John Finnis’s views may be odious, but removing the Oxford law professor will only encourage further discrimination
John Finnis is a reactionary. His views are odious. He believes that homosexuality is “never a valid, humanly acceptable choice” and that mass immigration constitutes “reverse colonisation”.
Finnis is also emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy at University College, Oxford. Last week, students launched a petition to have him removed from teaching for his “record of extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people”.
Critics of the petition have responded by suggesting that, as fellow Oxford law professor Les Green put it, to fire Finnis “solely on the basis that he defends false or repugnant views is a clear violation of academic freedom”.
The petition’s authors, Alex Benn and Daniel Taylor, dismiss such arguments as “simplistic”. Finnis may not discriminate against gay people, or be abusive to them in class, but LGBTQ+ students who know his views “may be intimidated, stop contributing and learn less effectively”. Plural societies, they insist, must necessarily limit the academic freedom of academics espousing “discriminatory” views.
Think, however, about the logic of this argument. Should Orthodox Muslims, whose views on homosexuality may not be that different from Finnis’s, also be barred from teaching because their beliefs may cause anxiety to LGBTQ+ students? Should Jewish students have the right to call for the removal of an academic who supports the BDS boycott of Israel that many regard as antisemitic? Should atheist academics who hold that religion is evil, and that the world would be a better place were religion (and hence believers) not to exist be removed if religious students feel “intimidated, stop contributing” and the rest?
In a plural society, it’s not just reactionaries such as Finnis whose views students might find offensive or discriminatory. And once we start sacking people for their political or moral beliefs, it will not just be reactionaries who’ll lose their jobs. Indeed, this is already the case. It’s a not a trend we should encourage.
⏩ Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist