month, Father Robert A. Wild, the president of one of America’s leading Catholic
colleges, Jesuit-run Marquette University, was confronted with an embarrassing
problem. Marquette had just offered Jodi O’Brien a position as dean of arts and
sciences. Dr O’Brien was a professor of sociology at Seattle University,
another Jesuit institution, and she was whole-hearted in her commitment to
what she termed “Jesuit values”.
But for some
reason, Marquette had overlooked the fact that Dr O’Brien was also a whole-hearted
lesbian whose publications
include articles like: “Complicating
Homophobia”, “Queer Tensions: The Cultural Politics of Belonging and
Exclusion in Same Gender Marriage Debates”, and “Wrestling the Angel
of Contradiction: Queer Christian Identities”.
So, while insisting that his decision had
nothing to do with her personal life, Father Wild rescinded Marquette’s offer.
The university said that she lacked “the ability to represent the Marquette
mission and identity.” “We found some strongly negative statements about
marriage and family,” amongst her academic writings, Father Wild told the New York
Unsurprisingly, the abrupt about-face by
Marquette has prompted indignation around the country. Faculty from both
universities took out a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper,
to protest. They insisted that the university should apologize and offer her
the job again. The reversal “puts academic freedom at risk at Marquette
University,” said the ad. “We reject an intellectual ‘litmus test’
for our faculty, staff, and leaders in the administration.”
This is just
one of a number of such disputes simmering in the US about liberal values in
universities. I’d like to use it as a lens to examine the core problem: if
everyone has a right to create his or her own values, how can we arbitrate
amongst conflicting values? In other words, disputes like these pose the
question: does classical liberalism have a future?
The leading living critic of liberalism
today is the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, a one-time committed Marxist
but now staunch Catholic who teaches at Notre Dame. Though it is a notoriously slippery word with a complicated
historical and conceptual genealogy, liberalism essentially means the
privatization of the good. In political practice, this privatization entails
the unimpeachable and unexceptionable priority, theoretically and practically,
privately and publicly, of individual autonomy. In liberalism, as MacIntyre
Every individual is to be equally free to
propose and to live by whatever conception of the good he or she pleases,
derived from whatever theory or tradition he or she may adhere to, unless that
conception of the good involves reshaping the life of the rest of the community
in accordance with it.
And thus the “good”
becomes a private matter:
We are presented, that is to say, with
agents as if detached altogether from any conception of or perception of the
good or goods… All preferences of all individuals are to be weighed in the same
balance and accorded the same respect, no matter whose they are or what their
For a philosophical liberal, then, the
contention that that there exists an objective and non-private human good for
human nature is dangerous nonsense. He would also scorn claims that this good
might have a definite, knowable nature which transcends personal preference and
that it thus has public and even political relevance.
The relevance of this to the Marquette
debate is clear. If one holds that there is a good way to exercise human
sexuality, a good way that transcends personal preference, homosexuality is
unacceptable. But an institution which endorses that view is destined to lose
any public debate before it even begins—or even to be barred from
participating. Since all preferences are a
priori equal in value because purely idiosyncratic, for an institution to
deny a candidate a position due to her particular sexual preference must be
seen, with the public eye, as akin to denying a candidate a position due to her
particular favorite color.
But consistently applying this principle
leads one into the quicksands of incoherence.
First of all, it is impossible to take a
neutral standpoint. It is liberalism’s
opinion, and liberalism’s alone, that the non-existence and/or non-knowability
of the human good renders it a private matter, and thus that all individual
opinions about the human good are a
priori equal and politically non-authoritative, that is, politically
privileged above all other opinions and given public authority. In other words,
it is liberalism’s quite debatable opinion that has somehow become the
unimpeachable, self-evident truth presupposed in public debate. This
privileging of one human opinion above all others is, in a word, illiberal.
Second, if, according to liberalism’s
dogmatic priority of individual autonomy, Jodi O’Brien has the individual right not to be discriminated
against by any institution with regard to her preferred sexual lifestyle, then
it stands to reason that Marquette University has an institutional right of autonomy. Surely the individuals who govern Marquette have the right to govern in a way
that conforms to their own preferences, even if that means discriminating in
Similarly, it means that individual students have a right to a
curriculum and educational ethos
corresponding to their preferences, in this case, the preference to preserve
the Catholic mission and integrity of the university. Therefore, according to
the logic of liberalism itself, the individual students and administrators at
Marquette should have the right to reject for a leadership position a person
who, as demonstrated by her scholarship, does not believe in a determinate,
knowable human good, one who believes that human sexuality is “socially
constructed,” and who practices a sexual lifestyle not in accord with the
mission of the institution. Furthermore, if Marquette does not have this right, why does Jodi O’Brien retain hers?
To resolve the issue one preference must be
valued higher than the other, but this contradicts liberalism’s preference-neutral
This leads to a terrible problem. If there
is no rational way to decide amongst competing goods, then liberals’ only
recourse is to settle it irrationally, through force or fraud. In practice,
this means applying intense political pressure and propagandizing. As MacIntyre
has often lamented, academic dialogue breaks down into interminable harangues
and campaigns for political correctness instead of courteous, open debate.
A recent article in USA Today suggested
that gays are facing a stained glass ceiling at American Catholic colleges.
“There is no way the current hierarchy will allow a gay person to hold a
position of authority unless they are closeted and self-loathing. They will
never permit a scholar who publishes a point of view” promoting gay equity
to hold a position of real authority, complained a gay professor at Seton Hall
University. We can expect more debates as gay and lesbian academics apply for
positions. The only way to solve the ensuing imbroglios is to repudiate relativism
masquerading as liberalism.
The privatization of the good renders
rational debate impossible, and since exclusivist political decisions are, in
fact, made, liberalism ensures that under the disguise of such stalking-horses
as reasonableness, diversity, and tolerance, we are left with unreasonableness,
homogeneity, and intolerance. It would seem that it is liberalism itself that
puts liberalism in question.
Thaddeus J. Kozinski is assistant professor
of humanities and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College and the author of The Political
Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can’t Solve It.
A version of this article has been published on the Rowman and Littlefield blog.