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September 20-25, 2005


Law and Liberty:

Ethics and Politics for the XXI Century







David K. O'Connor

University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana, USA



            Man is by nature a political animal. ... One who is incapable of community, or who needs nothing because he is self-sufficient, is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god.

Aristotle, Politics 1.2


            Our everyday lives are full of opportunities for virtue and vice, yet in the last half century, hundreds, perhaps thousands, more papers have appeared in philosophy journals devoted to the ethics of nuclear deterrence, abortion, and special topics in medicine, law, and business, than to marriage and academic life. (I will be focusing on an American academic world; I would love to discover what is different in the worlds many of you inhabit.) For most of us, the moral tone of our life will be set by our marriages. But today I want to focus on our everyday life as academics.

            The questions of liberty and law at the heart of this conference are not merely for nations. We professors make and destroy our own poleis, our cities of the mind. Yet we write less about, say, using part-time teachers to give regular faculty more research time, than about dismembering poor patients before they are dead to transplant their organs into rich or talented people whose lives we value more. We can find more reflection on the rights of trees and our animal friends than on the rights of our graduate students, and more about the moral status of prodigious kittens than prodigious colleagues. This is unfortunate, since our shared life within the community of scholars is neither so transparent that moral reflection would be unnecessary, nor so unimportant that it would be trivial.

            One reason for this curious neglect by ethicists of our own profession may be that much standard contemporary ethical theory gives us few resources for thinking about the moral demands of the academic life we share with our colleagues. Such theory is most at home where we confront each other with competing individual interests, and where the primary moral problem is how to mediate our claims in the face of this competition. No doubt some episodes in academic life have the structure of such a clash of individual interest, and the standard theories help us to get some conceptual grip on them. But many of our common interactions with colleagues and students involve shared interests and projects, where the primary moral issue is to find our proper role within a larger group effort rather than to respect the independent interests of others. For example, when we divide up the work load and leadership positions in a departmental committee, we are distributing burdens and opportunities within a shared project rather than balancing competing individual interests. Our moral task in such contexts is not to rein in our own egoistic interests to make way for other people's egoistic interests, but rather to coordinate our actions with those of colleagues who share with us a common goal.

            I want to explore some resources of an Aristotelian approach to describing and evaluating this aspect of academic life. Aristotle focused on communities held together by a shared vision of the good, and had little independent interest in "liberal" alliances of members pursuing private conceptions of happiness. This focus on a common good is just what we need to explore the shared life of colleagues. The tension between liberty and law still exists in such a community, but we distort the nature of the tension if we try to make it too much like the tension in a liberal community of private interests.

            I will consider three models of academic community, which I will call synergy, symbiosis, and self-sufficiency. The conceptual machinery for characterizing these models comes pretty much straight out of Aristotle's ethical and political philosophy (though I won't try here to document the details). Think of these models as ideals we might try to live up to and by which we might measure our academic success or failure. The use of ideal models to describe and evaluate styles of community is also characteristically Aristotelian; for example, Aristotle uses such models in his discussions of friendship and political constitutions. I should immediately point out that the sort of ideal-type analysis I will be exploiting always runs the risk of presenting the types as sealed off from each other, when in fact in any real society or institution they mix and interpenetrate. Separation is merely an analytic convenience. Aristotle is sensitive to this problem, and treats "mixtures" at length; but I will not discuss such complications.

            Besides its focus on how to share interests (rather than on how to pursue individual interests fairly) and its focus on ideal models, my account has two other important Aristotelian features. First, all three ideals are models primarily of successful academic groups. The ideal for the group then informs and regulates our judgments about the excellence and success of individual scholars. I am assuming, then, a certain evaluative priority of the group ideal over the ideal for an individual. We will evaluate particular scholars in light of our general view about the community of scholars. By assuming this evaluative priority of the group ideal over the ideal for an individual, I subscribe to Aristotle's view that man, even academic man, is more a political than an individual animal.

            Second, like Aristotle's account of happiness and virtue, my account of academic success and excellence straddles the distinction between moral and (merely) prudential concerns. Within an Aristotelian framework, this distinction is neither very sharp nor particularly important, since the constituents of the happy life do not naturally divide up into these two exclusive categories. This blurring of the line between the moral and the prudential will give my discussion an air of practical advice for successful living perhaps more typical of self-help books and magazine articles than of most contemporary ethical writing, but that is just what we would expect of an authentically Aristotelian account.

            To compare the three ideals of synergy, symbiosis, and self-sufficiency, it will be helpful to take the view of a provost or dean. You are trying to build up stronger academic units within your university. This would include building strong departments, but you may also be looking to build working groups within or between departments. Given your Aristotelian tendencies, your hiring, firing, and promotion decisions will be guided by your conception of successful academic groups. Your evaluation of the excellence of an individual scholar will be heavily influenced by how that individual contributes to the groups whose development you are trying to promote. The three ideals set your standards for such evaluation.

            I will consider three aspects of each of these ideals of academic success and excellence. First, what standard does the ideal ask us to live up to as colleagues, and what expectations should a dean have for collegial interaction? Second, what do the three ideals imply about scholarly writing and publication? Will a dean evaluate the publication record of individual scholars differently depending on which model of group excellence he or she subscribes to? Third, how should the physical space of the university be structured? The geography of academe has a big influence on, and is influenced by, our conceptions of successful academic activity. Though a vision of good teaching is essential to any complete account of academic success and excellence, I will abstract from the effect that trying to live up to these ideals would have on relations between faculty and students. Ideals of teaching open up too many issues of their own.


1. The Ideal of Synergy

            The first model of academic success and excellence is the ideal of synergy. If you are a dean using this model, you aim to build departments (or more realistically, groups within or across departments) that work together on truly shared projects. The emphasis here falls on the joint project pursued rather than on the individual contributions of the pursuers. If you are a synergist dean, you will think of yourself primarily as promoting certain worthwhile projects rather than as directly promoting talented individuals. Of course, one essential consideration in promoting a given project is finding smart, hard-working scholars interested in it. No synergy without energy, we might say. But you will evaluate people primarily as contributors to a common project rather than as independent researchers. Some deans are loath to make judgments of this sort about which projects are worth promoting. They prefer to limit themselves to evaluating the efficiency of an individual scholar's pursuit of his or her own research projects. But since synergist deans measure an academic group's success by how it promotes a shared project, they must make such judgments.

            This ideal of group success has a corresponding conception of individual excellence. The scholar who is an excellent synergist flourishes in a working group where each member understands more because he or she engages in the group's activity. Such a scholar must have skills of partnership, and will often need to be willing to be somewhat submerged in the group effort.

            Besides taking this perspective on scholarly excellence in collegial interaction, you will also adapt your expectations about publication to fit the synergistic ideal. For example, the synergist dean will look benevolently rather than suspiciously on joint authorship. I believe that many deans (at least in the humanities) are uncomfortable with jointly authored articles because it is hard to divide up credit for them. If I publish two articles with one co-author and one with four co-authors, am I equivalent to someone who has published three articles on his or her own? Or do I get credit for two halves and a fifth? Or do I get no credit at all under the assumption that whatever else it may be, being responsible for a half article (let alone a fifth of an article) is not an accomplishment of the same type as publishing a whole article of one's own? If you are judging by the ideal of synergy, these questions will not be natural ones for you to ask. More generally, the synergist might expect a scholar's written work to be less original and more oriented to discussion and review of other's work, so that discussion notes and book reviews would go up in status. In these various ways, synergy should find natural outlets in written as well as oral interaction.

            Finally, the dean who adopts the ideal of synergy will take a lively interest in the physical arrangement of the university. Synergy demands a particular type of architecture to make shared work convenient, or even possible. For example, you as dean will insist on putting common rooms into new buildings, especially faculty office buildings. On many campuses, the synergist dean will also need to resist the constant pressure to convert common rooms to other purposes when older buildings are remodeled. Perhaps such a dean would even tear down partitions that create individualized work spaces in order to create more common space. This does not mean that you would do away with private offices. But when hard decisions had to be made about space allocation, you would give common rooms the priority of research facilities rather than of mere social space. The synergist dean would put common space in a category with study carrels and computer rooms, rather than with faculty lounges and snack bars.


2. The Ideal of Symbiosis

            The second model of academic success and excellence is the ideal of symbiosis, or mutual parasitism. Here the ideal does not require a common project shared among scholars, but does expect different individual projects to support and complement one another. In your deanly guise, you will look to hire and retain scholars with diverse enough fields of expertise to fill in gaps in one another's knowledge. You will be concerned with coverage across a discipline rather than with building working groups within the discipline. Because projects would be definitely conceived as belonging to particular individuals on this model of academic community, it does not demand that individual scholars submerge themselves in a group project to the extent that the synergistic ideal does. In this respect, symbionts do not need as much community spirit as synergists. But in another respect, symbionts need more. For in a symbiotic academic community, I am expected to contribute to projects that belong to someone else; synergists need only work within a shared project. The symbiotic ideal, then, holds up quite different standards of partnership from the ideal of synergy. The symbiotic dean would value scholars both for the quality of their individual projects and for their value as hosts to their parasitic colleagues.

            This ideal of one scholar complementing another's projects rather than sharing in them would also have an effect on academic writing. The symbiotic dean would expect our colleagues to appear in our articles not as co-authors, but as helpers and editors. The footnotes in scholarly articles seem often intended to document the feeding pattern of a particular parasite as it ate its way through its friends. On this model, it is important that the individual's ownership of a project not be submerged, so that a clear line can be drawn between my articles, written with your help, and your articles, written with my help. The scholarly ritual of acknowledging debts to others while exonerating them of any responsibility for the finished product may also accord with the symbiotic model: we acknowledge others for complementing or filling out our projects, but steadfastly refuse the implication that the project belongs to others as well as to ourselves. We can borrow some sugar or flour from our neighbors, but it's still our cake (good or bad).

            Symbiotic deans should also promote a style of architecture that suits their vision of academic community. In the synergistic model, the paradigmatic form of collegial interaction would be the working group, and so a premium would be put on common space. In the symbiotic model, the paradigm would be something more like the occasional visit, to clarify a particular point or get some piece of information. From this perspective, common rooms are not as important as they are for synergism. But symbiont colleagues do need easy access to one another. One typical physical realization of this ideal: a faculty office building with each corridor reserved for a particular department. With this arrangement, each scholar can have his or her own sound-proofed office in which to pursue individual projects, but still be within strolling distance of his or her colleagues.


2. The Ideal of Self-sufficiency

            The last model of academic excellence and success I want to consider is the one Aristotle contrasts in our epigraph with a political life, namely, the self-sufficient life of a beast or a god. The Cyclops, with his one huge eye, his penchant for cannibilism, and his solitary dwelling off in a cave of his own, is Aristotle's example of such an apolitical being. If you are a Cyclopean dean, what do you look for in an academic community? Your requirements will be very minimal, since you discount the importance of interaction among colleagues and focus on individual status. You will try to assemble a set of academic stars who will see themselves basically as independent contractors. Your stars' collegial skills, whether of a synergistic or symbiotic sort, will not be of much concern. If a scholar has a big enough eye, the occasional colleague he devours for lunch can easily be overlooked. The chronic indifference of an academic Cyclops to his or her colleagues may be taken by the dean who is guided by the ideal of self-sufficiency as a symptom of divine transcendence rather than dehumanizing incapacity. Scholars so gigantic need not complement their colleagues in any way, let alone share any projects with them.

            Superficially, this ideal may appear to abandon the evaluative priority of the group to the individual, reverting to a "liberal" individualist ideal in which each scholar is evaluated for his or her pursuit of an essentially private project, more or less untrammeled by the demands of community. But this is misleading. The individualist model presupposes that scholars should be judged on the basis of their individual projects, while the self-sufficiency model understands the Cyclopean giants to merit their independence only because of their transcendent capacities. The individualist ideal treats all scholars as atoms, while the self-sufficiency ideal looks only for scholars who are isolated stars.

            The splendid isolation of the self-sufficient gods and beasts of academe also has implications for writing and publication. This ideal pushes the desirability of independent ownership of academic projects much further than the symbiotic ideal. The footnotes of scholars brought along in the Cyclopean mode are not peopled by their complementary colleagues, but by an endless citation of their own careers. Their favorite phrase is "As I have argued elsewhere ... ". If you are a Cyclopean dean, you will be more impressed by such self-generating literary activity than by research of a synergistic or even symbiotic kind, which by contrast seems dependent on other people and enmeshed in their projects.

            Finally, your Cyclopean scholars need suitably Cyclopean architecture. Once you hire them, they will want to scatter to their well-appointed caves and pursue their solitary projects. You will want to see to it that faculty offices reflect this need for privacy and dispersal. You may well locate the offices more as hiding places than as work stations accessible to colleagues (not to mention students). And if you hire more scholars than you really have caves for, you divide up the common space or convert meeting rooms to create more private space.

            These three ideals show that an Aristotelian approach can bring into focus a number of important, concrete issues relevant to assessing academic excellence. Four features of the Aristotelian approach have been especially helpful for getting this conceptual grip on life in academe: (1) the focus on issues that arise in coordination within a shared project rather than in competition between individual projects; (2) the use of ideal models to describe and compare different styles of collegial life; (3) the evaluative priority of group over individual ideals; and (4) the combination of moral and prudential considerations. I have not here gone much beyond mapping out some issues that the Aristotelian approach brings to light; but I hope I have convinced you that the issues are there to be addressed.