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January 4, 2022+John Tomasi
+Campus Policy

Standing up for Social Progress

In a 2016 lecture at Duke University, Jonathan Haidt argued that every university must commit itself to a single highest goal (or telos). Specifically, every university must declare an ultimate commitment to truth or to social justice. No organization can revolve around two North Stars. At the end of his talk, Haidt offered examples of each—though the examples he selected were uncomfortable for me. Standing up for truth, which Haidt applauds, was the University of Chicago. Prioritizing social justice over truth, which Haidt decries, was Brown (the university where I have studied and taught for over 25 years).

Despite criticisms, Haidt’s thesis, that the proper telos of the university is truth rather than social justice, has demonstrated remarkable staying power. And yet there is an important question that remains unanswered.

The 5,000+ members of Heterodox Academy publicly endorse the following statement: “I support open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in research and education.” By making this statement, members are declaring their commitment to the truth-seeking goal of the university. But what about social progress, which I’ll define broadly as the project of working to make our world more inclusive, free, prosperous, sustainable, and fair? When HxA members stand up for truth, are they thereby rejecting social progress as a goal of university life?

A Progressive Ideal

At the start of my presidency of Heterodox Academy, I would like to address this question. I suspect that most HxA members, when they decide to join, do not see themselves as thereby rejecting the idea that universities have some important role to play in making our societies more just and inclusive (say, on issues of race, religion, gender and sexuality, and class). But how, and to what degree, should universities be committed to social progress?

This question is pressing because, along with being repositories of knowledge and launch-points for many of the greatest achievements of humankind, our universities have long been complicit in large-scale injustice. I am thinking not only of the historical injustices entwined in the founding of so many universities — such as the transatlantic slave trade in the case of many American universities. I mean, additionally, that our universities have been active engines of exclusion and injustice. For example, until very recently, women, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, blacks, Asians, members of the LGBTQA+ community, children of the working class and others were denied places at elite universities, or were allowed places only grudgingly. The (still-unfolding) movement toward greater inclusion in university membership is one of the great stories of the past 75 years. Whatever your political orientation, this sea-change in the traditional practices of universities is something to be celebrated.

However, a progressive ideal of inclusion is more fundamental to Heterodox Academy than even our members may recognize. Indeed, a commitment to social progress is embedded in the very words of HxA’s membership pledge.

Consider HxA’s triumvirate of core values: open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement. As a set, these norms and attitudes have demonstrable scientific, truth-tracking power. But, less noticed, the core values of HxA are tools for moral progress too.

Begin with open inquiry. When HxA stands up for open inquiry, we are standing up for the idea that scholars and students should be free to be curious, to follow questions and lines of inquiry wherever they take them. This ideal has obvious truth-tracking value. A culture that celebrates open-inquiry puts more ideas into play, broadening the range of possibilities that scholars and students must seriously consider. This improves the chances that scholars will discover novel approaches to pressing problems.

Yet, along with its scientific value, open inquiry has a moral dimension as well. Open inquiry finds a parallel in the liberal ideal of freedom of thought and expression. Freedom of thought, the political analogue of scholarly curiosity, is among the most basic forms of individual liberty. To deny or discourage scholars or students from thinking freely is to violate this basic dimension of human freedom.

What about viewpoint diversity? This is the central value of the HxA pledge (and not just positionally). The arguments for the truth-tracking value of viewpoint diversity need little rehearsing: wide and inclusive research framings help expose assumptions kept hidden by framings that are more narrow and parochial. Regrettably, the phenomenon of parochial framings is widespread in contemporary scholarship. Overcoming it may provide reason enough for truth-directed scholars to sign up for HxA. Still, as with open inquiry, there are moral reasons to support viewpoint diversity as well.

After all, why do we insist that scholarly investigations consider and attend to a variety of views? Most vividly in the humanities and social sciences, but in other disciplines too, a commitment to viewpoint diversity reflects our deeper commitment to the idea that every person and group in our society has a viewpoint, and that viewpoint matters. This is the political ideal of toleration, the importance of which is best seen in its absence. There have been (many) periods in history when the viewpoints of whole classes of people—typically grouped by gender, race, or religion — were assumed not to matter. This was because it was claimed that members of such groups either had no important interests, or that whatever interests they had should be interpreted and represented for them by (socially dominant) others. Absent toleration, there is only domination.

Heterodox research is based on a rejection of all such forms of domination. Instead, we insist upon the moral worth, the dignity, of each person — including those whose lived experience leads them to see the world differently than we do. Even when we find our fellow citizens to be in error, we believe we should seek to understand them. Believing this, we work to understand and overcome our own biases too, whether explicit or implicit. This is good science. But what makes it good science is the background idea that, no matter a person’s race or religion, their life matters and thus their viewpoint should matter to us too.

The ideal of viewpoint diversity, reflected in the political value of toleration, leans on the third value of Heterodoxy: constructive disagreement. Again, the truth-tracking value of constructive disagreement is familiar enough: simply hearing diverse others is not of much value unless we are disposed to learn and grow from such encounters. But constructive disagreement has a moral value, indeed a democratic value, too. That this democratic ideal is currently embattled makes it all-the-more worth stating and defending anew.

There is an anti-democratic view of social progress that goes like this: the political world is divided between two great teams. On one team, there are The Good — typically, whichever group agrees and signals with you. On the other team, there are The Evil — those who, disagreeing with you, are ipso facto beyond reach or redemption and so must be overcome by brute force and intimidation. This is a familiar framework, and not just on college campuses. It has become a dominant mode of contemporary political discourse, voiced openly by extremes on both left and right.

But the democratic ideal of constructive disagreement insists that we aim higher. For this approach sees us as embarked on a great adventure toward justice that we insist on undertaking together, leaving no group of sincere fellow citizens ignored, beaten down, or left behind. As I noted a moment ago, viewpoint diversity says that every person has a life that matters. But constructive disagreement springs from a deeper democratic ideal: this is the ideal that all our fellow citizens have lives and minds and thus consciences that might in principle be reached.

Democratic Citizenship

Democracy is a strenuous, humbling, and difficult process of engagement. By its very nature, it requires that we work with people who begin from premises different from our own (and who, being human, often stubbornly stick to those premises). Compared to engaging respectfully with others, marching around with members of your own tribe is easy.

But notice this corollary: if you find democratic deliberation easy or its conclusions obvious ex ante, this probably means that you are not really committed to democracy at all. Again, this thought-pattern is familiar from science: asserting your conclusion before you run the experiment is a paradigm of bad science. But it is the moral and democratic assumption beneath that scientific standard that I am inviting you to consider.

Heterodox Academy is a non-partisan organization of scholars, students, administrators and friends. It is an organization that, in today’s supercharged ideological environment, works hard to avoid being a combatant in the culture wars. Instead, we focus on being a steady advocate for professors, students, and academic freedom. But being non-partisan does not mean being non-political.

Heterodox Academy, as I understand it, is a profoundly political organization. Its principles of membership reflect a commitment to one broad and inclusive approach to social progress, and thus a rejection of various rival approaches.

Progress Through Persuasion

So what exactly does HxA stand for, in its political dimension?

HxA’s core values are essentially progressive, when that term is properly understood. This is not only because the values of heterodoxy contribute to scientific or scholarly progress — though they do. Rather, the values of HxA are progressive because they promote social and moral progress as well. Open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement are but reflections of the great political triumvirate of individual freedom, toleration of difference, and democratic community. On this broad political ideal, we are committed to achieving progress not by force or intimidation but through persuasion and respect for our fellow citizens. And we insist on achieving progress this way even with, nay, especially with, our fellow citizens who sincerely view and experience the world differently than we do.

Today, as at every previous stage of its history, this great political project is confronted by powerful adversaries — anti-scientific and anti-democratic forces from the far right as well as the far left.

These adversarial forces may present their arguments in different ways. But they converge on a rejection of the inclusive ideal of progress that I have described. Instead of freedom of thought, they demand adherence to dogma. Instead of toleration for difference, they demand conformity. Instead of the democratic ideal of social progress through persuasion, they are seduced by authoritarian impulses.

When you stand up for HxA’s triumvirate of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement, you are standing up for ideals and practices that are essential to scholarly and scientific progress. For many of our members, this may be enough.

But for HxA members who, like me, long for something more, I offer this thought: HxA’s triumvirate of scholarly values bears within itself a distinctively democratic ideal of social progress: an ideal about how to go about making our world more free, inclusive, sustainable and fair. When we stand up for open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement, we are standing up for this ideal of social progress too.


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