Academic Freedom's Dilemma: The Kershnar Affair

Peter Wood

The State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia has suspended philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar and barred him from campus for making public statements that apparently defend some forms of sexual relations between adults and children. Professor Kershnar is a member of the National Association of Scholars and a contributor to our journal, Academic Questions. His views on adult-child sex were never a subject of our communication with him.

Pressure has mounted on SUNY Fredonia to fire Kershnar. New York Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk (116th District) sent a letter signed by five Assembly colleagues to the Chancellor of the SUNY system demanding Kershnar’s “immediate removal.” Change.org circulated a petition, “Fire Professor Stephen Kershnar from SUNY Fredonia,” which as of this writing had drawn 53,227 signatures. Not everyone paying attention to the case has joined the call for Kershnar’s banishment, but it appears he has relatively few supporters. The University Senate Executive Committee at SUNY Fredonia, however, is among them. It released a statement condemning Kershnar’s comments but recognizing “his right to make these statements.” The faculty committee also declared that Kershnar’s statements “have the potential to normalize attitudes and behaviors that cause great emotional, psychological, and cognitive damage to survivors of child sexual abuse.”

The only time NAS engaged the topic of pedophilia was in an article published in The New York Post by NAS staff member Ian Oxnevad who criticized a professor at Old Dominion University, Allyn Walker, who explicitly argues that the stigma on adult sexual attraction to minors should be lifted. Walker had published a book in 2021, A Long, Dark Shadow, with the University of California Press, conveying his views of “the complex and delicate web of social, moral, and psychological issues.” But it wasn’t until Walker appeared in a YouTube video that the controversy erupted. In the end, Walker resigned his position at Old Dominion.

The Kershnar situation is at least superficially similar. In 2015, Kershnar published a book titled, Pedophilia and Adult–Child Sex: A Philosophical Analysis, with the respected publisher Lexington Books. It does not appear that the book aroused much controversy in the six years that followed, but in January 2022, Kershnar appeared as an interviewee on a podcast, “Brain in a Vat,” posted on YouTube, where he provided a “thought experiment” that began:

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

This statement, copied as a stand-alone soundbite was widely distributed on YouTube and became the source of public consternation as well as heated complaints within SUNY Fredonia.

The resemblance between the Walker and Kershnar controversies breaks down, however, with the observation that Professor Walker placed himself primarily as an advocate for the rights and dignity of pedophiles, people he re-labeled “Minor-attracted persons,” (MAPs). Walker was and is concerned with advancing an identity group ideology. Kershnar, by contrast, is a philosophical gadfly whose career is marked by a long string of books setting out what most people would take to be repugnant views on a wide variety of topics. These books include: For Torture: A Rights-Based Defense; Gratitude toward Veterans: Why Americans Should Not Be Very Grateful to Veterans; Does the Pro-Life Worldview Make Sense?; and Total Collapse: The Case Against Responsibility and Morality.

Philosophy professors sometimes delight in playing the role of Socrates who famously tested the validity of ideas by seeing whether they held up in every situation he could imagine. Kershnar appears to play in this sandbox, holding up for critical review—and rejection—many widely accepted moral and religious positions. Nothing suggests that he carried these deliberately outrageous philosophical positions into practice, or even sought seriously to persuade others to adopt them. Some faculty do pursue such attempts to persuade. The philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton University, for example, has argued strenuously for public policies that would advance his positions on abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. But Kershnar by contrast seems to be someone who aims to shock, or perhaps more precisely, someone who hopes to gain notoriety by articulating scandalous or abhorrent views. He doesn’t always write that way. His writing for Academic Questions passes every test of intellectual sobriety. But he plainly has a taste for provocation.

I could be wrong. SUNY Fredonia is in the midst of scrutinizing his past, and if it turns out that Kershnar has gone beyond theory to practice, we will know soon enough. But we shouldn’t confuse word and deed.

Does someone like this deserve to be defended on grounds of academic freedom? The question does not have a simple and obvious answer. On one hand, academic freedom ought to protect faculty members who explore unpopular ideas—even very unpopular ideas. On the other hand, SUNY Fredonia may be seen as squandering public resources and its own moral capital in providing a tenured place for someone who is, at best, engaged in intellectual frivolity. On the third hand (this paragraph has more hands than a Hindu god), Kershnar seems to be in trouble for provocative showmanship, not for failure to live up to his professorial responsibilities. The fourth hand holds the wilted flower of pedagogical seriousness. He is a teacher of “applied ethics” whose basic position is that ethics don’t exist.

A wise friend of mine commenting on the case observed, “Popular morals rest on shadowy grounds and cannot necessarily defend themselves in the face of a wise-guy's eristics. One of the benefits of living within a regime of free speech is that citizens must develop the ability to hear others say bizarre things and ignore their antics. Canceling someone, especially for serious research, will do nothing to shore up popular morals and may only platform the offender. Especially when the ‘right’ defenders of pedophilia (in the gay and trans-communities) are praised rather than blamed.”

With that in mind I have decided that the NAS should indeed defend Professor Kershnar’s freedom to speak publicly on adult-child sexual relations and other matters, and should be restored without further ado to his active position at SUNY Fredonia. I have reached that judgment because to defend the principle of academic freedom it is sometimes necessary to allow room for those who abuse it. I would wish Professor Kershnar to discover better uses of his time and talent. Perhaps I would wish him to undergo a moral awakening, rather than dither his career away trying to create frissons among students who are easily shocked or more likely easily entertained. My counsel to Professor Kershnar is, “Get serious.” My counsel to SUNY Fredonia is, “Relax.” Professor Kershnar is not going to create a cult of child rape, a school for would-be torturers, a Veterans Excoriation Day, or any other real world departure from human morality. Most likely he will just continue to address himself to people who like the sorts of philosophical games he plays.

Is there more to say? Just a little. Since its founding thirty years ago, the National Association of Scholars has been a stalwart defender of academic freedom. In an era when threats to free inquiry and free expression began to arise more from authorities within the academic community than from society at large, we often found ourselves defending professors who have adopted views that were highly unpopular on campus. We consistently took the position that higher education benefits from robust protection of such expression. The right to express controversial opinions is an education good that outweighs the substance of the views themselves. In that light we sometimes found ourselves defending the right of free expression of faculty members whose views we strongly disagreed with.

This is a classically liberal defense of free speech—a defense which itself has become unpopular on today’s campus, where many now prefer to censor speech they find objectionable and also seek to punish those who engage in such speech. NAS opposes such censorship and punishment, but we also recognize that the liberal defense of free speech does have some limits within the academy.

That’s because “academic freedom” is not an absolute principle. It has to be pursued within the context of a university where other foundational principles must also be upheld. These include the diversity of ideas, the hierarchy of knowledge, the integrity of the individual, civility, and the pursuit of truth. I’ve elaborated on this elsewhere. A university worthy of the name recognizes that these principles often conflict and that finding the right balance requires reasoned discussion and good judgment.

In that light, I don’t defend the “right” of a faculty member to use academic freedom as an excuse for flagrantly dishonest teaching, abuse of colleagues, propagandizing students, and other forms of serious misbehavior. Lines have to be drawn, and the line-drawers being human will sometimes draw them poorly.

But in the case of Professor Kershnar, I discern a mischief-maker, or a man in love with argument for its own sake, not a villain. Unless good evidence emerges according to the due process and the presumptions of innocence, Kershnar should be, even if with understandable reluctance on the part of the administrators, restored to his position. He may have foolishly put himself in harm’s way by playing these philosophical games, but he has not forfeited his freedom to speak his mind.


Photo by Minator Yang on Unsplash

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