missing the delicious pleasures of Schadenfreude.   My colleagues will shortly begin interviewing teenagers to decide who should get one of the  few places to study law here at Oxford.  I say ‘Schadenfreude’ because, owing to seniority and other things, the closest I ever get to undergraduate admissions these days is dining with colleagues who, over claret at High Table, moan about what an awful job theirs is: having to choose which students they would quite like to teach, and  which ones are then most likely to go to careers at the Bar or in England’s judiciary.

My colleagues mean well.  Most of them mean better than I did when I was charged with selecting England’s elite-to-come, years ago.   There is now more centralization and standardization of interviewing than when I did it.  There is better training;  almost everyone is alert to  the possibility of unconscious bias.  (Having completed their online training, none of my colleagues is conscious of any unconscious bias on their own part.)  There is better institutional outreach, and more evidence that the senior administration are serious about these issues.  There has been real, non-negligible, improvement.

Still: however you slice or dice it, year on year, in subject after subject, Oxford admits a class of undergraduates who not only fail to mirror–even roughly–the relevant population in their age cohort; they look like an entirely different species.  Apart from sex, Oxford (and Cambridge) have made too little progress in admitting disadvantaged groups. The facts are not in serious doubt.  We debate only responsibility and remedies.

Our responsibility–setting aside our inefficient and ineffective system of interviews– -is limited.  This is mostly not our fault.   But we do want to teach in a very special way.  In some subjects, we want to teach in a class size of two or three (no; you did not misread), and so we select students who, we think, will flourish in the unique way we intend to teach.  Of course we know there are other ways to teach undergraduates.  After all, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard all seem to turn out brilliant graduates (and even to replenish the US class system) without anything like our commitment of resources.   I’ve taught in both systems, and I know that, for the faculty, it is more fun and more illuminating to teach students in pairs than in scores.  But it has been a long time since Oxford (or Cambridge) has seriously examined the tutorial model,  though I think the Equality Act probably requires us to do so.  So some share of the blame is ours.

What is manifestly not our fault is the huge disproportion of good applicants who were privately educated–pupils whose parents could give them not only the social capital, but also the cold cash, to be educated in private schools that prepare pupils well for how Oxford has decided to teach.  This state of affairs is not unique.  In most capitalist societies, such advantages can be purchased either directly, by paying school fees, or indirectly, by buying a house in the catchment area of an excellent state school.  England is unique only in how pervasive, overt, and toxic the transaction is.  There is a nice philosophical question whether it is more opprobrious to  buy advantage on the open market or to buy it as a foreseen, welcome, but strictly unintended, consequence of one’s housing choices.  (And these are, for some people, real choices: my own parents gave up a lot of personal pleasures to buy a house in an area where I was likely to get the sort of education that would prepare me for the right sort of university.  Yet being on the (far) left, they would never have considered paying school fees.)

But the fact that something is not Oxford’s fault, in the sense that we are not morally or politically responsible for causing it in the first place, does not show that we are blameless when we have the power to change it yet decline to do so. I think that is our actual position.  We could quickly improve things with quotas:

I propose that Oxford (and Cambridge) should require the over-representation of privately educated undergraduates stay below 300%, which quota should be reassessed every 10 years.

You may be thinking that a 300% over-representation of any social group is already outrageous.  Maybe.  But depending on how one counts it, the current over-representation of private-school students at Oxford is around 600%.   So we could make a huge reduction in offers to the privileged and still leave them with triple what they would be entitled to under mirror-representation.   That would be a lot easier than expanding the size of the university, or spending more on ‘outreach’ to attract new applicants who we might still reject.

Or you may be thinking that my proposal would be discriminatory.  In English law anyway, it would not.  ‘Wealth and status‘ are not ‘protected characteristics’ under  discrimination law.  There are many good reasons we should not set caps on the number of Jewish or Asian students we admit.  But these do not apply to those elevated by economic and social privilege alone, and there is no solid evidence to show that a cap on the (relatively) rich would be indirect discrimination against one of our protected groups.  In practice, all this means is that some children of the privileged will not make the cut at Oxford or Cambridge, but will instead get accepted at one of England’s other, still excellent, universities.

But maybe you are thinking that this would violate a moral norm: ‘each person should be treated as an individual, on her own merits, and not just as a member of some group or other!’  (Myself, I’d dread being treated on someone’s view of my ‘merits’.)   But if that norm is sound, it would already require a huge change in our admissions standards.  We do not now treat the hundreds of applicants ‘each on her own merits’.  Each is treated as a member of a group:  the group who got three A’s at A-level, or the group who scored high on the LNAT,  or the  group that impressed the interviewer, or the group that came from a school we know and respect.   The fantasy that our existing system is attuned to individual merits is laughable.  (And adding ‘contextual’ data–‘he grew up in a rough neighborhood’–is just another form of group-based prediction.)

So here’s an idea.  Let’s experiment.  Let’s set a 300%–or, if you like, 400%–cap on the over-representation of the over-privileged at Oxford.  Without expanding enrollment, that will make lots of space for other good students.  Then let’s see how that works out for us, and for the legal profession in England.  This would, I admit, be a big change.  So I suppose we will have to confront the Ultimate Objection:

‘How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light-bulb?’

‘What do you mean, “CHANGE”???’

The US as a borderline case of law

Legal theorists often wonder what we should think about things that are quite a lot like  law but are not, in fact, legal systems.  I’m not thinking  of the rules of board games or the Mafia, but of cases where the similarities are more compelling: soft law, indigenous law, Masonic law, and so on.  These have some features of the paradigm case of law and are missing others.  But, as HLA Hart pointed out long ago, it would be silly to say they are ‘not law’: the term ‘law’ is quite open and flexible.   Anyway, it is too late to say that ‘soft law’ is a misnomer.  There are books about it, courses in it, and no doubt someone will soon start to offer degrees in it.

Moreover, such forms of social order can over time come closer to the paradigm case than they used to be.   International law, for instance, is now more systematic and (a bit) more efficacious than it was when H.L.A. Hart said, in the 1950s, that it is more like ‘set’ of rules than a ‘system’.   As things stand, these are still borderline cases of law, but some of them are on the move.  My own preference is to call them ‘para-legal systems’.

Just as a form of social order can become more law-like over time, it can also become less law like.   Some jurisprudents think that can happen when law fails to live up to certain moral ideals, such as democracy, liberalism, or human rights.  My own view is more parsimonious.  I count Roman Law and Canon Law as paradigm cases of legal systems, even though neither of them has much interest in democracy or liberalism, and both are overtly hostile to important human rights.  Yet law they are.

But even on the more parsimonious view, other kinds of decay can cause law to unravel.   The law can cease to be generally effective.   Under this heading we usually  think of ‘failed states’, but even when state power  gets its way it may nonetheless escape the regulation of law, that is, the positive law of the land.   Is there anyone who believes that the widespread use of terror and violence against African-American men is generally in accord with state and federal law in the US, and that their mass incarceration simply reflects their just deserts, legally speaking? Whole social groups in the US  live in conditions of near lawlessness, and not because they disproportionately violate the law.

A different kind of decay results when the most basic ground rules of a legal system crumble.  I don’t just mean the (formal) Constitution–though in the US that is looking pretty shaky too.  Beneath every Constitution there is a constitution: a set of norms, standards, principles and practices that, together, identify the formal Constitution and regulate how it should be applied by judges and others.  These norms have always been much less settled in the US than in countries at comparable levels of development: the more extreme American ‘legal realists’  wondered whether there was any settled law or convention at this level.   No doubt that was an exaggeration, but there was some  truth in it.  When the highest officials are deeply divided on the relative importance of text, history, and principle in interpreting a Constitution, the most basic parts of a legal system are in rickety shape.

Now critical observers have a fresh worry, focused on the evident corruption of the Presidency and the Senate.  Commentators of all political convictions (though not all commentators of all convictions) agree that they are being  badly damaged by their incumbents.   Not (just) because of probable unchecked violations of the  Constitution, but also  because of the toleration of grotesque assaults on the norms that make that document binding as law.  American commentators lament a lack of ‘civility’ or a rise of ‘tribalism’ in their country, but a legal system can survive  both.  What it cannot long survive is official contempt for the informal norms that underpin the Constitution itself, and that is where the US seems to be heading.

It is not only  apex officials that are responsible for the basic norms of a legal system.   Ordinary lawyers and even, to a lesser degree, law professors and law clerks also play a part.   We read that over 2,400 American law professors signed a letter urging Senators to do their duty in good faith and refuse to confirm an accused sexual harasser, a proven liar, a bully,  a lickspittle, and a man who is said to choose female clerks who have a certain ‘look’.  (Which appears, coincidentally, to be the same ‘look’ that the President prefers among his female attendants and wives.)  Like many law professors, I read that list.  (I was as surprised by the names that were absent as I was by some of those that were present.)  The letter proved pointless.  Anyone willing to do to Dr Christine Blasey Ford what President Trump was willing to do, and anyone willing to do whatever Trump wills, is beyond reason or shame, never mind the constraints of law.  But I think the existence of the letter shows that one vital sign  remains near normal limits.  The bar, or at least some influential members of it, understand well what is now at stake and are pushing  back.   But should they give up, or be sidelined, it will not be long before we should move the US over to the category of ‘para-legal systems’.  Quite a bit like law, in several respects, but not actually a legal system.