Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign right to fire Catholic instructor?

Here's a tricky case involving academic freedom at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The University fired a Catholic instructor because he wrote this letter to students in a class he taught on (get this) 'Utilitarianism and Sexuality'.

The academic in question didn't actually have tenure, he was an adjunct instructor. In his letter he states - among other things - the following:

'To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.'

What wrong about this statement?
1) It is not the case that in same sex relationships one of the partners necessarily acts as the 'woman' and the other one acts as the 'man'. Even if this was the case, nothing at all followed normatively.
2) Empirically it makes no sense at all to speak of people engaging in sexual acts that their bodies are not fitted (by whom?) to undertake. Everything that we are physically able to undertake with our bodies are able ('fitted'?) to do.
3) It is question begging to claim that a sex act violates the meaning of our bodies? As in 'how', 'why', 'by means of what'? Are we violating our bodies each time we engage in sexual acts for the fun of it as opposed to in order to breed? What's he on about here?
4) What is meant by the 'structure of the human body' being violated by a same sex act?

And so he concludes,

'Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.'

This, of course, is patently untrue and unprofessional a statement. By necessity Catholics (qua Catholics) arrive at their moral conclusion about sexuality (amongst others) by means of a normative understanding of natural reality (ie their interpretation of what nature, especially human nature ought to be like, as opposed to what it really is like). For that reason the preacher (aka teacher) sneaks in Natural Moral Law and Reality. Really he's saying that natural law theory thinks that human reality ought to be such and such, when quite obviously it is different. The problem then ain't with the theory but with our behavior. All quite silly stuff to be honest.

Was it sensible to fire him? Well, given that the topic of the class was 'Utilitarianism and sexuality' (I can't see how anyone could teach that topic for a whole term, but hey), he clearly went on an agitprop exercise, even trying to hide is real reasons (Catholic doctrine) by claiming that his views have nothing to do with religion. He said, for instance, 'As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion.' That's a plain lie. No wonder his University chose to take him down.

A nice analysis of some other nonsense in the good preacher's email to his students can be found at the - as ever - dependable Pharyngula.

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousJuly 13, 2010

    I'd say, too, if we want to take on other silly elements of his argument, that heterosexual sex acts, most especially one that results in a pregnancy and all the possible and probable bodily harms that go along with one, is far more injurious to health than what he is describing. I defy you to find one woman who has had a child who thinks it was good for her body! Or, who thinks it had no effect.

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