Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Philosophy of Religion Professor Fired, Seeks "Free Speech" Defense

Kenneth J. Howell, an adjunct Philosophy of Religion professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has lost his job after an email he sent to his students was widely circulated around campus, inspiring some people to claim he was spreading hate speech against homosexuality.

There could be a first amendment issue here, if he was fired simply for teaching students about ideas which might be considered hate speech. There is nothing wrong with exposing students to hate speech, so long as they are being taught to think critically about it. If he was propagating such speech out of professional ignorance and incompetence, and failing to present a critical or intelligent analysis of it, however, then I don't see any problem with firing him. And that appears to be what happened.

The full text of the email is here. The ignorance and lack of intellectual integrity are striking, making it a clear example of professional incompetence.

The email was supposed to help his students identify and understand utilitarianism. Yet, he never gives a competent characterization of utilitarianism. He correctly suggests that it is a variety of consequentialism--that it regards the value of actions in terms of their consequences. However, utilitarianism is not the only variety of consequentialism. Howell does not describe what distinguishes utilitarianism as such, let alone discuss different varieties of utilitarianism, such as act and rule utilitarianism.

After introducing utilitarianism as consequentialism, he proceeds to contrast it with Natural Moral Law theory (NML) using the example of homosexuality. (I leave aside Howell's almost comical, yet disturbing, comments on how a utilitarian would discuss the cases of child molestation and bestiality.) The idea is that, while utilitarianism is concerned with the consequences of homosexual acts, NML is concerned with the act itself. The act itself is immoral--not because of its consequences, but because of the meaning of the act, which is apparently derived from nature. This proves to be a meaningless distinction, as I will explain.

Howell's main point is that NML takes "REALITY" into account, implying that utilitarianism is based on fantasy or ignorance. Utilitarianism apparently requires that we ignore salient facts about the nature of our actions when calculating their value. Specifically, in the case of homosexuality, facts about what it means to have sex.

Howell's argument is both ignorant and stupid. Ignorant, because there is no evidence that homosexuality is unnatural or that it violates the meaning of the human body. True, throughout the ages, procreation has relied on sex. However, that doesn't mean sex has only been for procreation. There is no scientific evidence that the only natural meaning of human sexuality is for procreation, and there is no reason to suppose it is the case. The idea that homosexuality is unnatural is not scientific, but based solely on religious dogma. Yet, Howell concludes his email with the following misinformation: "Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality." That's just a lie.

As I indicated earlier, the other problem is Howell's attempt to contrast NML with consequentialism. He claims that homosexual acts are wrong, and he attempts to demonstrate this by examining their consequences. His argument is that the nature of the act is immoral because the acts are "injurious." In other words, NML is not really opposed to consequentialism at all. It is not an alternative moral theory. So Howell's entire argument is just plain dumb.

(By the way, how does Howell know that homosexual acts can be physically harmful? He says he knows a physician who told him it's true. Yes, a single physician told him, and he thinks that supports his argument! That is remarkable. I think any competent physician will tell you that all sex acts can be injurious, and are only dangerous if they are not performed with care; homosexual acts are no exception.)

In conclusion, NML is not presented as a coherent alternative to utilitarianism in particular or consequentialism in general. It rather looks like a way of pretending that religious dogma has philosophical stature. Howell's idea of preparing students for an exam question on utilitarianism is to prime them on illogical and ignorant debate tactics against homosexuality, denying the dogmatic foundation of the anti-homosexual agenda and pretending it is based on empirical evidence. If intellectual integrity is to be respected at all, I cannot see how UI could justify renewing Howell's contract.

Legal action is being filed against UI by Alliance Defense Fund, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in representing people like Howell--that is, "religious and conservative faculty" whose views are not welcome at universities. I hope the lawsuit is dealt with adequately. There is no free speech issue here. Religion is no excuse for incompetence.

Update, July 18, 2010, 8:26 GMT: I just read what PZ Myers posted about this case. He claims that Howell's email isn't hate speech. PZ thinks Howell should be fired for incompetence, but not for hate speech. So, is Howell's email hate speech?

I think yes, if hate speech includes acts which disparage homosexuality. Howell's argument is that homosexuality is unnatural. That seems rather disparaging to homosexuals. Maybe Howell was not inciting anyone to violence against homosexuals, but that is not a necessary criterion of hate speech.

In any case, I think Howell should be fired whether or not we call his email "hate speech." The main issue is not whether or not Howell is spreading hate speech, but whether or not he is competent to teach philosophy. And PZ and I agree on that. I don't think Howell should be fired only because his incompetence led him to offend homosexuals. I think she should be fired because he is incompetent, period. The offense to homosexuals is what happened to bring his incompetence to our attention.

Update July 19, 2010, 20:30 GMT: Here's an interesting article explaining how much more than a single email is at issue here. It turns out Howell was not hired through a standard university hiring procedure. Though he's been working at a public institution for higher education, he is more accurately described as an arm of the church.

Since I'm updating, I want to also mention how despicable I find the end of Howell's email, when he tells his students that they're probably not qualified to make sound moral judgments, but that Catholics are, because they've done the work. It's so blatantly manipulative and dishonest.

Here's one interesting quote from the comments section:

Importantly, the professor's e-mail is actually not, as so many claim, teaching Catholic doctrine. It goes beyond the bounds of Canon Law, and the closest it gets to explaining natural law is the term complementarity. It is highly deficient as an explanation of either natural law as an approach to moral theology or as an explanation of Catholic doctrine on homosexuality (without even getting into the problematic presentation of utilitarianism). The e-mail suggests the real problem of this arrangement: rather than hiring a strong scholar of Catholic thought (whether from a comparative or sociological approach, to borrow Sheila Green Davaney's terms), the university has hired someone without a degree in Catholic theology, philosophy, or religious studies, who primarily writes for normative magazines and books. The diocese's reading of "normative" theology trumps the academic standards held up at Catholic institutions in the case of hiring. As such, the university has no strong scholars of modern Catholicism on staff, which is lamentable, particularly when UIC has its own strong Catholic Studies program.