This is a special episode recorded over the weekend with Oxford University Professor Jeff McMahan. McMahan is a leading philosopher of practical ethics and has written and taught on a wide range of controversial topics. I asked him to give us some context for thinking about the current controversy at SUNY Fredonia.
The trouble at SUNY Fredonia arises out of the appearance of moral philosopher Stephen Kershnar on the video podcast Brain in a Vat to discuss his academic work on the law and morality of pedophilia and more broadly on “sexual taboos.” Kershnar is currently barred from campus and prohibited from making contact with his students while the university contemplates his future status at the university. Kershnar’s case is reminiscent of that of Allyn Walker at Old Dominion University in the fall. Walker was a sociologist who studied, among other things, adults who were sexually attracted to minors. After discussing that scholarship on a different video podcast, Walker was barred from campus and soon permanently separated from the university.
In the podcast, McMahan and I discuss what professors engaged in moral philosophy do and why they do it, how he thinks about whether any topics are off-limits, and what the benefit might be to raising questions about widely held moral assumptions. Kershnar is hardly alone among moral philosophers in being denounced for work that some find discomforting or hurtful, and his case might inform how moral philosophers think about doing their work in the future.