Companies doing damage control for their brand, such as British Petroleum or Toyota, might disagree that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But for college professors, bad publicity can be second to none in promoting their name, ideas, and message. The stock of most professors goes up when they are censored and vilified.
In this age of Reality TV, it’s hard nowadays to shock anyone. Yet all the professors on this list have unglued journalists, public officials, and others both inside and outside the academy. Wide-circulation newspapers and magazines have denounced them, and they have been the object of vitriol across the Internet.
The professors on this list have made a mark not just through the boldness of their ideas, but also through their courage and doggedness in defending them. They are not on this list because we, the TBS editors, agree or disagree with their views. They are here because we regard them as significant public intellectuals and value their freedom of thought and expression (and not just theirs but everyone’s).
We affirm Voltaire’s widely quoted dictum (actually a paraphrase by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall):
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Controversial professors keep us honest about how seriously we take freedom of speech in the academy. To read more about the challenges to free speech on today’s college campuses, see TBS’s interview with Greg Lukianoff, founder of FIRE (Foundation of Individual Rights in Education).
To make our list, a professor must have made a real contribution to his or her academic field. Indeed, many of the professors on this list are among the most eminent members of their professions.
We have, however, excluded such highly inflammatory professors as Leonard Jeffries, Ward Churchill, and Steven Salaita, whose main claim to fame is their outrageous statements, and who would otherwise be largely unknown.
We have also excluded professors who are controversial for their past political action, but who then retired from politics to the academy, where their roles have been less visible and controversial, such as William Ayers, Alberto Gonzalez, and Condoleezza Rice.
The professors on this list are here because they have done exactly what they were hired to do as professors—teach, write, invent, etc. By being excellent in their fields, they became public intellectuals, and as public intellectuals they upset a lot of people.
1. Evelyn Beatrice Hall – Wikipedia (accessed 7/15/14).
* * *
The 10 Most Controversial College Professors
The list of controversial professors that follows is arranged in alphabetical order (not by “controversialness”).
He has been hailed as the next president of the United States and as the savior of our nation.
He has been reviled as an “Uncle Tom” and sneered at as a “token” whom Republicans need to “assuage their guilt” for being such racists.
Who is he?
He is Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, Sr. (b. 1951), a retired neurosurgeon and former professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University. The author of over 100 scholarly publications and seven popular books, he currently maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, a Fox News commentator, and a political columnist for the Washington Times.
Carson was born and raised in inner-city Detroit. His parents divorced when the young Ben was eight years old, and he and his elder brother were raised by their mother, who worked mostly as a domestic servant. Although a third-grade dropout, Sonya Carson imbued her sons with a strong sense of the importance of education, as well as a deep religious faith and sturdy work ethic. Carson has stated that his moral vision and political philosophy were heavily influenced by his mother’s example.
As a child, Carson struggled with emotional problems that led to poor performance in school. Gradually, though, thanks in part to his mother’s insistence that he read books rather than watch television, he acquired confidence in his intellectual abilities, and began to excel in school. He graduated from high school with honors and was accepted into Yale University, where he received his B.A. degree in psychology. He went on to earn his M.D. from the University of Michigan, and did his residency in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, where he also taught for many years. He became Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery there in 1983, at the unusually young age of 33.
During the 1980s and ’90s, Carson made headlines worldwide with a series of difficult operations to separate conjoined twins joined at the head. Tragically, the most famous of these operations—in 2003, on Iranian sisters—was unsuccessful.
In recent years, Carson has become more outspoken about his moral and political beliefs—which is the reason why he has begun to generate a good deal of controversy.
Carson has been forced to withdraw from commencement addresses not once but twice—first at Emory University (due to his views on evolution), then at his alma mater., Johns Hopkins (due to his opposition to gay marriage).
In 2013, Carson again aroused public controversy by making a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which he denounced the cult of political correctness, the moral decay of the nation, and the fiscal irresponsibility of President Barack Obama’s policies—with the president seated at his side.
Carson is a 2016 candidate for president.
Like him or not, politically, Ben Carson is doing very important in education through his non-profit, Carson Scholars Fund. TheBestSchools.org had the privilege to interview Dr. Carson about CSF last year.
2. Dr. Ben Carson Quizzed About Presidential Run in Parade Magazine (accessed 7/15/14).
3. Another Black Savior for America? (accessed 7/15/14).
4. Dr. Ben Carson Fires Back at Critics Who Claim Conservatives Are Only Embracing Him So They Can Say They Aren’t Racist | Video (accessed 7/11/14).
He is one of the most-cited authors of all time—just behind Freud.
He is one of the most dishonest and dangerous men in America.
He is a modern-day Socrates, speaking truth to power.
He is an inveterate liar.
Will the real Noam Chomsky please stand up?
Chomsky (b. 1928)—Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and author of more than 100 books—has the rare distinction of being famous (or infamous) for two almost wholly unrelated bodies of work.
In the academic world, he is known as the founding father of modern structural linguistics, which posits a “universal grammar” underlying all human languages that is “hard-wired” within the human brain.
However, the comments cited above have nothing to do with Chomsky’s ground-breaking work in linguistic theory.
Rather, they were elicited by Chomsky’s innumerable public speeches, interviews, books, and pamphlets, in which he scathingly critiques the “terrorism” of American foreign policy, the “brutality” and “hypocrisy” of America’s ruling elites, and the unremitting “propaganda” of America’s educational system and the media.
Chomsky was born in Philadelphia into a family of Ukrainian and White Russian Jewish emigrants. The family was Socialist and Zionist in orientation, and young Noam attended Hebrew school regularly until the age of 12.
Chomsky received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He also did graduate work at Harvard University, where he was appointed to the prestigious Society of Fellows. He began teaching down the street at MIT in 1955, where he has remained ever since.
Since attaining Emeritus status, Chomsky has been more engaged in political activism than ever. An outspoken supporter of the “Occupy” movement since 2011, Chomsky has shown no tendency to moderate his radicalism in old age.
5. Chomsky Is Citation Champ (accessed 7/15/14).
6. The sick mind of Noam Chomsky – Salon.com (accessed 7/10/14).
7. Modern-Day Socrates : Noam Chomsky on Speaking the Truth via YouTube (accessed 7/15/14—see below). It should be noted that Chomsky disavows the proposition that he is “speaking truth to power.”
8. Noam Chomsky: The Last Totalitarian (accessed 7/10/14).
9. Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (2002) (accessed 7/10/14).
10. Noam Chomsky, Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity., 2nd ed. (Zucotti Park Press, 2013).
11. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. pbk. ed. (Pantheon, 2002).
12. Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda., 2nd ed. (Seven Stories Press, 2002).
Robert P. George
The New York Times Magazine. has called Robert P. George—a prominent Princeton-based law professor, prolific author, and observant Catholic—this country’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker.”
At the same time, one liberal Catholic theologian denounces his vocal and uncompromising public stands on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage as “unchristian.”
A Catholic layman accuses him of “demagoguery” and “dissembling,” while denouncing his defense of free market principles as a “topsy-turvy view of the Gospels.”
George’s secular liberal critics go still further, accusing him of “hate speech” and calling on Princeton University to fire him.
George (b. 1955) is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, founder of the American Principles Project, past director of the National Organization for Marriage, present director of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Witherspoon Institute. From 2002 until 2009, he served as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.
In addition to numerous scholarly articles, George is the author, co-author, or editor of some 18 scholarly and popular books, including What Is Marriage?. (Encounter, 2012) and Conscience and Its Enemies. (ISI, 2013).
In 2009, George was the lead author of the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.
George has not attracted as much public vituperation as his controversial views and outspokenness might lead one to expect. The reason is most likely his impeccable credentials, his unfailingly courteous tone, and above all the rigor of his reasoning.
There is little doubt that many more of George’s liberal opponents—whether Christian or secular—deplore his influence in private than are willing to do intellectual battle with him in public.
13. Robert P. George, the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker, The New York Times (accessed 7/17/14).
14. BioEdge: Is advocating infanticide “madness”? (accessed 7/17/14).
15. The Madness of Robert P. George (accessed 7/17/14).
16. Princeton University Complicit In Prof. Robert George’s Anti-Gay Hate Speech (accessed 7/17/14).
Mary Ann Glendon
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
She was also appointed by President George W. Bush to the President’s Council on Bioethics, as well as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, and is now serving, by appointment of Pope Francis, on the Pontifical Commission to investigate the workings of the Vatican Bank.
Thus, Glendon (b. 1938) is an influential player at the very highest levels of both the über-secular contemporary American academy and the Catholic Church—and a woman, to boot. (Women are not exactly thick on the ground in either the Vatican or Harvard Law School.) She represents an unusual combination, to say the least!
Perhaps only someone inhabiting such disparate worlds could have stirred up a hornets’ nest in quite the way that Glendon did in 2009.
In that year, the University of Notre Dame awarded her its annual Laetare Medal, an honor that goes each year to an American Catholic “in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society.”
That same year the university also invited President Barack Obama, then newly elected, to be its commencement speaker.
Glendon was not amused. Feeling that she was being used by the renowned Catholic university as “conservative cover” for its decision to invite the liberal Obama, Glendon wrote an open letter to Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., declining the Laetare Medal.
In her open letter to Father Jenkins, published in the magazine First Things., Glendon chastised both Jenkins and Notre Dame as a whole. The crux of her argument was that, by inviting Obama, a well-known abortion-rights supporter, Notre Dame clearly violated the widely accepted principle that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
This letter elicited a firestorm of controversy, as public figures from all over the country weighed in on both sides. Many of her detractors accused her of “hypocrisy,” while her defenders praised her courage—one of them adding that her open letter to Father Jenkins “almost shimmers with clarity of thought.”
Glendon—who was trained at the University of Chicago and taught at Boston University before joining the faculty of Harvard Law—is the author of many journal articles, as well as the author or co-author of some 11 books for both scholarly and general audiences.
Among the latter are A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the University Declaration of Human Rights. (Random House, 2001) and, most recently, The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt. (Oxford University Press, 2011).
17. Glendon’s Hypocrisy on Obama and Notre Dame (accessed 7/18/14).
18. Defending Mary Ann Glendon (accessed 7/18/14).
William Happer would appear to be a scientist’s scientist.
Happer (b. 1939) is the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University.
He is a long-standing member of JASON, an advisory group of independent scientists whose expertise is often called upon by the U.S. government on matters relating to national defense and technology.
He was a pioneer in the development of adaptive optics, a technology with important applications in fields ranging from astronomy to ophthalmology to laser-guided weapons systems.
Moreover, he is a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the recipient of awards and honors too numerous to mention.
Why, then, has he been called a “climate denier”? And why has Princeton University been denounced for “making a mistake” when it hired him?
And why did then–Vice President Al Gore have Happer fired from his position as director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science back in 1993?
The reason is that Happer swims against the scientific, political, and cultural tide on the subject of climate change. As a distinguished physicist who has carefully studied all the relevant evidence, he simply believes the case for manmade climate change has not been proved.
He also like to stress the fact that, far from being a “pollutant” as the Environmental Protection Agency now claims, carbon dioxide is a molecule essential to plant life, and hence to human life (since we depend upon plants for our very existence). Happer says that even if the climate alarmists are right about the causal connection between increased CO2 levels and global warming—which he doubts—the economic benefits to mankind in increased crop yields would likely outweigh the potential economic harm caused by inclement weather and coastal erosion.
It is certainly true that Happer pulls no punches. He has called the current efforts to induce a global panic about climate change a “contemporary moral epidemic”. He has, perhaps imprudently, turned the “Holocaust denier” insinuation around by saying he is defending the reputation of CO2 from defamation just as he would have defended the reputation of the Jews in Nazi Germany (see video clip below)—a clumsy analogy, to say the least.
But Happer’s willingness to say bluntly what he thinks, and not mask his disdain for the climate change bandwagon by countless qualifications, is precisely what makes him controversial—and why he is on this list.*
19. Climate Denier William Happer: CO2 “Demonized like Jews.”
20. Even Princeton Makes Mistakes
21. The Truth About Greenhouse Gases
Leon R. Kass
You might say that Leon R. Kass has led a double life.
His main claim to fame—the reason he became, for a time, a household name and a political punching bag—is the positions he took as Chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush during the early 2000s.
In particular, under Kass’s leadership, the Council issued a report in August of 2001 recommending that federal funding for research on stem cells derived from embryos be curtailed (more specifically, limited to cell lines already in existence). Bush implemented this decision by executive order, igniting a firestorm of controversy with Kass at its center.
“Dismally remote from what actually goes on in the nation’s laboratories,” “repressive policies,” and “shades of the censorship of Galileo and Darwin[sic!]“—these were some of the milder invectives hurled against Kass in the media.
Others look upon Kass as “a national treasure.”
The irony in all of this is that in his formerly placid academic life—before becoming involved in the work of the Council and the resulting political controversy—Kass had earned an extraordinary level of esteem among his intellectual peers. This is for several reasons.
First, Kass (b. 1939) is that rarest of academic specimens—the scientist-humanist, equally highly credentialed in both fields.
Kass received his M.D. from the University of Chicago School of Medicine and his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University. But he has also taught the Great Books of Western civilization at St. John’s University (Annapolis), Georgetown University, and the University of Chicago, where he is presently Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus of Social Thought and in the College.
The books he has published—especially Toward a More Natural Science. (Free Press, 1985), The Hungry Soul. (Free Press, 1994), Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity. (Encounter, 2002), and The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2003)—have established him as one of the great humanist thinkers of our time.
In his philosophical work, Kass draws upon many sources, including Aristotle, the great German phenomenologist Hans Jonas (with whom he once studied), and his own Jewish ethical tradition, blending these influences into an inspiring vision of what it means to be a human being.
Reflecting upon his experience of the moral vision of ordinary religious believers during his stint as a Civil Rights worker in Holmes County, Mississippi, in 1965, Kass has observed:
Why, I wondered then, was there more honor, decency, and dignity among the impoverished and ignorant but church-going black farmers with whom we had lived than among my privileged and educated fellow graduate students at Harvard, whose progressive opinions I shared but whose self-absorption and self-indulgence put me off? If poverty and superstition were the cause of bad character, how to explain this?
23. Science Fiction – The New Yorker
24. Two Competing Moralities: The Principles of Fairness contra ‘Gott Mit Uns!’
26. Leon Kass: A national treasure
27. Harvey Flaumenhaft, “The Career of Leon Kass (PDF),” Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy., Winter 2003, 20(1): i-xiii.
Catharine A. MacKinnon
Catharine A. MacKinnon’s name is primarily associated with some incendiary comments that she says she never made, and that she does not agree with.
Still, the controversy surrounding her positions and her career refuses to die down. What is she alleged to have said that haunts her so to this day?
The claim, which exists in multiple versions, is basically that heterosexual intercourse—the act of penetration—is by its very nature a form of rape.
In other words, in a society such as ours (and all known societies, one might add) in which women do not enjoy 1-to-1 parity with men in all social roles, women who believe themselves to be consenting to sexual relations with a man are in effect non compos mentis., and are in truth being coerced against their will, whether they know it or not.
The pithiest—and therefore the most widely quoted—version of this idea is a paraphrase of MacKinnon’s views by the authors of a study on radical feminism published in 2003: “In a patriarchal society all heterosexual intercourse is rape.”
If MacKinnon never said this—at least, not in so many words—then why is she so controversial? Basically because where there’s smoke, there’s fire. To see this, let us back up and rehearse some of the highlights of her remarkable career.
MacKinnon (b. 1946)—who is today the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School—first came to public attention during the 1970s while still a student at Yale Law School. There, in a series of brilliant papers, she began to develop the theory that sexual harassment was not just socially gauche, but a form of illegal sexual discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Her work on the legal theory of sexual harassment led to victory for plaintiffs in a number of landmark cases, culminating in the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. that sexual harassment in the workplace may indeed violate the law. For better or for worse, this and other decisions growing out of MacKinnon’s arguments have by now had a direct and incalculable impact on the daily lives of almost all Americans. If you catch yourself suppressing the urge to tell an off-color joke in mixed company at work, you know who to thank (or to blame).
Next, MacKinnon trained her sights on pornography. Traditionally, pornography had been regulated by the state on the grounds of obscenity—a violation of community standards of decency. MacKinnon argued that pornography, like sexual harassment, was instead an illegal form of sexual discrimination against women on the grounds that it dehumanizes them, turning them into mere objects of male fantasy.
In 1983, MacKinnon teamed up with radical feminist author Andrea Dworkin to draft a new anti-pornography statute for the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the basis of the sex discrimination theory. However, the ordinance was vetoed by the mayor. Another law quite similar to MacKinnon and Dworkin’s Minneapolis statute was then passed in Indianapolis, Indiana. This law was subsequently overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Overall, the civil rights violation theory of pornography has not found favor with the courts in this country (although in 1992 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of a MacKinnon-Dworkin–type statute).
It was perhaps MacKinnon’s association with Dworkin—a non-academic and a far more confrontational figure—more than anything else that resulted in the controversy that surrounds her name to this day. There is little doubt that Dworkin subscribed to the basic idea associated with both their names—that heterosexual intercourse is inherently coercive.
For example, she wrote an entire book—Intercourse. (Free Press, 1987)—arguing that heterosexual intercourse constitutes an inherent violation of women’s bodies. Here are some choice quotes from that book:
The thrusting is persistent invasion.
She is occupied—physically, internally, in her privacy.
Intercourse is a particular reality for women as an inferior class; and it has, in it, as part of it, violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy.
Still, Dworkin was no professor. For that reason, she herself would not appear on our list, even if she were still alive (she died in 2005). So, is it fair to tar MacKinnon with Dworkin’s?
Well, MacKinnon never publicly dissociated herself from her more radical colleague. Indeed, she continued up until Dworkin’s death to support her throughout the numerous controversies in which she was involved. MacKinnon really cannot complain if she is closely associated with Andrea Dworkin in the public mind.
But let us give MacKinnon herself the final word—a statement that is unequivocally her own:
. . . most rapists are men and most legislators are men and most judges are men and the law of rape was created when women weren’t even allowed to vote. So that means not that all the people who wrote it were rapists, but that they are a member of the group who do [rape] and who do for reasons that they share in common even with those who don’t, . . .
28. Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s. (Lexington Books, 2003); p. 129.
29. Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse. (Free Press, 1987); p. 122.
31. ibid.; p. 124.
32. Stuart Jeffries talks to leading feminist Catharine MacKinnon: Are Women Human?
Thomas Nagel is a distinguished and influential Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University.
He is, as the saying goes, a “philosopher’s philosopher”—that is, someone who is highly respected in his field, but whose name one would hardly expect to be reviled in the more downmarket reaches of the blogosphere.
To be sure, philosophers are often quite controversial among themselves, and even upon occasion within the wider academic community.
But controversial with the public? What can Professor Nagel (b. 1937) have done to earn him the public opprobrium required to put him onto this list?
He is on this list for one reason only: Because he is a famous and well-known professor—as “mainstream” as they get—who had the temerity to question the most sacred of all the many sacred cows of contemporary American society: the Darwinian theory of natural selection.
Actually, Nagel has been very well known—for a philosopher—for quite a long time. His famous article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” first published in 1974, has fired the imaginations of workers in a wide variety of fields, from cognitive scientists to poets and artists. His elegant essays—with a decidedly liberal slant—on social and political problems have appeared at regular intervals in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. But none of this activity was remotely controversial, except perhaps in the eyes of a handful of die-hard behaviorists.
That is what is so galling about Nagel’s most recent book to the keepers of the Darwin flame. From their point of view, he appeared to be so safe, so one of us. Someone who could be depended upon to uphold the party line.
Except that he never was. Anyone who read carefully his previous, superbly crafted books, The View from Nowhere. (Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Last Word. (Oxford University Press, 1997)—as polished to a high sheen as a diamond necklace, but as dense and difficult to consume at a sitting as a box of dark chocolate cremes—anyone who had read these works with attention would have known that Nagel was not really on board with the materialist-reductionist program. Not at all.
But, of course, the professional Darwin establishment does not spend its time reading difficult philosophical treatises. It has much better things to do—like dreaming up a new Just So Story for why people are driven to write difficult philosophical treatises.
So, when Nagel’s latest book, Mind and Cosmos. (Oxford University Press, 2012), appeared, it blindsided them.
This was a book that—while not exactly going down as painlessly as Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. or Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation.—was clearly pitched at the broad educated public, rather than at the narrow band of Nagel’s fellow professionals. And it not only trashed the entire Darwinian-reductionist worldview in a brief 128 pages, it did so in a way that many educated people could more or less understand.
The book’s basic claim is just this: One of the most important facts about human beings—our ability to reason about transcendental properties like truth, goodness, and beauty—cannot have made any difference to our survival, cannot have been “selected for,” and so cannot possibly be explained by the theory of natural selection.
Refusing to be cowed or to mince words, Nagel challenged the Darwinian consensus right on the cover of his book, which is subtitled: “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.”
Now, that hurt!
Coming not from a conservative born-again Christian, but from a bien-pensant. liberal atheist like themselves, that felt like bloody betrayal!!
And it was not long before the betrayed made their feelings known, in no uncertain terms.
For example, Sean Carroll, a well-known physicist, called Nagel a “troll” and his book a “load of crap.” This hardly rises to the level of sophisticated argumentation, but it is what we have come to expect from the professional Darwinist camp.
Another example comes from Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist with a big Internet following. Coyne speculates that Nagel has “lost his critical abilities” (an ugly insinuation against the 77-year-old Nagel). Also, Coyne titles his piece “Thomas Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga.” For those who may not know, Plantinga is a famous philosopher who, in the blogger’s view, is a sort of centaur—a highly sophisticated intellectual who is a deeply devout Christian—something that really ought not to exist at all. However, this is a low blow, as Nagel makes it abundantly clear that he remains an atheist.
Many more such blog posts and printed reviews filled with invective followed.
Finally, the heat was turned up so high that articles began to be written about the controversy itself. One of these had an eloquent title that summed up the whole affair nicely in a word: “The Heretic.”
Like any religion, the Church of Darwin saves its deepest damnations not for pagans, but for apostates.
33. Mind and Cosmos
34. Philosopher Thomas Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga, disses evolution
36. The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?
The bitter controversy swirling around the work of Peter Singer is very likely the most vitriolic of any of those discussed on this list. And for good reason.
To the non-philosopher, Singer’s positions may appear paradoxical in the extreme. On the one hand, he is a staunch vegetarian and one of the world’s leading animal rights activists. On the other hand, he favors killing newborn babies born with certain birth defects!
Of course, in his own mind Singer (b. 1946) is being perfectly consistent. But you can see why feelings about him run high.
Australian by birth, Singer is now the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. From his university chair, and through his many books, whatever he says commands the attention of a worldwide audience. In fact, if he is not the most famous philosophy professor in the world, he is certainly in the running.
Yet, he has had to face down hostile demonstrators, and has even required police protection, at some of his public appearances.
Singer’s position is actually quite simple (outrageous proposals often are).
According to Singer (who accepts completely the same Darwinian worldview that Nagel rejects), right and wrong boil down to one single principle: maximizing pleasure (minimizing suffering) throughout the universe, in whatever form it may be found. This implies that from a moral point of view there is nothing special about human beings or their suffering.
This basic idea—which is a form of the philosophy known as “Utilitarianism,” invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century—has a number of counter-intuitive consequences, such as the notion that nothing is absolutely right or wrong. Actions are only right or wrong insofar as they contribute to the sum total of happiness in the universe as a whole. Thus, it is permissible (even obligatory) to kill a few innocent people in order to save the lives of many more (the so-called “Trolley Problem”).
These ideas have led Singer to the extreme beliefs for which he is famous (or infamous).
He is especially incensed by the idea that there is anything special about human beings, such that their happiness ought to count for more than the happiness of other sentient. creatures (basically, animals with a capacity for conscious awareness, including the ability to experience pleasure and pain).
For instance, he has written:
The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.
The reason why it is morally permissible to kill newborn humans, but not adult animals, is that adult animals are fully sentient in a way that babies supposedly are not. (This is a highly dubious assumption, but let that pass.)
However, Singer is not entirely consistent (for which we should probably be thankful). Elsewhere, he seems to acknowledge that normal adult human beings ought to enjoy a moral standing above that of animals.
Why? Not because they are humans per se., but simply because humans are aware of themselves as persons. existing through time in a way that, as it so happens, other animals on this planet are not capable of (at least so far as we know).
On this basis, Singer gives a different reason why it is okay to kill babies—namely, they are not persons:
Human babies are not born self-aware or capable of grasping their lives over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives would seem to be no more worthy of protection that the life of a fetus.
Still, it is clear that Singer does base his beliefs on logical reasoning. He is not a philosophy professor for nothing! According to him, sentience and personhood, not species membership, are the only considerations that ought to count when deciding who should die in order to maximize the overall happiness of the universe. And if one accepts the Darwinian premises from which he starts, then it is hard to dispute his impeccable if pitiless logic.
All the same, it should by now be clear why a lot of people are upset with Professor Singer. Here are a couple of milder examples from among the many, many accusations that have been aimed at him:
[Singer] has spent a career justifying what most humans beings would call unjustifiable.
By treating Singer’s irrational, immoral, and psychopathic views as if they were positions held by reasonable people, we are helping to normalize anti-rational ethics.
Also, to disabled-rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson—who once debated Singer in public—the Princeton professor “is the man who wants me dead.”
Finally, Singer is so famous, he is even the (anti-)hero of his own comic strip.
How many Ivy League professors can say that?
Note:. Singer’s main presentation begins at about 45:00.
37. Peter Singer, “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong,” Spectator., Sep. 16, 1995.
38. Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).
39. The Dangerous Mind of Peter Singer
40. The Dangerous Mind of Peter Singer
41. Unspeakable Conversations
42. In which Peter Singer investigates a basement flood – Existential Comics
Judging by his résumé, anyone would have to account Thomas Sowell one of the most distinguished intellectuals in the country.
With a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago under his belt, teaching stints at Cornell, UCLA, and Amherst to his credit, long association with the prestigious Hoover Institution (where he is currently a Senior Fellow) to his name, a National Humanities Medal on his mantelpiece, and author’s copies of his 50-odd books—some of them widely used textbooks, others bestsellers—in his bookcase, one would think that his position in the pantheon would be unassailable.
And one would be wrong.
Such a conclusion would be based on the assumption that the quality of argumentation and the depth of thought are what count in assessing someone’s intellectual stature. But not for Sowell’s ardent critics. They regularly subject Sowell to their withering contempt, no matter how cogent his reasoning, or how eloquently it is expressed.
In fact, the more cogent and the more eloquent the reasoning, the worse for him. Sowell is another centaur (like Thomas Nagel, above)—someone who simply ought not to exist. Sowell is a black conservative. To his critics, that makes him a traitor, a “useful idiot,” a sell-out, a Quisling, an Uncle Tom, and worse.
For example, ESPN personality Jason Whitlock has likened Sowell to a “house negro.”
One blogger calls Sowell “vile,” “depraved”—here it comes, the hoary Leninist epithet—an “idiot.” His photograph even appears on this individual’s website with a photoshopped Hitler moustache!
Another blogger—and former Occupy movement supporter—awards Sowell his “lawn jockey Uncle Tom of the Year award.”
In short, Sowell really, really gets under the skin of his anti-conservative critics.
What has he done to deserve this?
Here is a small sampling of the Wit and Wisdom of Thomas Sowell (he is extraordinarily quotable):
If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.
Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.
One of the consequences of such notions as “entitlements” is that people who have contributed nothing to society feel that society owes them something, apparently just for being nice enough to grace us with their presence.
The poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits ever since 1994. You would never learn that from most of the media.
The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.
The fact that many Americans take these comments as incendiary, and others as plain good sense, epitomizes why this country is so deeply divided.
43. Jason Whitlock likens Thomas Sowell to a 'house negro', by Jeff Poor, via The Daily Caller
44. Thomas Sowell: Idiot Emeritus, via Tomfoolery
45. Uncle Tom of the Year Contender – Thomas Sowell via Btx3's Blog
46. Thomas Sowell: the Uncle Tom we need more than Uncle Sam! via One Citizen Speaking
49. John Hawkins Articles – Political Columnist & Commentator at TownHall.com