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Richard Swinburne is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, author of many highly influential books, and among the most eminent of contemporary Christian thinkers.

September 28, 2016 (Edward Feser) — Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, author of many highly influential books, and among the most eminent of contemporary Christian thinkers, recently gave the keynote address at a meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP).  In his talk, which was on the theme of sexual morality, he defended the view that homosexual acts are disordered – a view that has historically been commonly held within Christianity and the other major world religions, has been defended by philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, and is defended to this day by various natural law theorists.  So, it would seem a perfectly suitable topic of discussion and debate for a meeting of Christian philosophers of religion.  Of course, that view is highly controversial today.  Even some contemporary Christian philosophers disagree with Swinburne.  I wasn’t there, but apparently his talk generated some criticism.  Fair enough.  That’s what meetings of philosophers are about – the free and vigorous exchange of ideas and arguments.

Yet for some reason, Michael Rea, president of the SCP, posted the following statement on his Facebook page over the weekend:

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As President of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.

End quote.  Rea’s statement has received a lot of feedback on Facebook – both positive and negative – and has gotten attention elsewhere online as well (such as at Rod Dreher’s column at The American Conservative).

There are several odd things about Rea’s statement.  First, Swinburne was invited to present the keynote address, and SCP members, including the society’s leaders, know his work well.  But no one who knows that work could possibly be surprised that Swinburne holds traditional views about homosexuality.  Indeed, he defended the position he expressed in his keynote talk in the second edition of his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy.  If Swinburne had given a talk defending a dualist view of human nature, or the resurrection of Christ, or the possibility of eternal damnation — views also all standard in Christian theology historically even if highly controversial today – no one would have been surprised, and Rea would not have seen fit to issue any statement. 

So why issue a statement in this case?  If you invite someone well-known for his traditional views to give a talk, don’t be surprised if he expresses traditional views during the talk.  If you don’t like the views he’s likely to express, don’t invite him in the first place.  But it is rude and unfair to invite him, let him give the talk, and then disavow him after the fact.

Second, why the frantic assurance that Swinburne’s views “are not those of the SCP”?  Who would have supposed that they are the views of the SCP?  The SCP is an organization of academic philosophers, and everyone knows that academic philosophers disagree about all sorts of things.  If Swinburne had defended Cartesian dualism in his talk, or Kantian ethics, or scientific realism, no one would think “Hmm, the SCP must be officially endorsing Cartesian dualism [or Kantian ethics, or scientific realism].”  Nor would Rea have issued any disclaimer.  Everyone would know that Swinburne was speaking only for himself, just as any philosopher does when he gives a talk.  How are things any different in this case?

Third, what is this business about the “hurt” Swinburne’s views allegedly caused?  Philosophers discuss and defend all sorts of ideas that some people are bound to find offensive.  So what?  If, to take just one example, a philosopher defends the moral legitimacy of abortion, he may well offend those who regard abortion as a species of murder; whereas if he argues instead that abortion is a species of murder, he may well offend those who have had abortions.  Still, philosophers discuss and debate abortion all the time, and no one regards this as noteworthy or in need of some disclaimer.  So why are things different in the case of Swinburne’s chosen topic?

Perhaps Rea is worried that some will be offended by Swinburne’s specific way of arguing.  Swinburne holds that a homosexual orientation is a kind of “disability” (a view he put forward in the Revelation book).  No doubt some will be offended by such language.  But again, people are bound to be offended by all sorts of things philosophers say.  Again, an argument for either side of the abortion debate is bound to be offensive to some people who come down on the other side.  So what?  If the arguments for the side you disagree with in the abortion debate are not good arguments, then that is what you should be trying to show.  Going on about hurt feelings doesn’t add anything at all to the philosophical critique.  On the other hand, if the arguments for the side you disagree with are good arguments, then you should stop disagreeing with them and stop being offended by them.  In either case, hurt feelings are neither here nor there.  And every philosopher knows this where other topics are concerned.  Why are things any different in Swinburne’s case?

Fourth, Rea says that because he is “committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community,” he is “consequently… committed to the values of diversity and inclusion.”  Well, fine.  So what’s the problem, exactly?  “Diversity and inclusion” in the context of “the intellectual life of [a] philosophical community” surely entails that a “diversity” of opinions and arguments be “included” in the discussion.  Now, Swinburne’s view is unpopular these days.  It is often not “included” in philosophical discussions of sexual morality, discussions which tend not to be “diverse” but instead are dominated by liberal views.  Hence having Swinburne present the views he did is precisely a way of advancing the cause of “diversity and inclusion.”  Yet Rea treats it as if it were the opposite.  Why? 

Fifth, Rea speaks about the SCP having “fallen short” of the ideals of diversity and inclusion and of his resolve to “strive for them going forward.”  Well, what does that entail exactly?  Evidently he thinks that letting Swinburne say what he did amounts to having “fallen short.”  So is Rea saying that, “going forward,” he will work to make sure that views like Swinburne’s are no longer expressed at SCP meetings, or at least in SCP keynote addresses?  How would preventing views from being expressed amount to the furthering of “diversity and inclusion”?  And how would that square with the free and open debate that philosophy is supposed to be all about? 

So, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for Rea to have made the statement he did.  There are, moreover, very good reasons why someone in his position should not have made such a statement.  One of them I have already mentioned.  If you don’t like what someone is going to say, don’t invite him to present the keynote address at your meeting.  It is unfair to invite him and then sandbag him after the fact.

But it’s worse than just being unfair to Swinburne.  Civil and reasonable discussion about questions of sexual morality is increasingly difficult today, and it is precisely those who are most prone loudly to express their “hurt” feelings who make it so.  Even the most polite, reasoned, and carefully qualified objections to homosexual acts, transgenderism, etc. are routinely dismissed a priorias “bigotry,” fit only to be ridiculed and shouted down rather than rationally engaged.  In extreme cases those who express such views face cyberbullyingloss of employment, and the like.  As Justice Scalia pointed out in his dissenting opinion in United States v. Windsor, such views are now widely treated as “beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement” and their proponents shunned as if they were “enemies of the human race.” 

To pretend (as some Christian philosophers I know do) that this sort of thing is essentially just a regrettable but understandable overreaction on the part of wounded souls who have had some bad experiences with obnoxious religious people is naiveté.  It is often rather a calculated political tactic aimed at making public dissent from liberal conventional wisdom on sexuality practically difficult or impossible.  Some activists admit this.  For example, in their 1989 book After the Ball, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen called for a long-term propaganda campaign to change attitudes about homosexuality by shaming, social ostracization, and other tactics deliberately aimed at manipulating emotions rather than appealing to reason.  They write:

The trick is to get the bigot into the position of feeling a conflicting twinge of shame… This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, all making use of repeated exposure to pictorial images or verbal statements that are incompatible with his self-image as a well-liked person, one who fits in with the rest of the crowd. Thus, propagandistic advertisement can depict homophobic and homohating bigots as crude loudmouths and assholes… who are 'not Christian.'  It can show them being criticized, hated, shunned… It can, in short, link homohating bigotry with all sorts of attributes the bigot would be ashamed to possess, and with social consequences he would find unpleasant and scary…

When [the bigot] sees someone like himself being disapproved of anddisliked by ordinary Joes… he will feel just what they feel — and transfer it to himself. This wrinkle effectively elicits shame and doubt…

Note that the bigot need not actually be made to believe that he is such a heinous creature, that others will now despise him… Rather, our effect is achieved without reference to facts, logic, or proof… [but] through repeated infralogical emotional conditioning… (pp. 151-53)

[P]ropaganda relies more upon emotional manipulation than upon logic, since its goal is, in fact, to bring about a change in the public’s feelings. (p. 162)

The objective is to make homohating beliefs and actions look so nasty that average Americans will want to dissociate themselves from them… We also intend, by this tactic, to make the very expression of homohatred so discreditable that even Intransigents will eventually be silenced in public… (p. 189)

End quote.  In an earlier 1987 Guide magazine article “The Overhauling of Straight America,” these same authors described their strategy this way:

At a later stage of the media campaign for gay rights… it will be time to get tough with remaining opponents.  To be blunt, they must be vilified… [W]e intend to make the antigays look so nasty that average Americans will want to dissociate themselves from such types.

End quote.  Now, “homohatred” is indeed wrong, because hatred is wrong.  But of course, disapproval of homosexual acts simply does not entail hatred of homosexuals themselves, any more than a vegetarian’s or vegan’s disapproval of eating meat entails hatred of meat-eaters.  But Marshall and Kirk and like-minded activists believe that this follows (or pretend to believe it, anyway), so that what they intend is that those who merely disapprove of the acts in question, and not just those who literally hate others, be vilified, hated, shunned, silenced, etc.  The situation Scalia described in his dissent is thus exactly what such activists have tried to engineer. 

So pervasive have tactics of this sort become in recent years that one sometimes finds even professional philosophers resorting to them, at least in online contexts (blog posts, comboxes, Facebook posts, etc.).  Common examples are:

• preemptively dismissing any argument in defense of conservative views vis-à-vis homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. as a “cloak for bigotry” – a blatant example of an ad hominem fallacy of poisoning the well, or rejecting an argument based on a purportedly disreputable motive on the part of the person giving it, rather than fairly addressing the merits of the argument itself

• matter-of-factly characterizing such arguments as comparable to a defense of racism — a blatant fallacy of begging the question, since whether the views in question really are comparable to racism is, of course, precisely part of what is at issue in the dispute between defenders of traditional sexual morality and their critics

• mocking such arguments as “obviously” terrible, too stupid for words, not worth anyone’s attention, etc. – a blatant appeal to ridicule fallacy

• matter-of-factly dismissing all such arguments as something which few in “the profession” of academic philosophy take seriously anymore, etc. – a manifest appeal to majority fallacy

Click “like” if you want to defend true marriage.

• casually insinuating that anyone who presents such arguments really isn’t a serious philosopher, is therefore bound to lose standing in “the profession,” may have difficulty getting a tenured positon, etc. – anargumentum ad baculum

• objecting even to the civil and dispassionate discussion of such arguments on the grounds that some will find them “hurtful,” “offensive,” etc. – a fallacy of appeal to emotion, since what ultimately matters are the logical and evidential merits of a claim or an argument, not how we “feel” about it

Now, as every philosopher knows, tactics like these are textbook examples of sophistry and thus entirely antithetical to genuine philosophy.  They are exactly the sorts of rhetorical tricks that every philosopher teaches students in logic and critical thinking classes not to employ.  For a philosopher deliberately to employ or approve of such tactics is gross malpractice, comparable to a physician violating the Hippocratic oath.  For a philosopher not to condemn such tactics when employed by others is comparable to a physician refusing to treat his patients or to warn them away from dangers to their health.  For a philosopher not to condemn them especially when they are employed by other philosophers is comparable to a physician who turns a blind eye to the malpractice of other physicians.

What does all this have to do with Rea and Swinburne?  Just this.  Sophistries and ruthless political pressure tactics of the sort just described succeed only when people let them succeed – when they let themselves be intimidated, when they acquiesce in the shaming and shunning of those who express unpopular views, when they enable the delegitimization of such views by treating them as something embarrassing, something to apologize for, something “hurtful,” etc. 

This, it seems to me, is what Rea has done in the case of Swinburne.  Given current cultural circumstances, Rea’s statement amounts to what philosophers call a Gricean implicature – it “sends a message,” as it were — to the effect that the SCP agrees that views like Swinburne’s really are disreputable and deserving of special censure, something to be quarantined and set apart from the ideas and arguments that respectable philosophers, including Christian philosophers, should normally be discussing. 

That is unjust and damaging to philosophy itself, not merely to Swinburne.  It is especially unjust and damaging to younger academic philosophers – grad students, untenured professors, and so forth – who are bound to be deterred from the free and scholarly investigation of unpopular ideas and arguments.  If even the Society of Christian Philosophers is willing to participate in the public humiliation even of someone of the eminence, scholarly achievement, and gentlemanly temperament of Richard Swinburne, then why should any young and vulnerable scholar trust his fellow academic philosophers to “have his back” when questions of academic freedom arise?  Why should he believe they are sincere in their purported commitment to reason over sophistry?

Rea is an excellent philosopher from whose work I, like many others, have profited.  But in this recent statement he has in my opinion done a disservice to his fellow philosophers and an injustice to Swinburne.  He owes Swinburne an apology. 

Reprinted with permission from Edward Feser's blog


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