So…Would Georgetown Law Dean Treanor Have Suspended Philosopher Stephen Kershnar?

We’re still waiting to see if Georgetown University Law Center, my disgraceful alma mater, will fire scholar Ilya Shapiro for expressing doubts that limiting the pool of Supreme Court nominees using factors that have absolutely nothing to do with judicial competence, experience or acumen is the best way to get the optimum Court. The statements condemning Shapiro by GULC’s Dean have been indefensible, consisting of woke virtue-signaling and speech-chilling posturing. It worked: none of the law school’s faculty have had the courage or integrity to oppose him, essentially abandoning their support for academic freedom.

This caused me to wonder in the Law Center would be similarly hostile to philosopher Stephen Kershnar of the State University of New York at Fredonia if he were instead a GULC faculty member. Kershnar, you might have read, gave a recent interview about “sexual taboos” on the philosophy podcast Brain in a Vat.The politically conservative Libs of TikTok posted a video about it and social media went metaphorically berserk. Kershnar expressed doubt that adults having sex with minors is necessarily wrong, and raised some hypotheticals and examples to make his point. Grandmothers in some cultures fellate baby boys to soothe colic, for example. Kershner also opined that the harm to children and teens who engage in sex with adults has not been established, and he made a terrible Rationalization #22 (“It’s not the worst thing”) argument that children participate in a number of activities besides sex that they don’t fully “understand” and which aren’t generally considered to be harmful. He also posed thought experiments, like…

“Imagine that an adult male wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl. Imagine that she’s willing participant, It’s with a very standard, very widely held view that there’s something deeply wrong about this. And it’s wrong independent of it being criminalized. It’s not obvious to me that this is, in fact, wrong. I think this is a mistake. And I think that exploring why it’s a mistake will tell us not only things about adult child sex and statutory rape, but also about fundamental principles of morality.”

On the podcast he eventually says that “unwilling sex with underage individuals,” or “out-and-out rape,” is a “severe wrong and should be severely punished.” He also says that “if we’re in the area of legislation, rather than morality, here’s a rule of thumb: if you don’t know whether something has expected good or expected bad consequences, the thumb on the scale should go to liberty….If we don’t know whether willing sex with a 15-year-olds is going to have net good or bad consequences, it’s like, ‘Yeah, well, go ahead and ban it.’ The idea is that people trying to criminalize something bear the burden. And even having harsh opinions on this, before we condemn people for engaging in this, on the basis of probabilistic utilitarianism, we should know that it does pose a risk for those and only those willing participants. I don’t think we know that.”

This is thought-provoking commentary, at worst “Ick” rather than unethical. Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher who infamously argued that newborns could be ethically killed using the same logic that supports abortion was no less offensive. Yet after a furor on campus and on social media, Fredonia announced that it was investigating the philosopher’s “reprehensible” comments, then told Kershner he was banned from campus due to “safety” concerns—you know, all those little children it has enrolled in college. Then the school announced that he’d been suspended until further notice. Kershnar’s teaching duties have been reassigned and he has been banned from contacting students.

His treatment is unambiguously a violation of the principle of academic freedom, and a particularly egregious one.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education was quick to make the point; in its letter to Fredonia, FIRE said that “Kershnar’s statements are protected by the First Amendment, which prohibits SUNY Fredonia from taking adverse action against faculty members for protected speech, however provocative or offensive it may be to others….Even if you accept Kershnar’s critics’ framing—that his statements could lead to erosion of laws criminalizing sexual abuse of minors—his views are still protected by the First Amendment.”

Writing on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance, Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, also told Fredonia on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance that there’s nothing to investigate in Kershnar’s case:

“There is no doubt that questions of sexuality and sexual morality are important ones. Academia should be a place where such questions can be boldly and honestly investigated. If a scholar’s analysis is mistaken, then it should be rebutted or ignored. But the scholar should not be driven from campus for challenging widely held beliefs or for reaching the wrong or unpopular conclusions.”

Bingo.

Based on all this, would Dean Treanor have treated Kershnar as Fredonia has, or as he has handled the controversy regarding Shapiro? I very much doubt it. Progressives like Treanor and the mass of the Georgetown University leadership routinely exclude matters of race from their supposedly liberal ideals. Where matters of race are concerned, only lock-step conformity with the “systemic racism” narrative will do.

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Pointer: Curmie

5 thoughts on “So…Would Georgetown Law Dean Treanor Have Suspended Philosopher Stephen Kershnar?

  1. First of all, gross.

    Second of all, the power differential between an adult and child precludes the possibility of consent. Without consent, there can be no consensual sex. The arguments he makes would apply to quid pro quo sexual relationships, boss/employee sexual relationships, the entire #metoo movement. Unless we want to bring back a lot of behavior currently considered sexual harassment, this logical line doesn’t fly.

    Thirdly, to have free speech we have to let disgusting topics be discussed. He can say what he wants, and I’m free to say I think he is a pedophile who’s choice of rhetoric makes him unsuitable for decent society.

  2. I understand that between the many jurisdictions around this wonderful world there is quite a range in the age of consent. It seems to me that many people had to evaluate choosing age X over age Y and that many considerations went into those decisions. Some considerations may even have been those articulated by Prof. Kershnar.

    And its not the first time that the argument of “no harm, no foul” is raised in the context of criminal law.

    In my experience, philosophers and other scholars frequently write on the same topic/topics. I wonder if this is a new topic for Kershnar? Did Fredonia know what it was getting into when it hired him?

  3. As much as this line of questioning activates my “ick” factor, I do agree that it’s important that people be able to question any and all taboos. That forces us to explain exactly why those taboos exist. It’s far more dangerous for us to forget why a taboo exists, because then it becomes dogma, and when we get into the habit of tolerating dogma we start losing the ability to evaluate situations critically. We lose the ability to reason if we have a list of prerecorded answers and never practice rederiving them from scratch. That means we can’t come up with answers to novel situations from first principles when we have to.

    In addition to the power dynamic, I think another important aspect of the situation in question is the ability to handle extreme emotions and emotional attachment. Oh, and the context necessary to evaluate the character and behavior of a person who is at a very different point in their life and to assert one’s own independent judgment of them. Those are the reasons that come to mind when I consider the justifications for setting an age of sexual majority. Granted, a lot of people above that age should be disqualified on that basis as well, but there’s a limit to how much laws can protect people from themselves. It’d be better to educate people so they’re emotionally mature when they come of age anyway, rather than raising the age limit.

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