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Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

30 okt. 2017

The baker is a prick - and that's his prerogative

During the introduction to their latest podcast on The Absurd, the Very Bad Wizards (Tamler Sommers and David Pizarro) discuss ethical dilemmas and "no-brainers". They observe that some dilemmas divide people into two (or more) camps of diametrically opposing views. People on both sides are not only convinced that they are right - but also that their view is obviously the only reasonable one to take.

To take just one example, some people find it obvious that teleportation kills you, and others find it equally obvious that it doesn't.

One current real-life (supreme court) case is that of a US baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. What he within his rights to do so? And what is the connection between this and the debate on free speech on campuses?

A lively debate soon sprung up on the Very Bad Wizards Facebook page. Most of the following has already been discussed there, but I would still like to express my opinion - and ask some naive but earnest questions.

I'm Swedish, and though I don't imagine myself representative of all Swedes, I think there may be some general cultural differences between Swedes (Europeans) and Americans.

The baker example struck me as a no-brainer. And the way it looks to me is this: The baker is a private business-owner, providing his services to make a livelihood. He is bound to operate within the same legal restrictions (e.g. environmental) as any other business, but other than that, he decides for himself who to serve, and how. If he doesn't want to serve certain people, or provide certain services (including services that might be "expected" of him) - that's his prerogative. If, by denying certain services to certain people, he acquires a bad reputation in some circles, well, that's his loss, and probably his own calculated cost-benefit.

As long as the baker is consistent, and up-front about his own rules. And as long as those rules don't violate any general laws.

Laws against discrimination are one thing: they say that if a baker does bake certain cakes for one category of people, then he should do so for any other category of people as well. There are reasons for this general law, since racism etc. is a real problem. But, to make things extreme, if the baker randomly denies some people some things (just because he's a prick) then that should be up to him.

From another perspective, I find it unreasonable for a customer who is denied a specific service to litigate if the baker doesn't provide that service to anyone else. It's like saying that if IKEA doesn't carry a special kind of sofa that I would like (and that another company does carry) then they are obliged to make one especially for me - otherwise I feel discriminated against.

Now, to free speech and campuses.

In Sweden, all higher education is public and tuition-free. Very, very rarely are there any cases of controversial speakers. Universities seldom invite speakers other than for purely academic reasons. Student bodies don't invite speakers to campus at all. (Possibly to their own clubs, but these are separate from the university.) Overall, there is an instinctual culture of separating academia and politics as much as possible.

When I listen to discussions about free speech on US campuses, I get confused. First of all, there seems to be big differences between public and private universities. I am not sure I understand those completely.

Private universities seem closest to the baker above. They may invite whomever they like (as long as no general laws are broken). But why they should is another matter. I don't understand why they should feel obliged to expose students to (more or less) controversial figures at all. These people can get up on the nearest soapbox and say whatever they want, but they have no right to demand the attention of students or anyone else. And students don't need their university to provide them with exposure to controversial ideas - they can seek those out at their leisure, if they feel the urge.

If universities wish to educate students about various differing (controversial) views on different topics, then they can do so by letting their own academic staff talk about such figures and topics.

If universities wish for students to sample the real thing, they can show video clips, instead of inviting people. That way they can control and balance exposure, and avoid security problems.

Now, a private university can behave much like a baker-cum-prick: They can throw balance out the window and decide to brainwash their students any way they see fit. Its a free market: universities provide whichever education they want, and students choose whichever education they want.

A public university, I would imagine, must not only abide by general laws, but also fulfill a national contract (perhaps in practice private universities do too, but that isn't self-evident) as laid out in federal (or state) curricula etc.

I would like to hope that such curricula, as much as possible, explicitly minimize ideological biases and emphasize core academic content and principles.

Public universities, like private ones, neither need nor should provide a platform for outside speakers - controversial or not. (See above.) They might, however, be obliged to inform students about as many differing viewpoints as possible, on different topics. Students are then free to search ot and explore as many of these as they see fit, in their own time.

In discussions on this, by American commentators, I often get the impression that universities are obliged to provide a platform for anyone who requests it. Can this really be the case? Or is it that many commentators simply express their opinion that universities should do so?

I don't think this is reasonable. Regardless, I don't see how this can be treated as a question of free speech. Anyone is entitled to exercise there right to free speech (limited by national regulations; these also seem more clearly delineated and uncontroversial in Sweden than in the US). But that doesn't mean that anyone is obliged to listen.

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