« | Home | »

Academic Freedom

Tags: | | | |

A group of Oxford students are petitioning to have John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy, ‘removed from his academic position’ on account of his ‘discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people’. In his published writings, Finnis has claimed that gay sex is an ‘immoral sexual act’ akin to bestiality, that being gay should count ‘at least as a negative factor, if not a disqualification’ for adopting children, and that governments should ‘discourage’ citizens from homosexuality.

The petition has its problems. It asks that Finnis be removed from a position he does not hold, and claims that the classes he teaches are mandatory, which they are not. These errors are unfortunate, not least because stories about Oxford get more attention than they deserve. (The Today programme covered it twice and it was in all the major newspapers and alt-right outlets.) The petition plays into the hands of those who love to moan about slipping university standards and political correctness gone mad. ‘I cannot believe the rot in @UniofOxford is so deep,’ one former student tweeted. (The petition has fewer than 600 signatures.) The students’ political strategy is also questionable. Why expect a deeply conservative institution to do the work for you? Why not organise a boycott instead? You can’t teach a seminar to an empty room.

The petition makes no mention of academic freedom. Oxford guarantees its staff ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’. Instead, the students appeal to the university’s equality and harassment policies, which commit Oxford to fostering an ‘inclusive culture that promotes equality’. It is indeed hard to see how Finnis’s abhorrent opinions contribute to such a culture.

But are his views, many of which are orthodoxies of his Roman Catholic faith, themselves acts of discrimination? It’s a difficult question. Many legal and political philosophers, including some who have rushed to Finnis’s defence, argue elsewhere that speech can be discriminatory: ‘hate speech’ is the exemplar. Even so, it is not at all clear that Finnis’s speech rises (or sinks) to this level, or that considerations of academic freedom should not matter more. Gay students perhaps ought to tolerate Finnis and his views, not out of a liberal belief in the ‘marketplace of ideas’, but because the alternative is worse: that those in power will use a dilution of academic freedom to make sure that queer people, and trans people, women and people of colour, don’t get to speak at all.

Prominent legal and political theorists, including Jeremy Waldron, Cass Sunstein and John Tasioulas, have called Finnis a ‘legal giant’, invoked his right to academic freedom, and insisted that the best thing for students to do is engage with his views. ‘It’s only respectful, and they may even learn something,’ Tasioulas said.

Reading Finnis’s articles on homosexuality, I learn that he thinks that gay sex is ‘morally wrong’ for the same reason that he thinks all extra-marital sex, including masturbation, is: that it is ‘incompatible’ with the intrinsic human good of marriage. Humans are conjugal animals, their nature and the common good ‘actualised’ only in marriage; sex – Finnis prefers the term ‘marital intercourse’ – is OK insofar as it serves the marital good.

Finnis has recognised that his conclusions also apply to the ‘free-wheeling heterosexual lifestyle’, but his eye tends to settle on the gays. Asked on Radio 4 last week if he had ‘hatred for gay people’, Finnis replied: ‘Absolutely not … I have friends, and my family have friends, we benefit from them, they are good people, hatred is just not on the scene.’ This is hard to square with what Finnis must know would follow if the people to whom his articles are directed – citizens, legislators, judges – were persuaded of his claims. Hatred might not come into it for Finnis, but there is little doubt that hating, disliking, maligning gay people – and creating the conditions under which gay people come to loathe themselves – follow from his proposals.

In 2017, Finnis was called on to respond to claims that his former student Neil Gorsuch, then a nominee for the US Supreme Court, had plagiarised other scholars in a book. Finnis defended Gorsuch on the grounds that his ‘writing and citing was easily and well within the proper and accepted standards of scholarly research and writing in the field of study in which he and I work’. But as Finnis’s colleague Les Green pointed out at the time, ‘if by “the field of study in which [Gorsuch] and I work” Professor Finnis means university research in law or legal philosophy, then his claim is unfounded.’

We should be mindful of the way the current narrative is playing out: the gentle, humble scholar defending himself against the witch-hunt of the student mob. The Gorsuch episode suggests that, like the students who would see him dethroned, Finnis is engaged in politics, and wants to create a world more congenial to his views. And sometimes his side wins: Gorsuch, until he retires or dies, will sit on the US Supreme Court.


Finnis and I are fellows of the same Oxford college. At my first dinner there – to welcome new fellows and their partners – we were greeted warmly by another guest and introduced ourselves. ‘You’ve already ruffled a few feathers around here!’ she said, eyebrows raised. She looked at my partner, a woman, and grinned. I’ve encountered Finnis in the common room, but he has never said a word to me. The obvious inference keeps suggesting itself. Is it a bad one? Quite possibly. Do the masturbators and the adulterers worry like this, too?

As I read Finnis’s essays, I think about what it would have been like to read them as an undergraduate, or a graduate student, carrying for a time the shame that Finnis thinks only proper. I think then, as now, I would have been amused (how often do you find the word ‘homosexualist’ used so solemnly?). But I wonder, too, what it would have been like to sit across from a whip-smart mind, at a time when my own was barely formed, and be told the ‘fact’ that ‘all three of the greatest Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, regarded homosexual conduct as intrinsically shameful, immoral and indeed depraved and depraving.’ I like to think I would have questioned why a lawyer was attributing claims solely on the basis of invented speech. Perhaps now I would counter his canon with my own, from Sappho to Audre Lorde (‘And I knew when I entered her I was / high wind in her forests hollow’). Academic freedom is a principle worth defending, but it is foolish to ignore its costs, and who (disproportionately, quietly) bears them.

When I read my straight colleagues telling everyone else to give Finnis the ‘respect’ of engaging with his opinions, to ‘make arguments’ in response, I wonder how many times they have had to ‘make the argument’ for their happiness, for their home and their partner, for the life they’ve built with the people they love. At times, I’m not even sure what I am meant to be making the argument for. It does not matter if my gayness was innate or chosen, it is so deeply a part of me, such a root cause of any fulfilment that I feel and any good that I do, that it becomes clear that what really follows from Finnis’s view is that I should stop existing as me. I should retreat into some other Sophie, who lives without the woman who makes her a better teacher, listener, thinker. Finnis thinks my good would be actualised in an unhappy marriage with a man. But almost everything I know about the virtues, I learned from my experiences as a gay woman: courage, constancy, generosity, love. I can engage, certainly, I can make arguments in response, but there is also a sense, at a deeper level, in which there is nothing I can say.


  1. freshborn says:

    It’s an interesting one. If I was financially contributing to the university or responsible for deciding the staff, I would baulk at the thought of employing him. Not because I think he should be forbidden to say such things, but because I wouldn’t want to reward or enable a person who did so. It damages the esteem of the university to have its staff propagating such worthless, backwards ideas.

    I suppose it also depends whether he is preaching these things as part of the work he is paid to do, or if it’s something he does in his spare time. In that case, you can hardly argue that he should be fired.

  2. neuromancer says:

    This is a very good text. I am a straight man, and I cannot begin to fathom how hard it must be for people of other sexual orientations to realize their lives in full potential and how many obstacles they have to surmount in order to achieve that.

    But still, does that mean that other people shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions on the general matter of homosexual behavior and it morality? Is the fact that gay people will be upset by opinions of people like Finnis reason enough to prevent him from expressing that opinion in academic context?

    I guess we will disagree on that. And I’m skeptical of whether any progress can be made in debates like these, since people by and large seem to abandon any kind of *objective* criteria by which to evaluate positions.

    And yes, I am aware that the reply will be that it is impossible for gay people to be objective on this matter, since it is something that concerns them so deeply. And I understand that. Which brings us back to the aforementioned skepticism about these debates.

  3. Rod Miller says:

    Is Oxford there to hone “whip-smart minds”? Or is it a sort of kindergarten where the students must at all costs be protected from Offence (current Anglo-Western academia’s version of what witchcraft was a few centuries ago)?

    Yes, it’s difficult to nail this down, difficult to establish just where somebody Crosses the Line into a truly harmful form of hate-speech. I live in Switzerland, where you can do jail time for denying the Holocaust. Mind you, you have to work at it, be determined to go to jail and be a martyr to The Cause. Still, I view the law as silly and counterproductive. A sign of weakness.

    Finnis must have scholarly virtues, otherwise he wouldn’t be where he is. “Removing” him would, to me, constitute not only a blow to academic freedom but would, as usual, score a propaganda own-goal (see the University of Toronto and the imposition of Newspeak pronouns for trans-gender people — or worse, the Toronto School Board, which has liquidated the term “chief”, scrubbing it from its organizational chart because, well, the Europeans used the term for headmen of indigenous bands and, well, y’know, we can’t cause offence…).

    It’s a slippery slope.

    • cwritesstuff says:

      The author does not want Finnis to be removed (particularly from “a position he does not hold”.

      As for the other points, that you know of them suggests you go looking for things to get annoyed by. I’m not sure I have much of a view about the phasing out of chief, but note that it assists a population that was ethnically cleansed by white settlers. Could you explain why it harms anyone. To some degree it seems the least the descendants of those settlers could do. I’m also sorry that you consider pronouns for trans people to be “newspeak”. Again, what harm does it do you, and what benefit does it give a marginalised community?

      • Rod Miller says:

        “The author does not want Finnis to be removed.”

        Yes, I got that part. But it seems a Lot people do.

        “You (seem to) go looking for things to get annoyed by.”

        Oh no! I assure you, I just sit here and observe the world. Easy.

        “Note that it assists a population that was ethnically cleansed by white settlers.”

        Of course it doesn’t. (Suggest how. In any way. The idea is absurd.) That population had previously been ethnically cleansed many times over between itself. Where I grew up the Iroquois had been avid ethnic cleansers, and those they didn’t murder they took as slaves. This doesn’t let the Europeans off the hook morally speaking. They had guns, so they won. By the way, your ancestors (whoever they were) were ethnically cleansed and enslaved. So were mine. Both activities are as human as, well, take your pick. We are homo sapiens. Ethnic cleansing is what homo sapiens has Always Done.

        Expunging “chief” doesn’t actively Harm anyone. It’s just a glaring example of a growing illiberal hysteria, that’s all. Sterile, futile ideological mania.

        “I’m also sorry that you consider pronouns for trans people to be ‘newspeak’. Again, what harm does it do you, and what benefit does it give a marginalised community?”

        Gosh, you really didn’t read my post. Language changes continually. So by all means chuck some new pronouns out there and see if they catch on. No. What I object to is their IMPOSITION on teaching staff, with disciplinary action taken against those who don’t comply.
        Again, this is all terribly illiberal. And harmful by dint of its enforcement.

        • cwritesstuff says:

          The change has been supported by Native individuals in Toronto – the top article in a Google search explains such. I am glad that you have insight to disagree with them about what does and does not assist them.

          Your defence of colonial action and ethnic cleansing is that “they did it between themselves”? That’s novel at least. Does that apply more generally? So if there had been intra-Jewish attacks (and I’m sure there were some) that means the Holocaust was OK? What utter nonsense.

          Who gets to decide what or what not to impose in Toronto? In the case you’re talking about, it’s elected officials which passed legislation which the University is trying to implement. I’m sorry you dislike it so much but it’s the law. I’m slightly happier with something like that being in the hands of elected officials than Jordan Peterson or angry men on the internet. Would you disapprove of similar laws that prohibit sexist and racist statements?

          • Rod Miller says:

            “Native individuals in Toronto”? May we have a source better than “google” for this remarkable claim? The only reliably identifiable “Native” people (I’m native, literally — I was Born there) are “status Indians”. There are no reservations in Toronto. I can walk around calling myself a Celt — my ancestors were victims of the Highland Clearances — but I’m afraid it won’t cut much ice with anyone.
            Even if your statement is Pure Truth, so what? It’s still an exercise in sterile language-abuse.

            It’s “novel at least”, you say, to maintain that the aboriginal peoples had done it to each other constantly before the Europeans’ arrival? Not novel to people who know what they’re talking about.

            “So if there had been intra-Jewish attacks (and I’m sure there were some) that means the Holocaust was OK?”
            Well I answered this question in my previous post, which I suggest you go back and read.

            “Who gets to decide what or what not to impose in Toronto?”
            Not the question. As you know, this is not a discussion about who is legally entitled to set rules. Never was.

            And to argue that “it’s the law” … well, so were the Nuremberg Laws. So I have to ask what your point is. Lots of things are in the law that we as individuals don’t agree with.

            What you advocate remains illiberal pandering to linguistic bullies. Jordan Peterson sounds like quite a creep. But I support his refusal to use Newspeak.
            By the way, there’s a striking (but short) video I’ll post here of Stephen Fry teaming up with Peterson in a debate about PC. Fry’s complaint is that PC is ineffective. However — in this short speech at least — he neglects to explain why. So I will: People resent it and ignore it. Did you know that the Nazis had a campaign to regermanicize German (which had taken on a load of Latin loan-words)? It failed miserably. The obedient German populace utterly ignored it and went on speaking as they always had. Language is absolutely anarchic. What’s the point of spitting into the wind?

            “Would you disapprove of similar laws that prohibit sexist and racist statements?”
            Probably. Because we have to be big boys and girls in this rough-tough world of ours. Laws work only if there’s a consensus that they should be obeyed.
            This ties in directly with my remark above that the concept of hate-speech is an extremely difficult one to nail down. It is decidedly not simply what you, or I, don’t like. And once you step on a slippery slope, you’re going to slide on down.
            I don’t pretend to have the Answer. But bossing language around most definitely doesn’t work. Ask the Nazis, ask the Académie française, ask whoever. It isn’t as if it hadn’t failed repeatedly in the past.

  4. FoolCount says:

    “Do the masturbators and the adulterers worry like this, too?”

    Quite possibly, if they brought their lovers instead of spouses to that welcome dinner or publicly masturbated there between the courses, I imagine.

    • cwritesstuff says:

      Is that quite the analogy? Masturbation is an act. Homosexualism (in the odd turn of phrase) in itself isn’t condemned by Finnis or the Catholic Church he belongs do – the act of homosexual sex does. If the author had sex with her partner at the party, it would be equivalent to masturbating there.

      But you knew that, and the idea of equating a loving gay relationship with an affair is abhorrent. And philosophically unsound given that Finnis’ objections cannot be squared with permanent, faithful, stable, loving gay relationships, with or without the couple having children.

      • FoolCount says:

        I don’t disagree with what you said. Nor do I claim that there is an analogy here. I just wanted to point out that the author’s refutation of the Finnis’ supposed equivalence based on postulated lack of worries on the part of masturbators and adulterers also comes short. There was no way for Finnis’ (or anyone else) to identify members of those groups without them acting in ways I described. While homosexuality is plainly obvious by observing the sex of the accompanying partner/spouse. So adulterers do not have to worry not because adultery is more socially acceptable to Finnis, but rather because it is hidden from him. So the implied accusation of hypocrisy against Finnis is not logically sound.

        • freshborn says:

          The purpose of the analogy isn’t regarding it being done “in public”. Finnis advocates legal inequality for gay people.

          Does he, with equal force and focus, also advocate for legal measures to be taken against cheaters, wankers et al? If not, is this because homosexuality is a greater sin, and what is the basis of that opinion?

          The answers to these questions indicate whether he is simply a religious fundamentalist or whether he is an outright homophobe. Although that alone would not necessarily be a pretext for firing him.

        • janguv says:

          I took it to be part of the point that (and this is something you seem to miss) even if Finnis regards these things as equally shameful, the burden of shame is not carried equally.

          Much of this article communicates vividly the inner life of being a member of a historically persecuted group still very much subject to bigotry. In light of that, when Finnis (and others) trot out the “but the masturbators and cheaters are bad too!” defence, we can begin to see how weak the retort is, for failing to construe the impact that systematic bigotry has on its victims. (And, of course, failing to see how such views help to undergird that system.)

          The pain and harm of bigotry is something felt at a much deeper, existential level than could ever be felt by (at least, given contemporary and recently historical norms) wankers and the like.

          If I’m told, as a straight masturbatory man, that my dinner guest thinks ill of my night-time recreational habit, there’s a reason I can laugh it off. And it’s not because my habit isn’t practised at the dinner table. Though it is something to do with its being a habit in the first place.

  5. Colin says:

    Finnis has spent his late career attacking ‘the “gay”…imitation of authentic marriage’ as only ever ‘threadbare’ and ‘parodic’. He consistently attacks the validity of lgbt love, and denies the ability of lgbt people to love and care for children. These are not comments made carelessly in an interview, but core components of the academic research published in his name, and, as he is an emeritus professor, in the name of Oxford University.

    Finnis complains bitterly about the ‘ideologists of equality of esteem’, but students of Oxford are right to assert that that equality, is, in an academic setting, their legal entitlenent. It would be sad if the law had to get involved, however, as Oxford’s association with Finnis is an embarrassment that it ought to self correct. Flushing Finnis’ remaining official connections with the University down the toilet would be an excellent start.

  6. mototom says:

    I became an atheist more than 45 years ago – I realised God didn’t exist. I also saw a massive gulf between Catholic theology and the lived lives of the many Catholics I knew.

    That early life experience gave me some insight into the Catholic theology surrounding sex, thus I understand that Finnis believes that all non-marital sexual acts are intrinsically (and equally)sinful – homosexual sex is no more sinful (or no less) than masturbation, etc.

    What I find concerning (and suggestive of Finnis’s disingenuity) is that in expressing the view, for example, that folks with a non-heterosexual orientation should be excluded from child adoption, he targets gay folks in a way he apparently does not target other “sinners”.

    The Pope (he’s a Catholic) has emphasised love when talking about gay folks – not seen any evidence that Finnis promotes love.

    The institution should certainly address his failure to respect an ‘inclusive culture that promotes equality’.

    But I agree with Sophie Smith that the students take direct action and boycott him.

  7. Kallipygos says:

    “Reading Finnis’s articles on homosexuality, I learn that he thinks that gay sex is ‘morally wrong’ for the same reason that he thinks all extra-marital sex, including masturbation, is: that it is ‘incompatible’ with the intrinsic human good of marriage. Humans are conjugal animals, their nature and the common good ‘actualised’ only in marriage; sex – Finnis prefers the term ‘marital intercourse’ – is OK insofar as it serves the marital good.”

    If Finnis is ingenuous in so saying, then the rest of the article doesn’t follow and indeed seems demanding of pity for what is self-consciousness rather than discrimination. If gay sex is only a species of the general prohibition on extra-marital sex, Sophie should no more feel peculiar shame as a gay person than those reprobate sinners among us who have masturbated or had extra-marital, heterosexual sex and on whom (if we are to be consistent, contrition should equally weigh when confronted by Finnis at the dinner party).

  8. Graucho says:

    For some reason this article minds me of the academic freedom the Catholic church granted Galileo. Anyway, no need to sack Finnis, just show him the rack. I’m sure he’ll recant.

  9. Donald Smith says:

    Are Finnis’ views expressed as part of the work for which Oxford employs him? The Catholic church certainly has laws on the books and a history, but it also has “Who am I to judge?”. My reflexive distrust of any censorship has to reconcile how an intrinsic part of who I am is not being marginalized. Just be glad you folks don’t have the protestant evangelicals who have insinuated themselves so far into our institutions.

  10. greenmonk says:

    It would seem that Professor Finnis gets his Roman Catholic knickers in a bit of a twist if he really bases his opinions on his faith. If “humans
    are conjugal animals and their nature and the common good “actualised” only in marriage”, that surely poses a problem for a member of an organisation whose clergy are all celibate. No marriage and yet their nature and the “common good” are nevertheless actualised? Am I the only reader of the LRB who finds it obscene that a celibate clergy tries to tell other people how to live their emotional and sexual lives? Of course, my incomprehension may simply be the result of my regrettably not having a “whip-sharp” mind.

  11. Sydney or the bush says:

    When I was young the thought of a whipsmart mind and an Oxford education was quite appealing.

    Thank God I was saved from both by the slippery slope of masturbation.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • Jake Bharier on Goodbye, HMV: When I did an MBA, in the UK in 1990, I took a module on ethics. It was optional. I was the only student in that cohort.
    • AndrewL on To Ultima Thule and Beyond: It would be better to say that "elements heavier than iron are only formed by supernovae". Elements lighter than iron can be formed by burning (fusin...
    • KevinWhitston on What is Corbyn thinking?: Here is a contribution that I hope does address your arguments. Corbyn might get brownie points for consistency in his Euroscepticism, but nothing els...
    • sgt101 on To Ultima Thule and Beyond: Mostly stars fuse hydrogen into helium to create energy (I think it's called PP fusion) once the star has a helium core things start to go wrong and a...
    • RegPresley on What is Corbyn thinking?: It's an interesting argument that Brexit is a marginal issue because the underlying problems- inequality etc. - can be solved either from within or wi...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive