All posts by Clay Spence

Clay Spence is an Associate Editor at the Claremont Independent. A junior at Claremont McKenna College majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) with a Legal Studies dual, Clay was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and loves reading fantasy novels, playing guitar, and shredding the powder.

Bigotry at the Ath: A Response to the CMC Forum

In the opening line of her recent Forum piece “Why is CMC Promoting Racism and Sexism?” CMC Freshman Liat Kaplan wrote, “I’m not going to summarize political scientist Charles Murray’s recent Ath talk here because if I do, the stress will probably give me a heart attack.” Bracketing a discussion of Kaplan’s coronary arteries, it’s clear that Kaplan should have consulted her notes on the talk – if she took any. Kaplan’s portrayal of Charles Murray’s Athenaeum talk is as false as her ill-thought-out cries of bigotry.

Kaplan asserts that during his speech Murray claimed “that poor people, especially people of color, are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent,” – a thesis which appears in Murray’s 1994 text The Bell Curve. This assertion is factually inaccurate, and wildly so. The subject of Murray’s Ath talk was his more-recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a study on class inequality. Murray clarified in the first five minutes of his speech that he excluded race from consideration in Coming Apart, in order to pinpoint the effect of college admissions on class inequality. The words “The Bell Curve” never left Murray’s mouth.

As a preface to his talk, Murray carefully noted that he was only presenting sociological evidence, not a normative stance on the issue of class inequality. It is difficult to reconcile this very overt sidestep of ethical issues with Kaplan’s claim that in Murray’s address “whole swaths of humanity [were] categorically deemed inferior.” The only very vaguely sexist thing Murray said, over the entire course of the talk, was that wives tend to civilize husbands and make them more productive; however, he noted that this was putting “not too fine a point on it,” and added the caveat that this thesis was only one explanation for the empirical truth that married men tend to be more economically productive than their unmarried counterparts.

What claims did Murray make at the Ath? During his talk, Murray focused exclusively on his thesis in Coming Apart, which is that the new upper class and lower class which have formed in America diverge more sharply than ever before in terms of core values like family and community life. The causal story which Murray emphasized in his Ath talk was that the college admissions process tends to concentrate high-IQ persons together at elite colleges and universities, where they often marry each other, become members of the new upper class and have children who lead sheltered lives in their upper class social bubble. Members of the new upper class, on Murray’s account, are typically insulated from an authentic understanding of the lives of their lower-class counterparts, which poses a grave problem for democracy since, in most cases, America’s governing elite wind up being members of the new upper class – individuals with little understanding of the lives of their constituents.

A crucial point here is that Murray’s thesis in Coming Apart is compatible with a wide range of normative stances. Murray seemed to indicate that he didn’t favor a class of elites who had never lived outside the bubble, but rather thought that a healthy democracy required its leaders to understand the lives of all their constituents. This remarkably progressive vision strongly contradicts the elitism Kaplan attempts to read into Murray’s argument. And although The Bell Curve did not feature in Murray’s talk, a similar principle applies. Even if one accepts the empirical truth that average IQ varies along ethnic lines, one can still, of course, recognize that the evolutionary and historical forces which contributed to racial IQ disparities were arbitrary and oppressive, respectively – and ought to be corrected for through affirmative action or educational reform, for instance. The bottom line is that Murray’s Ath talk involved statistical data, not the highly offensive ethical claims Kaplan thought she heard. The reason students didn’t angrily condemn Murray as a racist or a sexist during the Q & A is that he didn’t defend anything even remotely close to a “racist” or “sexist” position.

My last Claremont Independent article argued that the censorship of oppressive viewpoints is virtually never justified, and, coincidentally, considered Murray’s The Bell Curve. So instead of critiquing Kaplan’s views on censorship here, I’d like to conclude this article with a discussion of the problem of bigotry.

In her article, Kaplan repeatedly characterized Murray as a bigot. A bigot is defined as “a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc.” While Murray’s views may not align with Kaplan’s own, they emphatically do not make him a bigot.

Each of Murray’s views is the result of fair and thoughtful consideration – for instance, Murray recently changed his mind, on reflection and decided to support the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. Charles Murray is remarkably open-minded for a man Kaplan essentializes as a racist, sexist, “old white rich man who thinks that women and people of color are inferior beings.” Indeed, Murray is far more open-minded than Kaplan herself. While Murray grounds his viewpoints in statistical evidence and careful reflection, Kaplan writes angry tirades only marginally evidenced by a single peremptory Google search. While Murray favors the open exchange of conflicting viewpoints (and explicitly thanked Claremont McKenna for hosting exactly that kind of exchange at the Athenaeum), Kaplan favors a McCarthy-esque policy of censoring individuals with whom she harbors moral disagreement. Consequently, the true bigot in this episode is Kaplan. If Kaplan genuinely felt Murray’s talk dehumanized and devalued her as a human person, she has some serious soul searching to do.

Let’s Talk about Academic Freedom

In a recent Harvard Crimson article, Harvard student Sandra Korn endorses the abridgment of academic freedom in order to prevent the publication of research promoting or justifying oppression. Her view is not particularly remarkable, and it certainly isn’t novel, but it is worth correcting nonetheless.

The constitutional case for academic freedom is clear. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) the Supreme Court accepted Justice Frankfurter’s rationale in Wieman v. Updegraff that “unwarranted inhibition [of academic freedom]…has an unmistakable tendency to chill that free play of the spirit which all teachers ought to cultivate and practice…Teachers must…be exemplars of open-mindedness and free inquiry. They must have the freedom of responsible inquiry, by thought and action, into the meaning of social and economic ideas, into the checkered history of social and economic dogma.” Later, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), the Court also upheld academic freedom and freedom of association in light of the First Amendment.

Both Sweezy and Keyishian were explicit constitutional prohibitions on McCarthy-esque purges, and invoked the phrase “academic freedom” in particular. Because Korn’s vision of “academic justice” requires censorship of professors’ publications on the basis of their political views, it is analogous to McCarthy’s witch-hunt of socialists. One can assume then that Korn does not find the constitutional argument for academic freedom compelling. So, in the interest of attempting to persuade Korn to revise her beliefs on the subject, I’ll articulate a philosophical argument for strict First Amendment protection of academic freedom.

Korn argues that “academic justice” requires censoring academic publications in order to ensure they aren’t oppressive. This is sort-of intuitive at a very superficial level – after all, oppression is bad, and we should prevent bad things when possible. Furthermore, Korn contends that “no one ever has ‘full freedom’ in research and publication…what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities.” But this semblance of a syllogism and unapologetic naturalistic fallacy does not bear out. Korn ought to take a philosophy class.

Korn’s chief example of an oppressive academic publication is Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein’s 1971 article “I.Q.,” which makes the claim (which would later be reiterated in Herrnstein’s famous work The Bell Curve), that intelligence is primarily hereditary and varies by race. According to Korn, Herrnstein concludes in “I.Q.” that “social programs intended to establish a more egalitarian society were futile.”

Even granting her this caricature of Herrnstein’s thesis, Korn’s strategy of promoting “academic justice” by ensuring that research that promotes or justifies oppression isn’t published is highly problematic. Any attempt to censor politically incorrect views creates problems for Korn’s argument because any method for distinguishing between “sufficiently oppressive” and “trivially oppressive” speech is ultimately arbitrary.

How will one go about delineating between views that are sufficiently oppressive to be censored, and views that, while marginally oppressive, don’t cross whatever arbitrary “oppressiveness threshold” one constructs? For instance, is this article the sort of thing that ought to be censored? I am, after all, openly endorsing the publication of exactly the kinds of oppressive academic works Korn opposes. While certain kinds of academic speech, for instance Holocaust-denial, would clearly fall on the “oppressive” end of Korn’s spectrum, few such cases are so straightforward.

The erection of a litmus test for acceptable ideology is a messy, oppressive endeavor. Remember, for instance, McCarthy-era Red-baiting. The question: “Who must agree that an academic work is oppressive in order for it to be justly censored?” is unanswerable, and itself suspect. A liberal commitment to inclusion of conflicting voices renders Korn’s principle untenable in theory and in practice.

That being said, Korn has captured the germ of an important issue. Some academic works, like Ward Churchill’s essay comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” clearly perpetuate unjust views. However, I contend that, instead of censoring these publications, one must counter oppressive views through reasoned debate. Academic discourse over controversial publications is not only an effective means to combat oppressive viewpoints, but, more important, the only way to avoid well-intentioned, but morally bankrupt, censorship of the Joseph McCarthy variety.

Oppressive viewpoints are definitionally false viewpoints, so the task of undermining an academic’s arguments for an unjustified belief should, generally, be an easy one. The primary feature of reasoned discourse is that it tends to get at the truth, including those truths that undermine the arguments in offensive academic publications. Herrnstein’s work on IQ is a case in point. In an article summarizing statistical findings post-Bell Curve, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp notes that sociological research on the IQ debate has concluded that, while inherited genetic makeup is the largest determining factor on intelligence, socioeconomic factors and access to quality education also play a significant role. Taken together, research on this nature/nurture debate supports the conclusion that social justice policies like educational reform still have a significant role to play in levelling the playing field for the least well-off.

The philosophical problem of identifying which academic publications are, according to Korn’s argument, “unjust,” and the practical problem of assembling commissions to evaluate whether a particular publication meets whatever standards of injustice Korn might try to outline are convincing reasons to opt for an inviolable right to academic freedom. Though, clearly, some publications seem to perpetuate just views and others unjust views, most academic works inhabit an uncertain gray area. Consequently, rulings on the “justice” of a particular academic work are highly susceptible not only to human error, but to the broader possibility that our current conception of “academic justice” is, as Joseph McCarthy’s was, just plain wrong. In light of these human failings, and understanding the history of academic censorship in this country, we would do well to be wary of the notion of censorship itself.

Therefore, the appropriate response to academic works that disseminate unjust viewpoints is not the crude strategy of moral browbeating embodied in censorship, but an exposition of reasons an unjust view is unjustified. The right strategy in combating oppression is not to silence the opposition, but to engage in debate and invalidate oppressive viewpoints with factual evidence. One must remind the public not only that academics who endorse oppressive views are wrong, but also why those academics are wrong. While the risk that censorship may be abused is ever-present, engaging in moral argument to refute an offensive academic publication is, ethically speaking, risk-free.

Defining Libertarianism: A Rebuttal to the “Claremont Port Side”

In his May 2 article, “An Ideology at Odds with Itself,” David Leathers of the Claremont Port Side argues that people who claim to be “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” – namely, Libertarians – hold an inconsistent set of beliefs. On Leathers’ account, socially liberal causes like free birth control and higher education student loan subsidies cut against the grain of fiscal conservatism and require higher taxes; however, Leathers’ account rests on a misunderstanding of what Libertarians mean when they identify as “socially liberal” and fails to recognize how a fiscal conservative might consistently claim to be socially liberal.

The traditional distinction between fiscal conservatives and liberals rests on the distinction between negative and positive rights. Where fiscal conservatives typically favor negative rights of non-interference, liberals generally favor a more expanded role of taxation and government in redistributing wealth so as to ensure substantive equality of opportunity. The fiscal conservative stance has its philosophical roots in the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, who famously argues, “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor…taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose.” On this view, redistributive taxation is unjust because it is tantamount to coercion.

In an obvious sense, Libertarians would be committed to negative liberties like marijuana legalization, gay marriage, and freedom to choose, but not policies which require taxation, for instance the Affordable Care Act. Yet, as Leathers notes in a recent email interview with the Claremont Independent, “Sure, you can be ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative’ if you only endorse a narrow swath of negative rights, but in 2013, socially progressive causes encompass much more than just ‘negative liberties’ like the right of gay couples to marry.”

To a certain extent, Leathers is right. Even self-styled Libertarians typically recognize the necessity of redistributive initiatives such as the public school system and some level of state-sponsored medical insurance. Fiscal conservatives typically justify their commitment to these sorts of policies with reference to equality of opportunity. However, liberals can just as easily justify a commitment to a more expansive set of redistributive policies by appealing to the same principles. As Leathers explains, his commitment to liberal initiatives like the ACA and government-sponsored higher education is founded in a belief “that we should elect a government that helps to create equality of opportunity for each citizen.”

Who’s right? Most reasonable people think that a system of total redistribution is unjust. If I work, I ought to be entitled to keep my wages. But yet, as Leathers correctly points out, “a rich person who gets sick is more likely to recover than a poor person without health insurance. This rich person can return to work and support their family. The poor person cannot…the cycle continues.” On both my Libertarian view and Leathers’ liberal perspective, the need for fair equality of opportunity overrides the Nozickian principle that taxes are unjust.

The question now becomes, “To what degree does a concern for equality of opportunity dictate a policy of redistributive taxation?” This question is a thorny philosophical problem. Leathers agrees that “it is impossible to tell when there really is ‘equality of opportunity,’” but suggests that “this is the direction our country needs to head.”

I disagree. Leathers’ account blurs the distinction between equality of opportunity and substantive equality. Leathers suggests that “giving each kid a free college education would be a major component” of ensuring equality of opportunity. But this kind of substantive educational equality is conceptually distinct from the kind of equality of opportunity I, as a Libertarian, espouse. A policy of government-funded free college education for every child seems, superficially, to ensure an equal level of economic opportunity to college graduates entering the workforce. But there’s a conflation of terms at play here: the economic opportunity Leathers appeals to is, in fact, a masquerading form of substantive equality of outcome.

Equal opportunity in the Libertarian sense of the term is grounded in exactly the kind of negative rights that delineate Libertarian views from liberal perspectives. A person’s opportunity is equal to another’s if that person is not deliberately coerced in a manner that restricts her capacity to freely act upon her ends. Provided a person is not deliberately excluded, in spite of her merits, from attending college, that person’s opportunity to attend college is exactly equal to any other person’s.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule: Libertarians could defend a publicly funded education system through high school since children aren’t fully developed moral agents and ought not to be held responsible for their parents’ financial situation. Somewhat differently, Libertarians could defend a system of baseline health insurance as a policy that accords with the general will of the people: most people intuitively think that everyone ought to have access to a decent minimum of healthcare even if, like me, they aren’t aware of a compelling moral argument for why this is the case.

But it is clear Leathers’ argument in favor of equalizing economic opportunity does not fit into this Libertarian conception. Perhaps if everyone attends college the least-well-off will learn enough to earn higher wages and make their lives substantively better. But compressing the range of economic outcomes is only just if one is committed to substantive equality. “Substantive equality of opportunity” sounds appealing, but isn’t conceptually distinct from “substantive equality of outcome.’”

Libertarians, conservatives, and liberals alike must reconcile themselves to a hard truth: although human persons are worthy of equal moral concern, with respect to their natural capacity to lead healthy, prosperous lives, human beings are radically unequal. By virtue of the birth lottery some people wind up with high IQs and are born to wealthy families. Economic outcomes are generally much better for Claremont College students than high school dropouts. But what’s the alternative? Liberal guilt over the fact that one is well-off in life is philosophically bankrupt: a commitment to justice only requires a commitment to negative rights of non-interference. Life isn’t fair.

Where does this leave us? Libertarians are committed to negative liberties like marijuana legalization, gay marriage, and the freedom to choose, which are grounded in the principle of non-interference, but not broadly redistributive policies like the Affordable Care Act. This is the sense in which Libertarians mean they are “socially liberal.” After all, as Leathers points out in his article, the key issue for fiscal conservatives who claim to be socially liberal is gay marriage. Leathers might be right in suggesting that “social liberalism moved far beyond traditional ‘negative rights’ a long time ago,” but that merely means that “socially liberal” is a misnomer for Libertarians like myself, not that our ideologies are internally inconsistent.

I would suggest, then, that the real debate David Leathers and I should be having is a philosophical one. Liberals like Leathers are committed to the idea that a respect for human dignity requires more than a commitment not to infringe upon the rights of others, whereas Libertarians like me disagree. It may be the case that we as human beings are morally obliged to minimize the suffering of others through redistributive policies, and so ought to be liberals. But that’s an open question. For now, it suffices to say that it’s perfectly consistent to deny the primacy of that obligation.

Best Places to Study at the 5Cs

Certain people can study in their dorm rooms and lounges with ease; I’m not one of them. If you’re the sort of person who can grind through Thursday night econ problem sets with Avicii blasting and inebriated classmates traipsing loudly through your dorm, then more power to you. For the rest of us, I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite study spots around the 5Cs.

The Cube: Virtually any CMC student would agree that the Cube easily ranks among the best places to study on campus. Conveniently close to North and Mid-Quad dorms, the Cube has the advantage of being a few minutes closer to home than the library and a very quiet atmosphere. Cons include the general lack of power outlets, the not-so-comfortable mod chairs, and the fact that the almost perfect silence that pervades the place has an eerie quality that will have you glancing around to see who’s breathing so loudly (this last one might just be me, though).

Pitzer Mounds: There are a number of good study spots for those who prefer fresh air and sunlight to buckle down and hit the books. For those who don’t mind ambient noise and enjoy a little local color, the Pitzer Mounds are hard to beat. Nab the hammock in the shade under the massive pine trees or you’ll likely be sitting in the grass, though.

Scripps Alcoves: This isn’t one particular place, but a reference to the various outdoor nooks and crannies that define the Scripps campus. Whether you favor a shaded table at the basement-level patio west of the Scripps dining hall or the alcove outside the admissions office, you’re sure to find a quiet isolated spot if you look hard enough. Unfortunately the various Scripps alcoves, like the Mounds, are pretty far away, especially in 5C miles.

Hub Patio: Not to be conflated with the Hub itself, which is usually loud and guaranteed to be full of people you know, the Hub patio is a fairly good place to study. Centrally located for CMCers, the Hub patio boasts shade provided by umbrellas and quick access to snacks. The main shortcoming of the Hub patio is that friends will probably join you and start up a conversation.

Honnold-Mudd Library: While a fair walk, Honnold is the classic go-to for a place to study. In particular, I’d recommend the always quiet fourth floor or, if you’re looking for a spot with a view, any of the three bridges between the two halves of the library. For those looking for total seclusion, check out the desks interspersed along the stairwell in the stacks. There’s something about the looming presence of thousands of books that is very conducive to concentrating on your studies. The downsides of Honnold include the fact that you often have to scout around to find an open desk and that many of the chairs aren’t especially comfortable.

Kravis Research Institutes­: If you are able to land a gig as a research assistant at any of the several research institutes located in the Kravis Center, you’re in luck, because the research institutes win the dubious award of being my favorite place to study at the 5Cs. Brand new ergonomic chairs, great views, complete silence and isolation, and ease of access to Kravis rooftop decks for a stretch are all perks reserved for those whom work for research institutes. Be sure to petition your institute head for 24/7 access to office space. The only con to these exclusive study spaces is that they have a sterile, professional feel to them.