Turi: It’s a great pleasure to be talking to Francesca Minerva today. Francesca is a research fellow at the university of Milan, where she works on applied ethics. She’s also the co-founder and co-editor along with Jeff McMahon and Peter singer of the newly launched journal of controversial ideas. Francesca, thank you so much. for joining us,
Francesca: thank you so much for inviting me.
Turi: Francesca as a starting point. Can you give me the back, thinking behind the launch of this very beautifully maimed journal for controversial ideas, it feels like it should be an, a Tolkien novel
Francesca: um, yes. Well, um, start is sorta like quite a while ago, almost 10, 10 years now. So I. I go there an article, um, that was published in the dome, any kind of ethics that got a lot of media attention and attention from the public, the topic of the article was, um, what we called after birth abortion. He’s basically infanticide. And, um, we were arguing on the moral status of, uh, fetuses and newborns and, um, comparing them and saying that the moral status is similar.
Um, and, um, the people who got a lot of attention quite surprisingly, because in 2012, it wasn’t really common to get a lot of media attention. Like Twitter was not. Um, because it is now, or at least I think, yeah, people were really spending as much time on social media is now. Basically we were arguing in favor of, um, So it was a moral defense of infanticide on the basis of moral status. So we were saying in many countries, or in some countries, you can have an abortion up to nine months of pregnancy. Um, but there is nothing that really changes between eight, nine months of pregnancy. And one day of after birth, um, when it comes to the moral status. The embryo or fetus and newborn, because they have exactly the same capacities, cognitive capacities. And of course, that depends on the reason why you think abortion is justifiable. Some people justify abortion on the basis of women’s autonomy. And if you agree with that argument, um, then you won’t find his argument convincing. Once the fetus, the Ember or the newborn is out of the women’s body, then any right to abortion should, should fall. Um, that, um, other people like myself argue that there is a right to, there’s more morally permissible to, to have an abortion because the defeaters, um, is not a person in that they don’t have an interest in. In leaving because it doesn’t have the capacity to attribute a value to their own life. That’s a capacity that develops after birth
Turi: around. When do you think that that capacity develops?
Francesca: We don’t know yet, but it seems that it doesn’t arise immediately after, after birth takes awhile and science hasn’t been able to tell us when exactly.
So obviously this paper, right. You know, it’s not a low proposal, but it was just like a reflection. Like why do we think there is such a huge difference when, um, when from this perspective, and this is an argument that have been, um, put forward by a lot of philosophers before. So wasn’t particularly new. We have reframed a bit, we added a few new bits, but in philosophy, the morality. Loving fungicide has been, had been discussed for like 50 years now. Um, so it requires surprise by the fact that people really overreacted, uh, well overreacted from our perspective
I mean, overreacted in a sense because, uh, we got a lot of death threats and, um, very angry emails. And so in a sense like any death threats as a response to a philosophy paper, um, is probably an, you know, an overreaction when you want to kill somebody for expressing an idea. Um, but we were not really prepared for that obviously now, in retrospect, More understandable to me why all these people reacted so badly. Um, because obviously they were not philosophers. They were not aware about, um, these arguments and, um, and also why newspapers and magazines didn’t really do a good job. In most cases at reporting what we had actually had written this paper. So it was just like philosophers argued. It’s okay to kill babies.
Turi: There’s a couple of different pieces here. The first that you’ve just described as a sort of media reaction to, uh, to this article, misrepresentation cheap headlines, philosophers recommended fantasize.
I can imagine it. Um, Terrible for you, both you and your co-author in terms of death threats and everything else. And it’s probably bad also on some level for the discipline of philosophy in the public imagination. There are, there are multiple victims here, but actually the second piece, which is that writing this article has had an impact in your, you believe for both of you and your partner has a measurable career impact for you.
It’s not just a media misunderstanding. Getting heads up about it. It’s also your colleagues. That’s a different game completely.
Francesca: Yeah, it is. And to be honest, um, it was clear to me almost from the beginning. It took me like a month or two to process this, that, you know, the first kind of threads, the first kind of reactions, actual death threats were not the thing I should worry about.
Um, Threats from within academia where the real problem. And they know I was right. Nobody actually tried to kill me, um, yet, but, um, yes, there were people who told me they couldn’t offer me jobs because it was too controversial. Um, we had people like not, um, not shaking hands with us at conferences and things like that.
But at that point, you know, there was still a good time within academia. People had not started signing petition asking your head of department to get you fired. They are not started, but starting signing a petition to get your paper attracted. Um, so it was still all good, like compared to what’s happening now. Um, we were really, really lucky to get, um, to get that that’s, uh, Um, because 10 years forward, um, or even less than that, actually, um, it has become really, really common, um, for academics to start sign petitions, to get somebody to disagree with fired demoted, um, the baby retracted, the editorial board of the journal, uh, fired as well. Um, so. Things have changed quite a bit. So I think I’ve been very lucky overall. Um,
Turi: so yes, in the intervening 10 years, while you’re describing is a very different kind of intellectual climate inside universities. Um, there’s also a different intellectual climate in the public domain as well. Twitter and Facebook were already accessed. 2012, but they didn’t have the same kind of scale nor actually the same kind of toxicity.
I think that certainly with Twitter, there was a sense that things got bad. Things got violent really over the course last 5, 6, 7 years. Um, and Facebook perhaps slightly, slightly similarly. Um, but so that’s, that’s sticking with academia. What do you think happened to change this kind of intellectual climate? Does it have to do with Twitter? Do you think it has got to do, is this sort of public perception?
Francesca: I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s related to Twitter or, I mean, in a sense it has become more common to, uh, to believe that, um, we have a right, not to be offended that wasn’t really common 10 years ago. Nobody thought that, I mean, of course people don’t want to be offended and they know they shouldn’t be offended. But what it implies now to be offended, what it means it’s, it’s different. Um, people wouldn’t really feel offended by you expressing a different opinion or, you know, they wouldn’t think that’s my perception. Maybe that, you know, you holding a different opinion, um, would imply that they are entitled to. Um, to shut you down.
Turi: Where does this come from?
Francesca: um, I think Jonathan Haidt does reading about it. He, I don’t know if he’s right in saying that it started with, um, the way, the different way it was sort of treating children and protecting them from physical harm to also protect them. Psychological harm and then from any kind of harm, which can also be, um, defending them from any, any opinion that they, they don’t like. Um, so that sees explanation. And it’s a plausible explanation. So he’s a psychologist. Um, He probably, uh, definitely knows better than me, that, that that’s plausible. Um, and then it extended not only to children, but like two adults who had grown up in a completely different culture. I don’t know. I w I grew up in the eighties. Um, I wasn’t cuddled at all. And, um, um, but now I can see also people, my generation or older, um, Acting like, yes, they have to be protected from opinions and ideas. Um, ladies agree with like the existence of these ideas. The fact that these ideas are circulating is somehow a threat, um, to them. And that’s a, that’s an interesting phenomenon. I don’t think it was very common before. Of course, people used to disagree. Like the people who sent me that threats, they were angry.
They disagree with me and I’m pretty sure it will be very happy if I had dropped that and stopped writing this kind of paper. Um, but I not sure. I don’t think they believe that my ideas. Really a threat to them, quite ideas. I think they were worried about, you know, they’re starting to a policy, something like that.
Turi: Um, well, how was your colleagues’ reaction? Therefore, cause you’re talking about the public responding in a very violent way, but your colleagues did clearly, if they refuse to shake your hand and they didn’t give you jobs, et cetera, they clearly did feel like your ideas were dangerous.
Francesca: Yes. Some deed. Um, but I can say the most people. Um, I mean, my close colleagues, they, I wasn’t at the university of Melbourne back then were really supportive. The whole department was really supporting, um, I didn’t perceive any, um, um, hostile attitude towards them. It was more when I send applying for other jobs and I realized that, um, maybe there was, but it was still, um, minority also.
I mean, there are people that were really, really, really upset. Um, but this is the kind of idea that tends to annoy more people on the right, like conservatives, not people on the left and people on the left and universities are the largest majority. So I was also kind of lucky in upsetting the right kind of people.
Yeah. I had upsets people on the left, which are the largest majority. Um, maybe things would have been worse. And, um, it’s funny because I am obviously like a left wing people. I’ve always been. Um, and, uh, and after we started defending academic freedom and talking about, and academic freedom, people said the same that, you know, we are like concerned of these and worked the defenders.
Turi: I want to come back to this, which is this very peculiar shift that’s happened in so far as the defense of free speech was absolutely intrinsic to every form of leftism in the 1960s and seventies. And then it switches in the last 10, 15 years. Um, but your point is very, very well made about academia itself, which is in the UK and us.
I don’t know what I don’t know about it. Yeah, high eighties and 90% into the 90% of professors, particularly in the humanities, but ditto, I mean, slightly less in the sciences, um, associate with liberal or progressive ideas. Now there’s an element which suggests that perhaps that’s normal, that, um, The search for new explanations of the world. This search for new ways of understanding might be a progressive tendency, more than a conservative one. But nevertheless, that split is really quite extreme. Um, Francesca, maybe at this point, now we jump in and say, okay, so what are these controversial ideas?
Francesca: Yes. We had, um, couple of papers arguing about. Issues related to Tran transgender questions, whether I’m a woman he’s an adult female, or whether a woman can also be, um, a trans woman. Uh, so there is this debate, um, whether, you know, trans women are women or not. So we had two papers out in green, the opposite phases, actually. Um, it was very interesting because, um, in a sense, both of these are controversial, but it depends. Where the perspective, obviously in academia to say that only adult females are women is controversial, but outside of academia, I think it is more controversial to say that, um, adult women are. Yeah. So like, you know, you don’t not have to be born a female to be a woman.
Turi: Okay. So on Jonathan Haidt provides some suggestions as to where we’ve got, where we’ve come from, um, cuddling and protecting children from, um, from things which might cause them harm. It’s a, it’s a thesis, whether it’s true or not. Who knows? Why is identity so much of an issue today? What’s your view of why identity is the controversial thing?
Francesca: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time because, um, because again, there’s not something I grew up with. Um, and, um, it’s very recent development. Like I, I used to believe, and I still believe that my race, my sex, my gender, or just like an accident and what really. Um, makes me myself and what really matters are my choices and my ideas. So what I’ve decided to become and what I believe in, um, and are completely independent, uh, from, from my gender and my race and, um, anything that is just, you know, biological elements. And instead, um, in recent years it seems. What do you believe is, should be a consequence of what you happen to be genetically.
So, um, you know, if you’re a woman, you have to believe certain things. If you are a white person, you have to believe certain things. If you’re a black person, you believe certain things. And, um, and, um, that’s, that’s very strange because, um, um, It’s it’s a very new phenomenon. And, uh, I, I don’t know why we should focus on, on these elements that are accidents of our existence. I think that we should identify way more with our ideas and our projects. I mean, especially as a philosopher, um, you work a lot on developing your own ideas and on, you know, becoming a certain kind of person making coherent choices, uh, with your, uh, moral views.
So on, so forth and in a sense that’s, that’s true of everybody and I can be religious. I, and people are religious and people are not like it, it makes more sense for me to, for people to identify as religious and not really. As you know, um, left-wing right-wing or, uh, utilitarian, um, I guess logical, but, um, I mean, I, I don’t think my skin color really says anything about myself or, you know, the fact that it happened to them.
Turi: So that’s interesting because that’s no longer as you say that is absolutely no longer pure orthodoxy specifically in academic circles. The question that I have is where do you think that comes from? Is there a particular series of either philosophical moves, which let get, get you there or political moves, which get us to a point core, which get us to a point where identity becomes the area of greatest controversy. Why this rather than redistribution of wealth or, um, or anything.
Francesca: Yeah, I don’t know. Um, it is, it is a very interesting question and I haven’t found any convincing answer yet. It’s something I’m really interested in, in understanding myself. And I don’t know, because again, like, um, it seems to come from the left and the left used to be really concerned about social class, um, and, uh, wealth and the things that, you know, actually have.
You know, um, we can actually change, um, and we can do something about, so if we change, you know, distribution and, um, for instance, we can have a universal, basic income. We would definitely make the world a better, better place. And, um, you know, if we managed to raise resources to poor people and switch them from billionaires, um, but. At some point, you know, it, it has become like, um, the center of, of the discourse and it’s, it’s, it’s unclear to me, it’s unclear to me why wants to, to, to bring that. I mean, um, you know, we, we, it seemed that we were going the right direction about really focusing on, on, on fundamental issues. But I’m sorry, I can’t really answer your question. I have no idea where this is coming from. I don’t know if you have an answer, please tell me. Um, because I, I haven’t, I haven’t announced her myself.
Turi: Can I ask you to go back into, um, the question of academia? Because this is something that there’s been huge amounts of pushback around, and it’s not just academia. It’s sort of the high level cultural media from the letter sent to Harpers, uh, 18 months ago from a very broad group of intellectuals, claiming that their free speech was being curtailed through to. Relentless, um, number of academics, finding that positions harder and harder, um, in both the us and UK and elsewhere, what has happened here? Why is there in a sense this need for a journal of controversial ideas to go back to it? What are the general controversial ideas, which also allows for anonymous contributions, what’s happened to the academic environment to, um, to get it where.
Francesca: Um, I’m not sure how this came to be. As I said, when I got in trouble, uh, about 12 years ago, 10 years ago, um, nobody ever mentioned the possibility of having a petition to get me fired or out other people, that paper detracted. And now I see happens all the time and it’s something I find extremely. Disagreeable. Um, I, it is the assumption that the basic principle academia that you should discuss and all ideas and debate with your good people have a different opinion. And, um, and you know, if you don’t like what’s written in the paper, you write another piece. Um, proving that was reading, the first paper was wrong or badly argued and you have a better, a better explanation of certain phenomenon or sort of better.
I thought this is that argument. Um, now we see a lot of petitions that instead of engaging, uh, with the arguments, they just aim at, um, getting rid of the person who, um, developed certain argues. And that’s really, really odd. That’s really seems to go against what, anything that academia should. Right. Which is free discussion of every topic and every idea,
Turi: You, you have you quote the philosopher, Ronald Dworkin in the opening editorial of the, of the journal. Um, you say that he felt that professors had a paradigmatic duty to discover and teach what they find important and true, even if it goes against the best interests of that audience. And he has sort of feels like the, the break. It’s an old fashioned approach, which thinks that truth is the only thing that one chases down. And another approach is shifts, which suggests that actually if truth causes harm, then harm comes before truth on some level. Is that where you think the culture move is inside academia? Am I oversimplifying?
Francesca: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, and that paper is working. Um, Cracks down this process. And he said, you know, I started, um, yeah, in the sixties. Um, we did DIA that there is no truth that the truth is something that people can construct and build instead of something that they have to discover. When you start assuming that the reason the truth, then the whole idea of academia that, you know, you use academia to find it.
Um, becomes ridiculous. And the four, you don’t care about academic freedom anymore. Why would you need the academic freedom? You don’t need academic freedom. What you need to do is to build what you want to be the truth. And, you know, there are a lot of academics with this agenda. Very open agenda, say, okay, well we want this to be the mainstream opinion. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. And truth itself doesn’t really mean anything because there’s not such a thing as the truth. I think he’s completely wrong. I think there is a truth. And I think that the only duty of an academic is to get closer to the truth might not be possible to find the truth, but we have a moral and professional deontological duty to get close to this truth. And I think that the idea that there is no truth is the most dangerous idea.
Um, and then we can just, you know, uh, once we have the truth, then we can say, okay, well, these are the facts. We want to build a society that, you know, that is built building a certain way. We don’t have to feel the truth. You know, we can still live in the society we want, we can, you know, know the society. We, the quality when everybody’s treated fairly, um, where everybody can have a good life, those should be. The goals, but to say that, you know, we can’t really face the truth. I think it’s also a way of infantilizing people. Like, yeah, you don’t need to know the truth. Don’t worry. We’ll tell you what to have to believe your children, people are not children.
And again, you know, the, the, the duty of an academic is to, to, to, to tell the truth, even when people don’t want to hear it, because you’re not finding the truth for those people leaving necessarily. You know, you’re trying to find the truth for future generations for future research. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s a good that’s eventually somebody will benefit from even if it’s not people leaving now. So, um, yeah, I find that’s probably when things started collapsing, when, when people, some philosophers. Started arguing that the reason the truth and the truth is something you make up. And then, you know, some people are entitled to, to choose what is true or not, which is completely different from saying I’ll be what not entitled have different opinions. We can have different opinions, but then, you know, we have to test these opinions and test these theories. And eventually the one which is more likely to be the truth, um, should be acknowledged as the truth.
Turi: So, of course you end up with this sort of trajectory from postmodernism, which relativizes all truth to its latest incarnation, which only understands truth as being ultimately subjective. And therefore, to your point around skin color, gender, sexuality, et cetera, being the only true lens, true in quotation marks that we can analyze what a truth might be. Um, One of the things, which is so interesting. If we look at this over the longer period, which you’ve just done is how free speech, which starts absolutely in the arsenal of weapons that the left brings to bear on established old fashioned sclerotic culture in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, that, that all that, that, that those free speech weapons have now shifted entirely into the.
Of the right I’m framing this in a particular way. The other way of looking at it is to say that having one that their free speech wars, the left gave up on the principle and it is now returned to the right to kind of push that forward. How would you describe this very peculiar drift from left-wing as being the advocates of free speech to that being very much the preserve of, in some instances, really quite unhinged right-wingers as well.
Francesca: Yeah. I mean, on one hand, I’m not even convinced that right-wing are really supportive of free speech. I think that’s, um, sometimes they’re often these free speech card displayed the people who are in the minority. And so they use free speech as a way to say, well, all our opinion should be heard as well. I’m not entirely convinced that in a reverse situation, for instance, we’re in academia. 95% of right-wing people, this 95% would, you know, support academic freedom of the 5% left wing. It seems that it’s a matter of. Switching between majorities and minorities. So whoever he’s empowered seems to be more against academic freedom and you know, who is a minority as more interested in academic freedom when it comes to like ideas.
Turi: Just to pick up on that, because this is an interesting comment, which is which I’ve heard elsewhere. Um, the people in power today around the world. With the very recent exception of the election of Joe Biden have predominantly been on the right. So if you looked at France, you look at Michael’s Germany, you look at Italy, um, w and of course the UK and us, for the last few years, it has been a right-wing conservative governments that have ruled the roast across these Western, um, these, these Western cultures, Western countries, how has. Um, the right, therefore being able to play a minority voice, how have they managed to play themselves off as the victims of a cultural movement? When in fact their politics and their economics dominated.
Francesca: I think that they are a majority among population. I think that majority of people, obviously, according to the election is right-wing, but not within universities. The majority of people at universities, students. Yeah. Um, people working in universities are left-wing and, um, of course the more left wing people are in education. The more it’s likely that the new generation of cater and teachers will educate people to be like wing, left wing. Um, and I have to say, I mean, like, um, the UK government has taken some measures to protect academic freedom, which I agree. Um, even though, again, I’m not really right wing supporter, but whatever major is taking in favor, academic freedom, I’m all for it. Um, but, um, it is possible that then it does become a value of the right. Um, and then, you know, it is generally true that they support academic and academic freedom and freedom.
Uh, it, it wasn’t traditionally. So, but maybe there was this niche of valleys to take because the left dropped it, unfortunately. And, um, and so they said, okay, well, um, let’s, let’s use academic freedom and freedom of speech. But, and it, and, you know, as a political, um, and as a value we want to protect to, for people to identify with, um, which makes me very sad because I mean, as, again, as a left-wing people, I would prefer anywhere like my vehicle to support academic freedom and freedom of speech. But unfortunately I’m being completely, um, these appointment he’s appointed in this respect.
Turi: Do you think there’s, do you think that we’re talking about. Of the very common feature of a dominant, majority’s just seeking to maintain their cultural hold over the institutions in which they’re in power.
They’re in power, as in is what we’re watching today in academia. The same thing that we’ve watched across institutions since the beginning of time, particular culture ends up dominating and then broadly tries to push your foreign bodies out. Or do you think there is. Uh, watershed, have we changed?
Philosophically have universities, themselves shifted culture, so deeply cultural inquiry, cultural politics, whatever it might be so deeply that actually they are changing the very nature of academia that changing the very institutions.
Francesca: Yeah, I’m afraid. Um, I, I don’t know, maybe the two things are related, so maybe started as, you know, maintain the status quo. Um, and then it became, it is cause like a complete shift in what is, as I said, like the, the mission of academia seems to be different than it used to be like. Um, I mean it sort of surprises me still when I see students saying, oh, I don’t want to be exposed to it. That I know like, like, I don’t want to read papers against abortion. That’s the, you know, that’s completely the opposite of what you should provide a good education. Obviously I am in favor of abortion, but, and I am in favor of euthanasia and I’m fair. I am in favor of IVF, but you can ask my students in our course, which is for undergraduates, we always discussed. Use, because it’s really important to understand what are both views on every topic.
So you can have a good education. If you’re not exposed to ideas, you don’t agree with, um, understanding more points.
Turi: Does this play out? Where do we go from here? If you think that institutions themselves are putting too much of a burden. Proof on subjective experience on the feelings of those people engage with ideas. And you think that is, that is attacking the foundations of academic institutions, the academic goal, which is the pursuit of truth. That discovery uses lovely word of truth. What happens now?
Francesca: I don’t know if university will survive. If university, as we know it, is going to survive. Um, I hope so. I hope that university can go back to be institutions where people are taught, um, how to think critically, how to learn, um, how to disagree with each other, how to learn, how to get close to the truth. That’s the telos of university. Um, That kind of institution with that telos or finding the truth and teaching people how to think critically and how to think taking the perspective of different perspective might not survive. Um, it’s definitely not going in that direction. Um, so, and that, that scares me, of course.
Um, so I don’t know if new. Hmm, institutional obvious, like, you know, I love in universities. I haven’t, I’ve been wanting to work at university since I was a child. I was being my dream to be a philosopher and, you know, um, I really work hard to get to where I am, um, which is what I always wanted to be. So I really believe in education. And in, in the importance of teaching people, philosophy, I think people should start studying philosophy at the age of four. Um, but it’s, um, it’s at this, at this stage, I feel a bit discouraged. I don’t think. I don’t think I’m still have Y happy about working on Italian university. I think Italian university and some European universities are still providing this kind of all the fashioned education. Um, if you want to call it like that, in which you know, um, trying to discuss topics, expressing different opinions, teaching people to form their own opinion without indoctrinating.
Um, but, um, in other places not going as well. Um, I think the advantage of some European countries is that universities are public, um, as well. I think that’s really, really helps to have public educations with no, pretty much no, um, private money, um, very low fees. Um, then students are not clients. They are. Uh, I guess the, when people pay a lot of money for education, they might feel more,
Who might feel like, you know, well, I don’t want to learn this. I don’t want to do this. And I paid a lot of money to come here. So I, you know, it doesn’t mean that in other universities, like, you know, there are students, committees, students committees in every, in every universities and their opinion is taken very serious. But, um, you should go to university with the idea that the teachers know better than you. What do you need to learn? And, um, and you know, this, this knowledge has been built, um, tours during generations and generations. And you need to be aware of this debate even really want to be informed and, and your education to be complete.
And you can say, no, I want to skip this part of history. I want to skip this part of philosophy. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to learn these arguments.
Turi: What has the response been to the launch of the journal?
Francesca: Um, that been varied responses. Some people are really into stuff. Um, very, um, they really welcomed this, uh, this new journal seminar people were, um, of course offended and irritated. They didn’t like it. Some people said it wasn’t controversial enough. Some people said it was too controversial. Um, you know, it was like a mixed bag of reactions, but overall more positive than the negative. I would say, I mean, better than what I expected
Turi: and critically. Um, is the broad view amongst your colleagues that this journal is needed or that it’s actually superfluous?
Francesca: Well, some people say it’s worthless and that, you know, All ideas are controversial as something that, that the old journals publish controversial ideas, but we know it’s not true. Um, a lot of journalists don’t publish even mildly controversial ideas, unfortunately. So we hope that this journal is necessary and, um, it’s, we hope it’s not going to stay for too long. We hope that we won’t need it for much longer. Um, so our plan was to just Polish it for a few years, and then we thought things will change. So controversial papers will start publishing again in mainstream journals. Um, personally, now I’m less optimistic about it, but I really, really hope that’s going to happen that this journal will not be necessary anymore.
Turi: Putting yourself out of a job, francesca, thank you so much for taking the time to walk us through these controversial ideas and we’ll link to the journal in the, uh, in the show notes. Um, and hope that it doesn’t last too long.
Francesca: Yeah, we do.
Turi: Thanks again.